Alan Chadwick’s Enchanted Garden
By Tom Cuthbertson
E. P. Dutton, New York, 1978
This is a book about Alan Chadwick’s gardening techniques. But more than a mere “how to do it” book, Cuthbertson tries to explain the “why to do it” aspect of the art. And because a comprehensive treatment of the entire French Intensive Biodynamic System would run to dozens of volumes, this book narrows the focus to three particular crops: lettuce, comfrey, and sweet peas.
Why acquire a gardening book that treats the culture of these three plants only? Well, for one thing, the basic techniques required for these three crops are applicable in hundreds of other situations. And for another, the philosophical approach (which this book takes very seriously) is universal and applies to the whole garden.
A large part of this volume consists in observations of garden techniques as seen through the eyes of a rabbit that has its burrow just outside the Chadwick garden in Covelo, California. He is almost always mystified by the goings on in the garden, but the narrator then promptly jumps in and explains the underlying reasons.
Alan Chadwick appears only once in the entire book, and then only to yell at an unsuspecting apprentice for almost cutting a sweet pea bloom that Alan had intended to save for seed. The narrator depicts the incident as an example of Alan’s pedagogical methodology, which—to be fair—it mostly was. Although, only one blow-up by Alan in over two hundred pages of narrative about the Covelo garden is being very generous. These were common occurrences.
The introduction to this book was contributed by Page Smith, Alan’s long time ally at the University of California at Santa Cruz where Alan built his first teaching garden in the United States. Page writes, “This is a book, then, about procedures for planting a garden, about how the various things in the garden—including the people—are related, and thus inevitably about what it is to live in such a garden.” In describing Alan’s personality Page says, “In a period that all but deified collective decision-making, Chadwick was dictatorial, mercilessly demanding, given to sudden and unpredictable rages, alternately charming and terrible. Looming up in the garden he had created, he cast spells and hurled imprecations.”
At another point in the introduction, Page quotes a statement that every former apprentice will instantly recognize: “In our garden,” Alan Chadwick explains, “we are trying to re-invest in simple tasks a sense of their true significance.” Although Page does not further elaborate on this concept, I would venture to say that this one little pearl of wisdom was almost worth the price of contending with a whole year of Alan’s tirades. It is unfathomably profound.
Sure, you can buy your bread in a supermarket, for example, organic or otherwise. Sure you can buy vegetables anywhere, buy your honey, your milk, your grains. Sure you can buy a house that has been built by others, have your car serviced by experts, and listen to the best of recorded music. But what an impoverished existence you will lead as a result. How many missed opportunities have passed you by while you allowed others to live your life for you? The sacred mystery of tending your own bees, for example, could have taken you to a level of personal spiritual development that would have created the beginnings of wisdom in your life. Building your own house, baking your own bread, fixing your own car, growing your own vegetables…, would have made you whole and real, instead of the shallow imposter that many of us really are.
This is an unutterable mystery; you can’t explain why it should be so. But true it is, like the flight of a butterfly or the hardness of a diamond. A human being cut off from life’s simple tasks pays a very high price; he forfeits contact with the sacred source that could have given his life meaning and joy. Instead he lives in the vacuum of empty words, entertainment, and depression.
And here we come to another part of this mystery, one that Alan set as an example for us in his own personal life. Once you have come to “re-invest in simple tasks a sense of their true significance,” little by little, you come to appreciate simplicity itself. And the measure of what is simple is just the ability to comprehend and tackle the task in human or natural terms.
For example: Human beings have evolved along with fire for hundreds of thousands of years. It has become part of our nature to sit around a fire at night, to watch the flickering lights with our eyes, and at the same time to listen to stories told by our parents and grandparents about their lives, the history of the tribe, the day’s hunt, the problems facing the family-unit in the immediate future, hearing the traditional songs, watching re-enactments of dramatic events, and much more. We are, after so many millennia, “programmed” to crave this type of experience.
And how does this play out today? By watching television! It’s all there: the flickering lights, the stories, the narration, the jokes, the surprises, the violence… But is this modern artifice a human, soul-enriching experience? Or is it an isolating, alienating, deadening, and ultimately unsatisfying substitute for real life. Virtual reality is what we have accepted in place of the real thing, and this cuts us off from our true spiritual foundations. Thus through the simple act of kindling a fire we re-link our souls to our true humanity.
Or, as another example, take the case of the person who buys carrots as opposed to growing them in a backyard garden. Nutritionally, they may be similar, but what must the gardener be attuned to that the purchaser is not? Intricacies of the weather, the fertility of soil, the patience of waiting for the harvest, the infinite fragrances of the garden, the colors of the foliage, the care of living plant-beings with all the sensitivities and sympathies required in doing that, the cycle of moisture in its relation to healthy plant growth, the planning and design of the garden-layout and planting schedule, the fraternity of other gardeners who always share a special regard for one of their own, learning to contend with crop failures and being viscerally affected by what is available to eat—or not, exposure to the birds and their songs and their cries, gaining a respect for the world of the insects as they pollinate our crops, the satisfaction of having entered into relationship with the natural world and successfully harvested an edible crop as a result, and many other benefits too numerous to mention.
Just observe children who have worked in a garden, who can knit simple clothing, who can build things out of wood, who can play a musical instrument, sing in three or four part harmony, confidently act in dramatic productions, draw a fair likeness of a subject, cook food, bake bread, etc, and you will see human beings who are really alive, who have a spark of fire in their eyes, who will go on to accomplish important things in the world. Alan had it all right in that respect. He lived in a simple manner by his own choice, rode a bicycle, baked his own blackberry tarts, grew his vegetables, raised his chickens, taught what he knew to his apprentices. In short, he spent his life in creative pursuits rather than passively entertaining himself with outside stimulus. The man ...“truly lived where others haven’t even been born,” as John Cage once said of him.
This book goes on to describe the many procedures necessary for building and maintaining a garden: compost preparation, collecting seed, soil cultivation, planting out seedlings, fertilizations and their proper stratifications in the garden beds, cultivation of lay crops, harvesting techniques, the positive use of weeds, cycles of the sun and moon and their effects on plant growth, irrigation methods, plant propagation, and much more.
But beyond all of the above, an unintentional sub-text strikes you as you read about this garden of Alan’s in Covelo. Many of the descriptions of the garden, and the techniques used to sustain it, revolve around the incredibly harsh climate that had to be contended with there in Covelo. There is even a chapter called, “Late Frosts and Early Scorches” that outlines the extreme measures taken to offset the impossible climate of that place. With summer temperatures well over 100 degrees day after day, in addition to heavy frosts, even snows, well into spring, gardening in Round Valley was grueling.
All of that simply wore Alan down. Here he was, in a foreign country without family support, utterly dependent financially on his patrons, emotionally isolated from having invested deeply in so many students—only to have them abandon him later, in constant pain from the triple spinal injury that he suffered during World War II, and finally developing cancer and seeing his strength and life forces dwindling away. Who could blame him for his short temper and his intolerance of people who betrayed their indifference to the mysteries of life that he had worked so hard to manifest. I defy anyone who dares criticize Alan Chadwick to measure their own personal sacrifices for humanity and the environment against his lifetime of devotion and care to those causes. As Rudolf Steiner once said, "Easy to criticize; hard to make a creative contribution of your own to the world."