Living green - from documentary The New Alchemists

The New Alchemists: Growing Food Without Fuel or Toxins

These days, organic foods, green building, solar-powered homes and electric cars are becoming more and more mainstream, but who can really afford them?

Many people, regardless of status or income, may dream of “going green,” but is this the prerogative of the rich?

Not at all, concluded The New Alchemists, a group of visionary researchers who began investigating this proposition in depth at the end of the 1960s.

On a 12-acre former dairy farm on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, they proved that with access to land, sun, wind, water, one can successfully grow food – and healthy food at that – using sustainable methods that don’t rely on expensive machinery or technology, fossil fuels or chemical toxins. How empowering.

sustainable living: organic food production

Dorothy Todd-Hénault’s short summery doc The New Alchemists (1973), produced as part of the NFB’s Challenge for Change program, introduces us to this fascinating crew and their revolutionary methods.

The adventure began when John Todd, an eminent Ontario-born biologist and Bill McLarney, an expert on aquaculture, along with Todd’s wife Nancy Jack Todd, funded The New Alchemy Institute in 1969.

Their goal? To research how humains obtain food, water, and shelter and to completely rethink how these systems were designed.

For decades, they did just that, publishing their findings as they went in the beautifully illustrated and highly readable New Alchemy Journal.

sustainable living in the late sixties

What they found, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that nature knows best.

One of the main lessons learned from nature is that there is no “waste.” The byproduct of one system is always used as input by one or more other systems, in an endless chain or cycle. This notion is visible everywhere at the Cape Cod farm.

As the female narrator explains, in her incredible nonchalant drawl:

Here, the energy from the wind runs the windmill, that pumps the water, that waters the garden, that grows the carrots, that feed the rabbits, that fertilize the earthworms, that feed the fish, along with the carrot tops, and the carrots, rabbits and fish feed the people.

The energy from the wind runs the windmill, that pumps the water, that waters the garden, that grows the carrots...

The film, beautifully shot by Martin Duckworth, shows all this and more.

Even if much of the work is conducted smiling, the odd can of beer in hand, these new Alchemists are scientists first, and the land is their lab.

We see three different models of DIY windmills, one made out of a bike wheel. We see experiments in which kinds of cabbage resist pests best without any type of human intervention. We see various types of ponds for growing fish, including one covered by a geodesic dome. Experiment!, they say. Stop trusting the experts and conduct your own experiments! See what you find out, and share with others.

small-scale solar and wind technology

Even in the day, the work of the New Alchemists sparked curiosity. At the end of the film, huddled around the picnic table to dig into the freshly grilled tilapia, is John Hess, journalist and food critic at the New York Times, who has come to check out the farm and taste what is has to offer. He declares the fish – the first that anyone around the table has tried – “not bad.”

No one is saying we all need to grow our own cucumbers or learn how to harness the power of the wind, but it is good to know that if push comes to shove, you could actually feed your family and friends with not much more than a small plot of, land and a few notions and techniques gleaned from our Alchemists friends.

You know, for when the oil runs out.

The New Alchemists, Dorothy Todd Hénaut, provided by the National Film Board of Canada