The Bird Lady Vs. The Tree Outlaw
“Kneel down here so you can say you touched a native California plant,” commands Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, holding a ratty tangle of brown stems and fading green leaves between his fingers.
The grass is unimpressive aesthetically speaking, but I do as I’m told. To van de Hoek, this California salt grass is nothing less than a sign of the perfect order of nature.
“It’s one of our guides,” van De Hoek announces. “It’s one of the species that lets us know we’re standing in a wetland.”
Actually, the ground we’re standing on is dry, but beneath us runs enough brackish moisture to sustain the salt grass, a spidery ground cover that blankets stretches of coastal L.A.’s Ballona Valley like a sparse and irregular lace.
Van de Hoek, a Los Angeles County parks supervisor, has been conducting unofficial public tours of the Ballona Wetlands and Sand Dunes on the first weekend of every month for the past eight and a half years (April 1 marks his 100th Sunday outing). But last summer, vandalism charges were brought against him by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and he was barred from entering the property, which is protected by a fence secured with three padlocks — one belonging to California Fish and Game, another to the state-run Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and another shared by several bickering groups, including the Wetlands Action Network (founded by van de Hoek’s fiancée, Marcia Hanscom) and Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, which once sued Playa Vista but now works with the developer. Van de Hoek’s vandalism charges — which could have landed him in jail for up to two years, or cost him $27,000 in fines — were dismissed in late October, and now, on this mid-November morning, just in time for the winter bird migration season, he has returned with the flocks and the flora.
“Look,” he says, pointing toward a thin patch of flowering leaves. “It’s a marsh heliotrope, struggling to come back.” The plant’s threads bear a sparse covering of pale-green leaves — a condition, says van de Hoek, exacerbated by the shade of a shrubby grass competitor nearby known by its botanical name, myoporum. “It can’t compete,” he complains. “Too much shade in the wetland will wipe it out completely.”
Myoporum is one of the two non-native plants van de Hoek was caught destroying in the wetland and its environs in violation of the law, according to the City Attorney’s complaint. The other was a Ficus microcarpa, also known as laurel fig or Chinese banyan, in particular a Ficus microcarpa that grows on the banks of the Del Rey Lagoon in full view of the apartment building where he lives. Many of his neighbors love the tree. Van de Hoek does not.
To several in the community, the charges against van de Hoek seemed silly. How could a guy who clearly knows his salt grass from his pampas grass be arrested for clearing away the branches of a few plants that aren’t even native to the area? Some thought the legal campaign against him had been orchestrated by his enemies within the corporation that runs Playa Vista, the housing and retail development that occupies 1,087 acres of former wetland. His fiancée noted that Playa Vista president Steve Soboroff contributed generously to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s campaign when he ran for attorney general last fall. And Tom Mesereau, the lawyer van de Hoek shares with Michael Jackson, circulated a tape of a TV segment produced by the city casting aspersions on van de Hoek.
“Many believe [Delgadillo] was led into filing these false and misleading criminal charges by megadeveloper Playa Vista and its allies,” read a press release circulated by van de Hoek’s defenders last fall. Someone, they clearly believed, was out to get van de Hoek.
In a sense, they were right. Playa Vista LLC certainly teems with people who don’t like van de Hoek. At public meetings about future development projects, fliers mysteriously appear on the seats discrediting van de Hoek as a criminal (he was charged with misdemeanor trespassing once before, when he cut a fence on the Carrizo Plain to free deer on Bureau of Land Management property). But even within the environmental community, there are those who don’t like van de Hoek. When he ran for the Sierra Club board on an anti-immigration platform, he was tarred as a racist. (“I just thought it was healthy to have a discussion about immigration in a country that uses so many resources,” he says now, noting that he himself was born in Holland.) Others are simply put off by his tendency toward confrontation over compromise. And some of van de Hoek’s neighbors, people he has scolded for meddling with the ecosystem in the Del Rey Lagoon near his apartment, and a few who would prefer to see the muddy-bottomed, smelly lagoon turned into a concrete-bottomed lake — many of these people don’t like van de Hoek.
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.
“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.”
But Tweti and van de Hoek’s conflict also cuts into a conundrum at the center of many environmental debates: How far should we go to restore local habitats to their native state, and to what extent should man manage nature?
Tweti contends that the trouble between them started two years ago, when she headed out to the Del Rey Lagoon carrying two chicken feeders full of fresh water for the passing ducks and geese. Van de Hoek ran after her on her way out. He told her that geese don’t need to be watered by humans. Tweti also says that van de Hoek threatened to kill all the geese “because they don’t belong here anyway,” she claims he said. Van de Hoek denies that accusation, saying only that he told Tweti that ducks and geese don’t need to drink water.
“Birds don’t have liquid urine,” he says. “They excrete urea — you know, the white stuff — to conserve water. They will drink opportunistically, but they don’t need water to live.”
Tweti was deeply offended. “How crazy is it to deprive geese and ducks and migratory birds of fresh water?” she asks, standing on the banks where the incident occurred. “And then to kill this tree in an area bereft of shade? I used to think that Roy at least had respect for life. But I don’t think that anymore. Not after what he’s done to this creature.”
As she talks, a woman walks up and down the banks of the lagoon, scattering bread at the feet of the birds.
“I used to do that,” Tweti admits, shaking her head. “I used to feed them. But I don’t anymore.”
Debates over California’s native ecology have raged at least since the 1960s, when the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants was established. “Our environment was becoming less and less natural,” says Holliday Wagner, the foundation’s current nursery manager. “We’d made it so easy for humans to live here, and in the process, a lot of what lived here before was being lost.”
But local residents have loved their imports too much to root them all out: When rows of bounteous non-native fig trees in the City of Commerce lifted the sidewalks, tree lovers objected to their wholesale removal. And, when the National Park Service launched a $7 million campaign to protect nine native plants and a dwindling kit-fox population by slaughtering all wild pigs on the Channel Islands, animal-rights activists sued to protect the pigs. Besides, argue the opponents of activists who have become known as “native Nazis,” not every non-native plant is a pest — and not every native plant can still thrive in modern Southern California’s smog-choked hills. (In case it needs to be pointed out, we’re not native either.)
Tweti argues that even though the ficus was a non-native tree, it posed no threat to the local ecosystem.
“You can’t use these words ‘non-native’ and ‘invasive’ interchangeably. I used to do it too,” she says, “and it’s wrong. Just because the tree isn’t native, doesn’t mean it’s invasive. How can it be? It’s surrounded by concrete.”
When the Ficus microcarpa traveled here from Asia via Bermuda in 1912, it was merely a benign ornamental, essentially sterile because the species-specific wasp needed to pollinate the tree had not come with it. But sometime in the 1970s, that wasp showed up in Florida, and laurel figs, which need no soil to germinate, began to turn up wherever its seed could find purchase — in concrete swimming pools, freeway overpasses and parks.
But the laurel fig has not yet invaded the Ballona Valley. It spreads throughout California simply because people plant it. Although some botanists believe the wasp has come west, few seedlings have been found.
“Only Ficus microcarpa’s roots are invasive,” says Frank McDonough, Los Angeles Arboretum botanist and host of the Sunday Gardens of California show on cable-access Channel 36. “Its roots can cause great damage by displacing man-made objects like sidewalks, walls and entire civilizations — just ask anybody [at the great Cambodian temples] at Angkor Wat. Every year, older plantings inflict millions of dollars of damage on sidewalks, streets, walls and other city infrastructure.”
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.”
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.
“She’s confused,” Hanscom snipes. “Just because a bird lands on a plant, it doesn’t mean it needs the plant to live.”
On the first Sunday in December, van de Hoek conducted a public tour of the Ballona Valley to see, among other creatures, the bufflehead ducks, one of many migratory birds that winter in Southern California or pass through on the way south. Thanks to his “legal issues” — and by extension, thanks to Mira Tweti — he had three dozen attendees, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl.
“It was a record,” he told me later. “We try to get in the papers every month, but we don’t always succeed. Now it seems like everyone remembered I’m here again.”
The black-and-white buffleheads are tiny, the smallest diving sea ducks in North America; the Indians called them “spirit ducks” because they could disappear so quickly, and for so long, underwater. Like many migrating birds who sojourn in Southern California on their way to parts farther south, they fly thousands of miles to be here — in part because this human-altered landscape reminds them of the rocky shores of their homes.
“We’ve now had a 60-year equilibrium in which wildlife could adapt to this urban ecosystem,” van de Hoek says. “It’s important to acknowledge the bounty of it.”
On this day, Del Rey Lagoon appears overrun by marbled godwits, gangly dark birds with sewing-needle beaks that have flown here across the Rockies. Farther along, on Ballona Creek, skim hundreds of tiny dowitchers pitching in concert. Beyond that, pugnacious harriers battle other birds for their nests, gaggles of Canada geese scream in their melodramatic panic, and flocks of mergansers calmly float on the water, changing direction abruptly and seemingly without intent.
Then there was the whimbrel.
“The whimbrel is a sandpiper that comes from where the land is frozen and the skies are dark,” van de Hoek intones as his troops catch their balance on the slope of the channel. “And when the whimbrel, who has spent his early months in the Arctic, gets down here, he says to himself, ‘I want to be somewhere that reminds me of home. And this is what he finds: A concrete channel covered with rocks and mussel shells. This looks like Alaska to a whimbrel. So he stays.”
It was Tweti, the woman who kisses her parrot and talks to geese, who told me that all these birds count Ballona as “the 18th pearl” on the Pacific Flyway, a major route that runs north to south from the northern islands of Alaska to the tip of South America at Patagonia. She had brought those migrating geese water one day because she worried the lagoon was too salty and polluted by human garbage and dog shit, and she cared desperately for their welfare. And had she and van de Hoek not misunderstood each other so profoundly that day, she might have been among the three dozen other participants on the banks of the lagoon with him, counting the birds and marveling as van de Hoek — in the end, a bird lover as passionate as Tweti — tells the story of how the whimbrel came to love the concrete shores of this urban creek.
Instead, Tweti fears the fight will go on, and there will only be a sad end for her beloved tree.
“Do you want to know why I talked to you?” she asks. “I talked to you because I worry that he’s going to try again. He’s going to try to kill the tree, and this time he’s going to get it right.
“And that,” she concludes, her voice trembling, “that would be a tragedy.”
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