New Alchemy Institute transforms into the Alchemy Farm

“Alchemy Farm Co-housing combines the social design of co-housing with ecological forms of housing and agricultural use of our common landscape. Our mission is ‘to create and nurture a co-housing community where individuals live in integrity and harmony with each other and with nature, using sustainable agriculture and energy-efficient methods to produce and provide food, energy, and shelter; and where community members are encouraged to grow to their greatest potential while living cooperatively.’

Our large common house and pedestrian center are bordered by organic fields, gardens, and mature tree crops. New residents develop their own house design and personal landscape. Most recent new homes include photovoltaic electricity, radiant floor heat, waterless toilets, and modular construction.

Alchemy Farm occupies 16 acres of fields, gardens, play areas, and woodlands and is bordered by forested conservation land with a large lake. One-third of the land contains 13 private home sites in two clusters, and two-thirds is shared common land, common house, and social areas.

Our co-housing community is in the large community of Cape Cod, with nearby beaches, historic seaside towns, and the active scientific and cultural community of Woods Hole.”

* * * * * * *

Everything in and around the Hatchville home of Hilde Maingay and Earle Barnhart has a common purpose. The trees and lush greenery surrounding the two-story house. The koi and goldfish swimming around under a small waterfall in their front yard. The photovoltaic solar panels on the roof.

Indoors, the walls are white — symmetrically separated by numerous large windows, which allows for the light of day to pour in like water through a colander; similar in design to the homes found in Hilde’s native Holland. The bamboo floors are there not to impress visitors, but to better reflect light, and to minimize the need for electrically powered lamps during daytime hours.

I was there because I wanted to see “The Ark,” and to check in on a movement. Before being “green” was mainstream, the New Alchemy Institute was established by a group of scientists in 1971 to see if they could live more efficient lifestyles — reduce their carbon footprint — by better managing natural processes with modern science. Hilde has a master’s in science education, and Earle is a biologist.

“The Ark” was NAI’s signature experimental creation: a bioshelter about 90 feet long and 25 feet high. Think of a greenhouse where food is cultivated year-round and waste is recycled in a controlled loop.

When NAI disbanded in the early 1990s, Hilde and Earle, who had worked at the institute since its inception, along with a small group of community-minded people, bought the 16-acre farm and created Alchemy Farm Co-housing. Like the other seven homes on the grounds, Hilde and Earle designed and built their own. Then they attached it to “The Ark” so that their living room opens up into the bioshelter, as if it were a giant sun porch.

Inside “The Ark” are planted vegetables, lemon and fig trees, specially designed stone retaining walls and nine cylindrical tanks made of translucent fiberglass full of fish. The stone walling and fish tanks are a key part of the bioshelter’s function in storing and releasing thermal heat energy.

Behind their house is a raised-bed garden, which allows them to grow more vegetables in a smaller space — a concept that dates back to ancient China. Next to the garden is a chicken coop. The chickens, of course, produce their eggs, but they also eat Earle’s and Hilde’s food scraps.

“What the chickens don’t like, the worms eat. And then the chickens eat the worms,” Earle tells me, as he shows me around.
Back inside, I ask him and his wife about the state of the movement they joined 40 years ago. “Well, all of the New Alchemy people went on their different paths. … They discovered it was very difficult.”

But not difficult enough to send Earle and Hilde packing. They’ve established an ecological landscaping business. They set up a co-housing community that works like a neighborhood association but is governed by a more socially conscious consensus. A third of the land is individually owned by the residents. The other two-thirds is owned in common.

All the residents are committed to living an energy-efficient and ecologically friendly lifestyle, which includes the use of solar panels, radiant floor heat, modular construction and waterless composting or packaging toilets.

Wastewater is their big project now, Hilde says, explaining their efforts to persuade the town of Falmouth to consider alternatives to a centralized sewer system.

“Our interest is in how people can manage their own waste ecologically,” which they acknowledge is tied to their interest in not paying the tens of thousands of dollars homeowners will be charged to build and hook up to a sewer system.

It’s an uphill battle — one that goes beyond wastewater.

“To live like this, time is limiting factor. To tend to the gardens and everything else takes time — time that most people like to use watching TV and things like that. That’s a challenge for most people,” Earle says.

But throwing in the towel on this experiment is not an option, either.
“The more elements of use you put into something, the more efficient it will be. … The less we use, the more there is for future generations. People who think in terms of efficiency tend to think long-term. People who think in terms of money tend to think more in the short term,” Hilde says.

Alchemy Farm is living proof that being truly green can be done without living off the grid in some kind of Luddite utopia. And just being around Hilda and Earle for a while is enough to get you thinking about reducing your carbon footprint through the conscious act of following your consumption habits to their logical conclusion.

There’s no need to feel guilty about consuming. That’s who we are — creatures who consume things in order to survive. But what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to think about the consequences of our collective behavior.

You may not be ready to live like Hilde and Earle, but their lives do pose a powerful question to the rest of us: If we never really think about the consequences of our current rate of consumption and waste-making, do we then lose our humanity and become pure animals?

Source: Sgonsalves at



About [ open myth source ]

The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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