I just bought 10 acres of land in the Los Angeles desert. Here’s why.
There’s a beautiful story in the Mahabharata, one of the world’s oldest epic poems, about the desert. A band of brothers were “gifted” a swath of wasteland to rule over, in exchange for giving up their rightful claim to their father’s kingdom. With a little help from the divine, the brothers made their patch of desert into a thriving oasis, which later became a prosperous city.
You’d think that desert acreage comes cheap — and for the most part, it does, in places like Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. Looking for anything affordable in L.A. is a laughably painful struggle.
The 10-acres I found was sold to me by an elderly man who lives in Florida. A former real estate developer, he had never seen the land. He wanted to get rid of it to trim his portfolio.
My family and I drove up on my birthday to visit. Using Google Map’s property boundaries, we walked to the center of the parcel and kept an eye out for rattlesnakes. We touched the soil, spotted a lone Joshua tree, and listened to the hum of a neighboring generator in the distance.
As the sun started to set, we took turns digging a large hole in the ground. The soil was sandy, and surprisingly soft to the touch. There were no rocks. I deposited a large bucket of compost I had been piling for months into the hole, then buried it.
When I played hide and seek as a kid, my favorite spot to hide was in a yard that had a fake well. The home belonged to an elderly woman who had grown trees that kept her yard in the shade. I’d crouch down and crawl along the soil, weaving my way through massive trunks, then quietly sit in the shadows while my siblings and best friends ran wildly in the streets. I called this tiny space “The Forest,” as it was the only thing close to a forest I knew.
After college, I left home and traveled around the world in search of real forests. My favorites? I can think of three. The jungles of Palenque, in southern Mexico, where a previous partner and I drove to be part of the Rainbow Gathering during the infamous 2012 “end-of-the-world” celebration. Another: my ancestral land in the Philippines, cultivated by my grandfather, where I stayed with extended family and learned more about our native traditions and earthcare. And of course, the story I tell to anyone who cares to listen: Varmland, a piece of remote woods in Sweden, where I lived alone in the winter with no electricity, running water, or neighbors, thanks to the hospitality of two other writers. Being granted a chance to write in the woods was an absolute dream.
Why mention the woods in a piece about the desert?
Because for most of my life, I was caught in the idea of trying to “escape.” Once I had “made it” to Sweden — to the forest of my dreams — I had a decision to make. I could either stay and live a new life as an expat hermit in the woods, or leave the country once my visitor vista expired and go back to the States.
I understand now why I made the baffling choice to leave. But back then, I questioned my decision. I turned down a woman’s generous offer of a green card marriage to her son, and said goodbye to the tiny writer’s cabin along with my new friends. Coming back into society — and the internet — resulted in a violent case of sensory overload. On the airplane back to the States, the other passengers glared at me and held their noses. I’m sure my winter clothing reeked of whatever smells we had all gotten used to while living in our introverted community in the woods. Before we landed, I found I was already missing the night sky, the clean air, the silence, hours spent quietly walking, and of course, my nightly writing sessions by candlelight.
I think most of all, I missed the miles and miles of trees.
Southern California wasn’t always barren.
Before the mismanaged wildfires, the inefficient agriculture, the stolen water, and the taste for expensive palm tree imports now synonymous with Hollywood, there were trees. Trees that covered the hills, the valleys…and yes, the deserts. What we now call the high desert used to be farmland, and before it was farmland, it was full of native greenery.
Throughout history, languages across the world referred to the desert as that which has been abandoned. We associate deserted land with infertility, with barrenness, and of course, a severe lack of water.
What would life look like if we dedicated our entire lives to caretaking for such a place? Ancient cultures claim one has to activate the sleeping gods and goddesses in the earth before the land can bare fruit. I love the poetry in that. The idea of deserted land as one with slumbering potential rather than a void of nothingness appeals to the romantic dog in me.
At some point along the way, it occurred to me that if I wanted to end at least one cycle of karma, I had to stop chasing paradise and instead, learn to grow it. My desire to chase around the world for a forest has, by the grace of Shakti, transmuted itself into an obligation to enhance the land in the city my family currently lives in. I want my daughter to know I attempted the deceivingly impossible for her — and for her to remember she can always do the same. I want the bees and the birds and the butterflies that she loves to know me by my presence. I want my every day to be outside, not inside in front of a screen. I want to be buried in earth that I took care of, with my own hands — one that knows me by the growth I sowed, the harvests I touched, the traces of myself I left behind in the dirt.
This land is my investment. And no, I don’t plan on flipping it, or holding it until the area is developed. I don’t plan on waiting until Elon Musk’s space tourism venture drives up the prices.
We — my family, my friends, and the people I haven’t met, yet — plan on scavenging the Valley for free wood and free plants. We plan on spending a few hours each week walking the land, adding nutrients to the soil, and watering it with greywater and rain. We plan on camping outside to watch the moon and the stars.
We are invested in cultivating a small portion of this desert into a thriving oasis. A prosperous food forest.
This may not be the type of real estate that everyone’s looking for. But, hey — if we manage to grow even one tree…we’ll be able to say this was a fruitful endeavor.
In the Los Angeles area? You can donate food scraps, wood, plant cuttings, and other organic material here: Food Scraps for Compost (San Fernando Valley).
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