Alan Chadwick a Gardener of Souls

The Clairevoyer - Corbin & Chadwick

Draft notes on some interesting parallels between the work of Henry Corbin and Alan Chadwick, with reference to horticultural devices in Renaissance madonnas.

By Rodney Blackhirst, PhD

madonna and child

In a key passage in Henry Corbin’s Temples & Contemplation he reminds us of the Roman origins of the word “temple”: templum - a raised platform or space that allowed an augur to extend his vision in the four directions in order to observe omens from the flight of birds. A “temple” then is, etymologically, a place for extending vision. For Corbin, this is the spiritual act par excellence and specifically refers to an extension of vision to the mundus imaginalis, the imaginal realm. In the Corbinian cosmology the airy way cut by birds is the physical correlate of the subtle, inner, spiritual realm that is populated, according to the world’s religious traditions, by angels and similar spiritual beings. Defining and charting the mundus imaginalis and the modes of spirituality that are concerned with it is the cornerstone of Corbin’s life’s work. He argued that in our time the imaginal has become closed to us, that it has disappeared from our spiritual life and modern man is profane (outside the Temple) in exactly the sense that his vision has become restricted and limited; there is now a vast dimension of the cosmic totality, an entire realm, that he no longer sees.

We find these ideas reiterated in unexpected ways in an unexpected source: the lectures of the master gardener and ecological philosopher Alan Chadwick. Born into an aristocratic English family, Chadwick had the rare privilege of having had the Austrian mystic and pedagogue Rudolf Steiner as his personal tutor when he was a boy. He grew up to have a career in theatre before turning to horticulture. He studied under English and French masters and informed their methods with aspects of Steiner’s “biodynamics”. Relocating to the United States, he was to become a pioneer of organic gardening and of the modern American vitalist movement. He created several extraordinary gardens in the United States during the 1960s and 70s including a famous garden at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California. He is counted as one of the great horticulturalists of modern times. He also had a unique philosophy of nature that he described as “alchemistic” and that he shared with his students and apprentices. Recordings of nearly three hundred of his lectures are extant. These reveal Chadwick as an ecological visionary for whom gardening was first and foremost a spiritual enterprise. It is his spirituality of vision that strongly resembles Corbin’s.

In several of Chadwick’s lectures, and notably in a lecture devoted to the topic of the Grand Herbaceous Border – a feature of the great classical gardens of Europe - he refers to what he calls the “clairevoyer.” By this term he means a particular effect in landscape design. Of course, it is a word related to “clairvoyant” which in common use means someone with psychical or paranormal powers and which literally means “one who sees clearly”. A “clairevoyer”, in Chadwickean parlance, refers to a line of sight that is calculated by the gardener to lead the eye from the terrestrial features of a garden into the distant sky. According to Chadwick, the grand herbaceous border – sometimes so grand as to be miles long in some of the great European gardens – was traditionally designed in this way; it carried the eye from the terrestrial to the celestial. Chadwick understands this as an inherently spiritual gesture; the function of the lines of the border is to extend vision just like Corbin’s templum of the ancient Roman augurs. A clairevoyer is a feature of landscape that opens the garden into the sky. Historically, it became a feature of European gardens from the Renaissance onwards; by definition it was not a feature of the enclosed monastic gardens of the Middle Ages which were designed for quite a different spiritual effect.

Like Corbin, imagination is central to Chadwick’s worldview. He again uses a French term, image (pronounced im–arj), to refer to the spiritual faculty in man. He takes this understanding, as he admits, from Goethe (via Steiner). Much of his thinking has roots in German romanticism and in the romantic imagination, the same soil in which Corbin had his roots. A clairevoyer in a garden is an invitation to image, a doorway into the imaginal. It is thus a spiritual component in garden design, part of gardening as a sacred art which indeed is how Chadwick understood it. A clairevoyer extends man’s vision from the earthly plane to the angelic, the middle realm between the corporeal and intellectual that corresponds to the faculty of imagination (image) conceived as a mode of spiritual perception and not just as empty fantasy in the decadent modern sense. Chadwick too believes that modern man has lost his image; it is the inter-realm, symbolized by the sky, clouds and birds – to which the clairevoyer points - that has been lost.

The remarkable thing about Chadwick is that, by his own estimation, he achieved what he described as a “huge marriage of practicality and vision.” Corbin was a scholar. Chadwick was a gardener. He was a practical outdoorsman, not a theoretician. His purpose was to bring his vision of nature into practical reality through the form of gardens and through such devices in gardens as the clairevoyer. This even holds true of the centre-piece of his horticultural method: double digging or trenching. This is a method of cultivation - first developed by the ancient Greeks in their “era of alchemy”, according to Chadwick – that radically expands the cultivated soil both downwards and upwards, filling the soil profile with air. His theory can be pieced together from his lectures. Soil is an inter-realm. It is a filter between the mineral bedrock and the atmosphere. In a direct sense it corresponds – cosmologically – to the mundus imaginalis. This is why Chadwick speaks of the operations of nature in terms of angels and elementals. His carefully prepared double-dug, permanent raised garden beds are a medium between what he refers to as the “visible and the invisible”. In an off-cut from an extant video interview Chadwick was once asked what he thought had gone wrong with the world: he answers with a single word – compaction. Industrial agriculture compacts soil. But man himself has become compacted, hardened, condensed. This is a parallel implicit throughout Chadwick’s work. His gardening techniques are a solution to soil compaction. At the same time, his philosophy of gardening offers a solution to compaction of the soul.

To illustrate his point about the clairevoyer in the lecture on the grand herbaceous border, Chadwick draws attention to the same device in Renaissance oil paintings. Indeed, it is a feature in one of the most celebrated oil paintings of all, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The line of sight, he observes, leads into a background landscape that is expansive and ethereal. “One of the great attractions of the Mona Lisa,” he says, “is that clairevoyer” and he complains that “nobody understands it” anymore. He goes on: “And indeed those wonderful Verocchios, those Raphaels, they all have the clairevoyer into the sky behind the Madonna.” He then observes the relationship of this clairevoyer to the figure. “In all cases you will see that the eyes of all the religious figures are averted…” he says.

He is right, as any glance over the tradition of painting to which he refers will confirm. Typically, the figure (Madonna) is seen at three quarter face. In the background is an open, airy landscape that disappears into mists of great distance. Oftentimes there are vast skies visible through windows and flocks of birds wheeling through the air. There is no direct connection between the Madonna and the skyscape. She has her eyes downcast. Her gesture is inward turning. This downward gaze is in contrast to the vast view that opens behind her. We are thus to understand that her downcast gaze signifies inward vision and the background represents the internal vista into which she looks. These paintings, as Chadwick reads them, are about image, the imaginal, the extension of spiritual vision. These paintings illustrate, for his purposes, the significance of the clairevoyer. The clairevoyer is not just an aesthetic device in European landscaping; it corresponds to a certain state of contemplation (to use the Corbinian correlate to “temple”, to com- template). This is the subject matter of the Renaissance Madonnas: the clairevoyer and its corresponding spiritual state. “And therefore,” Chadwick says to his green-thumbed apprentices, “you see, you must not interfere with the pure vision of the clairevoyer.”


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This article was first published on May 15, 2012 on the following website:

Reprinted by permission, courtesy Rodney Blackhirst



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