Lila Higgins Wants People to See L.A. the Way Bugs See L.A.
As a child growing up on a farm near Worcester, in the British Midlands, she spent her free time running through the woods, playing in a creek and crawling into hollow trees pretending to be a badger. She adored nature. How could she move to L.A. — land of concrete, smog and freeways?
"I was like, 'I'm going to show you all! I'm going to prove you all wrong!'" Higgins says. She's sitting in the garden that she helped design outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where she works as the manager of the citizen science program. She is infectiously enthusiastic. A bird in a nearby tree starts rapidly chirping, and Higgins giggles and says, in her British accent, "That mockingbird's just like, 'Heeeeyyyy, I'm here too, guys!'"
Higgins is an educator; her job is to teach people — usually younger people — about nature, the environment and diversity. But you could also call her a cheerleader for nature in Los Angeles.
When Higgins first moved to Southern California in 1994, halfway through her freshman year of high school ("from the British Empire to inland empire," she jokes), she experienced what she calls "nature shock." The summers in England were so lush and green. Here, the colors were gray and brown.
"It's very difficult to wrap your head around that," she says.
But that's not to say there's a shortage of nature in L.A. "There's so much wildlife here," Higgins says. "We're in a biodiversity hot spot. There's plants and animals that live here and nowhere else in the word."
Higgins spent years on the outskirts of Greater Los Angeles, getting her undergraduate degree in entomology from UC Riverside ("for four years I studied bugs," she says, still bewildered) and her master's degree in education from Cal State San Bernardino. She finally moved to the city after she got a job at the Natural History Museum in 2008. Shortly thereafter, she discovered the soft-bottom section of the Los Angeles River near Frogtown, where the dirt and shrubs peek out from the river's "concrete corset," as poet Lewis McAdams put it.
"I just walked down there, and I was like, 'I've come home,'" she says. "I know, it sounds so cheesy and clichéd."
She started hanging out by the river, walking her dogs and having picnics. When she went on one of the famous L.A. River tours conducted by Jenny Price, she was enthralled. She told Price: "I'm really interested in volunteering. I'm not a loser! I work at the Natural History Museum! I have certified interpretive guide training!"
Price, as it happens, was about to leave town. So Higgins soaked up what she could from Price and, along with fellow guide Kat Superfisky, took over the tours when Price left.
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"A lot of people don't realize this is a public space," Higgins says. "It's our space, even though there's some dumb legal issues about where and when you can be around the river."
Through her work on the river, Higgins was introduced to a whole L.A. subculture of urban planners, of bicycle and pedestrian and public transit advocates, all of whom are excited about the river and about public spaces. She tries to bring a scientist's perspective to the issue, perhaps even a bug's perspective.
"At all the meetings, I'm always like, how do you think the insect sees the city?" she says. "I'm always like, 'Nature, nature, nature!' I see so much potential."
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