Posted on | August 24, 2012 | 2 Comments
If you live in greater Los Angeles, chances are good that you’ve heard of Tim Dundon. The deputy of a Los Angeles County supervisor once compared Dundon’s pile of compost in the unincorporated foothill city of Altadena to the mosaics of Simon Rodia in Watts. “Watts has Watts Towers. Altadena has the pile,” Kathryn Barger told the Los Angeles Times.
Eleven years later, most of the pile is gone and Dundon is in deep trouble over what is growing on the remains. Labor Day weekend a star line up of Los Angeles County artists will be leading a community workshop to bail him out.
Begun by Dundon in the 1970s, the compost pile near the Altadena intersection of North Fair Oaks Avenue and West Mountain View Street had reached forty feet tall when in 2001 the Times made comic hay of Dundon’s straggling grey beard, a tendency to lapse into rhyme and his Pasadena Doo Dah Parade alter ego, the caftan-wearing “Zeke the Sheik.” The Times coverage by Richard Winton over a series of pieces was memorably vivid, funny and good, but only Michelle Huneven, writing in the LA Weekly in 2004, succeeded in capturing both the absurdity and profundity of Altadena’s self-styled king of crap. It helped that Huneven has a novelist’s eye; it helped even more that, as a serious gardener, she’d been a customer of Dundon’s. Through passing swarms of flies, Huneven studied Dundon as he made delivery after delivery of stable manure to her Altadena property. This briefly hot mix smothered a weedy lawn that soon gave way to a fecund garden. The transformation of her yard imbued genuine respect for Dundon.
Manure deliveries were often accompanied, she noted, with “a few minutes of his compost-based philosophy, occasionally delivered in rhyme with periodic bursts of song and biblical quotation.” Punning on the TV show ‘Walker’ starring Chuck Norris, Dundon emphasized to Huneven that he was ‘Talker.’ Whereas Walker was violent, Dundon prided himself on being the opposite. “Dundon’s compost, you must understand, is ultimately more than a product,” Huneven explained. “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.”
After almost two decades of running skirmishes with the county health and fire departments, Altadena’s answer to Watts Towers, which sat on borrowed land next to Dundon’s family home, was finally bulldozed in 2005. Dundon retreated into the compost-fed overgrowth his side of the property line. In the seven years since the pile was demolished, Dundon, now 70, has become sharply stooped. Too frail to shovel compost, he still manages to operate the stable front loaders to fill his truck, and then drive the battered jalopy to long-standing garden clients. His favorite customers are schools, from which he will accept no payment. Zeke the Sheik could be roused for events like the yearly meetings of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council. To compost customers, it seemed that he had finally made peace with the county agencies he once battled – until last month, when according to the Pasadena Star-News, county sheriffs arrived, this time followed by demands that he restrain wandering pets and trim his property’s thick fringe of plants away from the curb.
This is more easily accomplished by those able to stand without a cane. On learning about Dundon’s plight, the Pasadena-based landscaping firm La Loma Development Company sent a crew of gardeners over to prune just enough of Dundon’s mixed cactus front hedge to achieve a legal setback. “We kept cuttings, both out of respect for Tim’s garden, and because he has a lot of rare plants,” said La Loma founder Marco Barrantes.
Over Labor Day weekend Barrantes’ firm will be hosting a three-day metal and glass workshop to build a gate needed at Dundon’s home to meet code, but a gate with a difference. Sculptor Ray Cirino will be leading the class and glass artist Leigh Adams will oversee the metal and glass-work component. The design (above), Cirino says, was inspired by the idea of a lens to magnify Dundon’s teachings about soil. “It will signify a looking glass into Tim’s world.”
“It must be so perfectly balanced that Tim can open it with his pinky,” he said, before adding, “You might say it’s a balancing act.”
The La Loma Development Company gate workshop to benefit Tim Dundon will run Saturday through Monday, September 1-3, 10am-5pm, 1355 Lincoln Ave, (@ Washington Blvd), Pasadena. The final day may be on site in Altadena. Admittance: $75 or work or goods in kind. For more information call (818) 834-7074.