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The Gospel of Compost

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.”

 

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.

As Dundon puts it, “The county sees a collection of infection, but upon inspection it’s really confection from the resurrection . . .” However, since those brushes with the county, Dundon has not given away any compost from his actual heap. What he hauls to people’s gardens comes straight from the stables, and he charges them only a “friendly” delivery fee of $35 — or more, if they live farther away.

Recently, I went to visit Dundon and his notorious heap. He lives a few blocks from me in the house he grew up in. From Fair Oaks Avenue, west Altadena’s main north-south thoroughfare, you can see the foliage in his yard — the cacti, tropicals, vines and palms — straining at the encircling hurricane fence.

Dundon is watering in the back of his property. I follow the sound of water, back along the house on a path of damp humus under a leaf-canopied yard. The sun breaks through in shafts and the temperature drops a good 10 degrees. I find him among the coleus and veiny caladiums, whose leaves are painterly spills of chartreuse, hot pink, white and burgundy and glow with downright psychedelic vigor. I exclaim over a canna whose red-, yellow- and green-striped leaves are as large as rowboat oars.

“Plants don’t have to work as hard here,” Dundon says. “Their stress level is eliminated. They’re happy.”

Clearly. Spider webs in the tall cacti sparkle with water drops. Sleek, small, iridescent bantam chickens calmly peck and cluck about our feet. “If you could interview them,” Dundon says, “they’d say they were pretty happy too.” The air is not only cooler, but sweeter, full of oxygen, while just a few yards away, it’s late summer as usual in Altadena — blistering hot and so smoggy you can barely see the mountains a mile off.

Dundon and I take seats on lawn furniture near the edge of the property and look out onto the vacant acreage behind it that belongs to the cemetery. The part of the heap that was bulldozed away was spread over this land, where it promptly sprouted a field of California poppies — and was just as promptly sprayed with herbicide, an added insult that Dundon still finds rankling. “I guess it was just was too beautiful, and therefore had to be destroyed.”

The vast, dry vacant lot has recently been leased to a firewood cutter, and piles of logs and dead brush have been randomly dumped on it. “Do they really prefer that to this?” Dundon says, waving back at his own private Eden.

But he doesn’t linger amid dark thoughts for long.

“The whole scene is so full of life, you can’t spend time here without feeling better. The more people do this” — he again indicates his own private botanical heaven — “the better the world becomes. Happiness and health could spontaneously break out. How would the huge pharmaceutical companies like that? If you get life and beauty like this into convalescent homes, people’s last days would be their best days.”

Dundon has many such ideas and plans — he’d like to use composting waste material to build beautiful green memorial parks all over the world. He’d especially like work with Paul McCartney to build a memorial to John and George and Linda and call it Church Hill. He’d like to have a rock festival with his favorite musicians, Creedence Clearwater, the Beatles — and call it Crapstock. He’d like all schoolchildren to be educated in responsible solid-waste management from grade school on.

He and I walk back through the shade and plants toward my car. “Everything here has been eaten and pooped out. All is technically number two. It’s a perfect scheme of nature that God provided. We have everything today to make a paradise on Earth.”

I think of my own now nearly weedless yard, how the compost has fed my trees, caused my zucchini and roses to grow with almost unruly friskiness, and how the whole third of an acre at least is contained, readied for design and planting. “You’re absolutely right,” I say.

And he laughs out loud.