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.

Dry Climate Vegetables


Here in Arrakis, I mean California, we’re in the midst of a terrible drought. And unfortunately, most of the seeds we buy for our vegetable gardens are adapted to require lots of water. One solution is to find veggies that have reseeded accidentally without supplemental irrigation. Here’s a short list of reseeding rogue veggies from our garden that have thrived with just the small burst of rain we got last month.

Continue reading…

What the Internet Will Look Like After the Zombie Apocalypse


Enterprising amateur radio operators in Texas, over the past several years, have created a wireless high speed data network, called HSMM-MESH or Broadband-Hamnet, completely independent of the internet. The map above is the network built by HAMs in Austin, Texas. Basically it’s a bunch of hacked Linksys routers connecting wirelessly over a wide area. Plug a laptop into any of the routers and you can trade messages, files and live video back and forth.

This is possible because it just happens that the frequency range of off the shelf wireless routers overlaps with amateur radio frequencies making it legal for HAMs to boost the range of these devices. That and the fact that several models of ubiquitous Linksys routers are cheap and easy to hack.

All you do is take your Linksys router, screw in a better antenna (note the one above made with a tin can), load some open source software on to it, scatter them around town and you’ve got a wireless data network. Note that the routers in this configuration are communicating with each other. To hook your laptop into the network you have to connect it via an Ethernet cable to one of the nodes or set up a wi-fi network at a node. The routers can even be powered by small 12 volt batteries or solar panels. To be clear, this is a wireless network that is independent of the internet (though you could route the internet over it). Such a network could be used in an emergency such as an earthquake or weather event to send digital messages. It’s also the means by which I could continue to send out cute cat photos even if things go full-on Cormac McCarthy

You could use this same hack, not exactly legally, to solve networking problems in a large house, business or rural property. And the same method has been used to set up data networks in developing countries. In practice it’s doubtful that the Man would ever get around to busting someone without a HAM license from setting up a network or routing the internet over it. As long as you’ve got line of sight between your antennas it’s possible to send information over impressive distances–with the right antenna, some HAMs have managed to get the signal out as far as ten miles with a stock router and no boost in power. And the network is self healing. If one router goes out the other routers take on the traffic.

For more info on how to set up a network like this see or watch this series of videos. There’s also a free e-Book: Wireless Networking in the Developing World.

Cat photo kidding aside, this relatively simply hack has potential to help a lot of people.

This post was inspired by a lecture given by Gary Wong, W6GSW at the Pasadena Radio Club.

Free Laundry to Landscape Plans


Judging from our blog comments, the drought here on the west coast has people thinking about greywater. We’ve blogged about it many times before, but it’s worth repeating. Greywater expert Art Ludwig has excellent free plans on his website for putting together a laundry to landscape greywater system. I put this same system in at my neighbor Lora’s house a few years ago and just finished replacing our older greywater system with the one on Ludwig’s website.  It’s easy to install, inexpensive and legal to do without a permit in California.

Greywater Design and Installation Workshop

almaden reservoir car

Learn how to install the popular “laundry to landscape” (L2L) greywater system in this design workshop presented by Laura Allen of Greywater Action and Leigh Jerrard of Greywater Corps.

Laundry to landscape greywater systems are simple, affordable, and easy to maintain. With your own L2L system you can irrigate your landscape each time you do laundry, saving you water, time, and resources. Experienced instructors will lead you step-by-step through the design process, tailoring a system to fit your home. This system is legal to install without a permit, just follow 12 basic guidelines you’ll learn about in class.


  • How to design a system for your home and landscape
  • How to build a system- you’ll create a “mock-up” of a real system with real greywater parts
  • What parts you’ll need for your home
  • How much greywater you produce and how many plants you can water
  • What soaps and detergents are “greywater friendly”


  • Real L2L greywater system
  • Gravity “branched drain” greywater system from sinks

Date: February 22, 2014 – 10:00am to 12:30pm
Location: Los Angeles EcoVillage 117 Bimini Place LA, CA 90004
Cost: Sliding scale $15 to $40, limited work trade positions available

Register HERE

Bring: Photographs of your laundry room and landscape. Site plan of your yard.
For more information on an L2L system refer to the SF Graywater Guide for Outdoor Irrigation, downloadable HERE

Please join our mailing list to be notified of upcoming workshops.
A long-submerged abandoned car is exposed at the bottom of the now-dry Almaden Reservoir
(January 16, 2014. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle)