The Dunes of Oceano – Bohemian Shangri-La

It is also significant that Fairy Tales are True features one of the rare accounts of life in the Dunes of Oceano, where Shamcher lived on and off during the late 1930’s.

Here mystics, free-thinkers, poets, painters and photographers mingled freely with drifters and others on the fringes of society, in a place so pure and beautiful it was photographed over and over again by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and many others.

Those iconic American images were not inspired simply by sand dunes alone, but by the remarkable community there, many of whose members were very engaged in silent reach and fairy tales. The loosely connected group called the “dunites” was expanded and stimulated by the astrologer Gavin Arthur (grandson of US President Chester Arthur). Here the Irish mystical folklorist and friend of the Faeries, Ella Young, named Gavin’s cabin Moy Mell (after the poets’ Pasture of Honey in the Gaelic afterlife).

From that center, and many dinner parties later, was birthed the Dune Journal, a short-lived radical magazine discussing art, nature, economics, astrology, nudism, architecture, and mysticism. All this and more were created in this atmosphere of Bohemia and Shangri-la in the Dunes of California.

Much of Shamcher’s description of the Dunes is true, with only a few names changed and situations condensed. “Irma” was actually the dunite Dixie Paul. “Dreamwood” also really existed: he was the artist and dunite Elwood Decker. “Hugo” is the poet and early dunite, Hugo Seelig. Moon Mullins, and many more are mentioned here by name.

Bringing with him the legacy of Whitman and Carpenter, Gavin Arthur openly embraced life in loving compassion, nurturing an independent, inspiring and stimulating environment for all who wished to participate. Later, in San Francisco, he helped nurture counterculture through the decades of both the beat and hippie movements.

During the Great Depression, economic theories were hotly debated in the dunes, forging a new way of thinking. Not confined to only socialism and communism, active discussion of new concepts ranged through Social Credit, barter and Shamcher’s giro-credit, and other economic innovations. In the early-mid 1930’s Shamcher’s well-received economic book, Distribute or Destroy, had been published, first in Norway and then in the US. It was quoted in a book by sometime dunites Luther Whiteman and Samuel L. Lewis, Glory Roads: The Psychological State of California. Contact with Whiteman brought the Dunes into Shamcher’s awareness and he soon showed up there and settled in.

Whiteman’s satirical book, The Face of the Clam, was a simplistic look at the phenomenon of dune living that didn’t positively reflect the Dune community. In Fairy Tales are True, Shamcher corrects the balance, diffusing reactions to this book and how the community felt about it.

In the late 1920’s and 30s the coast of California was dotted with spiritual communities, temples and metaphysical groups, each dedicated to alternative lifestyles and usually devoted to the founder. Devotees worked, dowagers donated, and a network of nodes for the coming “Age of Aquarius” was begun. But none was more radical and free than the Oceano Dunes, which required nothing at all from anyone who wished to join in the dunite way of life.

The dunes were a place of total independence and self sufficiency. Some dunites were social, others were hermits, never seen for weeks or months, either meditating or hiding from the law. It was the perfect place to disappear from the world. This utopian community of radical individuals was a decentralized independent association of hermits and hermeticists, of yogis and boogeymen.

The dunes hosted gaelic rituals, nudism, visiting dignitaries, artists, writers, meditators, curiosity seekers. At sunrise, some dunites stood at the edge of the sea chanting “Lemuria, Lemuria,” willing the mythic island continent to rise again. It might seem to be a fabrication that narrow-minded spiritual seekers in the dunes received inner mis-guidance to burn away evil by burning down someone’s cabin, but in fact this is a part of dune history. In reality, it was burnt to the ground and then rebuilt, better than before.

Nearby Halcyon had been a Theosophical community, while, closer to the dunes, the little town of Oceano later boasted Gavin Arthur’s Hill House, where he lived when not at Moy Mell in the dunes. Here many parties with the intellectual and artistic elite of the day left dunites wandering home under the stars, a little (or a lot) tipsy and drunk with ideas. In fog or when no moon reflected from the clamshells placed on roofs and the old pavilion pylons, a dunite could easily be lost in the dark of night with only the sounds of the sea or the frogs to follow.

The extensive section Tale of the Sanyassin and the Dunes is a further expansion of Beorse’s technique – taking his own life experience, adding a bit of history and a layer of myth to deepen the scope. Naming Ménétrier “Miel” gives him a home in Moy Mell, the Pasture of Honey in the dunes, which itself is a name for the poet’s heaven “where the spirits dwell.”

Does the tale take over from the facts? It is up to each of us to see, like blind Rabindranath, not with the eyes but with intuition.

“What do you think of the New Age?” someone once asked Shamcher.

“It might be new to you,” he quipped in reply.

(by Carol Sill,  from the Introduction to Fairy Tales are True.)

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