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.
As part of Vulpes’ Beach Week, Moira talks to Norm Hammond – whose book The Dunites she reviewed on Tuesday.
VL: Welcome to Vulpes Libris, Norm … and thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions. Now, I have to hold up my hand and admit that until I was interviewing Renate Benedict back in the spring I’d never even heard of the Dunites … and neither, I gather had you until you came across one of the very last ones – Bert Schievink, wasn’t it? Tell us about that …
NH: In 1974 I was hiking in the dunes and noticed a pillar of smoke coming out of one of the willow thickets. I thought that was a bit odd, so I tried to find my way into the thicket but couldn’t. I finally found a small trail going in, and when I went into the thicket I saw several buildings and a garden. There was a man washing clothes in a washtub over a wood fire. I wanted to talk to him but could tell he didn’t want to be bothered, so I left.
A short time after that I read in the paper where Bert had died, and that he was the last of the Dunites still living in the dunes. I didn’t know until then that there really were any Dunites.
I had read the fictional account of the Dunites in Face of the Clam by Luther Whiteman, and he had a disclaimer in the front of the book stating that there never were any Dunites, etc. Finding out there really were people living in the dunes got me interested in finding out more.
VL: Twenty years elapsed between that meeting and your book being published. When did the idea of writing a book about the Dunites first come to you?
NH: In 1974, when the article in the paper about Bert Schievink first came out.
VL: You were a professional firefighter before you retired – had you written anything before? Was it something you always wanted to do, or were you just motivated by a wish to record the history of the Dunites while there were still people around who remembered them?
NH: I had written several biographical style novels, a collection of vignettes of true life experiences while in the Navy, and later working on the railroad for 8-1/2 years. These books didn’t fit any publisher’s needs at that time, but were valuable to me in learning how to get things down on paper. Once I became interested in the Dunites it became an obsession with me. I had to know more, and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. And the more I learned and knew, the more I wanted to share.
VL: How long did it actually take to collect up all the information? And how long to write the book? And did the writing part come easily?
NH: Writing the book took the better part of ten years, though most of that time was taken up with doing research and gathering information. The writing was fun and came easy because I was so interested in the subject matter. The book was completed for almost ten years before I could find a publisher.
VL: The book’s absolutely crammed with 24 carat characters – some a lot more even keeled than others – the star turn has to be Elwood Decker – whom you actually met, very shortly before he died, I believe. He was a multi-talented man – but I’d never heard of him before I read the book. Is he better known in the US than in the UK – or is he similarly forgotten there?
NH: Elwood was well known around here, and when he died after being struck by a train while walking along the railroad tracks (at age 88) it was in all the papers. He had no known family, so the State contacted me as being the nearest person to him. I learned a lot more about him after the State requested I go through his effects.
There is a lot of information on Elwood through a website that was put up after we had an exhibit of his art in Halcyon a couple of years ago. He’s at www.elwooddecker.com
VL: You used many of his distinctive artworks to illustrate the book. Very simple, but extremely effective – they capture the spirit of the Oceano dunes beautifully. What medium was he working in? It looks as if might have been ink – or are they lithoprints? (I ask this because one of the Book Foxes is an artist and I know she likes to know this sort of thing!)
NH: The sketches were actually dune studies that Elwood used for his paintings. They’re just pen and ink. Simple haiku type drawings that I really like. As far as I know, all those line drawings wound up as oil paintings.
VL: I had to smile when I read about the circumstances under which Elwood finally left the dunes … after all those years of asceticism, higher-truth-seeking and communing with nature … his head was turned by a flame-haired Hollywood beautician. But it was, I believe, a lasting and happy marriage?
NH: I knew them well and they had a very long and happy marriage. They were together until she died. As Elwood requested, their ashes were mixed together after he died. Then half of them were scattered in the ocean where you turn in from the beach to go to the “cove” in the dunes where they lived. The other half of the ashes are scattered in the cove in the dunes.
VL: I’ve been trying to think of a tactful way of putting this next question … and failing dismally. So – I’ll just go for it. I came away from the book with a feeling that many of the Dunites – charmingly eccentric as they were – were actually people who couldn’t cope with the real world. Some were actually damaged by life and others just plain didn’t want to. Would that be fair comment?
NH: Some of them had difficulty in coping with the “real” world, and like you said, some just preferred being free. Part of the Dunite time period was during the Great Depression, and those really were tough times. The dunes were an easy way out for non-competitive types who had difficulty in dealing with an eight-to-five job, payments, and a two week vacation to begin with.
The other thing was, back in those days there were no Social Security pensions. When people got too old to work they had to be taken care of by their families. If they had no families then they just lived on the street. Those fortunate enough to find their way into the dunes were very fortunate indeed.
There were also some intelligent people in the dunes who were successful. There were a lot of writers; I have a list of over 25 books written by, or about, the Dunites. There were also a number of religious mystics who went on to become successful spiritual leaders in America (as you can see in the footnotes of my book).
VL: The one thing that comes across very strongly in the book is what an extraordinary and magical place the Oceano dunes are – or at least were. They’ve changed a great deal since the 30s and 40s – the modern world has caught up with them?
NH: The old saying goes, “Call it ‘Paradise’ and you can kiss it goodbye.” That certainly applies here. Wherever there is a warm and beautiful place by the sea it soon will be high-rise and condos. And high rent. All that is starting to happen here, but it’s still a very nice place to live.
The dunes where the Dunites lived is now a four-wheel drive recreation area. It’s noisy and the visual impact of all the tire tracks precludes taking any decent photos in what was once the territory of the Dunites.
Still, there are some areas that are off-limits to vehicles and some solitude can still be found. Forever, I hope…
VL: You’re working on another book, I understand. Also about the dunes? Can you tell us a bit about that?
NH: I have an unpublished book about Elwood that’s being considered for publication.
VL: And finally … it’s a Vulpes tradition to ask our guests to name their five favourite books (or plays, or poems …) either fiction or non-fiction … and give reasons:
NH: Tough one. Steinbeck is my favourite fiction writer, though I seldom read fiction anymore. Favorite short story is Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck. That story is so well done. It encapsulates the hopes and dreams of so many people. And the hard-core “reality check” at the end is a valuable lesson for all of us. Hold your dreams and go forward, but be looking four ways for the pitfalls.
For non-fiction I like all of Jack Kerouac’s books. I like his ultra-honest introspection and confessions of weaknesses, faults, and imperfects. I like his crystal clear visions. Great dialogue and speed-shifting of the mind, etc. I like his spontaneous bop prose style of writing.
For poems I like the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, and I’m also partial to some of Hugo Seelig’s poems in Wheel of Fire.
VL: Thank you very much indeed. It’s been great talking to you – and good luck with your new book!
NH: Good luck to you too. And thanks for having me on your Vulpes site…
Norm Hammond first visited South San Luis Obispo County in 1960, and has lived in the area more than thirty-five years. He’s been fascinated with the dunes of Oceano and the community of Oceano since first discovering it, and has been exploring it in depth ever since.
In 1992 The South County Historical Society published his first book about a group of people living in the sand dunes just south of Oceano, “The Dunites.” It is his hope that his latest book on Oceano, “Oceano, Atlantic City of the West” will become a companion volume for those who desire to know more about this area.
He was in the submarine service while in the U.S. Navy, and later worked as a locomotive fireman and engineer for the Burlington Railroad in central Wyoming. He is am now a retired professional firefighter for the City of San Luis Obispo, as well as the Oceano Fire Department where he concurrently served as a volunteer for twenty-two years. He lives in Oceano with his wife, Cindy, within sight of the Oceano dunes and within hearing distance of the great Pacific Ocean.
Norm provided both photographs . . . the stunning one of Comet Hale-Bopp came with the following explanation: “This is a photo I took of comet Hale-Bopp in the Oceano Dune Preserve back in April, 1997. The five day moon is out of view on the left and that’s what’s illuminating the big dune. Near the left margin you can see the Pleiades (seven sisters). I did the foreground with a quick sweep of my flashlight at ground level to catch the dune ripples. This was back in the days of film (for me at least). It’s a 1 minute time exposure on fast film. No computer enhancement whatsoever.”
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