One major benefit of the West Oakland apartment we moved into last September was the large backyard. As parents of a 4-year-old child with boundless energy, a fenced-in lot behind the converted Edwardian not only assuaged the sting of paying higher rent, but it was also a potential distraction for the long winter ahead while still trapped in the grip of a pandemic.
If only the backyard wasn’t an absolute wasteland…
For several decades, it seems, previous tenants had used the space as a landfill for household garbage.
Out of the hardscrabble ground, patches of dried barnyard and crowfeet grasses towered over broadleaf plantains, brome, dandelions, foxtails, jimsonweed and other invasive plants. Mixed in with remnants of food wrappers from bygone eras, crushed tin cans, shards of glass, bones, random bits of plastic, bottle caps and mysterious chunks of corroded iron, including a set of metal rings from a wine barrel, arranged perfectly in a circle, as if the cask had rotted away in that exact spot, the wood disintegrating into the soil faster than the rusted bands that held it together.
I also found several old glass vials that cleaned up quite nicely.
Among the weeds, there were dozens of insects buzzing around and, strangely, digging in the dirt.
Upon closer inspection, they looked like black and white wasps. But since when do wasps build hives underground?
The internet identified them as sand wasps, which supposedly live along river banks and other sandy areas near wetlands.
So, what are they doing in West Oakland? I wondered, even though the answer was obvious.
At night, you can hear ship horns bellowing across the water. And trains whistlingin the railroad yards by the port.
A familiarity with local geography should lead to the realization that this neighborhood, like so much of the shoreline along the San Francisco Bay estuary, was likely a former tidal marsh.
Which meant it wouldn’t take much for this barren ground to become verdant again…
To make the yard safe for an accident-prone child, I borrowed a weed whacker to clear out the grass, and a hoe to uproot the stubborn weeds. Then I sifted the rocks and broken glass from the dirt with a rake.
The wasps were harder to evict. I just kept blocking their holes until they eventually moved on to another plot of sandy land.
When I was finished, only topsoil remained. After that, I waited for the rain…
A few weeks later, there was a slight drizzle. Followed by an occasional shower, but it was only October. The rainy season was still a few months away.
In late November, we had a few days of steady rain. Enough to saturate the ground, which developed this green hue. After the storm clouds passed and the sun reappeared, tender shoots began cropping up in patches. Within a few weeks, a think blanket of clover, grass and wildflowers covered the yard.
At this rate, I figured, the backyard will be as verdant as a tidal marsh by spring. Or sooner.
We bought a small trampoline and a plastic frog-shaped sandbox.
Soon, the clover had grown thicker, competing with the thistle and barley for a place in the sun. Wild buttercups began blooming en masse. Glorified weeds, really. But what had been a literal junkyard when we moved in, then a dirt lot, was now practically a small meadow.
My daughter and her friend from next door would chase each other, screaming through the blooms, and gather bouquets of wildflowers for their mothers, before jumping on the trampoline and playing in the sandbox.
Then, one day, near the end of February, a work truck pulled into our driveway. Shortly afterwards, the sound of hammers and drills and grinders filled the air…
That was a few weeks ago. Now, the backyard is a disaster zone again. All the lush greenery was routed by the construction. The clover trampled under work boots and shovels… The fresh grass flattened under bags of cement… The golden wildflowers crushed beneath piles of rubble, discarded stacks of lumber and equipment covered with blue tarps… My potted plants shoved into a corner, next to the dismantled trampoline and the sandbox…
There’s no telling when the workers will be done.
After a few more rainstorms, though, the backyard turned into a soggy, depressing mire. Even worse than how I found it. But at least it won’t take very long for a former tidal marsh to recover from the consequences of home improvements.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions.