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Reinventing the World

The inventor of Biosphere 2 looks back at his original—and controversial—life experiment

February 18, 2009, 12:00 am

Synergia Ranch, Santa Fe

By John Allen

—excerpted, with permission, from Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2 by John Allen, Synergetic Press, 2009

In 1966, while consulting to a gold and palladium outfit in the Cerrillos Hills near Santa Fe, New Mexico (whose flamboyant owner combined work with Interpol checking out promoters with promoting his own mining claims), I identified a nearby ranch as a high-energy, life giving place. In the spring of 1969, Marie Harding put all her capital, $14,500, into a down payment on the last quarter section of that small ranch while I raised $7,000 in capital from several partners, also anteing up my last $500 to buy tools to get materials (by taking down old houses doomed to fall under a “developer’s” bulldozers) to build housing, animal areas, and carpentry, pottery, iron-work, and architectural shops. We started our project adventures.

Cerrillos, our bioregion, presented us with a very interesting combination of geology, ecosystems, and cultures. A transition zone between the Chihuahuan desert, high plains grasslands, and piñon and juniper biomes, where all these life forms mingle and compete, the Cerrillos Hills is a place where only the sturdiest individuals had survived. Culturally, the Cerrillos Hills had been an old mining district, perhaps the oldest in the United States, its turquoise having been highly desired by the Aztecs whose empire extended to Mount Chalchihuitl, a mile and a half from the ranch. The northwestern edge of its juniper-and piñon-studded slopes marked the boundary of the Santo Domingo reservation; its hills had filled with mining claims and a few value-laden mines, its slopes been staked out by several ranches. The Hispanic culture interacted with the ranches and mines. Occasional Indian hunting parties sought its rabbits and some of its few deer.

The Cerrillos area fell into the ambit of Santa Fe’s complex life after most of the town of Cerrillos was washed away by flash floods caused by miners cutting down too many trees for their small smelters and most of the mines had been exhausted. Los Alamos and Sandia Laboratories, each located an hour away, ensured access to the cutting edge of the scientific milieu. Santa Fe also has served for generations as a favorite hideout for outstanding anthropologists and as an inspiration for certain artists and writers.

Marie and I named our find Synergia Ranch and found two other co-founders, Kathelin Hoffman Gray, theater director, and Bill Dempster, systems engineer, who are still operating it with us. I envisioned it as a complex, dynamic, adaptable system with many component parts, all interacting in a self-organizing (non-planned) way.

At the ranch, various entrepreneurs set up various studios; Marie in pottery, along with her painter’s studio and her horses; the brilliant young dancer and director, Kathelin Hoffman Gray, in theater; the dancer-musician Celia Davis in a clothing-costume shop; the versatile Joel Isaacson in metal works; avant-garde dancer Annette Longuevan in leatherworks; Robert Hahn in the laboratory making our cure for plant ailments; Phil Hawes (AIA) in plumbing; and Chili Hawes (a key advocate of natural childbirth in the Santa Fe community and active member of the La Leche League which encouraged breast-feeding) in health works. Bill Dempster, a mathematician and physics graduate from Berkeley who had been working at Lawrence Radiation Laboratories, took primary responsibility for the engineering systems, and quickly became a versatile actor and my long-term merciless antagonist in our rapid games of Go. Dick Brown, a master technician, and an artist whom I had met on the Hrvatskawhen sailing for Tangiers, co-founded the woodworks shop with me.

This profitable and productive woodshop, at its height run by four partners including Mark Nelson and Argos MacCallum, played a vital role in building our ranch facilities and furniture, its doors and windows, and also provided cash flow for the owners from the sales of hundreds of our unique tables, doors, and chairs.

Besides a number of diverse enterprises run by the above individuals for their economic livelihood, people at the ranch participated to varying degrees in theater productions and the evolving line of work on ecotechnics. My special fields were basic building design, construction and theater. I set up our overall marketing system, called Biotechnic Bazaars, which became quite popular, and thus we financed the start of our fascinating and enlightening adventures. Each enterprise put in ten percent of its income to building and maintaining the infrastructure. We governed the ranch on Wilhelm Reich’s “work democracy” principle: you got to speak on any area where you did responsible work. No one could pop off about something where they did no work, and no one could be excluded from decisions in areas in which they worked.

For agricultural experiments, after major discussion with two remarkable local innovators, Steve Baer and Steve Durkee, on growing food cheaply year round in high cold New Mexico, I constructed two semi-enclosed “grow-holes.” Besides the cheap good vegetables, I tested hydroponic methods against soil-based methods of growing and found soil by far the best and most economical for complex, sustainable, recyclable agriculture. If they are properly worked, soils can increase their productivity. This work on soils and temperature, commenced in 1970 (and which continues today at Synergia Ranch), was to provide guidelines for the extraordinarily productive agriculture in Biosphere 2.

We ran the kitchen at the ranch on the efficient style of a kibbutz near the Lake of Galilee at which I worked for a brief time in late 1968. I called it Synesthesia because we all agreed that the entire, differentiated, aesthetic continuum was needed to complete the protein, carbohydrate, fats, and vitamin calculations. Each dinner, therefore, had not only a chef or chefs, but also a person who did the environment, or ambiance; each kitchen team, rotated daily, put on a skit based on our theater exercises that aimed to highlight the mood of the day and increase the actors’ ability. We treated each dinner as a feast, each Sunday night as special, and each equinox and solstice as a celebration of cosmic-solar-geo-bio-ethno harmony.

Convinced that no enterprise can succeed without its players being able to speak well, we made Sunday night dinners into “free speech nights,” which constituted part of the training for our actors and built vital entrepreneurial skills. Each ranch member made a three to five minute speech on a self-chosen topic. No one could argue about what anyone said; it had to be listened to. Some plunged us into deep thought, some cracked us up in laughter, some produced silent but effective audience feedback that resulted in improved performance.

In 1980 we integrated our architectural and design work into a new corporation called Biospheric Design, whose primary mission consisted of designing and building projects initiated by the Institute of Ecotechnics. Margaret was CEO and she, Phil Hawes, Marie Harding, Bill Dempster, Ed Bass, Kathelin Hoffman and Robert Hahn all bought stock to start up the new company. No one owned more than twenty percent. Biospheric Design became possible because we had completed our initial learning curve building Synergia Ranch and its various artisan shops and labs, followed by Synopco’s Project Llano in Santa Fe.

The Hispanic family that owned the llano, now comprising over three hundred individuals, had deliberately spread the ownership in order not to lose the land to a fast-talking Anglo. However, their leaders liked our style, as seen at Camino Manzano and Synergia Ranch, where we made thousands of adobe bricks by hand in the old wooden forms. They volunteered to get all of those relatives’ signatures, thus enabling the land to be sold to us. At last, I could build the thick-walled adobe paradise I had dreamed of, with efficient plumbing and electricity, with the best trees preserved, the occasional fruit tree planted, and paths and certain areas to remain common property. Our Hispanic friends said, “It will improve Santa Fe for all of us.”

In addition to the two tour de force houses on Camino Manzano and thirty-one houses at Llano Compound, we also built five new buildings to make the base for Project Tibet on Canyon Road, and Plaza Alegre on the road to Taos. The success of Synergia Ranch and the Santa Fe projects inspired and created the intellectual and technical capital for expanding into the more demanding type projects that would take the next step toward building Biosphere 2. Our toast: “Step by lucky step.” Our motto: “We deliver.”

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