Placed conveniently next to each major structure on the property is a postcard-size piece of laminated paper that explains the function of the building. The markers are even numbered to help guide the random foot traffic that sometimes wanders into the encampment from the Tryon Creek trails. Most of the time it’s just a curious hiker or a small tour group that wants to see the wild, woolly hippies up close. Of course, there are those awkward times when an interloper arrives wide-eyed and out of breath.
“Every once in a while somebody runs in all panicked, thinking a kid’s in distress,” Bell says, explaining that the bleat of Nubian goats sounds uncannily like a screaming child.
While the goat milking, egg collecting, and food growing is strong evidence of Cedar Moon’s devotion to self-reliance, the commune’s not quite off the grid. Not yet, anyway. Orange extension cords hang in the trees, stretching from a roadside power pole to the houses, and the majority of the water is still doled out by the city. But that’s changing. The electrical fence that keeps the chickens safe from coyotes runs on solar power; warmth in the winter is provided only by fire and oil-fueled heaters; and members of Cedar Moon have spearheaded a movement in Portland to legalize “gray water”—nonsewage wastewater like runoff from showers and sinks—for reuse in agriculture.
And then there’s the composting toilet. Depending on your comfort level with the human body’s basest function, it’s either a truly innovative approach to recycling or the grossest thing this side of a state fair Port-o-Let on free chili dog night. From the outside, the twin side-by-side outhouses look a bit like a cottage—something Julie Andrews and the von Trapps might sing about while holding hands and tra-la-la-ing through the Alps.
Inside the shoulder-width, coffinlike space is a commode, lit only by a small window, that employs two trap doors, a heaping cupful of peat, and—most horrifying of all—no flusher.
“In Portland, people poop in some of the best drinking water in the world,” Bell says, gleefully informing me that a former intern recently finished a master’s thesis on reusing feces. “A lot of people use fossil-fuel fertilizer in their yard but flush their poop away—that’s crazy. We’re taking something that is a waste product and turning it into fantastic fertilizer.”
It’s nice to know that what lies beneath this particular circle of brown-tinted hell will one day help feed a young tomato plant. But as I stare into the eye of the composting toilet—choking back the bile—my heart longs for the reassuring ker-shoosh of a solid, one-gallon flush.