By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Jack Gould
I’m engaged in a radical weed-control program: I am covering my entire huge back yard in fresh, hot organic compost. I’m using it as mulch with the idea that a thick layer will smother and kill the existing weeds and crabgrass, which virtually covered the property when I bought it. I blame this mulch-and-kill mission — “green manuring,” it’s called — on Tim Dundon, tender of the controversial Zeke’s Heap, a 40-foot-high mountain of compost in west Altadena that we Altadena citizens consider our own local landmark.
Dundon, now 61, has graying brown hair, a long, fuzzy yellow-white beard and intense blue eyes. He’s got a bit of a stoop, a trace of a gimp, growing grizzle and the gift of gab. He could stand more meat on his bones. Every week or so, since late last spring, in his creaky, work-worn white flatbed dump truck, he’s delivered a 200-cubic-foot load of tobacco-brown stable leavings (wood chips and horse manure from a local stable) onto my property. Truly, as Dundon would have it, it’s been a summer of “Doo doo doo looking out my back door.”
My terrier is beside herself at each delivery; at first she didn’t know what to do — dig in it, roll in it, eat it — but now she routinely climbs each 4-foot mound and pees, christening the heap. The compost is still hot, still very much in the process of breaking down into humus, and on cool mornings, the steam rises off the piles in a sharp ammoniac fog. Once the stuff is spread and watered, the heat and aroma die down in a matter of days. Throughout the spring and early summer, each load also brought a host of fat, iridescent flies that hugged my window screens, dotted the stucco on the house and slipped inside to buzz in slow, drunken circles in my living room. Right around the time one load’s flies had finally dispersed, another load arrived. My neighbors, while supportive of my overall endeavor, could not help but sigh when they heard — or caught wind of — each successive dump.
Using a pitchfork, I spread out the compost to a depth of 6 to 10 inches. A few times, Dundon has brought his own pitchfork, an unusually graceful and large specialty implement whose tines have since thinned and shortened with heavy use. Together, in amicable silence, Dundon and I have spent several hours side-by-side knocking down the piles.
Often, Dundon will treat me to a few minutes of his compost-based philosophy, occasionally delivered in rhyme with periodic bursts of song and biblical quotation. (He sometimes identifies himself as “Talker” — as opposed to the Chuck Norris character “Walker”: “Walker was the most violent show on television,” he says. “As Talker, I represent the opposite of that.”) Dundon’s compost, you must understand, is ultimately more than a product; it is also a worldview, and a way of life — a means to health, happiness and world peace. “This is the way, the truth, the life,” he says of the stuff. Indeed, Dundon does not talk so much as he preaches, and what he preaches is the Gospel of Compost.
“If everybody got into this cycle of recycling waste, nothing would be wasted, life would only become more abundant, people would be surrounded by this life force, they’d each have their own little Eden and be happy, with no need for Prozac, or going to war.”
When he really gets going, Dundon can be clever, off the wall, very funny, highly peculiar, sometimes a bit paranoid, regularly fixated on the number two and, less often, on his antipathy toward the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Sometimes he’ll interrupt a monologue to suddenly sing, accompanying himself on air guitar, “I’m being followed by a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow.” Or, “I see a bad moon rising.” His theology, and I think it can be called that, is Christian-flavored, animistic, panentheistic and life-centered: God is life and life is everywhere, in everything, even and especially in shit and death, which regenerates and nourishes the world. Dundon is simultaneously a neighborhood nut and inarguably, deeply and persuasively involved in biological and ecological practices. As Dundon himself says, “I’m out there and in there at the same time.”
“Talker” is scarcely Dundon’s only or most significant persona. He also calls himself Dr. Frankenvine — a reference to the particularly frisky foliage he’s brought to life from waste material — and his most famous and notorious subpersonality is Zeke the Sheik, Dundon’s caftaned alter ego who for years led off Pasadena’s Doo-dah Parade, has regularly showed up at community functions and has made a couple of runs for president of the United States.
“Tim is timid,” says Dundon, “but Zeke is an intimidator. The sheik is the avatar with the living candy bar, but he’s way too bizarre . . . and” — here Dundon sings — “baby you can drive my car.”
Once, in 1985, the sheik even appeared in court to defend Dundon on charges of growing and selling marijuana. (Ah, that miraculous compost!) In a floor-length caftan and a blue headdress, Zeke spoke only in rhymes — including a 20-minute statement that kept the room in stitches. One prosecutor claimed it was “the funniest, most hilarious” trial he had ever experienced. Dundon was facing up to six years in prison, but was sentenced to 18 days in jail. Since then, he says, he’s heard that a law professor at UCLA uses State of California v. Dundon as a case study to suggest that “the right rhyme for the right crime will get you less time.”