Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Dunites ~ by Norm Hammond

Part of Beach Week on Vulpes Libris.

DunitesThe Oceano Dunes are part of the Guadalupe-Nipomo dune system which stretches for 18 miles from San Luis Obispo County to Santa Barbara County on the Californian coast.

In 1923, Cecil B de Mille filmed the silent screen version of The Ten Commandments there, and subsequently buried the massive sets in the sand so that they would never be reused in other films, but it was the 1930s and 40s that saw the dunes at Oceano inhabited by the assorted writers, artists, mystics, hermits and misfits who became known as The Dunites.

I had never heard of them until I talked recently to Renate Benedict about her years in Santa Barbara for our Bohemian Week, and what I heard intrigued me.   So – I sought out the book she mentioned in her interview  . . .

The Dunites is one of those wonderful books that mainstream publishers aren’t  interested in but which are the lifeblood of small local publishers … in this case South County Historical Society of Arroyo Grande.

There’s a feature piece to be written about the local history gems published by small local publishers, and one day I’ll write it – but for the moment, I’ll concentrate on this particular gem – a book written without artifice or writerly embellishment but with occasion flashes of lyricism.

Norm Hammond (who we’ll be talking to on Thursday) is a retired fire fighter for the City of San Luis Obispo who has lived in the area for over 35 years.  I take some comfort from the fact that he hadn’t heard of the Dunites either until he encountered one of the last of them – Bert Schievink – in his shack in the dunes in 1974.

Curiosity piqued, he set about finding out as much as he could about them while some of the original inhabitants were still alive – and this book is the result.

It requires a spectacular degree of short-sightedness to try and build on shifting sands, but that’s exactly what was attempted on the dunes at the turn of the last century.  It was to be ‘the future Atlantic City of the Pacific’ with a boardwalk, a hotel and a pavilion . . . but the sand inevitably won and by the outbreak of the First World War, the foolishly grandiose buildings were just so much lumber . . . to be scavenged by the dune-dwellers to build their cabins.

The dunes had long been the home of a drifting population of vagrants and eccentrics, but it was in the 1920s that the people who became known as The Dunites began to arrive – an impressive collection of  misfits, don’t-fits and won’t-fits.

Edward C St Claire – a Spanish-American war veteran turned poet was one of the first.  Slightly later, came George Blais – an evangelist and a naturist, who always dressed to go into town – in a loincloth and bandana;  Gavin Arthur – grandson of  former US president Chester Alan Arthur – who ‘had it all’ by the standards of the day, but opted for out, as did his friend Ella Young and the artist Elwood Decker.

Norm Hammond introduces them, and many others, to us – telling their stories, explaining their eccentricities and beliefs (some of them, it has to be said, more than a little bizarre …) and examining the community they created.   They even briefly produced their own magazine – Dune Forum.  It was heavily intellectual in style and expensive for the time – 35¢ was a lot of money in the middle of the Great Depression –  and only ran to five issues before foundering through lack of popular support.

Of all the people who inhabited the dunes the stand-out character is Elwood Decker.  He was a genuinely talented artist and still alive at the time Norm Hammond was researching the book – so it’s probably inevitable that he should come to life so vividly.  Decker’s artwork is used throughout the book – and on the front cover – to great effect, catching the other-worldiness of the dunes as effectively – if not more effectively – than photographs.  After spending many years in the dunes as a recluse his head was turned by – of all things – a Hollywood beautician.  I knew there was a reason I liked the man . . .

The Dunites is a rather melancholy book in many ways … examining, as it does, a world that effectively began to vanish in the decade after the Second World War.  The ‘leisure industry’ has overwhelmed the dunes, which are now  a war zone, with the environmental lobby on the one side and the recreational vehicle-owners on the other.  A section of the dunes has been protected as a wildlife reserve – but even there the noise of the two-strokes permeates. On big weekends, the beach ‘becomes a small city with all its attendant problems of law enforcement, traffic congestion, noise, air pollution and sanitation”.  The silence has gone for ever – but the spirit of the Dunites lives on …

Gavin Arthur once wrote that the dunes were symbolic of a state of mind, that there were many Dunites living in the towns and cities of the world.  These Dunites of today still search for truth and freedom.  They believe in magic.  They dream of creating a utopian world for themselves and for all mankind.  They carry the wild spirit of the dunes with them, forever in their hearts.

South County Historical Society.  1992.  120pp. (The book is still available second hand via Amazon, AbeBooks and the like.)

On Thursday, Vulpes Libris will be talking to author Norm Hammond about The Dunites … and his work in progress.  And on Saturday, we are being joined once again by Renate Benedict, who lived briefly in the Dunes in the 1950s.

6 comments on “The Dunites ~ by Norm Hammond

  1. Anne Brooke
    July 14, 2009

    Sounds amazing – like a lost world indeed. We don’t treasure such places enough.


  2. Hilary
    July 14, 2009

    What a find! The book, I mean, as well as the place. Fascinating always to read about Utopia, wherever it is located.

    The gorgeous cover gives an intriguing taste of the artwork inside.

    I look forward to your ‘small local press’ piece, Moira!

  3. RosyB
    July 14, 2009

    I’m feeling all romantic and like throwing it all in and living on a beach now. Sigh. I daresay it was a bit more romantic in hindsight. I bet they all quarrelled as much as “ordinary” people do. Lovely piece, M. I’m now feeling nostalgic for something I have had absolutely no experience of whatsoever.

  4. Lisa
    July 16, 2009

    I know what you mean, Rosy. I have a strong urge to go and live in some dunes now! I love that people just threw caution to the wind and tried to create this utopian community on shifting sands…

    Lovely review, Moira.

  5. Pingback: Oceano Dunites – BusLoadaHippies

  6. Pingback: Native Plant Garden for Gavin’s Cabin

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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