Garden of the Peaceful Dragon is an intimate and transformative portrait of an elderly African-American veteran who occupies an abandoned piece of government property by the beach on Kauai, Hawaii. We witness his fascinating off-the-grid existence while learning his extraordinary life-story. Unforgettably charming, Burley Luvell Benford III, upends our presumptions and challenges our worldview while earning his place in our hearts.
Luvell Benford III was born in Pasadena, CA in 1940. After being discharged from the Marines, he became one of the first employees of IBM and neighbor to Timothy Leary. A single acid trip changed his life over-night. Ditching his “suit”, he moved to San Francisco where he fell in with the Beat Poets and witnessed the birth of The Grateful Dead. Legendary music promoter, Bill Graham, hired him to be a bodyguard for his artists and he spent the better part of a decade jet-setting and hobnobbing with stars. Soon looking for another dramatic change of lifestyle, he repaired a schooner and sailed it all the way to Hawaii. Three divorces and four children later, we find Luvell homeless, living out of his pick-up truck on the beach. A man who’s incredible life story may have been lost to time is rediscovered in this final chapter of his life.
On an abandoned piece of government property on the outskirts of Kauai, the least developed Hawaiian island, an elderly man sits in his truck crocheting. “This is a secret documentary,” he announces with a deep soulful voice. Burley “Luvell” Benford III is not your ordinary 70-year-old. Tiny idols, strange artifacts and burning incense line his dashboard. There’s a pile of colorful clothes and stuffed animals in the passenger seat. Packaged foods are organized on the floorboard. His truck is his home and this occupied lot is his garden.
Every morning, rain or shine, he’s on the beach doing Tai Chi. Sometimes strangers join him, silently mimicking his masterful moves. In the afternoon, Luvell lends a hand at the Noodle Shop across the road. He helps process coconuts in exchange for their husks, which he uses in his garden. He’s building long, winding earthen planters and stacks the shells around their perimeter. He’s already planted collards, pineapples and radishes. At night, Luvell sleeps behind the steering wheel of his truck. Poised to pull away at any moment.
The neighbors don’t seem to notice much at first, just that the area has been cleaned of weeds, hypodermic needles, and half-buried lingerie. But his charm gets the best of him and soon he’s making friends. He’s a natural narrator and speaks in pithy sound bites, as if he’s rehearsed his life story. He keeps a plastic bag full of old photos and later reveals a rented storage shed in town packed with memorabilia.
Born in Pasadena, CA in 1940, Luvell was the first African-American student-body President of his hometown high school. After graduation he joined the Marines to “see the world”. He spent several years stationed in Asia where he took up Martial Arts and Buddhism. After his discharge, he found engineer work at IBM’s inaugural base and became acquainted with a local researcher, Timothy Leary. A single acid trip changed his fate over-night. Rebelling against his life as a “suit”, he moved to San Francisco and fell in with the burgeoning counterculture movement, befriending Jack Kerouac and witnessing the birth of The Grateful Dead. Legendary music promoter, Bill Graham, hired him to be a bodyguard for his artists and he spent the better part of a decade jet-setting and hobnobbing with stars. Finally looking for a change of pace and lifestyle, he repaired a schooner and sailed it all the way to Hawaii. He set up a martial arts studio on the beach and took students on a “pay as you wish” basis. Three divorces and four children later, Luvell is in the final chapter of his life. Age has slowed him, but he is anything but idle.
A year later and his garden is in full bloom. Admirers come and go regularly, Luvell is even keeping “visitors’ hours”. He’s integrated himself into the community, doing work for trade. Locals know him as “Shanawho”, The Peaceful Dragon, and often bring him treats. An existence that once seemed risky and alternative turns viable. Luvell relaxes his guard. Then one night a Marine on leave suffering PTSD hears Luvell say “As-Salaam-Alaikum” at the pub, follows him back to his truck, and breaks his jaw.
It’s 2012 Luvell has healed but something has shifted. Luvell starts composting with garbage. Teeming pigeons and feral chickens follow him everywhere. Neighbors are complaining. He’s on the defense, protective. He’s stopped piling coconut husks and started a “bottle wall” of beer empties instead. It’s 3pm and his afternoon nap is interrupted by eleven police officers who serve him notice to vacate immediately. For the first time in months, Luvell cranks his truck. “The white people with their big fucking mortgages don’t want me living here!” He shouts, “I’m the only person whose ever cleaned this place up!” and pulls away.
Luvell leaves Kapa’a like he came, with a rumble of his engine. It’s here he had met filmmaker, Daniel Peddle. While on vacation from NYC, Daniel was filming sunrise with his iPhone and introduced himself. “You should make a documentary about me,” Luvell quipped. It was a peculiar suggestion coming from a stranger who knew nothing of Daniel’s occupation. “I don’t have my gear”, Daniel explained. “Use that.” Luvell pointed to the iPhone.
Three years later and Daniel is searching for his subject and friend. Kauai is a small island. If it were not for the Nā Pali Coast, an impassable stretch of rugged cliffs in the North, you could drive around it in less than four hours. But it is also incredibly diverse. Unmarked roads weave between both the wettest spot on earth and one of the driest. The end of the road is Kekaha, known as “the place”. Hawaiians believe this is where all the souls in the world pass through to the other side. We find Luvell here by the road, sitting under a huge monkeypod tree. It has only been six months but he looks much older, dazed, gloomy. Windchimes dong as he sits quietly staring out at the sea.
At 5AM Luvell is hoeing a street curb around the corner from the monkeypod tree. It’s 2014 and he’s still in Kekaha but has relocated under the shade of an abandoned shed. Dawn is met with cooing doves and peeping chicks. He’s finished now and rolls a cigar. Smoke curls in the morning mist and Luvell drifts back through his life, a curiously American story defying stereotypes and convention. He’s seen so much — the end of WWII, segregation, and the industrial age. He’s witnessed the birth of hippies, computers, and the dawn of the digital revolution. He’s been a student, a soldier, a suit, a beatnik, a master martial artist . . . and homeless. “I don’t know how this works”, he ponders, “What’s next?”
On October 10th, 2014, a day after Daniel had arrived to do some more filming, Luvell was found dead in his new garden holding a trowel. He was digging a hole.
There is a brief mention of Luvell in the book The Long Strange Trip an inside history of the Grateful Dead. He’s described as ”a striking black man with a most enlightened air about him”. His life might have been relegated to this footnote. Now Garden of the Peaceful Dragon, this secret documentary, will share so much more about his extraordinary life.