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Native Sun

Patti Sun is walking up a dirt path that winds through Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, 280 acres carved out of Los Angeles’ Monterey Hills and Montecito Heights, along the Highland Park stretch of the Pasadena Freeway. She ducks under oak-tree branches that hang low over her path and sidesteps a lizard that scurries into the morning glow.

“I can talk and walk at the same time,” she says with a smile that appears across her makeup-free face.

It’s a little after 9, and her long brown hair is still wet from her morning shower. She wears khakis and a baggy T-shirt that reads “Staff,” though her official title at the Audubon Center here in Debs Park is teacher/naturalist.

Like the wildlife and plant life that surround her, Sun is a native. She grew up in South-Central with her five siblings and her widowed mother, a Mexican immigrant, who worked as a special-ed teacher’s aide and had a passion for plant life that she instilled in her daughter through trips to parks, and a small multifamily garden that she cultivated in her backyard to encourage her children to stay off the streets. The 7’-by-7’ plot of flowers and vegetables was a sanctuary, until the landlord eventually ?laid cement.

Years later, when Sun heard that Debs Park was looking for volunteers, she signed up to clean trash and weed the city-owned park, which was only a few minutes from her home.

She liked the way being in nature made her feel. By then, she had followed her mother into a career in early education, so she was always good with the visiting children, answering their questions and sharing information. Sometimes she was asked to help translate text into Spanish, which she did happily. All of this led to her becoming a full-time employee when the Audubon Society decided to open an urban center here.

Slender sunflower, clover and California lilac bloom alongside the path, which leads to the Audubon Center. Less than 3 years old, the center might not be as well-known as the Getty and other free public spaces on the Westside, but it is no less impressive. The structure itself was the first to receive a platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, making it not only a model for future Audubon Society urban nature centers, but one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in America. Solar powered and completely “off-the-grid,” the recycled materials it uses include a poetic combination of sunflower seeds and melted-down handguns.

The grounds serve as home to 136 species of bird, including the American kestrel, the red-tailed hawk and the Western screech owl.

“Sometimes I come here on my day off,” Sun says. “People will see me on the path and say, ‘Is the [center] open?’ I will say, ‘No. I’m just walking.’ ”

The center, with its meandering paths, donated REI hiking strollers and native drought-resistant plants, is more modern than one might associate with bird watching, which no longer fits the stereotype of a retiree’s passion. This is a place you could imagine wealthy Pasadena moms bringing their kids to, and, more important, it offers a boundless refuge for the surrounding, mostly Latino population and their children, who might not otherwise have such an opportunity to develop this type of intimate relationship with nature and green technology. This is undoubtedly why the project attracted so much support from local politicians, and it is also what makes Sun such an apt liaison.

As she lays out a large tarp under a massive pepper tree, which will provide shade for a group of kindergartners who will spend the afternoon here, Sun says that other than children, many of her guests are landscape artists and engineering and architecture students.

“We want this to be a place where a whole family can come, not just established birders,” she says. “We want it to become a household name. It’s interesting, [bird watching] is really a growing fad now.”

I tell Sun how earlier this year I had an up-close experience with a hawk and became obsessed.

Is that normally how it works with birding?

“All it takes is one bird, it can even be a pigeon,” she says.

Um, not a pigeon, maybe you mean a scrub jay?

“Okay . . . something cool. But once people see a bird, or learn one type of bird, they get turned on to seeing different types of birds. Then they start learning different little facts about them, which I think is great! I say whatever you learn, share with the rest of the world.”

I read that Laura Bush is a bird watcher. Do you happen to know if the first lady is a member of the Audubon Society?

“She might be. There are a lot of people that are Audubon-ers. And a lot of them are in the closet.”

What was the first bird that really turned you on?

“Actually, it was a scrub jay,” she smiles again. “I was like, ‘Is it a bluebird? What is it?’ They’re fascinating to me. I was turning the compost and a couple of small mice ran out. And [the birds] started to pick up the mice.”

In their beaks?

“Yes. It startled me. I thought these were really gentle birds, but they’re not. And, the survival instinct they have is just beautiful. It gives you new respect for nature.”