TOPANGA MESSENGER -- November 28, 2002

"'Idlers,' a Portrait of Lower Topanga"

By Dan Mazur
Photo by Katie Dalsemer

Arguments for Lower Topanga's status as the last outpost of a vanishing hippie-bohemian-surfer lifestyle seem to have fallen on deaf ears at State Parks and other government agencies. Now a group of Lower Topangans have gotten together to put the evidence down in black and white.

Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry From Lower Topanga Canyon was published in October by Pablo Capra's Brass Tacks Press. The 62-page booklet includes the work of Capra and eight other writers from the area, as well as illustrations by Lower Topanga artist James Mathers who provides portraits of each contributor.

Capra, who has lived for 22 of his 23 years in the Rodeo Grounds in Lower Topanga, has been in the thick of the battle to save the unique community in which he grew up. For some time he and fellow poets David Hayward and Catherine Holliss have been sharing their work with each other. Finding the experience of facing mass eviction was becoming a theme in their writing, Capra decided to put together the book, and was happy to find six others who had work to contribute as well. The title was inspired by Li Po, an eighth century Chinese poet who formed a group of six poets called the "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove."

"The poems reflect what people are experiencing and feeling," says Capra. "It's an artists' community, so it reflects how people are making art out of this experience. They have a lot of strong things to say that they don't get considered by the state."

Besides Capra, Hayward and Holliss, there are poems by Robert Campbell, Michele Capra, Bond Johnson, Frank Lamonea and Daisy Duck McCracken. A short introduction by Pablo describes the history and predicament of Lower Topanga.

Love of nature and loss of home are the major themes running through all the poems, including Capra's own "Rodeo Grounds Poem." Now ecstatic, now despairing, Capra's paean to his boyhood home is full of youthful nostalgia and creative longings and features an apparently comprehensive list of all the Lower Topanga residents, with a brief characterization of each.

David Hayward expresses the anger of the residents facing loss of community at the hands of environmentalists in the opening lines of "A Rout of Squatters."

The Eco-Fascist will always oust
a verse dreamer, a phrase blower
the dreamer caught gazing thru
a sun-faded mandala
stuck on an eighty year old
windowpane forty years ago...

The grievance process for the Lower Topangans fighting relocation is underway. Capra says he doesn't see the book as a weapon in the battle, but as a tribute to the community that is at stake.

"I don't have a lot of expectation for what it can change," he says, "but I think it stands as a legacy for what this place is, and, if it goes down, what this place was. I think it's really worth remembering."

As Catherine Holliss writes wistfully in "Maybe When,"

...and when
State Parks flattens the home
the hikers will pause at the foundation
and maybe wonder who lived here
and what were their names and
dreams and deepest secrets
where are they now do they
still have a community...

Idlers of the Bamboo Grove is available for $5 at the Howell-Green Gallery, as well as at Dutton's Books in Brentwood and Vidiots in Santa Monica. There will be a reading of works in the book at the Rose Alley Theater, 318 Lincoln Boulevard in Venice at 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 1. Admission $5.

THE MALIBU TIMES -- November 28, 2002

"Idlers of the Bamboo Grove"

Article and Photos by Cathy Neiman

The crusade of Lower Topanga

The crusade of Lower Topanga is a sad one. It is the underdog against the big developers, a losing battle, "a one-hand clapper," a very emotional state of affairs. In 2001, California State Parks bought Lower Topanga from the Los Angeles Athletic Club. State Parks wants to make Lower Topanga a national park. This means it will bulldoze the land, tear down homes and uproot all nonindigenous plants, at the same time uprooting longtime residents, a unique community of artists, writers, intellectuals and families. Only a fraction (about 3 percent) of the purchased land is occupied by the Lower Topanga community, yet State Parks still wants them to go. Originally, the residents of Lower Topanga were supposed to vacate their homes by July 2002. Most of them did leave. Then final evictions were pushed to September. Now it looks like it might be a few months more, depending on the court decision. But it looks very grim and the 50 or so people who are left in this community are very distraught. Yet some are staying put.

The Capra family is especially upset. They plan to stay in their homes until the bitter end, to not fight lying down. Pablo Capra, the eldest son of the Capra family, a published poet and an American Literature graduate of UCLA, has lived in Lower Topanga since he was one year old. He has spent a lot of time writing and sharing his poems with his neighbor/friends and poets, Catherine Hollis and Dave Hayward. Capra decided to put together a poetry book with the collaboration of his neighbors and friends about the heartaches of having to leave home. The book is called "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove." The title is a reference to a Chinese poet named Li Po who was part of a literary movement in China 700 A.D. Po wrote with a group of poets called the "Six Idlers of the Bamboo Grove." Capra felt the connection between the artistic community of Lower Topanga and the wild bamboo that grows in the area.

"One of my earliest memories of growing up here is running through tunnels of arundo," Capra said. "Arundo is the real name for bamboo and it is being uprooted just like we are."

Capra's co-collaborators are an eclectic group of people. Michele Capra is his 12-year-old published sister. Then there is Robert Campbell, a prolific poet who is losing his eyesight, a longtime friend and part-time housemate of the Capra's. He writes most of his poems in the Capra's backyard. There is James Mathers, the court jester of the group. He is a painter and screenwriter. Mathers drew all the illustrations for "Idlers." Daisy McCrackin, Mather's housemate, and the most recent resident of the "grove," is an actress, songwriter, painter and also a very imaginative writer. Dave Hayward, who has lived in Lower Topanga since 1960, is a musician and an astrologer. Catherine Holliss is a retired dancer, screenwriter and a graphic designer. Frank Lamonea is a musician and a photographer. He decided to take State Park's offer of relocation funds and moved to Latigo Canyon from Lower Topanga. However, he contributed to the poetry book. Bond Johnson, a professor of French at Pepperdine University, is a linguist, a writer, and has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. He recently published a book of literary theory called "The Mode of Parody." While Johnson never lived in Lower Topanga, his horse is housed at Holliss' property.

Lower Topanga, aka the Rodeo Grounds, or the Snakepit, has had the reputation for its people being of a nefarious sort. But after meeting with these people and hearing about their lives and accomplishments, that reputation is the furthest from the truth.

Will Willoughby and Jamie McMurray, creative directors of the Rose Alley Theater, met Capra during a play performed there, "Tennessee Williams One Acts." After the play, Capra started talking to Willoughby and McMurray and gave them the recently completed poetry book, "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove."

"I was blown away by Pablo's book," Willoughby said. "I looked at it and thought, how cool! This guy has a book!"

It turns out that Willoughby and McMurray are also Malibu residents and have been interested in the plight of Lower Topanga.

"We wanted to help," Willoughby said. "It is so sad what is going on there, so many people are being displaced and their lives are being uprooted. It is a terrible loss to the community and the businesses as well. [They] will be disappearing too."

The poets and the creative directors decided on a multimedia/poetry reading, where the writers could read their works and reach even more people. Willoughby titled the poetry reading as "Lost Lives: The Poetry of Lower Topanga."

There will also be a performance painter, Norton Wisdom, who will be painting while the poets read their work. Wisdom is a former Lower Topanga resident.

"It's going to be quite an event!" Willoughby excitedly said. "There are so many talented people involved here."

Being at the Rodeo Grounds is like being a part of a past era. A time when life was less complicated, less consumer-based, less taken over by technology and television. A time when "people got their daises and sunshine for free," Mathers said. A time when people had conversations as entertainment.

"A lot has come out of this place," Mathers stated, with a Cheshire cat smile. "This milieu, this community. We want to be able to give a voice, a document, a legacy of all that we have experienced here. This is the last piece of what Topanga used to be like in the 1960s and 1970s. We have all encouraged and helped each other throughout the years. We watched babies grow up and people get together, and get divorced. A landscape constructed from relationships and personal experiences. That is what constitutes a community. Without that, it is just dirt with buildings on it."

"Lost Lives" will perform at The Rose Alley Theater on Sunday, Dec.1, at 4 p.m. Ticket information can be obtained by calling 323.650.3013. A copy of "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove" can be purchased at Dutton's Bookstore in Brentwood, Vidiots in Santa Monica and the Howell Green Fine Art Gallery in Topanga.

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