After living full time on Lopez for two years, my family and I have decided to move to nearby Bellingham. Because Project 468 has been so instrumental to the relationships I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned during my time on the island, I feel obliged to relate some of those things here. This is my Top 10 list of things I learned living on Lopez Island.
1. What it takes to live sustainably.
One of the first things somebody will tell you about on Lopez Island is the dump – a.k.a. the Lopez Solid Waste Disposal District (LSWDD), which is what you write on a check if you happen to drop off garbage there. Unlike most dumps, garbage has a minority presence. The real focus is on recycling and reusable goods. The closest thing Lopez ever has to a traffic jam happens every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday – when Fisherman Bay Road near the Village becomes clogged with cars and members of the community spend their afternoon perusing the Take It Or Leave It (TIOLI). If you live long enough on Lopez Island, you’ll run into somebody wearing a piece of clothing you’ve deposited at TIOLI. Of course, sustainability applies to more than zero waste, which is LSWDD’s motto. It also applies to energy use. Thanks to the Lopez Community Land Trust (LCLT), Lopez has several neighborhoods powered by solar energy and watered by rain catchment. Given these constant, very visible reminders of sustainability, I am now more keenly aware of everything I consume. I’m nowhere near zero waste, but I’m a lot closer than I used to be.
2. Food is medicine.
This is a phrase I learned from Randy Waugh, the creator of Chicaoji – the island’s most widely known and distributed food product. Randy avoided death as a result of the food he began putting into his body. After living on Lopez, I’ve developed a much greater appreciation for food that’s grown the old-fashioned way – close to home, GMO-free, organic and fresh. I drank my first non-pasteurized milk on Lopez – from a cow my wife, Kristine, milked an hour earlier. I ate my first lamb burger on Lopez – from an animal raised on the island and fed Lopez grass. I had the best goat cheese of my life on Lopez – from the only licensed goat dairy on the island, just a few miles from my house. I caught more Dungeness crab right off my backyard than most people probably eat in a lifetime. I ate the most delicious oysters, harvested from the Jones Family shellfish farm. I discovered so many types of new greens and ate the best broccoli of my life – right here on Lopez Island. There’s an amazing food culture here – from the honor system farm stand at Ken and Kathryn’s Horse Drawn Farm, to the Saturday Market culinary gatherings started by Andre and Elizabeth at Sunnyfield Farm. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the potlucks.
3. How to share.
People share everything on Lopez. And I’m not just talking about leaving old stuff at TIOLI. Farmers share tools and land. Food producers and sellers keep the Lopez Fresh no-questions-asked food pantry stocked for those who need it. LCLT neighbors share their property and other resources. People share their land here in ways that’s anathema to most property owners in the U.S. That’s how Kirm Taylor and the Lopez Community Trails Network are able to organize the annual Lopez Walkabout, which cuts though more than 30 pieces of private property from the ferry landing to Iceberg Point. Lopezians share. That’s what they do.
4. How to be a steward of public lands.
The sharing culture of the island is probably what makes Lopezians such fierce protectors of the beautiful public lands that make this place so special. As Seattle continues to boom, there’s a sense here that development is continually knocking on the island’s door. Any hint of encroachment on the sacred public lands is met with a fierce reaction from the community. When Lopez Hill was up for sale several years ago, the community rallied to secure a 50-year lease of the land; and now there’s a movement to preserve it in perpetuity. On any given day, you’ll find Lopezians patrolling the National Monument at Iceberg Point, Shark Reef, or Watmough Bay – making sure people stay on the trails. Anybody who lives here a short time learns not to take our natural places for granted.
5. The ferry’s not transportation, it’s a way of life.
In other parts of the world, people talk about the weather. On Lopez, people talk about the ferry. I shudder at the thought of calculating how many hours I’ve spent either on or waiting for a ferry over the past two years. I have ferry schedules in every possible place I might need them: in my backpack, my glove compartment, my junk drawer, my jacket, and in the front pocket of at least one pair of jeans at any given time. I have a mini printout of each ferry’s car quota in my wallet. I’ve saved a photo of that piece of paper on my phone. I have anxiety dreams about missing the ferry. I’ve had several minor panic attacks while waiting in the ferry booth line in Anacortes, wondering if the attendant would finally enforce the 30-minute pre-departure rule. I’ve been the first and last car on, and the first and last car off the ferry. I’ve walked onto the ferry. I’ve biked onto the ferry. My car battery has died on the ferry; it’s died in line waiting to get onto the ferry. At some point, I might try to calculate how big my carbon footprint has grown because of all the ferries I’ve taken. As I move away from full-time residence on Lopez, I will not miss the ferry.
6. There are benefits to lack of structure.
Lopez is an unincorporated town of San Juan County. It has no mayor. One deputy patrols the island. There are no stoplights or sidewalks. Start times, deadlines and departure times are pretty loosely adhered to. There just aren’t a lot of visible rules in this place. Which means there’s opportunity to create things or do things differently at every turn. Start a community-run dump. Build a radio station from nothing. Outlaw jet skis. Take a bunch of land off the market and start a land trust. Build a community pool (someday). Start a goat dairy. Plant a garden to supply the school cafeteria. Secure a grant to build an app. There are so many examples in the rest of the world where great ideas die because they get entangled in a bureaucratic web. There are few of those impediments on Lopez. Those with an idea and motivation can accomplish quite a bit.
7. There are drawbacks to lack of structure.
The laissez faire culture of the island might make it an uncomfortable existence for planners or people who like a certain level of predictability in their life. What time’s the game? Not sure. Will there be a game? We’ll know at game time. What time is early dismissal? Noon. No, one o’clock. Well, it’s either noon or one. A lot of rules don’t get written down on Lopez. As a result, rules tend to emerge – usually from those who have the loudest voices.
8. Everyone should visit the library regularly.
Lopez has one of the best public libraries I’ve ever seen. More than just an information hub, the Lopez Library is a community center. It’s a conference room for non-profits and businesses, a free phone booth for those who don’t have a cell phone, a lender of musical instruments, and a gallery for fashionable trash art. That’s just skimming the surface of what the library offers. Over the past two years, I spent more time in the Lopez Library than any other building, with the exception of my own house. The Lopez Library made me a better person. Where else can somebody say that?
9. Don’t underestimate the power of community.
Jeff Nichols once told me that, “People come to Lopez for the beauty; they stay for the community.” People who have lived here for decades, like Jeff, know that the community is Lopez’s most powerful asset. Iceberg Point, Watmough, Shark Reef, Blackie Brady, the Top of the World – they’re all great. But it’s the community that feeds the hungry, houses the needy, invests in its young and comes together to solve countless problems this island has – from an under-resourced school district to drug and alcohol addiction. Community is this island’s middle name. The Lopez Community Land Trust. The Lopez Community Trails Network. The Lopez Center for Community and the Arts.
10. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself.
When I started this blog, I used the words “renewal, experimentation and improvisation” to describe Lopez Island. Nearly two years and hundreds of friendships later, I stand by that characterization. I’ve met so many people who have reinvented themselves here. From Lori and Scott Honeywell, who left long careers in Seattle to run the Southend Market and Restaurant – to Anthony and Crystal Rovente, who bet the farm on the Edenwild. The list goes on. Sandy Bishop and Rhea Miller. Mike and Robin Bergstrom. Andre and Elizabeth Entermann. Nick and Sarah Jones. Randy Waugh. Ken Akopiantz and Kathryn Thomas. Brian and Jennell Kvistad. Jeff and Kim Nichols. Doug Benoliel and Tamara Buchanan. Heidi Hernandez and Michael Cherveny. Blake and Julie Johnston. Russ Levine. Carol Steckler and Al Lorenzen. Sue Roundy. Anne Palmer. Nikyta Palmisani. The artists at Chimera. The original Hummels!
Speaking of reinvention, that’s my story, too. Two years ago, I arrived a burned out PR guy fresh from New York City. I’m leaving the island today as an entrepreneur with a product that will hopefully help communities flourish. I have Lopez to thank for that. For those of you who have enjoyed Project 468, I invite you to follow ProjectWA.