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Yet with nothing but city park green space around it, the ficus on the banks of the Del Rey Lagoon seems unlikely to bring ruin to our civilization. Then again, it wasn’t civilization that van de Hoek was out to protect, but a ground squirrel, native to California, that is being threatened by a non-native tree-nesting fox squirrel, introduced from the Eastern U.S.
“It’s a nest-robbing squirrel,” he says. “I don’t think Mira, or many other people, know that a squirrel is not a squirrel is not a squirrel. The ground squirrel digs a hole and raises its young underground, and in its den it supports different beetles and bugs. It’s not aggressive — if a frog comes into its burrow it just goes, ‘Huh! There’s a frog in my burrow.’ For that reason it’s a ‘keystone species’ — all these other animals that are native depend on it. That ground squirrel is being impacted by the tree squirrel living in the ficus tree.”
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.”