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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