Compost is soil’s natural balancing agent, building up and breaking down. Through its chemistry “It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions… It gives such divine materials to man, and accepts such leavings from them at last.” - Walt Whitman, “This Compost”
Compost The management of a compost heap is viewed by many as a time-consuming mystery practiced only by the gardening elite. Nothing could be further from the truth. The management of a compost heap is anything but time consuming. The use of compost has its origins, not in some arcane horticultural theory, but rather as a response to two practical problems: one, what to do with grass cuttings, plant trimmings, and other garden debris; two, how to obtain a good supply of potting and garden soil without spending a fortune on peat moss or packaged mulch. The answer, of course, is to transmute garden trash into soil conditioner and growing medium. The mechanism that accomplishes this bit of alchemy is the compost heap.
Matter is covered with a layer of soil and is left to decompose. The compost making process can only be successful with moisture and air and plenty of nitrogen. It is important to turn a compost heap to bring soft material to the center of the pile and to distribute the organisms at work. This also keeps the pile from compacting easily rotted material. Pile heaps will cook bacteria and decompose and compose and decompose.
The two kinds of bacterial activity that turn leaves and other debris into compost are fast acting aerobic bacteria which require oxygen, and slow-acting anaerobic bacteria which do not. When a compost pile is turned and aerated, the aerobic bacteria begin their swift work. When the oxygen is exhausted, the anaerobic bacteria take over. They work much more slowly, but the final result is similar. Whether you stir or let it sit, it will rot.
New Alchemists The New Alchemy Institute was a research center founded by John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd and William McLarney in 1969. It grew out of a critique of modern industrial agricultural processes, researching instead energy efficient, integrated systems of living that could operate in harmony with the planet. Their aim was to create self-sufficient, regionally autonomous communities without a dependence on fossil fuels. Since John Todd and William McLarney were both marine biologists the work took inspiration from wetland ecologies creating micro-environments or what they called 'living machines'.
“The idea of doing activities from various disciplines– energy, architecture, agriculture, waste water, you name it– was simply not possible within the university setting at that time. A number of people, who became very close friends, were coming to the same conclusion: that we had to find new institutional structures to go after a larger vision.” - John Todd
Their research on agriculture focused on intensive organic farming techniques and types of planting that did not rely on machinery. 'Aquaculture' was fish farming in ponds that could happen on a small-scale in people's gardens and backyards. 'Bioshelters' were essentially large greenhouses adapted for food production that created an artificial environment for the ponds and planting, allowing food to be grown year round. From the humble beginning of a small inflatable pool covered with a plastic dome, bioshelters became highly sophisticated and specialised environments that could maintain a productive ecosystem. A number of these were realized, including the Ark for Prince Edward Island (PEI Ark) in Canada, built in 1974 and funded by the Canadian government. It became the site for testing many of the principles of 'living machines'.
Where Le Corbusier famously decreed that a house is a “machine for living”, the New Alchemists believed it should be more like a “living machine” – a combination of architecture and biology.
Much of the research was published in the Journal of the New Alchemists as detailed guides and manuals in the hope that others would recreate their experiments. It was a radical vision for changing the way we live and crucially connecting humans back into the ecosystem, rather than trying to solve the problems of unsustainable lifestyles. The New Alchemy Institute closed in 1991 but its archives can be accessed via the Green Centre, also based in Cape Cod. John and Nancy Todd later founded the Oceans Ark International which continues with similar work.
Many of the ideas developed at the New Alchemy Institute are now seen as standard ecological design practice, such as the use of composting toilets, water purification using plants, solar collectors, or composting greenhouses that use the heat generated from compost to warm the greenhouse-a modern adaptation of the centuries old French method of heating glass cloches with horse manure. The New Alchemists combined a political anarchist view of self-sustaining, self-organising society, with an environmentalism that rejected urban life and saw humans inhabiting the earth with minimal impact. Spatial agency is located in this radical vision but more importantly perhaps in the production of practical research that made possible this other way of living.
"Will you recall for us the origins of the new alchemy institute?" John Todd:In the late 1960s there was a strong sense of revulsion against science. A lot of people thought that most scientific activity led to destructive ends– pesticides, herbicides, the triumph of the industrial culture over nature. It was our feeling, very strongly, that the revulsion was legitimate, but that science needed to be seen in a much more exquisitely whole light, as a science of assembly, where knowledge could be reintegrated around a whole theme of reverse stewardship.
From the very outset, we saw all of science as a kind of pigment in this great canvas we hoped to be able to paint. This canvas had to do with reintegrating society into a genuine partnership with nature. I was a young college professor, promoted too quickly, still in my twenties, to associate dean of 19,000 students. I was made the head of this new Center for Environmental Studies and I was realizing that a university department, for example, wasn't going to change the paradigms. We were talking about fundamental change.
At the time, Nancy Todd, who co-founded New Alchemy Institute with me, and Bill McLarney, a third co-founder, and I, were very taken with the notion that most of the way society goes to try and improve a bad situation is basically to work on the coefficient's structure of the system alone.
Through our friendship with people like Gregory Bateson, we realized that, technologically, we're a completely addicted society. Let's say that we're addicted to internal combustion– the way we would solve the problem of using too much gas is to make it more efficient. But there was nothing in the society that would allow us to ask the fundamental question, "How would we get around?" The same was true of food production– using too much energy from halfway around the globe, or simply poisoning the hell out of the planet.
New Alchemy had really begun to go back to first principles. There is another underlying theme, which was borrowed from the teachings of Taoist science, of which I was a student, that is that science not practiced out of a context of sacredness or responsibility was a devil's bargain. If you think about it from that point of view, if science were practiced in that context, nuclear power wouldn't have developed the way it developed. I don't think modern society would have developed the way it has developed. So we had to change the rules. There were all kinds of great minds floating around to which one could turn for inspirations.
Social Ecology In 1988 Murray Bookchin published the essay Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology, promoting an organic view of social theory wherein the individual finds meaning only in community that he helps create and of which he is a creation. In the essay he writes:
For good reason, more and more people are trying to go beyond the vapid "environmentalism" of the early 1970s and toward an ecological approach: one that is rooted in an ecological philosophy, ethics, sensibility, image of nature, and, ultimately, an ecological movement that will transform our domineering market society into a nonhierarchical cooperative one that will live in harmony with nature, because its members live in harmony with other. They are beginning to sense that there is a tie-in between the way people deal with each other as social beings– men with women, old with young, rich with poor white with people of color, first world with third, elites with "masses"– and the way they deal with nature.
The questions that now face us are: what do we really mean by an ecological approach? What is a coherent ecological philosophy, ethics, and movement? How can the answers to these questions and many others fit together so that they form a meaningful and creative whole? If we are not to repeat all the mistakes of the early seventies with their hoopla about “population control,” their latent anti-feminism, elitism, arrogance, and ugly authoritarian tendencies, so we must honestly and seriously appraise the new tendencies that today go under the name of one or another form of “ecology.”
Arguing against the deep ecology movement of the late 70s and 80s, Bookchin writes: “social ecology does not try to hide its critical and reconstructive thrust in metaphors. It calls “technological/industrial” society capitalism– a word which places the onus for our ecological problems on the living sources and social relationships that produce them, not on a cutesy “third wave” abstraction which buries these sources in technics, a technical “mentality,” or perhaps the technicians who work on machines… nor does it ignore class, ethnic differences, imperialism, and oppression by creating a grab-bag called “humanity” that is placed in opposition to a mystified “Nature” divested of all development.”