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
It all started back in 1972, when Dundon had a vision telling him to create an Eden in his own back yard. He moved home to his parents’ house in Altadena and made arrangements with the Mountain View cemetery across the street to take on all of the grounds’ tree and grass clippings to make compost out of them. Mixing the cemetery debris with kitchen scraps and horse manure from nearby stables, his heap of compost grew. And grew. Tending it involved constant aerating, turning, basting the green matter with a paste made of humus in order to speed up the breaking down. (“I baste the waste with the paste/and the waste is replaced/with the soil that gives food a wonderful taste . . .”) For almost two decades, Dundon tended his heap in peace, and it grew into a 40-foot-high hill 200 feet long, possibly the largest back yard urban compost pile on Earth. People came to him with sacks and boxes and pickup trucks and carried off compost, donating a token $5 here, $10 there to go for the heap’s care.
These days, hidden behind ramshackle fencing of wood, wire and bamboo, the heap is hard to see from the street — you can spot a toffee-colored spill of compost, with a few small colorful chickens pecking about on it. Not until you’re inside the fence and clambering up the spongy, warm, loamy sides of the heap do you sense its girth and mass and height; it’s like a mountain of crumbled cork whose flora looks like something out of a science-fiction fantasy. Bright Lights chard grows in 6-foot-tall clumps of fluorescent pink, yellow-orange and red. Golden amaranths the size of small trees spew enormous plumes of pollen-heavy blooms. Mustard greens boil out of the ground with such virulence, it seems they’d eat you if you got too close.
The heap is warm and moist and aromatic. Infrared scans, says Dundon, show both a lake and a fire on the property — “like the biblical lake of fire.” Some winters, Dundon has found transients sleeping on the heap. The heat it generates, he claims, is curative. “It’s vibrating, all these microorganisms eating away.” He suggests that if you put down a sheet and lie there, the heap will relieve your back pain and muscles “like mama kissing a boo-boo — but it’s Mother Earth kissing your aches and pains, it’s like lying on Mother Earth’s big, warm breast.” This idea gave birth to one of his working mantras: “I must adjust the dust to make the robust bust.”
In February of 1990, the heap got a bit too hot and combusted, sending flames and smoke up for all, including the county fire department, to see. The department paid two visits. If he did not succeed in putting out the conflagration, Dundon was told, the department would do it for him and present him with the bill — and the last such fire they’d extinguished cost $280,000. Dundon contained the fire by sealing the mound with silt, then making a slurry of silt and water and piping it into the heap. The fire burned underground in the heap for the next eight months, breaking out, curiously, only at night. Dundon would smell or see smoke at 2 or 3 in the morning, and hit it with a hose. His working mantra changed to “I must adjust the dust to build up the crust of the robust bust so it won’t again spontaneously combust.” By October, the fire was finally out, the core of the heap now ashes.
Nine years later, a compost fire broke out in a big pile in Simi Valley; it took two weeks to put out, and the firemen who fought it complained of liver damage from inhaling the smoke and fumes. That led the county to start looking at other local compost operations. Dundon was told that his heap was going to catch fire again. With help from local scientists, Dundon proved that the core had burned out in 1990 and that the heap was technically just humus — the organic component of soil — and no longer combustible. The county then turned the matter over to the zoning department, which declared that a mound of earth with trees violated local zoning laws. “It can’t be done that way, they told me — it’s not supposed to be done that way.” Furthermore, Dundon was told he was conducting an illegal fertilizer business, also inappropriate to a residential neighborhood. Officials then put pressure on the cemetery, on whose property the heap actually sits, to remove it or be fined $1,000 a day. Bulldozers came and toppled about a quarter of the heap before neighborhood support and a legal technicality came to the rescue. Local television news stations sent commentators and cameras; the heap made the Pasadena Star News and the cover of the L.A. Times Metro section. Dundon’s legal advisers pointed out that, while the cemetery owns the land, Dundon owns the compost, and therefore it cannot be removed without a 60-day eviction notice — that was the legal technicality — and the bulldozers desisted after one day. An eviction notice has since been duly served, and duly ignored, and there has been no further action.