Tim Dundon is California’s self-proclaimed “Guru of Doo Doo,” a visionary compost wizard living in a tropical forest that lies between Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains in the unincorporated community of Altadena. I profiled Dundon — an extremely knowledgeable, endlessly charming and slightly paranoid man — for the December 2007 issue of Arthur Magazine. “The Sodfather” ran with absolutely gorgeous photography by Eden Batki — the above photos are my own.
The original version of the story can be found on the Arthur Magazine website. An earlier draft of the story that includes extra material regarding Dundon’s paranoid fantasies regarding the Illuminati, the Moonies, et al, can be found after the jump.
Californian compost wizard TIM DUNDON talks shit with Daniel Chamberlin.
Originally published in Arthur 27/December 2007
Alchemists are often characterized in modern times as bumbling would-be wizards at best, greedy charlatans at worst. They’re portrayed as fumbling hopelessly in cluttered laboratories, unenlightened madmen trying to turn lead into gold. The reality is more complex, of course.
Alchemists were up to plenty of things, many of them having to do with relating to the natural world-and understanding its processes of transformation and transmutation-in philosophical and spiritual dimensions that transcended traditional religious thinking, both Christian and pagan, and preceded modern scientific thought. The whole “lead into gold” thing was but the most lucrative of the alchemical -or hermetic-practices in the eyes of the monarchs and rulers. Alchemy’s material prima as Peter Lamborn Wilson writes in the recent collection Green Hermeticism, “can be found ‘on any dung hill.’ Hermeticism changes shit into gold.” It’s an image memorably realized in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain wherein the thief character takes a dump in a fancy bucket, and Jodorowsky, playing an alchemist, distills those fresh turds into a hefty chunk of golden bling.
Such fantastical processes are well known to dirt-worshipping gardening sage Tim Dundon, the beneficent caretaker of California’s most famous compost pile and the kindly warden of the tropical forest that has fruited from its rich humus. It’s here that Dundon, a scientist-poet in the truest hermetic sense, finds hope and salvation in the transformation of death into life-of rotting organic matter into nutrient-rich soil-that takes place daily in the fecund jungle he maintains on his one-acre yard.
The botanical odyssey of Dundon, the self-proclaimed “guru of doo-doo” and the man whose mammoth compost pile once covered a football-field-sized lot, begins in 1967 with a marijuana shortage. Like any good gardening story, it encompasses Hollywood producers, fires, suicide, PCP injection, a nude Quaker iconoclast, standoffs with city officials and a violent pet coyote.
Dundon, a 65-year-old lifelong resident of the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, relays the tale with the voice of a true bard: his gospel of compost is told in a pun-filled rhyming style akin to the braggadocio-laden poesy of Muhammad Ali. He’s been a fixture in the bohemian scene of Los Angeles for four decades, known among the circle of outsider intelligentsia that has gathered for Bacchanalian parties at the Altadena ranch of Turkish Armenian painter Jirayr Zorthian since the ’60s. He often marches in Pasadena’s farcical Doo-Dah Parade clad in white robes, a purple turban atop his head-the garb preferred by his guitar-playing alter-ego, Zeke The Sheik.
The affable Dundon also has a slightly obsessive paranoid side, crossing compost theory with conspiracy theory to connect the fecund jungle he currently maintains on an acre-sized lot to his perceived arch-nemesis, Washington Times founder and cult leader Reverend Sun Myung-Moon; the numeral two and the global power elites that gather every year at Northern California’s Bohemian Grove.
Dundon provides anyone within driving distance of his home with what is widely considered to be the finest compost in Southern California. He does not charge for the actual raw material, but asks for a delivery fee-$35 and up, depending on where you live-for a steaming pile that could serve a small subsistence farm. Many of the recipients of his fertile mixture of manure and lawn clippings end up hosting impromptu mulching parties, inviting their neighbors to come and fill wheelbarrows and buckets with the organic matter left spilling from their yards onto sidewalks and streets. Due to the freshness of the manure component of his compost, his deliveries initially reek of ammonia, but the smell fades within days leaving the pleasant odor of healthy vegetation in its wake.
The mother pile from whence this compost comes once filled the multi-acre lot that his neighbors-the Mountain View Cemetery-granted him use of. After multiple battles with city officials and several fires, this sprawling organic mass has been confined to the lot where he lives, and where he’s been piling compost since 1973.
Dundon resides at the intersection of Mountain View Street and Fair Oaks Avenue, the main thoroughfare connecting Altadena with Pasadena to the south. Altadena is an unincorporated community of almost 43,000 residents that falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Los Angeles. Its northern border is the Angeles National Forest and the San Gabriel Mountain range; it last made the local news in February 2006 when a resident spied a mountain lion napping in the shade of her backyard shrubbery, prompting a lockdown of local elementary schools. It’s also known for its population of human predators, with 10 homicides taking place in the vicinity over the first half of 2007. Gangs are one of the first things Dundon talks about to me when I call to set up the interview, complaining that some of his neighbors-they’re Bloods, he says-have parked a broken-down pickup truck in front of his property in order to “make whitey look bad.” This is to be distinguished from the fully functional pickup truck-complete with hydraulic lift-that he uses to haul compost far and wide.
Dundon’s place is not easy to find as I cruise down Mountain View on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late August. Young black dudes draped in red clothing pass blunts, chat with their friends in sparkling Escalades and give me quizzical looks as I circle the block peering at street numbers. The houses are one-story ranch affairs, the yards are dirt interspersed with yellowing patches of dry grass and weeds. After driving up and down the street several times I park my car and decide to investigate on foot, soon realizing that I can’t see the compost for the trees. Dundon’s yard is literally exploding with plant life: A riot of cacti, palms, walnut trees and succulents strains against the sagging chain link fence that marks his property line.
I find Dundon at the gated entrance to this chaotic lot. He’s stooped over a fresh load: rotting plant matter and manure from a local stable falling through the tines of an ancient pitchfork. Dundon’s tall, about 6’4″ with broad shoulders and considerable biceps. An urban mountain man, his beard explodes from his face, white whiskers frizzing out from his sideburns down to the middle of his chest. His moustache is stained light brown, I’m guessing from drinking apple cider vinegar as he has a slightly sour, though not unpleasant, odor. His long hair is dark gray, pulled back into a ponytail. Blue eyes sparkle from above rosy cheeks and a weather-beaten face. Give him a conical red hat and he is an unmistakable garden gnome.
We exchange greetings and without hesitation he launches into his pro-compost spiel.
“I’m here to capture the rapture and the resurrection at the same time,” he says, pushing a wheelbarrow brimming with fresh mulch, leading me up the inclined path into his shady tropical reserve. “Isn’t life triumphing over death the resurrection? The body turns back to basics and then the basics are picked up by the next generation and the next generation makes use of it and is happy to live inside this new entity because it didn’t go to the landfill. It went to the hill with the will.”
The ground is spongy and soft, piled into rolling hills of nutrient-rich soil that rise a good four or five feet above street level. Black hose-part of a DIY irrigation system-criss-crosses a pathway lined with black plastic gardening pots filled with young ferns and prickly-pear cacti. Dense foliage spreads out on both sides of the path: Kaffir and Stargazer Lilies bloom amidst the psychedelic red, green and yellow leaves of coleus plants. Myriad other tropical species compete with jungle cacti for the shafts of sunlight that splinter down through the banana and walnut trees. Palms tower 30 feet overhead, swaying in the slight breeze of what, on the street, is a hot August afternoon. The temperature in the shade is a good ten degrees cooler. The air smells of wet dirt and blossoming flora.
“When the county came after me one time they said it was a pile of debris and trash,” he says, dumping the load of mulch; spreading and turning it between ferns and broad-leafed fan palms with his pitchfork. “The reporter from the local newspaper came, and I said, ‘Do you realize what the question is?’ I told her I’m sent to be the modern day Shakespeare/ The sincere seer engineer that’s here to commandeer the sphere/ Because your atmosphere and the pure have already started to disappear/ So you better get your rear in gear my dear because the real enemy is right here/ I’m like Paul Revere crossed with Shakespeare. And the question is: Debris or not debris.” He stops for a second.
“See?” he asks. “It really gets ’em when you say it in rhyme.”
The Dundon family moved onto this piece of land in 1933. Tim was born in 1942, and grew up here with his two brothers and a sister. He tells me it was a flat lot full of weeds, and that an evil spirit inhabits the house itself. “My family’s been possessed big time,” he says. As we walk through this fertile microenvironment he tells me about his nephew’s habit of “gunning” PCP, his sister’s “demonic possession” and an attempted intervention cum exorcism that ended with a family fistfight and a pile of flaming Bibles. “Over and over again my life has been full of weird, weird stuff,” he says. “I don’t want to freak you out.”
Chickens, roosters, ducks and geese patrol the paths of Dundon’s forest, and their work rooting through the top layer of mulch brings his attention back to the matter underfoot. “You can see the chickens have been digging,” he says, kneeling down and plunging his hand into the warm soil. “That’s the powder that makes you prouder and prouder,” he says, bringing up a handful of rich humus. He lets it run through his fingers and sings a verse from Creedence’s “Proud Mary:” “Big wheel keeps on turnin’/ Proud Mary keeps on burnin’.” He smiles. “See, it’s burning with the fire of life. I call it yea-palm instead of napalm. Rather than burn people to death it brings ’em more alive. This stuff here, the raw material?” he comes up with another handful of the same fine black soil. “I call that craptonite. Craptonite does to the forces of evil what kryptonite does to Superman.
“There’s so many bacteria,” he continues, “so many worms and living creatures that when I wet this thing down at night there’s this big party that comes out. They just chew it up and turn it into the black stuff. So it’s crap tonight, soil tomorrow,” he pauses for a beat, to see if I’m following his joke. “Like when it goes to the black form there, when it’s completely done, it’s called humus.”
The process of composting is, to quote the Rodale Guide to Composting, “the biological reduction of organic waste to humus.” Which more or less means when plants or animals die and fall to the earth, they become food for other organisms. This process is both hindered and harnessed by humans: The billions of bacteria and fungi that dwell in a handful of soil are largely absent from, say, asphalt, concrete or the compacted mash of garbage in a landfill, but the process is streamlined and accelerated by traditional organic composting practices.
The first stage of decomposition in composting is chemical: microscopic organisms flock to the dead thing and start to secrete enzymes that break it down on a cellular level. As bacteria, saprophytic mushrooms and other fungi eat and digest, they give off considerable heat, causing compost piles to steam and occasionally even catch fire from the trillions of tiny post-dinner bacterial farts. Such a catastrophe took place at Dundon’s place in 1990, and nearly cost him his beloved pile. As temperatures fluctuate within the decomposing matter different communities of organisms rise and fall according to their ability to withstand the heat, which can approach 160-degrees Fahrenheit.
As the chemical decomposers make the dead organic matter a bit more malleable, the physical decomposers start to show up. Millipedes, sow bugs, springtails and snails are happy to chomp up the plants. Flies arrive bringing more bacteria to the buffet, leaving behind eggs and maggots for spiders, centipedes, mites and beetles to eat. Ants replenish the fungi, transport minerals from within and without of the pile and eat plants and insects. But the most accomplished of all the decomposers is without question the earthworm. In his blockbuster 1881 essay “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits,” Charles Darwin writes, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures.” These original slimy alchemists eat dirt and shit out the organic equivalent of gold: castings, also known as vermicompost. Castings enrich the soil with nitrogen, calcium, magnesium and other minerals, in addition to increasing its ability to retain water. And they attract more earthworms, too.
If the aspiring organic gardener’s compost is comprised of the proper materials-check out a good composting book like the aforementioned Rodale guide, but no meat, cat, dog or human poop for starters-it shouldn’t smell bad or attract rodents. The primary odor that emanates from Dundon’s pile is the deep funk of healthy soil. Which is actually the smell of the spores produced by actinomycetes bacteria, a chemical decomposer that thrives in the latter stages of the composting process.
This is how the majority of humans grew their gardens for most of recorded history, taking cues from the world around them. The original practitioner of this composting process would be the forest floor itself, where a mulch of dead leaves, needles, bark and branches covers over and protects the networks of roots, mycelium, bacteria, insects and worms that take part in soil genesis activities. The first people known to have written about composting were the Akkadians, an empire that thrived in Mesopotamia between the 22nd and 24th centuries B.C. There are irregularities in this history, of course: Rodale cites a 10th century Arab agriculturalist as endorsing human blood as a potent addition to compost. Colonial-era American composting seems to be predicated on “fish to muck” ratios. In the ’50s gardeners were going bonkers over mulching with wet straw. Dundon credits his pile’s success to cemetery grass clippings and never fails to point out that there’s a lot of manure involved.
This cycle was interrupted in 1840 when German scientist Justus von Liebig discovered just what it was that plants liked about humus. Prior to Liebig’s research it was commonly accepted that plant roots were chowing down, literally eating, humus. Liebig’s research showed that plants were benefiting from the absorption of chemicals, specifically nitrogen, present in humus but also easily isolated and applied to roots directly. In short, Liebig’s discovery enabled the synthesis of fertilizer. As is often the case when industrial scientists decode a natural process, he proclaimed his methodology to be superior and actively dismissed the process of composting, forever changing agriculture.
The widespread use of synthetic fertilizer instead of humus was quite a coup in that a naturally occurring-often free-recycled substance that enriched the soil was replaced by an industrial product requiring nonrenewable resources that was often not only detrimental to long-term soil health, but also expensive for the farmer. Further refinements to the production of fertilizer-most notably the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia to be used to boost crop production, developed in 1909-are often credited as enabling the population boom that has contributed so drastically to the environmental degradation of the planet.
So when Tim Dundon talks about how his pile is the answer to “all of mankind’s problems,” he’s not kidding around. And there’s no question that the pile has saved Tim Dundon.
Dundon spent his early 20s as a plasterer, shooting fireproofing on the structural steel of the skyscrapers going up across Los Angeles in the ’60s. When a doctor told him that the asbestos that was getting in his eyes would eventually leave him blind, he switched jobs and became an ironworker. “I was being a tough young fella,” he says, sitting on a lawn chair in a salon-like clearing framed by the winding, sometimes horizontal trunk of a decades-old pepper tree. “I got really super powerful,” he says. “My barber was the third contender to the bantamweight championship.”
Dundon boxed too, both in and out of the ring. He and his hard-knock friends would get into bar fights and street fights, “dusting off Mexicans” and getting dusted off by Mexicans, high on acid and pills. They’d take “racks and racks” of Benzedrine, Seconal and Percodan and spend the weekend hunting in Arizona or in the rugged forests north of Altadena, “beating the hills and catching rattlesnakes.” After these strenuous and sleepless weekends he’d return to the work of building bridges and buildings. “I was breaking my back,” he says. One of his friends, the bantamweight barber, was eventually murdered when “a guy he’d worked over a few times in street fights caught him coming out of bar with a twelve gauge shotgun. Right in the face. He wasn’t quite tough enough to take that punch. That’s a good way for somebody like that to go out though.
“This is the kind of people that used to be in Pasadena,” he says. “You talk about heavy duty, these people were way above and beyond the call of duty.”
By the late ’60s Dundon was living with his second wife in Altadena, raising snakes and trying to keep his pet coyote from killing his neighbor’s dogs, or his wife. “One night me and my wife did acid,” he says, “and he wanted to kill her so bad you could see the hate vibrations coming off of him. If I’d a let him go she’d a been in pieces.”
It was around this time that he first smoked marijuana, coming up on his first batch of cannabis by way of a “mailman guy” he was hanging out with. “I took a couple hits on some really good stuff,” he says. “Then I had a big steak, and then went home and played with mama and it was like whoa!” He bugs his eyes out and smiles. “This is good.”
The following year Dundon started on the path that would eventually lead to the lush garden where he and I are now talking. “It was one of those summers when you couldn’t score any of the stuff,” he says. “I decided to plant some stuff behind the garage. Put in a couple tomato plants and some corn to camouflage. I saw the miracle of growth happen there. That was ’67.” His expanded his garden of legal and illegal plants when he and his wife bought a house in 1970. Three years after that they split up and he returned home to take care of his aging parents: Frank, who worked in the aerospace industry, and Edna, a concert violinist.
“It was my calling,” he says. “My father is the gardener, I am the vine. This is one of the heavy Bible statements. My middle name is Francis. Francis is Frank. Remember the Catholic saint, St. Frances of Assisi? I’m St. Francis of Afece. Is that funny shit or what? It goes on and on and on.”
The genesis of the modern organic gardening and permaculture movement of which Dundon is an icon occurred in 1940, two years before his birth. Almost 100 years following von Liebig’s discovery of fertilizer, Sir Albert Howard, a British botanist and the Director of the Institute of Plant Industry at Indore, India, published An Agricultural Testament. The landmark book was a result of Howard’s years of study of the indigenous agricultural practices of India, and it lays out a vision of symbiosis between animals and plants and a scientifically validated methodology of composting that have become the core tenets of the organic farming movement. And the dude talks a lot like Tim Dundon, if Dundon were a British knight. “How long will the supremacy of the West endure?” Howard asks in the introduction to Agricultural Testament. “The answer depends on the wisdom and courage of the population in dealing with the things that matter. Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession-the fertility of the soil-is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization depends.”
Howard’s work flew in the face of an agricultural fertilizer industry that was already entrenched across the planet. And he inspired a generation of organic farmers, among them American gardener J.I. Rodale. Rodale started publishing magazines and gardening guides-including the composting book quoted above-in 1942, based around his enthusiasm and belief in organic farming. Among the many authors that he published was one Ruth Stout, a rebellious woman raised as a Quaker in Girard, Kansas. Though her work is often overshadowed by that of her brother-Rex Stout, the author of a series of mysteries featuring an obese detective-Stout published her first book in 1955. How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back outlined her philosophy of permanent mulch, summed up with the maxim “no dig, no work.” Like Howard she recognized nature as a gardener that didn’t need to be improved upon, and was reputed to tend to her bountiful, chaotic roadside gardens in the nude.
After Dundon moved back to his parents’ place in 1973, he continued to garden, but it was Stout’s writing that gave him the inspiration to start his now legendary compost heap and the jungle that has sprouted from it. “I read her book about mulching,” he says, “and how it had turned her place into a virtual paradise. She had all this stuff growing, really wild, just by spreading hay and organic material on the ground. I took Ms. Stout to a new level.
“I had a vision in early ’73-I was right over there,” he points through the trees to a spot a hundred yards or so from where we’re sitting. “All of a sudden it dawned on me that that this was something that could change the whole world. People could create their own well-being, their own good health, happiness, have peace on earth, just by using organic material, turning it into a game or a competition or whatever to get everyone excited and involved. Something that could really work.”
Dundon soon began collecting the yard waste that his neighbors at the cemetery were incinerating. His pile grew to cover over the lot on which he lived, and soon the cemetery let him expand onto the land that connected their two properties. He claims the eruption of foliage occurred naturally. “I used to get the grass cuttings with the tree seeds and the shrub seeds,” says Dundon. “Instant forest.” He’s obviously done lots of planting though, as it’s likely the banana trees didn’t come from graveyard grass clippings. Likewise the massive dioon-a member of the ancient cycad family and a native of Central America-that spreads its palm-like fronds over a dilapidated shed. Or the exotic epiphytic cacti that bloom from the trunks of host trees reaching up toward the sky. Amateur botanists who travel to Dundon’s forest with a field guide in hand will be richly rewarded.
Dundon picks up a walnut from the ground underneath our chairs. “Just throw a little mulch on top and before you know it there’s stuff everywhere,” he says.
Dundon also kept up his marijuana cultivation. After his parents died, they left the property to him and selling pot augmented his income from doing odd jobs and gardening work. By the early ’80s he claims that he was the “kingpin grower and dealer” of Altadena. “The people I was dealing with, they weren’t into cocaine and all the other stuff,” he says. “They were just into doing the herb. I had a bunch of women that were coming around and I could of said ‘Drop your drawers and I’ll give you a half pound!’ Never any of that. I knew the growers; I got the super price, to where the people felt they got the best deal on the best stuff. This is the way it should be.”
He was busted in 1985, charged with cultivation, sales to a narcotics officer and possession of magic mushrooms with intent to distribute, all felonies. He was busted again while out on bail and charged with possession of more marijuana and psilocybin. He represented himself in Pasadena Superior Court as his alter ego Zeke the Sheik, dressed in a white caftan and making his case in rhyme. “I was obviously guilty,” he says “but I was claiming that I had dominion over the plants, because I was a true Christian believer and that my father in heaven according to the Bible gave me dominion.”
He was convicted following a famously comical trial, but the judge let him off easy: 60 days for each set of felonies, but to be served concurrently at Camp Snoopy, a minimum security prison camp. He only served 18 days, and had a pretty easy time inside: “One day I was pretending like I was asleep on the ground and these black guys were talking about me, sayin’, ‘Hey man we were in Altadena and this guy was selling this weed that was so bad that we didn’t need no cocaine or none of this other stuff. That’s him right there!’ If you’re a child molester they’re gonna kill ya, but if you’re a weed dealer they’re gonna say ‘This guy’s cool, man. He’s all right.'”
Dundon’s next encounter with the authorities came in 1990, when his compost heap caught fire. “It was like hell on earth,” he says. “It was like Puff the Magic Dragon and Dante’s Inferno right in the back yard.” He was oblivious to the fire until two police officers notified him of the smoke that was rising from his pile and lying so heavily on the street that it was stopping traffic.
Dundon was in a massively depressed state at the time: His 26-year-old son had committed suicide two weeks earlier, following the death of his mother, Dundon’s second ex-wife. “He broke up with his girlfriend. He was having trouble with the man,” he says. “He was gonna have to go to jail for 10 months or something like that. He got involved in some kind of drug deal. It was just too much for him to handle so he did the big one.” Dundon points two fingers at his head and pulls an invisible trigger. “So right at that time the pile was starting to catch on fire I was so bummed out, so blown out.”
He managed to contain the fire, but it broke out again the following day. The fire department was sympathetic to Dundon, but warned him that he’d be facing massive fines if they had to intervene. With a combination of water and silt he finally contained the blaze, and with the assistance of scientist friends he was able to verify to county authorities that his pile was no longer a hazard: the compost had mostly burned up, and what remained was non-combustible humus.
But the assault on the heap was only delayed, the issue handed over to county planners who claimed that Dundon’s pile was in violation of Los Angeles County zoning regulations. In 1999 senior county planner John Gutwein told the LA Times that “Mr. Dundon is a very nice man, conducting a large-scale composting operation. Frankly, he is doing very positive things … But Mr. Dundon is going to have to move the pile somewhere else.”
It came as no surprise that Dundon was unable to transport his pile-which had grown to be at least 40-feet high, and was reportedly the length of “five school busses”-to an appropriately zoned industrial area. Shortly thereafter the owners of the land-the Mountain View Cemetery board-were threatened with jail time and a $1,000-a-day fine if the pile remained. It was soon bulldozed. After the compost was removed, the ground was sprayed with herbicide and is now a barren dirt field dotted with tufts of crispy, sun-baked weeds.
At some point in the mid-’70s, when his forest was comprised of young trees, massive vegetables and abundant strawberries, a television producer friend-of-a friend came to visit Dundon. Apparently the producer was enthusiastic about Dundon’s work, and filled his head with promises of becoming a star. As Dundon tells the tale, the producer then went home and died unexpectedly a few days later. He returns to this memory several times over the course of our conversation. He talks about the drama of his life as scenes from a blockbuster film or bestselling novel. He wants to make a parody of Star Wars called Star Peaces. He’d play the Luke Skywalker character, Puke Shitwalker. “I walk through the shit everyday,” he says. His rhymes contain as many references to the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival as they do to local newscasters and American Idol contestants. He wants to meet Yoko Ono and convince her to work with him on a garden in Liverpool commemorating the deaths of John Lennon, George Harrison and Princess Diana. He claims the spirit of Elvis inhabited him during a special broadcast on the local public television station and recruited him to help save Lisa Marie from Scientology.
Dundon’s Hollywood fantasies and paranoid proclamations about Rev Moon and the Illuminati only distract from his true impact: Not just on his own land, but through the work of the compost disciples that swear by his humus, a congregation whose members range from prim rose hobbyists to crunchy urban farmers, bohemian permaculturalists to straight-laced landscapers. He shows me a calendar that features images from his customers’ gardens: Sprawling groves of tropical plants, flowerbeds and vegetable plots bursting with life; even a few images of gardeners who’ve followed his model and added chickens and ducks to their backyard biospheres.
Where would you be without your compost? I ask him as we wander around his house. It’s one of two on the property, though the foliage is so thick that I never manage to discern where the second structure is. (I later learn that he has another garden growing on top of one of these buildings, a green roof that serves as a refuge for a pride of feral cats.) He stops to look down on a cage with two baby rabbits inside. It’s stacked up next to more cages holding chicks, chirping in alarm at a black and white cat that has emerged from the undergrowth. He looks back at me and raises two fingers to his head and pulls the trigger. “Probably,” he says. “The ups and downs got so bad. Suicide was close many times. When the pile got destroyed and the whole thing got so weird.
“Death, and bad relationships with women and having to be alone,” he continues, noting that his last girlfriend left 20 years ago. “If I could’ve had some breaks …” Dundon has aspirations to Hollywood stardom, brushes with television producers and media attention that have fueled obsessions with becoming a celebrity through the transformative power of compost. Which makes sense considering how much it’s enriched his life. “It would be neat to go back and write a novel about what would’ve happened if I’d gotten in contact with all these people. How much different the world could’ve been if that had happened. It could be Ecotopia already.”
It’s one of the only moments in the hours that we’ve been talking that he seems to be at a loss for words. It passes though, and as we continue to walk through his garden he tells stories about his brother Pat’s singing abilities, and then freestyles humus rhymes: “That’s the royal soil wrapped in foil/ So it’ll never spoil for those who are loyal/ and put in the toil/ and create the thing that will not only end the turmoil/ but replace oil.”
Dundon’s enthusiasm for compost goes beyond the sterling scientific theses of Sir Howard, and nearly eclipses Ruth Stout’s candid mulching genius. While compost guides stress that humus springs from all organic matter-plants, kitchen waste, cardboard, et cetera-Dundon mostly focuses on the manure component. He loves the Paul McCartney album Flaming Pie and never fails to make a reference to the fact that a lot of his yard-all dirt on earth, in fact-is in part made out of poop. I could find only one other accounting of compost in all its degraded glory, and this from an inverted perspective; one of repulsion at the death, disease and decay that makes up this nourishing part of the cycle of life. Walt Whitman’s “This Compost” is a selection from his 1855 masterwork Leaves of Grass wherein the bearded poet shudders at the thought of “every continent work’d over and over with sour dead.” He closes the selection with the following lines:
Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.
Dundon expresses similar sentiments, only true to his style, and to the holistic tenets common to both alchemy and permaculture, he embraces the corruption as much as the sweet things that grow from it:
“There’s three parts to life, right: The father is the male. Spirit, or space. The second is the mother. The female, the matter, the material. Third is ‘it.’ Like these chairs,” he gestures to the lawn chairs we’re sitting in again. “All these inanimate things are it. So the pile is what I call she-it. So that way they can’t bleep it because it’s a bunch of shit.” He smiles. “No shit?” he asks.
I nod and reply, “No shit.”
He shakes his head. “Nope. All shit.”
Special thanks to Greg Dalton.
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