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.

Cactus Thief Strikes Again

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I knew this was going to happen. After the theft of the first of three barrel cacti in our front yard, I knew the perp would be back. Sure enough the second cacti disappeared the other night. Now I’m left with the smallest, and most pathetic of the three cacti.

In response I considered rigging up some kind of Arduino based cacti security system that would set off an alarm and flashing strobe in the house. Attach a trip wire to the root system and we’re in business. I also pondered another extreme strategy: shower the cactus thief with free flats of baby cacti. The latter strategy could even lead to the first ever Root Simple Upworthy style clickbait headline, “Thief Steals Cactus and the Thorny Response Will Have You in Tears.”

Stoic philosopher Epictetus set me straight on what I should really do. He says, “Stop admiring your clothes and you are not angry at the man who steals them . . . our losses and our pains have to do only with the things we posses.” (Discourses Book 1.18) And wanting to posses a Home Depot cactus is quite pathetic.

It reminds me of something a friend told me, “Never drive by and look at a garden in a house you once owned.” Our gardens are impermanent. That impermanence is actually something that makes gardening interesting. My wandering cacti might even have a more sunny location in which to thrive.

The Elf and Ethics

The Elf is a kind of aerodynamic, electric assist tricycle with solar panels to charge the batteries. It’s a type of vehicle, somewhere between a bike and a car, that a number of inventors have tinkered with over the years.

Good arguments exist for and against this type of transportation. On the one hand it uses far fewer resources than an automobile. But one could also argue, as does the owner of a bike shop in this video, that we’d all be better off with a far simpler and less expensive bicycle. I can see both sides of the argument. Perhaps younger folks should take to bicycles and older people or those with disabilities or heavy cargo could use something like an Elf. Plus the Elf would be better in bad weather.

One issue not brought up in this video are safety concerns during a theoretical transition period from hulking Hummers to lightweight human and battery powered vehicles. Is the greater risk I’m taking (by choosing a lightweight vehicle over an SUV) worth the ethical/ecological benefit? If everyone else is driving a big heavy vehicle don’t I need one too?

Separating bikes and cars partially solves this conundrum to some extent, but not for transitional vehicles like the Elf. I would not want to see an Elf on a bike path and I’d not also not want to be in an Elf vs. auto collision.

I think there’s a future for vehicles like the Elf. But we’ll have some ethical, as well as technological issues, to sort out.

Easter Lessons

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So, facing an overabundance of eggs, and having hard boiled a dozed out of desperation and having espied a charming post on naturally dyed Easter eggs, I decided to have a go at dyeing eggs on Saturday night.  The eggs our ladies deliver are all shades of beige to brown, so I worried that they’d not take dye as well as white eggs, but the post promised good results with brown eggs, and the dyes were deep and earthy enough that it seemed it would not matter.

The technique was simple–a one to one ratio of organic matter to water, boiled 15 minutes or more, cooled, and then spiked with vinegar. The eggs soak in this mix for as long as you like, perhaps overnight, refrigerated. I tried out onion skin (russet dye), red cabbage (bluish dye) and hibiscus flowers(purplish). All looked well. I went to bed imagining the rich, solid colors I’d find the next day, the arty pictures from the original post dancing in my head.

This morning I pulled my eggs from the fridge, all excited, only to find something had gone wrong. The onion skin eggs looked all right at first, a nice rusty shade, but when I touched them the color came off, a thin layer of colored slime peeling aside to reveal a much paler egg below–an egg perhaps still of its natural color. Same for the cabbage. The hibiscus was a total nightmare–for some reason its slime was thick and bubbly and black and utterly disgusting. I mean, like Black Plague-level disgusting. Easter buboes! Zombie eggs!

Here’s my theory: chickens coat their eggs with a protective coating before the eggs leave the “factory.” Just like auto manufacturers! This protective coating is called the bloom. The bloom is washed off in industrial egg production facilities because the eggs have to be washed and sometimes bleached to get the filth off them before they go to market. So bloom is never an issue when dyeing store-bought eggs. I’ve never tried dyeing our own eggs before, and I believe the bloom was interfering with the dye’s adhesion. If I try this again, I will give the eggs a thorough washing first.

What do you think of this theory? Any similar experiences?

Anyway, all was not lost. When I washed all the slime off the eggs, I found that some color did get through, and it came through it truly random and marvelous ways. My eggs don’t look so much like Easter eggs, but more like rocks, or dinosaur eggs. I didn’t get what I was expecting at all, but instead I got something kind of wonderful. That’s DIY in a nutshell for you.

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