Tuesday, January 1, 2013

John Wehrheim's "Taylor Camp": Book Review

"Exotic locations with beautiful women" accurately captures much but not all of the charm of this handsome study. John Wehrheim's skillful black-and-white photography from the early 70s conveys the light and warmth he enjoyed on the North Shore of Kaua'i. Here, Elizabeth Taylor's brother Howard gave land to thirteen feckless hippies who'd been the harbinger of what would change that island from a sleepy place in the sunset of the plantation era of sugarcane and pineapple into today's tourist and surfing mecca--witness pricy Princeville near the setting of the seven cleared acres known as Taylor Camp near Hanalei Bay, on the site of an old Hawaiian settlement of taro groves and graves.

Taylor gave it out of spite (the county wanted the land for a park) to the campers, who had been jailed after settling in a another island park. They were very young mainlanders, often from California, often well-off, and in March 1969, they took possession. They tried to go native: treehouses, plastic sheeting, and a beachfront property. Food stamps, a garden, and cultivation of "pakalolo" (the last endearing them to a few otherwise wary locals) sufficed. An eclectic chapel, happily naked parents and kids cavorting on the sands, many smiles--these fill the pages along with recollections of the residents, decades later. I was impressed how satisfied and healthy, given what I reckoned would be conditions of squalor and sloth, they look.

Then, as Liz visited, the puka shell craze began, and Surfer Magazine featured the shore on a cover and lavish page spread, the idyll ended. At its height, three hundred hippies and other wanderers and beach-bums flocked to a place too fragile to endure.  The state in 1977 ordered Sam Lee to burn the camp, after evictions, although all left without resistance. The people are still waiting for their park on the site of the camp, even as other areas nearby get snapped up for development of condos and second homes. Let's hope it stays in the public domain.

And, as the mini-essays appended to the photos document (there's also a DVD released separately in 2008), the sunny smiles portrayed over and over in this well-designed book did not endure for all the campers. The jungle hid its own secrets among the treehouses by the end of the road. Paradise's costs took their toll. While many of those who came to stay there for a while or forever testify movingly, the young children raised there relate the difficulty to grow up so quickly, where few outsiders attended school or were accepted, and among the counter-cultural mores and casual relationships that tended to be the Camp lifestyle.

Suzanne "Bobo" Bollin, one of many examples, typifies the profile. She left San Diego after run-ins with the police over pot. She jumped probation and fled with her girls to Kaua'i. She partied, she indulged, and she inhaled. Yet she bemoans the changes that her own arrival accelerated: "Go watch the sunset. People are getting so far away from what God wants us to do, we really need to get back to nature, and I am hoping that this book will help people do that."

Vietnam sent some there for peace--Calvin Kuamo'o tells his story, raised on the Big Island, fighting as an Asian for America, coming back from hell; "Taylor Camp gave me heaven." Spirituality, sexuality, and a lack of materialism attracted many to the allure of this unfrequented hideaway. Many stayed, one reason the population is three times that in 1969 on the island. Most of those interviewed reside somewhere throughout Hawai'i, although some--showing the changes once upon a time--had left the Camp for the Big Island as back then land was cheaper. D. Keakealani Ham Young describes  conflicts between incomers and locals, how those around the Camp tended to keep their distance.

Many islanders tell of the passing of the old ways, the loss of respect for land passed down, as newcomers rushed in. They themselves often defend the island they have adopted: they respect the customs that their own enthusiastic presence has complicated by the entry of so many from elsewhere. Now, many whose roots are in the islands cannot afford to stay where their families raised them--I think of some of my own dorm mates back in college who had left O'ahu to study in L.A. I teach a few students now, in Southern California, who have since left that "rock" for the mainland, to find work and an affordable home.

John Wehrheim himself came to the islands in 1969, and married into a local family; his wife became mayor of the County of Kaua'i. Her opponent, also interviewed, lobbied for the hotels and houses that now dominate some of the island; she had wanted more farming. You can judge the results yourself.

His portrait, fair-minded and elegiac, begins with his deft survey of the squabbles and idealism that infused the Camp. His photos arrange towards "mauka" inland moving up from "makai," as he follows the pattern of sea to mountain. He shows us the residents living there near the end of the commune, 1976 or so in the village, as if on a guided tour. Photos and quotes comprise the main section. This then introduces the essays, from those who watched, battled, supported, and became Taylor Camp. The results stand as an eloquent picture of the hippie dream before it faded into the darkening ocean at twilight. (Amazon US 10-24-12; compare photos in Wehrheim's "Bhutan" book.)

No comments: