Alan Chadwick a Gardener of Souls




On the Cosmology of Alan Chadwick

By Rodney Blackhirst, PhD

“And suddenly… the revolutionibus enters the entire magic of the matter.”


Over the decade or so of years that Alan Chadwick spent bringing a new organic horticulture to North America he developed a dynamic and admittedly eccentric vocabulary for describing his methods and his philosophy. Anyone who knew Chadwick and attended his lectures or has since read transcripts of his talks will certainly be aware of this; he employs an odd phraseology, is happy to mangle certain terms and often seems to invent new words on the run. His style was unique and to those unaccustomed to it somewhat baffling. The lucidity of his gardens spoke for itself - here was a man of enormous rapport with and insight into the deepest processes of nature, and especially the plant realm. But how does one explain it to others? He often complained of the inadequacy of words and denounced the perverse “verbosity” of the “word-mind” as he called it. The great truths, he believed, as he said in one lecture, “come through the corridor of the mind without words.” Thus he sometimes struggled to find the words he needed. And thus his verbal habits sometimes lurched into an opaque idiosyncrasy.

In the Chadwick lexicon no word is more idiosyncratic and more opaque than the word “revolutionibus”. He picked up this archaic Latinism somewhere on his travels, most likely from the title of Copernicus’ famous tome De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) added it to his collection of strange phrases, and began to use it over and over. It became a regular fixture in his terminology, a feature in his repertoire. Towards the end of his life he used it describe the very centre-piece of his philosophy of nature. Indeed, in the later Chadwick, all is revolutionibus! “Everything in nature is life into death into life. It is revolutionibus!” he says in the talk ‘Nature’s Medicine Chest’. For some people it made a lasting impression. Chadwick was the guy - the kooky genius - who went on about this “revolutionibus” idea. On surviving tapes of his lectures you can sometimes hear, or at least sense, sections of the audience wryly smiling to themselves, “There goes Alan, on about his revolutionibus again...” According to some accounts, the revolutionibus was the abiding theme of the talks he gave from his death bed during his last days at the Buddhist hospice at Green Gulch Farm in 1980.

It must be said, though, that it remains unclear exactly to what the word refers. Chadwick is sometimes hard to follow, and never more so than when he starts to punctuate his performances - because this is what his talks were - with this most pregnant of words. When we look through the transcripts of his talks from various times and venues, we find that the term is applied in a wide range of contexts and with meanings that seem to shift and change. Most often it seems to have an astronomical significance more or less in the Copernicean sense, namely that it refers to the revolving heavens above us. This is the sense he is using it in a passage from a talk entitled  ‘The Great Herbaceous Perennial Border’. Referring to vistas of landscape he says:

You perceive these great sweeps leading either to lakes, over hills, over woods, into forests, up mountains, suddenly into the total sky and the stars forever, where everything comes from, the revolutionibus!

Here the revolutionibus is, evidently, the total system, the universe, the cosmos.

Similarly, in a talk on propagation the term refers to cosmic totality:

When the seed forms, an embryonic performance takes place in the flower, from the planet it is governed by, and by the revolutionibus in toto, of course, as well.

Elsewhere when talking about planetary influences upon the vegetative world he uses the word in a similar way. In a talk about the fragaria, the strawberry, he says:

When you go into Origin, you can repeat the birth out of the invisible to identity. It’s obviously coming from the same planet, the planet to influence the revolutionibus.

He would be infuriated by any suggestion that such a statement is at all cryptic, which it is, but it is clear that the revolutionibus is again an astronomical system coloured or influenced in this case by one or other of the planets. Different planetary configurations influence the revolutionibus.

Often, drawing further from Renaissance cosmology, Chadwick makes additional distinctions when he discusses this concept, and points to the “Primum Mobile” and the “Secundus Mobile”, the primary and secondary wheels of the Copernicean model. His interest in this is in the way that, though they are cycles, they never repeat the same configuration twice. The dynamism of this fact is very dear to him and central to his vitalist philosophy. The wheels of the cosmic revolutionibus turn one upon the other, planets and fixed stars, but they do so in such a way that every instant of time is unique in itself, every moment of time is a fresh creation. This is the chief characteristic of Chadwick’s living universe; the revolutionibus imparts uniqueness to every breath and heartbeat of time. Otherwise, the universe would be static and dead. The patterns of the heavens above us are ever changing. As Plato relates in his cosmological work Timaeus, when all the cycles of the heavens are exhausted time is complete and the living universe ends. Chadwick uses revolutionibus in this sense very often. It is a catch-word for the living, pulsing, vital, ever-changing universe within which the gardener practices his art. We need merely look up at the stars in the sky, the operations of the Primum Mobile and the Secundus Mobile wheeling against each other, to appreciate this reality. He states in one talk:

We are always… trying to catch everything and put it in the cage and make it static. And you can’t… No moment ever repeats itself. No day is a repetition of a day… It’s perpetuoso. And there is no time at all. For the revolutionibus is there.

The revolutionibus is alive with potential; the gardener must bring this vital quality to his work and understand that the garden exists under the grand majesty of the living heavens.

In other talks and other contexts, however, the notion of revolutionibus seems less directly celestial and apparently refers to a broader principle, a cosmic dynamic that is active in the terrestrial realm as well. It is a necessary feature of Chadwick’s conception of nature and his entire approach to gardening that everything from the smallest microbe to the greatest galaxy is interconnected and relevant to the gardener’s work. We would say today that he has a ‘holistic’ view of nature - he called it, in his idiosyncratic style, ‘totemism’, a deliberate twist on ‘totalism’. The revolutionibus is the great organism of this totality and not merely the churn of the starry sky. The revolutionibus is not merely above us as a remote astronomy; rather it is everywhere and, in fact, we exist within it. Its dynamism works in all the forces of nature. It is the cosmic process of movement at every level. In the talk Energies and Elements in 1977 he says:

We have talked about fresh water, fresh air, and with it, fresh food, fresh living and fresh thinking. It is movement, of course. Non-static! Revolutionibus!

Freshness is an important quality in the Chadwickean worldview, and it is revolutionibus that keeps the moment ever fresh. Non-static, as he says. That which stops and stands still dies. Yet even in this the revolutionibus creates the cycle of life and death in all its manifestations. One of Chadwick’s favourite formulae expressing the dynamic of the vital cosmos is “life-into-death-into-life”:

All death is life. In the forest, all the great storms of the equinox, falling in love, breaking down the trees in their exuberance. All the boughs, the foliages, the dead animals, the birds, they’re all part of the whole incredible rebirth in the equinox. And everything in Nature is this revolutionibus. There is no waste of anything.

This most fundamental of cycles, the great cycle by which life and death and rebirth alternate and by which the seasons turn - it is all an expression of revolutionibus. To “revolve”, of course, means to turn around and has the same meaning as “cycle”. The revolutionibus governs the great cyclic facts of existence. The gardener must strive to bring the garden into the dynamism of these living cycles. This, indeed, is, for Chadwick, the essence of so-called “biodynamic” horticulture.

There are other contexts, though, where revolutionibus concerns other forces. In a talk given at Covelo in September 1975 with the title ‘Fertility, the Merchant and the Seer’ Chadwick is discussing fruit trees and observes:

You will find that all of the revolutionibus, that is light and air, will interplay equally around every bough...

Plainly, the term is here used differently than the usual astronomical sense. Specifically, it refers to the light and air that “interplays” among the branches of a tree. It is not some abstract astral force far above; its action is in the light and the air. More often still, it is associated with the “gasses” that perpetuate fertility in the soil. In a particularly colourful passage from a lecture on composting and the fertilization of the soil he says:

It is very seldom in the garden that you actually want to make, out of compost heaps, soil… The whole purport about the organic, about the compost heap, is an incredible matter. What you are going there for is warm moist gases. So that when you put the whole secret into the soil, you have created a volcano of revolutionibus.

With the “warm, moist gases” of well-made compost the expert gardener creates a veritable “volcano of revolutionibus”, a profusion of fertility.

But what, one must ask, does this have to do with the revolving stars  and the vitality of their endless patterns? This is where the whole matter becomes confusing. We can appreciate the background of the constellations and the holistic gesture that places the garden within a broad cosmic setting; we can understand the idea that, through whatever agency, the heavens ‘influence’ the life of plants, but what do the “warm, moist gases” of the compost heap have to do with the revolutionibus? And how is the “light and air” of an orchard connected to this? It is the transition of viewpoint from the celestial to the aeriform that is hard to fathom. One minute we are among the stars and planets and the next we are among the air of the atmosphere and the gases of the earth.

In an illuminating statement at an urban garden symposium at a Community College in San Jose, California, Chadwick explained many important connections. It is a statement that deserves careful reading:

When one talks now about roots and leaves living upon this, in the French intensive bed, you have to entertain the interplay of the planetary system, which, with its sleeping and waking, inclination and declination, does the matter of feeding through the atmosphere, so that the plant breathes in through the air, and travels down through the roots into the soil. Thus actually feeding the soils. Likewise, in the opposite pulsation, feeding out through the roots, through the soil, up the stems, through the leaves, into the air. This is a procedure, which goes on in opposition, like breathing in and breathing out, and this is the whole essential of the study of biodynamics, introducing the play of the cycles, the work of the revolutionibus.

The unifying idea here is breath. The cycles to which he is referring are not the mechanical turns of an astrolabe but rather the pulsations of a living breath. All of the various cycles that he brings together in this passage are an expression of this breathing. The turnings of the heavens, as much as the expansion and contraction of the seasons, as much as the dynamic growth of plants with their oxygen/carbon cycle, are to be understood as a breathing. This, as Chadwick puts it, “is the whole essential of the study of biodynamics…” This is where the light and air of the orchard and the warm, moist gases of the compost pile come into play: they are part of the breath of life.

The key word in this passage is pulsation. It is revealing that Greg Haynes, who studied under Chadwick in the early, halcyon days at Santa Cruz, reports that this is the word Chadwick used then, before he acquired the term revolutionibus. There was no “revolutionibus” when Chadwick first arrived and crafted his first magic garden on the new campus of UCSC. Rather, he spoke to his apprentices of “pulsation”. The universe is alive with a pulsation, and the living garden must be brought into a vital participation with it so that it - the soil and the plants - pulse with life. This pulsation is the great movement of the heavens, as well as of the seasons - the inclination and declination - as well as the cycles of vegetative growth, and the whole art of gardening is to work with this great pulse of life; this is “the play of the cycles, the work of the revolutionibus.” It is unclear exactly when Chadwick acquired the term “revolutionibus”, using it to replace or expand the idea of “pulsation”, but it seems it was at some time during his residence at the garden project in Round Valley at Covelo. In any case, the term becomes less mystifying and less opaque when we understand it in this context. He chose it as a synonym for “pulsation” and he means the “breathing in and breathing out” of all things in a great cosmic respiration. It is wrong to think of it only in its astronomical sense; he means the great bellows of cosmic existence that animate all things. This explains why in so many of his lectures and talks the revolutionibus is connected with the element of air. Chadwick horticulture is a gardening of air. It is all about air - pneuma, ruah, spiritus. All his techniques concern this. In a talk concerning the central method of his gardening, the raised bed, he says:

But you see, the moment that you have an escalation, you've got flowing air going on, you've got change, you've got the interplay of the revolutionibus.

The raised beds breathe. “You’ve got change,” he says - the dynamics of motion, non-static, the breath and pulse of life.

A further and crucial dimension of this emerges when we consider the very nature of vegetative life. The dynamic of change is not chaotic and random but rhythmic. Not only do plants breathe but there is a dynamic that reveals itself as a ‘pulsation’ over time as the plant grows in successive waves of expansion and contraction, or “tension” and “relaxation” as Chadwick would have it. This, as Greg Haynes relates, is an example that Chadwick would often use during the instruction of his students. Chadwick was deeply indebted to the studies of Goethe and especially Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants. Plant-life doesn’t move in a single continuous gesture; rather it moves from the contracted state of the seed (tension) to the expanded state of leaf growth (relaxation), then back to the contraction of the bud (tension), then to the opening flush of the flower (relaxation), then again to the contraction of the seed and so forth. In his later lectures Chadwick uses a distinctly Goethean vocabulary for this. The seed, he says, is all idée. This is the antithesis of metamorphosis, unfolding. It is all, in any case, another instance of pulsation, a sequential and almost musical expansion and contraction of forms. The revolutionibus is a rhythm, a music, a dance.

* * * *

Two models suggest themselves to further clarify these matters. One is from the east and one from the west, one from the oriental traditions and one from occident. Chadwick himself seems to have re-engaged or reconnected with a boyhood Catholic heritage in his quest to bring clarity, depth and fullness to his teaching. Just as Greg Haynes and the other apprentices at Santa Cruz heard nothing of the “revolutionibus” in their early encounter with the master gardener, neither were they aware of his identification as a Catholic. They report being surprised to find a priest making Catholic rites at his funeral. It seems likely that Chadwick’s reading of Copernicus - a Polish clergyman who dedicated his work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to Pope Paul III - was part of this spiritual realignment, conceivably in the wake of the trauma of being dismissed from the garden at Santa Cruz and an unhappy sojourn among the Buddhists at Green Gulch Farm. For a time, Chadwick was adrift in counter-culture America and, although it remained a highly personal thing for him, he found some solace in the Church whose liturgy and pomp were consonant with his sense of sacred theatre. In his later interviews with the journalist and biographer Bernard Taper he is emphatic: “I became a Catholic,” he says, “Thank God!” He read, or at least dabbled in, Copernicus and adopted some terminology and ideas from Renaissance cosmology. Had he not been looking back into a Catholic past he might have found a different vocabulary.

In particular, especially in the context of the Californian counter-culture exotica of that era, he might well have reached for the Chinese cosmological coordinates of yin and yang. These are the two cosmic principles of expansion and contraction, darkness and brightness, that, although seeming to be opposites, are in fact complementary and interchangeable. In the manifest realm all tangible dualities - male and female, summer and winter, night and day - are expressions of this primal duality. The two forces balance one another and in this way form a dynamic system that is a close parallel to what Chadwick is describing. The symbol used to depict these primal forces is well known; it is a divided circle with an S-shaped line separating light from dark but with each containing the seed of the other. Technically the symbol is called the Taijitu, the “emblem of the supreme ultimate” in Taoism. It has now entered into Western culture, and is seen often in debased forms such as a tattoo design.


yin yang


Nevertheless, it captures the idea of “revolutionibus” very well. If the European notion of revolutionibus now seems remote and archaic to us, the idea of the revolving interchangeability of yin and yang from Oriental philosophy is perhaps more accessible. The Taijitu is nothing less than an image of the revolutionibus of which Alan Chadwick spoke, with yin and yang forming a pulsation of interchangeable complementarity that is the driving dynamic of the living cosmos.

The parallel is sometimes quite exact in Chadwick’s talks. Here, for example, is a passage from a talk he gave in Covelo in August 1976, transcribed with the title ‘The Garden as the Mirror of Man’. He says:

I go back to the matter of the Earth and its forces, and the marriage that takes place in the atmosphere. In that marriage and that atmosphere, do you realize, there is the issue that remains over, during night, when we would think that there is no light and nothing prevailing? The resemblance that you sometimes find in very early spring day of last fall, and the discoveries in the middle of summer of the awareness of fall being in there. They are all respectably interwoven. Of course we have four named nominalities, which give us a completely false proposition. Therefore, in this atmosphere—which is a marriage—a birth goes on, and that birth is changeable all the time. Not only every moment, particularly every day and connected with seasons is that changeableness acute, in whole areas bunched together. Do you understand? This is very intangible.

Let us decipher this from his somewhat rambling style. He is speaking of the ‘marriage’ of dawn, when the earth and heavens are ‘married’ in the atmosphere of ‘aurora’. It is one of his favorite themes. The old thespian  knows and loves Aurora, goddess of dawn, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He finds a mystical import in the dawn nuptial of earth and sky. In keeping with his notion of ‘freshness’, Chadwick was a man of the dawn. But, he observes here, we are not dealing with opposites but with complements. In the night we think there is “no light and nothing prevailing”, but we are wrong. Rather, they are “interwoven”, day and night. There is a trace of day left in the night. There are days in spring that seem like, that echo, or mirror, the days of autumn. In the midst of summer is the germ of its opposite. We have “four named nominalities” - he means we give names to four distinct seasons - but that is a false conception. The point he is making is exactly the point illustrated in the abstract schema of the yin and yang symbol. In the midst of yin is the seed of yang. In the midst of yang is the seed of yin. Thus, the revolutionibus. Thus does the wheel turn. Opposites are born out of one another: if not for this fact there would be a static duality and death.

In an amusing interlude during one lecture in Virginia Chadwick casts a question to his students. Why, he asks, do we water the garden beds? The students hesitate, rightly suspecting it to be a trick question. Finally, some brave soul offers the obvious reply, “To make them wet?” “No!” the maestro hollers in full rage. Wrong answer! The right answer is: so that they dry out again. The wet/dry pulsation. Without it there is no life. Chadwick wants his students to think in terms of dynamic opposites. He wants his students to understand and practice a Tao of gardening.

The example of the seasons, whereby each contains the germ of its opposite, and the doctrine of yin and yang whereby an excess of yin yields yang and vice versa, points to our second model, namely the stirring technique described by Rudolf Steiner in his lectures on Agriculture that is now a common part of Biodynamic farming and gardening and specifically the so-called “preparations” used in Biodynamics. Alan Chadwick, let us recall, had the rare privilege of having had Steiner as his personal tutor as a boy, and though it was only for a brief period Steiner left an indelible mark upon the young aristocrat. Some have questioned these connections, but they have since been confirmed by Alan’s brothers and we have no reason to doubt Chadwick’s assertion that Steiner planted “seeds” in him that germinated late in his life. In California, in the 1970s, at any rate, having been tutored by Rudolf Steiner was some claim to fame and there were certainly occasions when Chadwick made the most of it. There are reasons to suppose, however, that Chadwick was an accomplished student of the Austrian polymath and a great exponent of his esoteric horticulture. Some question this because Chadwick never used Steiner’s “preparations”, but there are good reasons to believe that Chadwick had a profound grasp of Steiner’s methods and, in a manner altogether true to his one-time tutor, made them his own.

The most famous of the Biodynamic preparations is so-called “Preparation 500”. This consists of cow manure placed inside a cow’s horn and buried in the earth in the heart of winter. It is then dug up in the spring and stirred in a vat of lukewarm water in a particular manner before being sprayed upon the tilthed soil. It is said to help create soil structure and the formation of humus. Amongst other things, Steiner proposed it as a method of bringing “cosmic forces” into play with the terrestrial. It has been developed to greatest effect in Australia where a Polish-born farmer, Alex Podolinsky, has adapted it to broadacre application and led a movement that has rehabilitated over a million hectares of damaged farmland.

The stirring method for “500” is described by Steiner as follows:

You must set to work and stir. Stir quickly, at the very edge of the pail, so that a crater is formed reaching very nearly to the bottom of the pail, and the entire contents are rapidly rotating. Then quickly reverse the direction, so that it now seethes round in the opposite direction. Do this for an hour and you will get a thorough penetration.

In practice, as Podolinsky and others have perfected the method, the stirring is done outdoors in the presence of air and sunlight and proceeds until a vortex is formed. Then the stirring is suddenly reversed and the vortex is shattered. The water falls into chaos. This continues until a new vortex is formed, then it is shattered in turn, and so on. At the end of an hour, as Steiner intimates in his lectures, the sweet scent of cows which had gone from the  manure over-wintered in the horn returns to the water, an indication that it is ready. It is applied to the soil in the late afternoon, just as the carbon/oxygen cycle changes and the earth starts to breathe in and the scent of the evening arrives. Air is the vehicle of the preparation. The stirring forces a huge amount of air into the water until it is silky in texture. Once it is sprayed on the soil the air and water separate and the earth breathes in the “preparation” like a homeopathic potency. The mechanism of this device is very subtle and sophisticated. Predictably, it has invited misuse and outright silliness among mushy spiritualists and those who mistake it for some form of neo-pagan rite. Chadwick, sensibly, said that he avoided it because he didn’t want people to attribute the splendor of his gardens to “potions”.


vortex in water


Anyone who has witnessed the stirring of 500, however, should have no trouble understanding what Chadwick meant by “revolutionibus”. Steiner’s stirring method is the revolutionibus in microcosm. Just as yin gives way to yang, so an excess of one direction precipitates its opposite. It is a rhythmic, pulsating stirring that captures the breath of the cosmos. The whole method imitates the churning of the heavens, the turn of the spiraling galaxies, and links it to the respiration of the earth. The ideal time for applying the preparation to the land is not only at turn of day to night, the magical intersection of Aurora, but at the so-called “earth turn” of spring and autumn when the seasons - the whole earth - changes from inhalation to exhalation. It is obvious that although Chadwick did not use 500 himself, he had a deep acquaintance with the forces and cycles and processes of nature which the preparation seeks to employ. He sums up the whole method and theory of Steiner’s preparation 500 in a single word, “revolutionibus”. If we want to understand what he meant by revolutionibus, we need only watch and appreciate the stirring and application of this biodynamic “horn manure” as it is called.

Those who say that Chadwick didn’t practice biodynamics because he didn’t use 500 are guilty of simplistic thinking. Most likely, they themselves use 500 as a magic nostrum without any insight into its real significance. As we see in Chadwick’s doctrine of the revolutionibus, he had a deep, profound insight into Steiner’s biodynamics, so much so that he found ways to achieve sublime results without the use of the preparations. Someone once quipped that “Alan didn’t need a Steiner preparation. Alan was a Steiner preparation!” It is true. People who knew the man commented on his circadian rhythms. He was like a force of nature. He was linked, in his person, in his bones, to the living cycles of the good earth. For all his eccentricities, he was nearer to the very marrow of the living cosmos than almost any other man of the modern era. It was this that made him the supreme gardener of our time. We need not get tangled up by the “word-mind” about this or that term. The important thing is to know the reality of the thing. Chadwick’s revolutionibus - the cosmology that he placed at the centre of his art - might seem a quaintly old-fashioned idea today, but it is, finally, the right word for the thing to which he wanted to draw our attention as something vital that we have lost.

* * * *

Shakespeare had a vast and fluid vocabulary. By comparison, modern English is impoverished and degraded. There are concepts and ideas and subtleties of thought that are impossible to think in the techno-rational new-speak of our age. Steeped in Shakespeare over a lifetime on stage as he was, no one was more acutely aware of this than Alan Chadwick. If he chose to resort to archaic terminology, to bend phrases and invent neologisms, it was because of his deep suspicion of the straight-jacket of modern idiom. He was, in any case, trying to relate ideas - or rather realities - that were self-evident to former ages but which have been buried under the gross abstractions of modernity. The revolutionibus - or the pulsation of life - is the master key of his philosophy, but while it remains a profound reality it is no longer a comfortable fixture of modern experience. It is only when we are confronted by the extraordinary vitality of a Chadwick garden that we are nonplussed by a wonderment that asks, ‘How did he do that?’ and none of our usual categories suffice. There is no secret ingredient, no anthroposophical elixir. The revolutionibus is not some academic construction and even less some doctrine of the occult. It is the very throb of life that animates the living All. One of the most common quotes cited from Chadwick is the following:

We are the living links in a life force that moves and plays around and through us, binding the deepest soils with the farthest stars.

What is this “life force”? It is not some mysterious Factor X or some “etheric” ghost in the cosmic machine. It is not the “vital force” of nineteenth century vitalism or even Bergson’s élan vital. It is revolutionibus. It is the great animating breath that pervades the whole of cosmic totality. That it “binds the deepest soils with the farthest stars” is the clue to its understanding. All of the methodologies of Chadwick horticulture - techne as Chadwick called it, here preferring a Greek term - have but one end; to make the soil and the plants that grow in it breathe along with the respiring cosmos in a quivering, joyous pulsation of life. We might better appreciate this through exotic philosophies of the East or through the esoteric science of Steiner, but it will just remain empty words unless we experience it in ourselves. This is what Chadwick means when he says “we are the living links.” To know the revolutionibus is, finally, an act of being, an act of participation. It is not something we can know intellectually. Intellect can only ever know of it. This is a salient point regarding what survives of Chadwick’s ouvre in his lectures and talks. It might seem strange and baffling, loaded with unfamiliar and funny terms and turns of phrase, but it becomes a lucid testament to those who bother to sink their fingers into the soil and who apply themselves, without guile, to the work of love that is gardening.





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