New Alchemy on Cape Cod by Nancy and John Todd

The Cape Naturalist: 1972


Made from scrap automobile parts, this windmill at the New Alchemy Institute’s farm, north of Falmouth, draws on atmospheric power to charge a storage battery mounted atop the pole. It is flanked by the ancient alchemist’s sun symbol on the vane at left and by the real moon on the right.

The sky over San Diego in California is usually a brilliant blue, but on the rim of the horizon is an ugly band of yellowish brown, and it is hard to watch children playing without feeling frightened about the poisons that they are breathing into their small bodies as they run. Inland, scarred eroded canyon walls attest to the developers’ endless expansion. By the shore, the comic grace of the brown pelican reminds one to ask, “Were there young this year?” for it is common knowledge that the high percentage of DDT and other toxins in their egg shells have made them too thin to permit the chicks to develop. Reminders of the threatened state of the environment are everywhere in San Diego. It was there that New Alchemy was born.

It is easier to forget on Cape Cod. A blurred horizon can mean fog. The woods and fields bloom with wildflowers, birds are everywhere, and usually a discreet row of trees can screen the fact that here too the developers are felling trees, laying roads, threatening the salt marshes and destroying steadily the dwindling acres of unspoiled habitat. And so here too, as everywhere, there is a need for people who would hope to restore the land and protect the seas. This is, in essence, the basis for New Alchemy.

It actually began several years ago, when a small group of scientists and students met in San Diego. Many of us had been chronicling the fate of environments and social systems under stress and felt a real urgency about our efforts. We felt overwhelmed by the enormity and apparent hopelessness of turning the tide of a society so entrenched in consumerism that it could threaten ultimately to consume our natural environment. Gradually, a path began to open before us that did seem to offer a true alternative to the self-destructive one we are on. As a tentative and partial solution, we organized an institute that would establish centers in a variety of climates, in several countries. Hopefully it will become an embryo of a science for reconstructive knowledge, knowledge that would be created by and for those trying to create a genuine decentralist and ecological alternative. We chose the name New Alchemy out of respect for ancient alchemy, a science of nature which was pursued within a moral and philosophical context. It too had strong roots in agriculture, gardening and metallurgy and focused on knowledge that could not be abused for destructive ends. When many of us moved to Woods Hole for professional reasons, we brought our fledgling institute with us. Eventually we were able to lease a farm on Hatchville Road, and with a land base at last, we were able to move from the realm of theory to that of practice.

Although the task of creating a biotechnic foundation for social change has only just begun, it is already possible to envisage how small groups or communities can act to rescue the earth from further depredations. Our early research has begun to reveal the exciting potentials of a holistic and essentially ecological approach, where power and food production, wastes, shelter, arts and industry are linked to each other and people are returned to process. Space limitations prevent a detailed description of these early explorations, but an overview should provide the essence of our approach.

A fundamental goal of the New Alchemists is to harness all our power requirements, including electricity, from indigenous non-polluting sources of energy, especially the wind and the sun. This seemingly impossible task becomes realizable if one begins by coupling poorly developed energy systems to biological ones, which have an intrinsic ability to cope with the unpredictability of the weather.

Our first attempts to trap and use solar energy on the Cape Cod farm did not involve the difficult task of heating a house. Instead, a more modest tack was followed, and intensive solar heated “tropical” aquaculture ponds were devised. Inexpensive geodesic domes with a double plastic skin cover small culture ponds, and on sunny days the temperatures inside are elevated 20-50 F. degrees. The ponds, in turn, store the heat and help to provide the climate for intensive food gardens within the same structures. The linkages between the systems are even more complete as the nutrient-and algae-laden pond water is used to irrigate and fertilize crops. Worms which proliferate within the enriched soils are used as one of the feeds for the fishes.

The sun is seen as an ally, with many uses that we are only beginning to comprehend. One of our group built a solar furnace which enabled him to work with metals and with his help we are considering building a tiny glass factory that uses a solar furnace. We want to make panes of glass from scrap bottles that will replace the plastic covering on the domes and other structures. The interest in the glass works is heightened by a desire to use it for craft and art work.

Working with the sun, albeit in a crude way, has brought us into closer harmony with the weather, and the windmill has tightened the bond. It is built almost entirely from scrap automobile parts and its first job is not too taxing. It provides electricity for a pump that circulates water through a biological filter in one of the closed fish culture systems. Biological filters are critical as they greatly increase fish yields and may have some ability to withstand varying rates of flow caused by a windmill. We suspect that in the not too distant future a windmill, biological filter and solar heated pond system will provide enough aquatic foods to provide all the meat protein needs of a commune or tiny community, with the costs being mainly labor, scrap materials and information.

What is evolving is the beginnings of an urban agriculture that has the potential to replace many of the environmentally destructive agricultural practices of large corporate farming. Last winter a tiny 18′ dome enabled us to set up a prototype food producing structure along ecological lines. To our surprise it provides for ten people greens in great variety and many of the vegetables during the cold months.

We will not be satisfied until we can collect and store all our own energy needs. On Cape Cod the wind seems to be our best source for electricity and our efforts are geared towards creating windmills that will provide us with power. The problems of storage during periods of calm has not been solved but there are several possibilities worthy of investigation. Underground batteries the size of cisterns might work and they could use scrap lead in their design. Windmills, not unlike those that used to grind grains, might conceivably turn heavy flywheels providing a continuous and steady source of electricity. We are also intrigued by living with changing intensities of energy, as it will intertwine our own lives with the rhythm of nature, bringing us closer to the earth. In the future men may tread softly on a small patch of earth and know it well.

If all of us lived under the rule that no wastes should leave their place of use, then a dramatic step towards environmental restoration would result. Wastes instead would be incorporated into a biological system that enhances the immediate ecosystem. Our first attempt to do this involved a pond culturing system which collects household wastes and sewage in a modified greenhouse situated over a small pool. Inside, algae, aquatic plants, fish and clams, along with a variety of insects are cultured and fed to chickens and larger edible fish. The cultured organisms, for their part, extract the pollutants and purify the waste material. The remaining liquid is used to irrigate crops and gardens. In this system, it is the wastes and the sun which are the primary sources of energy and what is ordinarily a problem, when dealt with on a small scale, becomes a solution by providing protein and enriching the local soils.

Even houses and architecture can be transformed and incorporated into the larger bases of support and community. One day shelters will become much more animate in the sense that they will be linked closely to the sun and wind, and their climates will be dovetailed with the agricultural and aquacultural systems in which heat is stored. House design should adopt many of the strategies of animals and plants so that their internal climates are regulated in a very organic way. If we lived in shelters like these, nature would be felt deeply through our lives and to abuse her would be a sinful act.

A new science and path of knowledge created by many people is perhaps essential for coping with the problems facing man in the next century. This science should be derived out of a microcosmic sense of scale and it should focus on the needs of individuals and communities trying to live as stewards of the earth. If the reconstruction that develops out of it encompasses the more profound elements of the human experience, than a libertarian alternative may have the power to limit growth and enrich mankind. Here on Cape Cod this science for the earth has its beginnings.

The Institute’s Kensington Farm, on Hatchville Road north of Falmouth, is open to the public May through October on Saturdays. If it is not raining, people gather to work in the gardens and on various projects throughout the day. We have a picnic lunch at noon, so if you plan to visit and work with us on Saturdays, bring some food for lunch.

For those of you who would like to become personally involved in the work of the New Alchemy Institute, there is an associate membership for $25.00/year, which helps support the Institute’s research and publishing programs. Members are provided with newsletters, bulletins and correspondence on any of their questions within the scope of the N.A.1. The Institute is non-profit and contributions are tax-deductible. Please send your contribution to:

The New Alchemy Institute-East

Box 432 -Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543


The references below provide an introduction to the Institute, its work and goals.

1. The New Alchemy Institute Bulletin #2

Widely reprinted and translated. Includes “A Modest Proposal”, a view of the maladaptiveness of modern industrial society. It outlines an example of a restorative approach to restructuring society.

Also includes “Design for a Tropical Center”, which explores some possibilities for land use and research in the tropics.

Copies are still available from NAI at $1.00 apiece.

2. The New Alchemy Institute Newsletters #1-3

The newsletters describe New Alchemy activities. They include designs for ecologically derived energy and food systems.

3. The Journa1 of the New Alchemists

The bulletins and the newsletter will be replaced by the summer of ’73 with an enlarged “Journal of the New Alchemists”. New discoveries and techniques will be described as well as plans and discussions of subjects ranging from energy to communitas.

The Journal and Newsletters are sent free to Associates of The Institute. Copies of Newsletters 1 & 2 are available from the Institute for $1.00 apiece.

4. Aquaculture Bibliography

If you are interested in fish farming N.A.J. has an Aquaculture Bibliography prepared by Dr. William O. Mclarney. Includes references on polyculture and pond construction. Cost $1.00.

5. The Backyard Fish Farm Workbook for 1973

This is a “how to do it” manual for collaborators on our intensive, low cost fish farm research. Edited by W. O. McLarney it gives the details of setting up a backyard fish farm and making collections of scientific data. Available from Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine, Readers’ Research Program, Emmaus, Penna. 18049. Cost $1.00. Not available through N.A.J.

6. A GARDEN RESEARCH WORKBOOK On Insect Resistance in Vegetable Crops & Companion Planting

Prepared by Richard Merrill. An ecologist’s guide to experimentation in the garden. A critical and fascinating manual for those interested in researching food-producing systems. The manual, some 50 pages in length, is being distributed to collaborators in the Institute’s countrywide research program. If funds become available we would like to have it printed and made available for wider distribution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: