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Port Townsend EcoVillage (PTEV)

  Port Townsend EcoVillage,

is a community of people dedicated to living in harmony with each other and with the earth, exploring together ways to live more sustainably. A wonderful description, but I was unsure about what I would actually discover on the overcast and chilly day spent at the community on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. It is not that I have anything against living “in community.” It’s just that I value my privacy, prefer to make my own rules, and sometimes relish being anti-social. But in spite of myself I was intrigued and drawn to PTEV. Their Web site, www.ptecovillage.org, is fascinating. It is obvious that they have invested quite a bit of time and work into building the ideals upon which this community is to be established. They have a realistic vision and have put policies and guidelines in place that range from how members of the community communicate with each other, to fiscal responsibility and cooperation, and principles dealing with social structure that includes their clothing-optional policy. It would seem that they had covered all their bases, but I was curious, not convinced. I’d have to see it for myself to form an opinion.

The idea of humans consciously implementing sustainable living is wonderful, but it is difficult to do and even harder to maintain. I was excited to see how they planned to execute the permaculture principles of caring for the earth and people, and of sharing the surplus, but was leery about the reality of a group making all decisions by formal consensus. I imagined the start of a bustling, pastoral utopia with women spinning yarn, men tilling the fields, and happy naked children playing in a meadow bursting with wildflowers. It sounded great, but the cynic in me kept asking, “Could an average group of people truly interact using only nonviolent communication, incorporate ecologically conscious living, share all of their resources, and establish guidelines for everyone by using formal consensus?” And, based upon the wording of the policy on the Web site, I was not quite convinced that their clothing-optional policy would allow for youthful frolicking.

Port Townsend is an idyllic waterfront town that harkens back to its early seafaring days. The main street downtown is lined with two-story storefront stone and brick buildings, and the marina is filled with boats of every description. It is pedestrian-friendly, leisurely, and quaint. N’s Mark Storey and I stopped for lunch at one of the cafes downtown, then drove out of the main area of town into a strangely residential neighborhood—which we would later discover is actually a series of compounds and co-habitual living communities—where PTEV resides. Once on the property you feel a world away from Port Townsend. There is no hint of a tourist or historic building. Time seems to slow ever so slightly and it seems a bit easier to breathe.

The first thing I noticed upon our arrival was the cute electric car, a Zap, parked out front. Its new, shiny green facade seemed a little strange against the backdrop of the rustic main building. The latter was not dilapidated in any sense; it just had more of a reclaimed barn wood look than the vinyl siding clad homes we drove past earlier in the neighborhood. We passed through the mud room and office into a large kitchen and gathering space to wait for PTEV’s monthly public tour of the grounds. After a lovely woman, her beautiful children, her mother, and a soft-spoken South African man in a dashiki arrived, the tour began. We learned that the Zap out front will become part of a small fleet of electric vehicles used to navigate the neighborhood and run errands. The main building will later serve as a guest house and temporary living quarters. Another newer and slightly larger building, the Co-Ho or common house, will serve as a place for meetings and gatherings once built. PTEV is still in its infancy; a general plan is in place, but the members are just now realizing the fruit of their labors.

The goal is to have 25 dwellings on the 7.5-acre property that would house 45 adults and their children. The strict guidelines regarding the specifications for the construction of homes ensure that each residence demonstrates energy efficiency, conservation, and simplicity. Each dwelling will have a compact footprint—some no bigger than 400 square feet. We explored and admired one of the dwellings currently under construction. Tall and lean, constructed of SIPs (structural insulated panel), it had a very modern look in spite of the earthen floor meant to keep the energy used for heating to a minimum.

Each person or family would have their own home, but as our tour guide Marc Weinblatt explained, at PTEV “no one will own [home] property.” Instead, each member, upon approval from the other members and payment of his or her lifetime membership fee, becomes part owner in the PTEV LLC. The residents living in the dwellings reside in homes that are suited to their particular life situation. For instance, if a single person were inhabiting a multi-bedroom dwelling and a family with children were to become part of the community, the single person would move into a smaller dwelling that would be complimentary to his or her needs and would allow the family to live in a space that worked for them as well. Of course, this arrangement would be determined after thorough discussion and formal consensus had been reached. This seemed a completely logical solution that was somehow beyond my comprehension. I take pride when it comes to my home. Even though I had no desire to have an earthen floor, as I followed the group toward the gardens and away from the budding structure, I imagined how hard it could be to leave a home that you had built and invested in and felt a slight twinge in my heart.

The rest of the tour encompassed the honey house where the efforts of a million or so bees is harnessed, the community gardens (lush and green with giant rhubarb plants begging for harvest), and descriptions of where the meditation hut, workshop, and other buildings will be. Once realized, the property would be infused with a multi-functioning edible landscape divided into zones that correspond to convenience (e.g., herbs and salad ingredients close to the kitchen) as well as variety. The chicken coop would be close to the main kitchen while being accessible from most of the dwellings, and the water catchment and

solar food dehydrator are easily within reach of the main community gardens. While we watched the kids try to placate the bunnies enough to be held, I was struck by how polite and gentle this group of children were compared to the gnarly hoodlums I tend to encounter in the city. I think that most people are aware of the searing truth in the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but as those kids interacted with adults and with each other, I saw some of the reality in that statement. I saw happy, well-adjusted kids, supported and encouraged by a group of adults who seemed strangely unaffected by the chaos of adulthood and modern living. They were precocious, yet still immersed in the wonder of youth. They seemed somehow unspoiled and accurate reflections of the PTEV landscape.

While we watched the kids try to placate the bunnies enough to be held, I was struck by how polite and gentle this group of children were compared to the gnarly hoodlums I tend to encounter in the city. I think that most people are aware of the searing truth in the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but as those kids interacted with adults and with each other, I saw some of the reality in that statement. I saw happy, well-adjusted kids, supported and encouraged by a group of adults who seemed strangely unaffected by the chaos of adulthood and modern living. They were precocious, yet still immersed in the wonder of youth. They seemed somehow unspoiled and accurate reflections of the PTEV landscape.

Throughout the course of our tour and visit I found the members’ candor refreshing, especially on the topic of their clothing-optional policy. They had a variety of views, from strong feelings for the necessity of the policy, to worries that a clothing-optional policy might scare away some potential community members. But in spite of any individual apprehension, everyone I spoke with was more concerned with inclusivity than their own unease. Jim Salter a member of PTEV currently living in the main house sometimes places a sign on his door that reads, “Notice. This is a clothing-optional moment. Feel free to enter.” It welcomes, yet warns his fellow community members to his state of undress. When his home is built, he plans to incorporate hedges and other natural screening so that he is free to spend as much time as he wishes in his garden au natural, without impinging upon anyone else’s views. The property is suburban, so it could be tenuous to enjoy certain liberties, however since the members stressed the importance of the “option” of experiencing some part of life without clothing, this is possible at PTEV.

According to Marc Weinblatt, of all of the policies the members worked to set forth, the clothing-optional policy was by far the most difficult. It took at least ten drafts to get it to where it is now, and there may be a need for future adjustments. But, however difficult the process may have been, the policy was agreed upon and instated, and all of the members I spoke with seemed proud that they had helped craft it. While not as permissive as policies at other communities—including some that a few members had lived in previously—it was decided to allow “specific places at the PTEV designated as areas where clothing is optional.” As Rebecca Bloom, an Associate Member of PTEV, explained, “I would prefer a more liberal policy, [but] I also care about everyone in the group and am very aware, having lived in other communities, that you don’t have a community without the people! Compromises are necessary.” Of course, one must take into account that of the almost eight acres of PTEV property, almost half are fully dedicated to productive agriculture, and a significant portion of the rest of the space is natural forest. Beyond the choice to forgo clothing in your own home, there are currently few places to have a clothing-optional moment. Jim Salter feels confident, though, that as the community’s property is developed, there will be secluded areas that can be designated, labeled, and reserved for those who wish to enjoy the freedom that the policy is meant to allow.

After the tour, we had enough time to stay for part of the community business meeting before the hour-long drive to catch the ferry back to Seattle. I was extremely curious to see the process of formal consensus in action. During the meeting I caught a glimpse of how this scenario actually happens. It was fascinating to see how the members of PTEV worked together. Only in person can one understand the definition of “intentional community.” I had never seen a group of people interact in such a deliberate manner. While it seemed strange and I was aware of a different verbiage and demeanor, I was struck by how each person actually listened and responded in a way that was kind, polite, and conscious of the person they were engaging. It suddenly occurred to me that yes, it is possible to live in utopia, but each person had to be dedicated to the work involved in creating that utopia. Each person must walk the walk and talk the talk or all efforts may fail. I was beginning to understand the possibility within community living. Before gaining membership at PTEV, I believe one would have to embody a specific mind-set. An understanding and acceptance of the balance between the individual and group needs is necessary for this type of collaboration to exist. You would need a base awareness of the principles of non-violent communication and the formal consensus model, and have some interest if not prior personal experience with living sustainably.

The ability to live with less and the motivation to cooperate would be crucial. Most of the members I met had some history of communal living, and all were educated, well-traveled, and seriously committed to ecologically responsible living. They have found a peaceful place to live that is shared with friends whose values, goals, and ethics are in harmony with their own. Isn’t that what all of us search for?

In spite of the stereotypes surrounding communal living that I held before my visit to PTEV, I enjoyed acknowledging the part of me that longs for the genuine connection to others, to the earth, to natural rather than corporate time, to the essence of humanity. Spending a few hours at PTEV made me really look at how I live and I found myself wondering, imagining, fantasizing about a simpler life. How would it feel to be respected, and supported by your neighbors? How would it be to contribute to the success of your community and literally see the fruit of your labors? What would it be like to live in a space where the sounds of traffic, lawn mowers, radios, and TVs were replaced by birds, breezes, and human voices? Heavenly, for a time at least. I savor the idea, but for now I think I will stick to city living. I recognize and accept that the typical isolation of urban living is right for me. I learned quite a bit about intentional communities and respect the work and effort required for their success. I truly believe that they are on to something. To each his own and best of luck PTEV.

Port Townsend EcoVillage is a living community and not a naturist club, so it is not set up to open its doors to the general public. Those interested in learning more about their project may visit www.ptecovillage.org.