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Van de Hoek adds that he didn’t try to kill the tree; he only hoped to thin it out a little, turn it into a “snag” so starlings and fox squirrels couldn’t exploit it. Native herons and egrets would nest in it instead. He admits now that he shouldn’t have done it without community support.
“But I was led down that path by other people who live on the street and do whatever they want to do in the park and get away with it.”
People like Tweti, for instance, whom he insists still feeds the geese. “That’s how she got them to pose around her in the photograph [for this story],” he says. “I saw her.”
“I want to show you a barn owl and tell you the story that goes with it,” van de Hoek says, setting up his spotting scope under a tall palm tree. He and Hanscom have agreed to meet me in Playa del Rey for a tour of Ballona, two weeks after van de Hoek’s acquittal. Though they’re both dressed for the outdoors, they’re an unlikely couple — he’s tall and leggy in khaki shorts and a denim shirt; she’s short and stocky, dressed in cotton slacks and a broad-brimmed hat. They finish each other’s sentences and boast of each other’s accomplishments. And they both fight hard to save Ballona. They met back when van de Hoek worked for the now Playa Vista–affiliated Friends of Ballona Wetlands, “and I didn’t want to have anything to do with him,” says Hanscom. Later, when van de Hoek left the organization believing it had been “captured” by Playa Vista, the two hooked up and fell in love.
Van de Hoek has almost always been smiling when I’ve talked to him, or heard him talk to other people. But he admits that he spends a lot of time in what he calls “the angry place.”
“I know I’m pushy and angry,” he admits. “Marcia’s always saying to me, ‘There are more tactful ways to say this or that, more diplomatic ways.’ But when I try diplomacy and nothing happens, I decide maybe diplomacy’s not the best idea.”
Out in Ballona, however, interpreting nature for an audience, the blue-eyed van de Hoek beams with such playfulness it can be hard to imagine him losing his temper with anyone, ever. He fills you with the sense of wonder you might have felt as a child, when you first scooped up a lizard and examined its articulate hands, or burst open an owl pellet to find tiny mouse teeth. And he is not, he insists, the native absolutist he has been made out to be.
“The owl,” says van de Hoek, pointing to a non-native (and invasive) Mexican fan palm, “is in that second tree. It’s a barn owl. Let’s be quiet and not move our arms.”
I look into the scope to see the owl’s large, heart-shaped face, its dark eyes, flattened at the top, blinking furiously.
“On my first Sunday tour in two months, I was on a soapbox to expose how bad palm trees are,” van de Hoek says. “I was shouting, ‘Get rid of all of them!’ But then Jonathan Coffin, a photographer who was on that hike, found a pellet right here.” Van de Hoek gestures toward the ground where we stand. “And then another person on the tour says, ‘There’s an owl in there.’ We looked up and he was right. We all stood there and reveled in its beauty.”
He then had to revise his pitch about the palms. “I called Brad Henderson at [Cali-fornia] Fish and Game and said, ‘Hey, Brad, you can’t take out the palms. This one is somebody’s house now.’
“It was an Aldo Leopold moment for me,” says van de Hoek, referring to the famous conservationist’s discovery that you couldn’t suddenly restore an ecosystem to its original state after species had adapted to its changes. “The great Monarch butterfly uses the eucalyptus trees, the great blue heron uses the cypress trees, and this barn owl, it uses the palm tree. So now I say, not all palm trees are good, but this stand of palms, right now, is necessary.”
“A lot of native-plant people are all ?rah-rah-rah about pulling out all the non-natives,” says Hanscom. “But until you have the natives back, you can’t just rip out habitat.”
It was an argument I would have expected Mira Tweti to make. I remind Hanscom that this was the same argument used by Edith Read of the Center for Natural Land Management, the agency responsible for maintaining Playa Vista’s marsh, and one of the people Tweti had copied on an e-mail she sent out thanking people for helping to nail van de Hoek. Those myoporum shrubs van de Hoek cut might have been non-native, but they supported an endangered bird, the Belding’s savannah sparrow, which perches on them during the nesting season. “In the long term, we’d want to replace myoporum with native shrubs,” Read says.