The rain forest ecologist, the famously grumpy novelist, the state park executive and the board members of an exclusive private school have never met in the same room.
But working the levers of love and obsession independently over the past 20 years, they have fashioned a remarkable deal to preserve the beauty and beasts of a wooded Sherman Oaks canyon.
And strangely enough, one of the ultimate winners may be Tarzan.
You remember: loincloth, Lord of the Jungle, "you Jane"? That one.
Tonight, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy board will consider a land swap in which the state of California would trade several acres of a gorgeous grove of oaks to the private school for 12 sylvan acres that include graded but empty home sites.
While the math is a little strange, it's actually a good deal for Southern California nature lovers--the culmination of efforts to preserve a largely pristine glen that one of its admirers, author Harlan Ellison, calls "our sparkling little gem."
The tale of Oak Forest Canyon begins in the late Miocene era about 10 million years ago, when a red tide in the deep seas that covered Southern California killed off billions and billions of diatoms, the favorite one-celled luncheon meat of many fish.
Now skip ahead 5 million years to when convulsive plate tectonics created the Santa Monica Mountains and pushed the final resting spot of millions of fossilized herring, lantern fish and shark to the surface of the Earth in Sherman Oaks.
Another 5 million years later, in the early 1920s, historians say Edgar Rice Burroughs--creator of Tarzan, the inspiration for Tarzana--discovered a creek shaded by giant oaks in a little canyon beside that fossil-covered ridge.
According to Ellison, Burroughs would ride up on horseback along a path that became Stansbury Street, wearing jodhpurs and a safari hat. He'd picnic with his family and pals like city engineer William Mulholland, oil baron Edward L. Doheny and leading man Errol Flynn. And more than likely he'd daydream about his characters--the Lord of the Jungle and Capt. Jack Carter of Mars--while watching deer and rabbits romp through the black-sage chaparral.
Ellison said his own ferocious imagination, the source of best-selling fantasies, screenplays and TV dramas, was lit by reading Burroughs' books as a youth in Painesville, Ohio. And he has wondered ever since why Burroughs has never been honored with so much as a postage stamp.
"There might be children in Somalia or the Arctic who have never heard of Hamlet or the Great Gatsby or Sam Spade," Ellison said. "But you can bet they know Tarzan."
In the 1940s, a developer clawed down the upper part of Oak Forest Canyon to string houses along Coy Drive and Camino de la Cumbre. Ellison eventually bought one of those houses in 1963, but several lots behind him were never sold--and have lain fallow ever since.
As in Burroughs' day, the land remains a refuge for man and animal.
"Living here is a delight--it is a mountaintop in heaven," said Ellison, who threatened to break both my legs "so bad your dead grandmother will scream" if I described him as a science-fiction writer, which is the way much of the world outside the emergency room knows him.
"We live virtually on 200 acres of watershed. We have wild lemon trees and loquats. Families of deer wander into my backyard to nibble on cactus," he mused. When the pressures of the world grow unbearable, "you can come up here and hear nothing but the sound of your soul beating."
About 15 years ago, though, Ellison's reveries were almost ruined when a developer threatened to cut down the fossil-filled hill behind his house for another tract of homes.
Enter naturalist Arnold Newman. Known locally as the former host of a television science show and internationally as an expert on the preservation of tropical rain forests, the lanky Sherman Oaks resident recruited Ellison to lead a coalition to beat the builder back.
"I'm real tall when I stand on my charisma," said the diminutive Ellison, laughing. "I told all the neighbors, 'One day you're gonna look up and see 65-year-old ladies with varicose veins sunning themselves on a porch.' I told them, 'Let's buy it.' "
Instead, in a complicated deal with the developer in 1991, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy obtained the 109-acre hillside and turned it into Fossil Ridge Park. The acquisition included the lovely grove of oaks that reportedly hosted Burroughs' weekend dining. But much of the overgrown terrain to the south was still in private hands.
The last owner of the lion's share of the property rebuffed the conservancy for years--never returning phone calls or letters to discuss a deal, state parkland officials say. But he lost the land to his bank recently, and the environmentalists saw their chance.