Wrapped in Rough, Wrinkled Skin

smallChorus Frog
By Marcia Hanscom

A friend recently invoked the spirit of the snake, telling me about her experiences with a friend from afar that she referred to as a “snake” – but really meaning she didn’t want much to do with him. How did snakes get such a bad rap? And how is it that most of us feel at least a little squeamish when talking about the fauna with which we share the planet that pre-date our species by millions of years? Reptiles and amphibians are intriguing to us as children, but by the time we become adults, it seems that only those who belong to the local herpetology society or are hard-core naturalists retain that sense of wonder.

Maybe it’s time to talk about the snakes, the lizards, the salamanders, the frogs of Ballona. So, here’s a start.

Herpetofauna is what this topic is called by biologists, and this is one of my favorite mysteries of the Ballona Valley. Most people do not think of snakes or lizards when contemplating the Ballona Wetlands – but there are snakes, like the California Red-sided Gartersnake and the Two-Striped Gartersnake, which are wetland meadow species Calthat ought to be returned to Ballona as part of a genuine restoration. Of course, Ballona is more than a wetland habitat. In fact, the Ballona mosaic includes prairie grasslands, seasonally wet meadows, sand dunes, coastal scrub and several other types of habitats.

The California King Snake at Ballona has unique yellow markings – unique specifically to the Ballona Valley. And it was this species that Tom Brokaw referred to in 1996 when his NBC film crew came to document a bulldozer and activist showdown while he was in town for the national Democratic Convention. Celia Alario had locked her neck to a bulldozer in protest of the first entry of bulldozers to the marsh, but by the time the NBC crew arrived, the fire department had unfastened her, sawing through the heavy-duty bicycle lock and allowing the bulldozers to continue in an area that today has become part of a protected ecological reserve.

“No animator can duplicate this,” said Brokaw, referring to DreamWorks’ Hollywood animation studio that threatened the L.A. coastal wildlands, as the camera caught a King Snake slithering through the soil where a bulldozer’s claws had just scooped in and out.

Since that time I’ve learned about the Slender Salamander and the Silvery Legless Lizard; both are intriguing species that reside in specific types of Ballona habitat, and both are increasingly rare. Each of these species resembles worms more than salamanders or lizards. There are other lizards present at Ballona, including the rare California Horned Lizard, the Western Fence Lizard and the Alligator Lizard – each beckoning us to remember and imagine the ancient origins of life on Earth.

And then, of course, there is the Pacific Tree Frog, known increasingly as the Chorus Frog. This frog is the one part of Ballona’s herpetofauna that has long enjoyed a featured and even celebrated role in the discourse related to the contentious landscape of the Los Angeles coast.

“I’d like to invite all of the frogs in L.A. to, please, come to Playa Vista. When the wetlands are complete, you’ll have a home here too,” announced Steven Spielberg to hundreds of assembled journalists, politicians and Hollywood celebrities one rainy day in December of 1995. To this day, Ballona Wetlands advocates wonder what he meant by “when the wetlands are complete” – as if the wetlands were a movie that in production mode.

Spielberg appeared to have given that nod to the frogs because two of the couple of dozen activists protesting in the rain that morning were dressed in frog costumes, and they were obvious to every arriving limo to the big announcement of DreamWorks joining in to be Playa Vista development partners. I remember actress Patricia McPherson, of “Knight Rider” & “MacGiver” fame, – who was protesting with us – calling out to George Clooney as he did a double-take to look at her and the frogs.

Then, there was David Geffen, a billionaire veteran music business mogul and Spielberg’s partner in the proposed DreamWorks’ development plan to be partners in building the largest development in this history of the City of LA, including a new movie studio, complete with a California-sized swimming pool for starlets to lounge around while being considered for film roles.

“If you want to save the frogs, go protest at the French restaurants!” shouted
Geffen at activists carrying protest signs in front of Ron Burkle’s Green Acres’ Beverly Hills estate, hoping to get the attention of President Clinton during a fundraiser that Geffen and his DreamWorks partners were hosting.

It wasn’t just the costumed-humans calling attention to the frogs. The frogs were also speaking for themselves. The sounds of frogs singing beneath the Loyola bluffs in Westchester and in seasonal ponds along Jefferson Blvd. were sufficiently familiar to enough people that the plight of the frogs captured peoples’ attention.

Sometime during the next year FrogWorks was born – birthed and nurtured for years by writer and performance artist Susan Suntree and numerous courageous actors who knew what it meant to challenge a powerful film Hollywood trio like Spielberg, Geffen and their partner, animation magnate Jeffrey Katzenberg.
{link to this article for a nod to FrogWorks -
http://articles.latimes.com/1999/jul/02/news/mn-52300 }

The political street theatre troupe, FrogWorks, brought this unique (and virtually unheard of in LA at the time) form of communication art and activism to the Venice Boardwalk, Santa Monica’s famed Third Street Promenade and to schools and other gathering places throughout Los Angeles County. Within two years the conversation on the street changed from, “Steven Spielberg would never do that!” to “I’m so mad at those DreamWorks guys – they are so out of touch!”

And then, as if the subconscious creativity of the universe was working for nature, DreamWorks decided to release a new film entitled, “The Lost World” – invoking the dinosaurs some might link to the reptiles and amphibians of Ballona. As with other film releases, activists who used the theme “Carpe’ Diem” for their weekly planning meetings, decided to not only protest the star-studded opening of the film, but a boycott of “The Lost World” was announced. DreamWorks’ own promotions ended up giving the activists media coverage about their real-world antics.
{link to this article for award-winning writer story:
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/1999/01/spielbergs-other-lost-world }

And then there was the local City Councilmember, Ruth Galanter, who’d originally won office with the campaign slogan, “She can’t be bought, and she won’t back down.” Galanter had but made a deal with Playa Vista developers and was so turned on by the idea of DreamWorks coming to her council district that she lost significant respect and decorum by publicly berating activists (including me) who dared to attempt to gain more land protection at Ballona than her less-than- inspiring negotiated settlement had brought. An issue of
The Argonaut, a local weekly paper widely read on LA’s Westside, featured a front-page photo of Galanter – finally termed out of office after 16 years – with a big frog hanging on her computer.

The spirit of the Ballona herpetofauna is not always obvious, but ever-present.

Wrapped in rough, wrinkled skin, these ancient life forms that crawl and slither, hiss and sing, hide and call out, these frogs, salamanders, snakes and lizards. The snakes, lizards and salamanders eat the insects and mice. They burrow and dig with their long, sleek bodies. The frogs jump and walk further than anyone realizes.

Ancient life forms are still present at the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. Do we have the right to dig up their home and erase them from this coastal landscape?

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For more information on the historical and current Herpetofauna of the Los Angeles coast, check out this website, compiled and created by Roy van de Hoek: