I Joined an Anarchist Commune Expecting To Hate It, But Coming Home Sucked
Somewhere between confronting my fear of shit and planting shrooms on Poole's Land, my cynicism melted.
Lead photo by David Ehrenreich
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
As silly as it sounds, I never planned on spending the night in Poole’s Land.
Even though I knew we were going there to immerse ourselves in the wild BC commune—for a documentary that I’d insisted we do—I had no desire to actually sleep on site. Why? Well, my aversion to things like the outdoors, and in particular “rustic” toilets, is well documented. But I did spend the night, and several days at Poole’s and I’m glad I did because not only did it force me to stop being a prissy little bitch, it gave me some much needed perspective.
When I initially travelled to Poole’s in 2017 for a print story, I had no clue what to expect. What I found was a strange, beautiful social experiment—a commune of free-spirited people living on 17-acre, thickly forested property in Tofino, arguably one of the most stunning locations in Canada. “The end of the road” as locals say. Perhaps because it is so far removed from the rest of the country, Poole’s attracts some pretty fascinating inhabitants—drifters and dreamers, many of them young people rebelling against capitalist ideals and conventional social norms, others just looking to get high on LSD and surf.
The owner, Michael Poole, 66, was presented to me as a legend the first time I visited—I never got to meet him but I heard some variation of “we owe him a lot… and he’s kind of crazy” from almost everyone I asked. I was made to understand that he’s a man who really, really enjoys his hallucinogens.
On that trip, I dipped in and out in about eight hours, leaving around midnight. It was pitch black, so I coerced a Poole’s Lander to walk me to my car because I was so terrified of running into a bear. He had no clue who I was, and was more than likely buzzed, but he agreed nonetheless because that’s what people at Poole’s do—they help strangers.
I knew the place was magical and I knew I had to come back so we could capture it on film. But still, the city girl inside me had major reservations. On my first trip, I had heard all about the “composting toilets.” Poole’s Land doesn’t connect to Tofino’s sewage system. Instead, you take a shit in a toilet full of cedar chips, and when it gets full, you shovel it out and start again. As someone who grew up with an OCD father who made us wash our butts after going number 2—a policy that prevented me from being able to go in a public washroom for years—composting toilets sounded like my personal hell. It may sound like I’m exaggerating but truly, I was filled with dread thinking about the state of those toilets, or even having to look at them let alone use one.
Of course, my bosses told me as the host of the doc, I would need to sleep at Poole’s. The piece would only be genuine if I fully embedded myself. So I agreed, but I fully expected to hate it. I turned out to be wrong, on many levels.
We showed up at Poole’s in the middle of August. On my first walk through the boardwalk in the forest, I recall feeling creeped out by how eerily quiet and peaceful it was—something that normal people would probably love. Michael Goodliffe, the commune’s occasional manager gave me the rules of the place, essentially treat each other and the environment with respect, don’t drink in the kitchen, and no hard drugs i.e. meth and cocaine. Pretty straightforward. Goodliffe told me I was going to be sleeping next to a little cabin inhabited by Johnny—Poole’s resident heartthrob singer/songer, originally from England—and his girlfriend Melissa. When I showed up, Johnny and the other members of his band The Comfortably Sauvage were in the midst of a jam session. I stood around awkwardly as everyone else rocked out hard, seemingly knowing all the words to the band’s original songs. By the end of my time there, I would also know a lot of words. I mostly felt relieved that they didn’t suck because imagine having to camp next to a bunch of terrible musicians.
That night I made a big fuss over setting up my tent. At first I set it up on a slant and kept rolling down towards the opening. Then I placed it in a parking spot, but moved when people pointed out that in the dark of night, I would likely not be seen and get run over. Finally I settled on placing it next to a fire pit, because it was the only available spot. The girl next to me told me her boyfriend had recently seen a cougar. Internally, I was freaking out. But after a couple beers, I fell asleep.
The next morning, I held in my pee for hours because I didn’t want to venture outside. Finally, I did, using a giant golden shenis—a dick-shaped funnel for your vagina that lets you pee standing—to take a leak in the woods. I felt my guard come down just a little bit. That day, I finally met Michael Poole. I was slightly nervous because I had heard he had some issues with the story I had written the year prior—in particular, my characterization of composting toilets as being gross. But Poole immediately embraced me. In fact, he embraced most of our crew with his famous massages. He’s obsessed with massage, and more or less uses it to greet people on site. It’s odd, and yet very endearing.
At Poole’s you have to put in a bit of labour to pay off your stay and contribute to the place. Generally, it costs $10 a night to sleep there but you can work it off with chores if you can’t afford that. My chore was to pick cannabis leaves and a few other plants from the garden with Poole, which he was going to use to to make his daily smoothie. (Poole had prostate cancer and he swears eating an ounce of weed leaves a day has helped him overcome it; he tells me he’s now in remission.) By the end of our excursion, I was wearing a crown of cannabis leaves he’d placed on my head. I was also gagging. You see, Poole has some pretty interesting ideas about horticulture. While we were in the garden, he pulled out a few jars of a dark yellow liquid. The stench was overpowering—the air was thick with it. I asked what it was, and in typical Poole fashion he obfuscated.
“These are jars of nutrients, I call it nitrogenous urea,” he said. “It’s pee?” I replied. “Yes,” he said. “Look at the colour of that, this person is healthy and I can tell, it’s me!”
Back at his trailer, we drank a smoothie made with the urine-fertilized leaves, vinegar, black cherry juice, lentil soup, and rotting hamburger meat which Poole referred to as “Kimchi.”
“Kimchi awareness” he said as we did a toast. I gagged again but downed it. My guard slipped a little bit more.
That night, Johnny performed at a bonfire party on the beach. Instead of standing around awkwardly, I danced and actually sang along to some of the songs.
One of the most interesting people I met at Poole was Jessit. Jessit told us he moved there because he was addicted to cocaine.
“I was just tired of it…. I just had to get away from all my friends,” he said. When he got to Poole’s, he said he told manager Goodliffe about his situation. “Fuck me. He don’t even know me and he let me be a part of this. That’s what I love about it. Just helping people that really need help.”
On my last full night at Poole’s, we had a big family dinner. Everyone pitched in—I chopped garlic and fruits for fruit salad. Jessit seemed to take charge of the night, and was lovingly bossing everyone around, even Poole. He made an impassioned speech.
“With everybody working together lately, it’s made me see what the fuck we can do here,” he said, shouting out the cook. One of the residents had made melon wine that we all shared, breaking the no drinking in the kitchen rule for one night. Michael Poole did what I think is a raven call and, after we were done eating, we formed a massage tango line. Even writing it now, it sounds insane, and yet I get the feels remembering how close I felt to everyone.
Before I left, Poole and I chainsawed part of the forest to plant a magic mushroom garden. Lying in a pile of mulch, we talked about life and his plans for the the commune—he wants to sell it, but only to someone who will carry its mission forward. I asked him what he hoped I would take away from this experience.
“An expanded awareness of all these matters,” he said, ever the philosopher. When I asked what the hell that meant, he giggled and said, “the big ‘S’ word.” He was talking about shit, and specifically my phobia of it, which he believes is due to being “mentally abused” by society.
“You want me to use a composting toilet?” I asked.
“Just be able to be responsible for all aspects of your life.”
And so, now more or less drinking the Kool-aid, I headed to the outhouse. You’ll have to watch the doc to find out how that went, but I felt like I had climbed my mountain. My indoctrination was complete.
I travel fairly often, both for work and pleasure, but I’m always happy to come home. Even though I’m not originally from Ontario—I was born and raised in Vancouver—Toronto feels like home to me now and I feel a sense of relief when I’m back here.
But something strange happened when I got back from Poole’s. I was genuinely sad. It wasn’t just the post-vacation blues that we all experience. And it wasn’t only because I missed my newfound friends, although I did. I missed the freedom I felt there. The freedom to act like a total weirdo and have no one give a fuck, or better yet, encourage it. The freedom to not be online constantly—or at all—, to not have to deal with an increasingly out of control inbox. And the quiet—the quiet that had felt eerie to me on my first day—I found myself craving. The morning after I got home, there was a loud dump truck doing god knows what for hours outside my apartment. I got on the subway and everyone was zombied out on their phones. I went into the office and everyone was just… the same.
The experience made me realize that perhaps there was something missing from my life that I didn’t even realize I needed. It showed me a different way of interacting with each other and with nature. It’s doubtful that I would ever go full smoothie and live in a place like Poole’s permanently. But like the occasional mushroom trip, a dose here or there could be just right. (Just kidding, I hate mushrooms.)
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