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April 04, 1993|M. HARRIS

Hi, kids. My name is Smokey. I guess some of your parents got upset when they saw a big bear like me in the middle of Venice.

"Yeah, with a shovel and jeans and a ranger hat, and this funny bird on your shoulder."

Well, don't worry. I'm the fire prevention bear from the national forests. I brought my shovel here to help the Venice Action Committee and TreePeople plant trees at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Postal Sorting Annex on Windward Circle. Tell all your friends to volunteer. Information: (310) 399-6690.

"Why, Smokey? Aren't you supposed to be back in those forests putting out fires?"

Not much danger right now, with all the rain and snow we've been having. Besides, the Forest Service isn't so sure anymore that we should put out fires. Some think they're part of Nature's great plan, and we should just let them burn. I don't know. I just follow orders. But until people make up their minds. . . .

But, you know, trees can make city people feel better. They're beautiful. They rustle in the wind and make shadows come and go. They keep us cooler in the summer. They breathe in the bad air we breathe out--the carbon dioxide--and breathe out good oxygen for us to breathe in. And in some places--not Venice, of course--they hide ugly buildings.

"But doesn't it seem silly to plant a few trees here while we chop down millions of trees back where you come from?"

Yes, it is, kids. But think of the way a forest fire cools off in the center, where it started, while the edge of the fire is still a blazing ring. Human civilization is a kind of fire too. Way out, it's still consuming unspoiled land, but here in the city you've come to miss a little wildness. So you plant these trees. Wonderful!

"You mean it's never too late?"

Not for you, maybe. For grizzly bears, it is too late. There's a grizzly on the California flag, but none left alive in the wild in this state. That's why your parents got upset. They weren't afraid of me--just embarrassed.



"Who is that bird on your shoulder?"

This is Spotty the Owl, kids. He's an endangered species, just like the grizzlies here were.

"He looks sleepy."

Owls always sleep in the daytime. But there's so much arguing going on in the forests between loggers and environmentalists that he couldn't get any shut-eye. So he came to the city with me.

"Wow. Is he going to stay?"

It depends. If one of you will lend him a pair of sunglasses, and if he finds a tree he likes. . . . Whoops! There he goes already. He must figure the urban forest is the safest place to be.

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