Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.

Bread Ovens of Quebec Free e-book

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North American has two regions famous for oven building: New Mexico and Quebec. The design of the ovens of Quebec have their origin in much older French ovens. The Canadian Museum of History has posted an amazing, out of print book, Lise Boily and Jean-François Blanchette’s 1979 book The Bread Ovens of Quebec, in its entirety online. The book includes the history of the Quebec oven, how to build an oven, bread recipes and even “popular beliefs, spells, incantations, and omens” associated with ovens.

I’m really happy with the adobe oven we have in our backyard–it has produced many a tasty pizza and I look forward to having people over to give me an excuse to fire it up. Ovens, in Quebec households were associated with life itself and I understand why.

If you’re interested in more information on DIY ovens, I’d recommend The Bread Ovens of Quebec along with Kiko Denzer’s Earth Ovens and Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders (brick ovens).

If you’d like to see an oven built in the Quebec style, these folks have posted their experience of building one.

Learn to Build with Adobe

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Kurt Gardella made me an adobe convert and helped us build an oven in our backyard that is responsible for many delicious pizzas. I’ve taken a few classes he’s taught, both in person and online. If you want to learn adobe, Kurt’s your man. Here’s some info on upcoming classes he’s teaching:

Are you looking for college credit for your adobe construction coursework? I am teaching the following spring 2014 semester classes through Santa Fe Community College’s Adobe Construction Department:

Class: ADOB 113 – Passive Solar Adobe Design
Format: 8-Week Online Class
Dates: January 21 to March 15, 2014
Credits: 2
Course #: 31660

Class: ADOB 111 – Adobe Construction Basics
Format: 8-Week Online Class
Dates: March 24 to May 17, 2014
Credits: 3
Course #: 31268

Class: ADOB 112 – Adobe Wall Construction
Format: Web-Blended (4 Weeks Online + 2 Days of Intensive Live Instruction)
Dates: April 19 to May 17, 2014 (class meets on campus Saturday, April 19 and Sunday, April 20, 2014 9am to 5pm)

Location: Trades and Applied Technology 815
Credits: 3
Course #: 31661

For more information on course fees and registration see:

www.sfcc.edu/registration/tuition_and_fees
www.sfcc.edu/registration/first_time_students

Please e-mail me directly at [email protected] if you have any questions or need further information about any of the above classes.

For more info visit: www.kurtgardella.com

Extreme Low-Tech Communication

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This has to be the ultimate achievement in low-powered long-distance communication. Ham radio operator Michael Rainey, AA1TJ, transmitted a message over a distance of over 1,000 miles by yelling Morse code with his own voice into this primitive home-made transmitter, nicknamed “El Silbo.” No power was used other than that generated by his own voice vibrating the microphone (which was a re-purposed speaker).

If you want to build your own here’s the circuit schematic and more details.

And here’s Rainey, back in 2009, using El Silbo:

On a side note, can we please apply Ham radio’s level of detail and open source spirit to the world of backyard vegetable gardening?

It’s official: I’m a Ham

How blog posts will be issued from now on. Image: Library of Congress.

How blog posts will be issued from now on. Image: Library of Congress.

It’s been on my to-do list for years–get my ham radio licence. I took a six week class offered by the Pasadena Radio Club to study for the technician class licence and on a whim crammed for the general class. I passed both tests and as of yesterday am now also known as KK6HUF.

Many thanks to W6MES, who volunteered his time to teach the class and to the major memory system for helping with all those numbers. It was a lot of fun to review basic math and electronics.

So why do this in an age of Skype and cellphones? I find the DIY ethos of ham radio empowering. We are surrounded by electronic devices and it’s good to know a little something about what’s going on “under the hood.” I wish I had discovered amateur radio when I was younger–I might have struggled with math less had I had a hobby to motivate studying.

My interest in appropriate technology was another reason. There is a ham I met online who is constructing a website that will be of interest to readers of this blog–he was inspired by John Michael Greer’s writing on ham radio. I’ll share that website when it’s ready to go public.

Passing the test was easy, but I’ve got a lot of work to do. I have no radio, nor do I have any experience using one. And I’d like to learn morse code. I’m all ears if any of you have advice.

Primitive Grain Storage Technique

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When thinking about technology, I like to play with the idea of what is the absolute minimum you need to get the job done.  This may be because I’m not very handy at building things, but yet have survivalist tendencies. So while I’m pretty sure I’ll never actually have any need for these skills, it’s fun to think about how I’d get by in a DIY world.

So I was delighted when I ran across this minimalist grain storage technique on the BBC documentary series, A History of Celtic Britain (2011), hosted by Neil Oliver of the Delicious Scottish Accent. (I am watching it on YouTube. Fingers crossed the BBC will not take it down before I finish it!)  I love this technique because while it is simple, it is far from stupid.

The technique is described by the Dave Freeman of the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where they’ve been experimenting with grain storage iron-age style (c. 400 BCE.).  Turns out all you need to do is dig a pit in the soil. The pits they dug are circular, and look to be 2 or 3 feet in diameter, and maybe 3 or 4 feet deep.

So you may ask, how can you pour grain into a hole in the ground and expect it to keep? The secret is a clay cap on the top. In the screen grab below you can see the cap and some feet for scale:

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If you go to YouTube,  you can watch this sequence starting around 52:36, but what Freemen says is that when the grain goes in the pit and is sealed with a clay cap, the clay blocks out moisture, air and light. Moisture is still available at the sides and bottom of the pit, of course, especially as they are in green Hampshire.

The grain touching the sides of the pit sucks the moisture out of the soil at the edges, and uses it to attempt to germinate. The germination process sucks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, effectively clearing the chamber of oxygen. At that point, as Neil puts it, “Time stops.” Nothing can grow, nothing changes. The grain cache keeps for at least a year, perhaps two years, and provided a very handy safety backup for hard working iron age farmers. And some very basic appropriate tech for modern armchair survivalists to ponder.

Farm Hack

farm hack

Farm Hack is an innovative blog that synthesizes high tech and low tech in the service of growing food and community. The blog is run by the National Young Farmers Coalition. While geared towards agriculture, many of the posts will be of interest to backyard gardeners. Recent subjects include a project to develop an infrared camera to monitor plant health, smartphone tools for farmers and open source appropriate technology resources. It’s exactly this kind of innovation that gives me great hope for the future.

Thanks to Tommy Berbas for the tip.

Bushcraft Video

Now that we’re car-free, we may be spending even more time together then we already do. How will we keep succumbing to cabin fever, prairie style? (Prairie style means “with axes.”)

Well, while Erik obsesses on those pernicious skunks and even more heinous texting-while-driving music video producers, I’ll be laying low, watching bushcraft videos on YouTube.

We may as well give up our Netflix subscription because this YouHole is bottomless. I’ve discovered there are hundreds of men roaming about the woods with their video cameras in one hand and their survival knives in the other, ready to share their knowledge with you. And they are almost all men. I’ve only found a couple of women who put their adventures on video.

I’m not sure why this is such a male dominated field, except that it is greatly fueled by the love of pointy implements and the display and discussion of such implements–which seems a very masculine past time. But that’s generalizing, because I can attest that around our house, I’m the one with the fetish for sharp blades. And fire. And making things out of tin cans.

Anyway, there are many bushcrafters on video, but only a few rise to the top. Many–many–are hampered by poor sound quality and camera work. Their info may be good, but if I can’t hear them, or see them, I’m clicking on down the road.

In my journey of a thousand clicks, I’ve discovered many nice surprises, and I’ve learned things, too. These video makers are spread all over the world, so it’s a really nice opportunity to see different natural landscapes, and learn how people work in them. Winter survival skills may not do me a lot of good here in LA, but I do love watching video of the snowy Alps.

If you fall down this YouHole, you may find yourself gravitating toward a bushcrafter who lives in your climate zone, or one who shares your world outlook. As for myself, I’m pretty much all about watchability–yes, that’s a word–and that leads me to a couple of recs.

Continue reading…

The Sundiner–A Groovy 1960s Era Solar Cooker

Sundiner solar cooker

Backywards beekeeper Dennis of The Buzz in the Dale, was nice enough to gift me his vintage Sundiner solar cooker that he found at a garage sale a few years ago.

Sundiner solar cooker

Resembling a cross between a portable 1960s record player and a satellite, the Sundiner is compact, light and easy to carry.

Sundiner solar cooker built in thermometer

A built in thermometer lets you know when you have hit cooking temperatures. The unit is so efficient, that when I set it up at noon it hit 350° F within minutes (in February!).

Interior of Sundiner solar cooker

The Sundiner has one big disadvantage. There’s only enough space in the business end to fit a 9 inch square shallow baking tin. And that tin, depending on the time of day and year, may be at a steep angle. Thus the Sundiner is more of a solar grill–anything liquid will ooze downwards and make a mess of the difficult to clean, unidentifiable space age insulation material. Grilling is really not the best application of solar energy–you lose the smoky flavor and grill marks you get with fire–which is probably why the Sundiner never caught on. More recent solar box ovens that I’ve seen, both commercial and homebrew, have shelves with adjustable angles, making it easier to use them as crock pots.

Nevertheless, I admire the efficiency of the design–the legs also double as a handle and the panels unfold and snap together in seconds. It’s easy to aim. The instructions are even printed on the back of the panel that covers the reflectors.

Sundiner solar cooker instructions

More info via the April 1963 issue of Desert Magazine:

Here’s a new product that suits desert living as few others can—it collects and concentrates the heat of the sun and allows outdoor cooking without fuel or fire. They call it the Sundiner. The technical description is “Solar Energy Grill.” Sundiner is a compact unit, 17-inches square and 6inches tall. Fold-out mirrors are metalized Mylar plastic, supported by polypropylene holders. The mirrors focus the sun’s heat on the lower section of the cabinet, where heat slowly builds up to a maximum of about 450 degrees—plenty to cook with. Directly below the apex of the mirrors is an oven enclosure. Plastic foam insulation and a pair of glass plates prevent excessive heat loss. The solar energy grill works in this simple way: point the mirrors toward the sun for a few minutes until the right temperature is reached (built-in heat indicator dial) and pop a tray of food into the oven. There is no fire or fuel to handle. Sole source of cooking stems from the collected, concentrated rays of the sun. Here is a sample of how long various meats take to cook: Hamburgers, franks, and fish, 15 to 20 minutes. Steaks and fillets, 20 to 25 minutes. Quartered chicken, 25 to 30 minutes. Temperature variations are possible by turning the Sundiner toward or away from the sun. The advantage of the Sundiner is that it can be used as a safe substitute for a fuel-fired stove on beaches, parks, decks of boats, and other restricted areas. Carrying handles are standard. The price is $29.95. From Sundiner. Carmer Industries. Inc., 1319 West Pico Blvd.. Los Angeles 15. Calif.