The Gods of the Dunes: The Diverse Spiritual Practices and Beliefs of the Dunites

By Hart, Amy | Communal Societies, December 2017 | Go to article overview

The Gods of the Dunes: The Diverse Spiritual Practices and Beliefs of the Dunites


Hart, Amy, Communal Societies


Deep in the breezy and ever-changing sand dunes of Oceano, California, a unique collection of people once congregated and lived together in a semi-ascetic existence. They were a group of both men and women, artists and mystics, writers and political activists, and though they were called many names by the neighboring townspeople, they called themselves the Dunites. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the Dunites made cabins and shacks for themselves out of driftwood, disregarded windshields, and other materials largely scavenged or washed ashore. The group claimed their makeshift structures, as well as the sandy land they rested on, as their home for a period largely encompassed by the Great Depression and the Second World War. The isolation of the Oceano dunes offered a respite from the struggles and harsh realities of life in outside society, as well as a haven for artistic inspiration and alternative ideals. But another form of free expression explored by the Dunites, though often overlooked in the chronicling of their history, was the group's unique willingness to explore eclectic religious beliefs that set them counterpoised against mainstream society. Exploring the vast array of beliefs and religious practices expressed by the Dunites can offer a glimpse into a uniquely creative, exploratory, and alternative population that came together partially through economic necessity but stayed to form a truly diverse community. The Dunites' ability to create and sustain this community largely without judgment or reproof among their cohorts makes them a model of religious pluralism.

The community created in the dunes was possible largely because of the unique time and place of its creation. While the dunes had been sparsely populated by drifters and vagrants since the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Oceano in 1895, it was the Great Depression of the 1930s that sparked the formation of an intentional community of like-minded individuals. (1) After the economic downturn, many poets, writers, and artists faced immense difficulty in finding audiences for their crafts. The arts came to be seen as a frivolous venture in a time when the necessities of food and clothing were difficult enough for most families to afford. Accordingly, the writers and artists who found their way to the dunes were ecstatic to discover an inexpensive and largely unregulated haven where they could focus on the joys of their craft instead of the expenses of city life and the pleasing of an increasingly uninterested public. In this early phase of the Depression, the Oceano dunes could arguably be considered a squatter community. It was filled with individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds who shared a common need to find affordable land, though the residents would soon form into a more cohesive communal structure. (2)

Residents of the dunes could subsist largely on clams found along the Oceano coastline and small gardens cultivated near their individual habitations. The vegetation scattered along the dunes provided enough protection from the sand-shifting winds to maintain small cabins and garden plots but not enough for housing developers to market the sandy lots or even maintain property lines. These unsellable plots therefore provided a perfect place for a transient population of artists and writers to wait out the Depression. The fringe intellectuals who subsequently settled in this coastal refuge created an ideal environment for alternative beliefs and religious expression to flourish.

The location of the dunes in the larger environment of the American West holds significant meaning for historians of religion, who have long commented on the unique approach to religion in this area of the United States. The cities that emerged out of the former Western frontier in the early twentieth century were characterized by their religious diversity, widespread secularity, and lack of any dominant religious form. The effect of this unique diversity went beyond placing different beliefs together in a close area where they were required to coexist--it incited a new approach to religion altogether. …

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