For inhabitants of Poole's Land, even taking a shit is an act of rebellion.
The sprawling 17-acre property, located in a rainforest in the oceanside BC community of Tofino, hasn't been connected to the area's septic system since it opened in 1988. Instead, the residents, of which there are roughly 100 right now, use composting toilets.
That means they relieve themselves in toilets filled with cedar, which Poole's Land manager Michael Goodliffe, 47, claims disinfects everything. When I ask what they do after the toilets on site fill up, he says, "shovel." "Doesn't that gross you out?," I persist, to which he replies "what grosses me out is putting raw untreated sewage into (the ocean)"—a shot at the rest of the townsfolk. He goes on to tell an anecdote about how one of the campers added a bit of ceremony to the cleaning of the toilets, wearing a suit complete with a tie and top hat as he performed the grim task.
Suffice to say, the people of Poole's Land buck convention. In fact it feels as if they've tossed convention, capitalist ideals, and to a certain degree, hygiene, into one of their massive nightly bonfires, and they haven't looked back.
By now you'll be wondering: what exactly is Poole's Land?
I first heard about it when I came across a story headlined "This commune in BC lets you live for free and pays you in drugs." The piece depicts Poole's Land as an eco-village where people can live in exchange for performing onsite labour, or get paid in magic mushrooms.
I spent a day there last week trying to find out if that was truly the case, and in short, the answer depends on who you ask. Everyone I meet says residents no longer get paid in shrooms, which apparently disappoints a lot of newcomers who read the same article I did. At $10 a night, Poole's Land is a cheap place for travellers stopping through Tofino on a surf trip and for young people working a summer season in town. But there are others who've been living there for years and who truly view it as their home and the residents as family. It also tends to draw people who are outcasts, poor, or mentally ill.
Folks like Goodliffe, who has lived at Poole's on and off for decades, resent the characterization of their secret slice of paradise as a "drug commune," though there's no doubt drugs are a part of the culture. Almost everyone is rolling a spliff or hitting the bong. While I'm there, I take a tour through a small ganja garden and witness people do mushrooms and trip out on LSD and MDMA. One French woman tells me she's about to try fire tossing—which seems risky at the best of times—and then casually mentions that she's just dropped acid. The vibes are reminiscent of a party hostel that just so happens to be situated in the woods. But there's more to it than that; it feels like people are here to free themselves of the monotony of living-to-work, settling down, having a full-time job, buying property. As one of the residents, a 24-year-old former sous chef named Cheyanne, puts it: "it's not crazy hippies on drugs, it's a bunch of fucked up people helping each other." They want to indulge, she adds, "not in drugs, but in life."
Purchased in 1988 by Michael Poole, a bonafide hallucinogenic-loving hippie, for the absurdly low sum of $50,000, the thickly-forested land itself is stunning. There are cedars, old-growth firs, ponds, as well as bears and cougars, I'm told, with dirt paths and boardwalks weaving in between. Wandering around, trying not to trip over roots or loose wood planks, I see a mishmash of makeshift shelters, including tents, trailers, tiny wood shacks, treehouses, and converted vans. The residents also share a kitchen, using veggies from their own garden to cook nightly meals. The kitchen is pretty much the only spot that has a decent cellphone signal.
Despite the beautiful surroundings, I can't help but notice the campgrounds aren't exactly pristine. There's a fair amount of trash and recyclables and cigarette butts lying around and everyone smells… rather natural. I come across a towel hanging on a clothesline that's covered in brown stains. I'm told there's one hot shower that not that many people use.
"I haven't showered in two years, I just use the ocean," says Hubert, a chiseled 23-year-old surfer with white blonde dreads. Hubert moved to Poole's seven months ago but has been living out of a van for three years. He sleeps in a little wood cabin with his black lab and is currently in the process of making surfboards for sale, so Poole's is helping him set up a workshop.
Without batting an eye, Hubert, Goodliffe, and a couple other men point to the brown pond beside us and tell me they drink from it and bathe in it. (The colour is due to the dead cedars on the bottom.)
"Apart from the look and the layer of slime, it's right as rain," says Josh Pawton, 23, a New Zealander who is relatively new to Poole's, while someone else chimes in, "we haven't had diarrhea yet."
Matt, a brunette 20-something with an addictively cheerful personality, describes Poole's as "anarchy" which he seems to think might be it's best and worst quality.
"It's a fine line between everything is allowed and (having) some sense of direction."
He says it's a judgment-free zone and then, as if to prove his point, he recalls encounters with a woman who thinks she can control the weather with her mind; a person who believes they have intergalactic space clearance; and a man who claimed to be working for Anonymous and left Matt his passport and a bunch of expensive camera equipment.
But as much as it sounds like a hippy fantasy, Poole's has a less-than-flattering reputation in town.
"A lot of times if you tell a prospective employer you live in Poole's Land, you're done. Cause of hygiene, if you're a server and they know you live in a tent in a forest…," says a 25-year-old named Adam. Several people repeat an apparently well-known mantra that goes something like, "if your bike goes missing, you'll find it at Poole's Land."
As for the drugs, Goodliffe, who grew up on an off-the-grid commune in Manitoba, repeatedly tells me Poole's is not a stomping grounds for dealers. When I ask why he's so fixated on changing that reputation, he says, "It undermines the integrity of the place. The mandate of the place is to keep people safe, not to sell drugs." (There are naloxone kits onsite.)
Goodliffe says he's kicked people out for bringing coke onto the premises and even for giving hallucinogens to people with mental illness, which he feels is dangerous.
"I grew up with a father who did LSD all his life. I've seen the long-term effects. It causes mental illness."
He thinks Poole's a natural choice for people with mental illness because they're accepted and they can afford it.
"They have no money and they're looking for community," he says, noting one of the residents suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.
I ask Goodliffe if it's strange for him to live amongst a bunch of 20-somethings, but he seems to think he'd be more out of place in a traditional setting.
"People my age all wanna have a struck and live in a house and work a 9-5 job. They're not really my people," he says. "When you have people isolated in cities and towns in little boxes, they feel isolated."
Of course, not everyone is at Poole's Land for the long haul. Thomas Jackson, a baby-faced 23-year-old from London, Ontario, has only been here three weeks and he's already planning an exit. (He admits the toilets are too rough for his taste.)
Naturally, Jackson says the thing really makes Poole's Land special is the fact that he can't get proper cell service. "It puts you back 10 years. People talk to each other," he says.
As he leads me through the forest to a treehouse called "the Pyramid" he pauses and says, "the thing with the off the grid, or hippy life, is at the end of the day, you're still going to get old. People still have stresses in their life. You're not going to escape."
Maybe not, but Poole's Land seems like the place to try.
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