Guest Post | Why I wrote Down by the Bay

East Palo Alto shoreline
“End of shoreline,” East Palo Alto, 2004 (Photo: Jared Farmer)

Matthew Morse Booker is the author of Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between The Tides and guest speaker at our Fall For The Bay event on September 26.

A fence separating power pylons and restored marsh in East Palo Alto. Sunrise behind the rusting molasses tanks at Point Molate. Striped bass rolling off the Albany dump. Strange, wonderful, whimsical driftwood sculptures on the mudflats at Temescal Creek.

This was the bay I knew as a child. Not empty open water or the distant hills but the rich, muddy shore teeming with life. San Francisco Bay is neither a wilderness nor a wasteland. The place between land and sea is impure and fertile, productive and profoundly transformed. It is both the West’s most ecologically important estuary and its densest city. But how did it get this way?

I wrote Down by the Bay to find out why Californians worked to make San Francisco Bay into a factory in the nineteenth century and then worked to protect the remaining marshes in the twentieth century. Today we struggle to balance the needs of the region’s seven million residents and its birds, fish, and grasslands. But why should we care about the parts of the world that are not wilderness? Because, I found, the people of the bay decided to live in the world they made, rather than imagining themselves outside of it.

Save the Bay is a big part of that momentous shift. Its founders responded to threats to everyday, nearby nature—the bay margin that seemed so disposable in the 1950s. They recognized the beauty in the bay as it is, not just in the imaginary bay of the time before people. This is a story about the bay that makes sense of its past. And it is a vision of the world that we can live in.

Matthew Morse Booker

Matthew Morse Booker was born in Berkeley, and grew up on the lower Russian River in Sonoma County, California. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Booker completed an M.S. at Oregon and returned to San Francisco Bay to do his Ph.D. at Stanford University. Since 2004 Booker and his family have resided in ancestral Booker country, where he teaches at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between The Tides.  He can be contacted at matthew.booker(at)