The Bird Lady Vs. The Tree Outlaw | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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The Bird Lady Vs. The Tree Outlaw 

An environmental unlove story

Wednesday, Mar 28 2007
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But no one dislikes Roy van de Hoek more than Mira Tweti. She is among the neighbors of van de Hoek’s who love the ficus tree. And she is the one who is most responsible for having him arrested.

“Some people think the charges against Roy had something to do with Playa Vista,” says Tweti on a late winter’s day, standing in her kitchen — which just happens to be one floor below the apartment van de Hoek shares with Hanscom. “But it had nothing to do with Playa Vista. It was all Roy’s neighbors who did this. And I should know, because I was here from ground zero. There was nothing before me.”

It was Tweti who first noticed the damage done to the ficus by van de Hoek, and “as a good investigative journalist,” she says, she began querying the neighbors on the incident. It was Tweti who contacted the Los Angeles Police Department after her neighbor, a man named Kelly Hornbaker, told her he’d witnessed van de Hoek carving up the tree in the predawn darkness. And now it’s Tweti who arms journalists with ammunition to discredit van de Hoek, compiling lists of his transgressions and witnesses to various misdeeds, and scolding reporters for missing the story’s point.

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“No one but Noaki has come close to getting this story right,” she says, referring to the Associated Press reporter Noaki Schwartz, who covered van de Hoek’s arraignment. “I heard Bob Pool [of the Los Angeles Times] called Soboroff to ask about the charges against Roy. I called Bob Pool and said, ‘I’ll bet Steve Soboroff didn’t even know what you were calling about!’ He had nothing to do with this. I had everything to do with this, and I’ve never even met Steve Soboroff. I hadn’t even heard of the man before this.”

Tweti, a stout woman with short black hair and glasses, speaks in a rapid clip that rises in pitch and volume when she gets riled up about something. A native New Yorker, she is a freelance journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times and, on occasion, the L.A. Weekly. She is in the middle of completing a book on parrots for Viking Press. “I got a six-figure advance,” she says. “And they don’t give six-figure advances to bird nuts.”

In her apartment, she keeps a rescued parrot named Zazu in a sumptuous aviary on her porch; at night, the bird retreats to an indoor bird gym in her bedroom. (Zazu is the spiritual heir to an earlier pet parrot, Mango, a “bodhisattva” who lived with Tweti for more than 10 years and could speak in complete sentences — “with comprehension” Tweti says.) Serendipi-tously, Tweti is her real name.

“They used to call me Tweetie Bird in school,” she says, as she finishes preparing a vegan lunch, complete with home-brewed lemonade.

Tweti does not share van de Hoek’s system of valuing what grows here naturally more highly than the flora and fauna that humans have imported. She describes the ficus tree, native or not, as “a sentient being that deserves the respect of one.” She worked hard to get the city to install a “water feature” under the ficus for the geese and ducks, a small, square concrete bowl fed by city water through a spigot. When she approaches the tree, the geese honk and pace, and Tweti apologizes to the birds.

“This is their area,” she says quietly. “Be respectful. We’re intruders.”

The tree stands on the banks of the Del Rey Lagoon across the street from her (and van de Hoek’s) apartment. With its undulating flanks of dust-colored bark and broad umbrella of shade bursting with deep emerald foliage, it seems to have exploded out of the ground. One hundred of these trees planted along a boulevard make the species seem mundane; planted solo on the banks of the lagoon, the Ficus microcarpa stands out like some kind of deity. Tweti runs her fingers tenderly along the two-inch strip of bark she says van de Hoek removed from its midsection.

“It’s called girdling,” says Tweti, alarm deepening in her voice. “It kills the tree by depriving its upper branches of food and water. It’s cruel. It’s like he tried to strangle it. What Roy van de Hoek did to the Ficus microcarpa,” she says, “is attempted murder.”

On the surface, the conflict between the two defenders of the natural world, born not quite a year apart (he’s 50, she’s 49), seems as absurd as it is unlikely: Tweti, a Zen Buddhist monk, has taken a solemn vow to mitigate the suffering of living creatures wherever they may exist. She refuses all animal products in her food, yells at neighbors who neglect to clean up their dog poop along the wetland (“They think it’s organic,” she hisses), and saves birds. Van de Hoek views his own defense of nature as a fight without quarter; in his enthusiasm for his own notion of ecological perfection, he regularly pisses people off. He has stood up at public meetings and tarred the esteemed environmental group Heal the Bay as “Deal the Bay,” accusing it of selling out to developers; he has had historic conflicts with the Sierra Club, for which he consults, over leader Carl Pope’s politics and the “animal killers” in its membership. “Shouldn’t every other issue of the magazine show a hunter in camouflage?” he gripes. “But the Sierra Club is never going to do that. It’s a façade. It’s always going to show pictures of beautiful nature, and I think that’s disingenuous.”

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