Alan Chadwick's "Economy of Gift"
As a counter-balance to the pervasive and deep seated materialism of our modern world, Alan Chadwick held himself to a different standard: He would always give freely of his personal resources, his time, and his energies without insisting on receiving anything in return. In doing so, he trusted the universe to reciprocate in ways that would allow him to continue his generous work in the world. His attitude appeared to be: If creation approved of his contributions and wanted them to continue, then it would inevitably provide him with an adequate way of sustaining his basic livelihood.
Chadwick thus placed himself prominently against the typical short term and short-sighted trend of commercial society at large. He fully rejected the crass methods of commercial agriculture, which typically strip-mines all the residual fertility out of the soil. He branded such practices as forms of modern-day piracy. In contrast to this, his maxim was to “give to the earth more than you take.” For that reason, we may say that the first and foremost recipient of Alan Chadwick’s “economy of gift”—as Dr. Paul Lee calls it—was the earth itself.
The economy of gift is the spiritual reverse of commercialism, where one’s energies and aspirations are dedicated toward idealized outcomes in life, and selfless service for the greater good as opposed to mere personal gain. By allying one’s self with the positive forces of nature and creation in a spirit of giving, one becomes a beneficial stimulus for an uplifting influence whereby the expansive spirit of generosity multiplies and spreads out in the world to the greater advantage of all.
When Alan was invited to establish the Student Garden Project at UCSC, he promptly agreed to do so without asking any further questions about salary, an allotted budget to cover garden expenses, or anything else. He was fully committed from the start to making it happen as a way of honoring the world-healing vision of his trusted friend, Freya von Moltke. The following day he went directly into town, purchased a spade with his own money and straightaway set to work on his famous hillside. Only later did it occur to anyone to inquire about his personal needs, and then to make special arrangements for his living expenses.
As soon as the garden in Santa Cruz began to produce vegetables and flowers, Alan came under intense pressure to sell the bountiful abundance of the garden to help finance the project. He was philosophically adamant against monetizing the garden and instead commandeered a bus stop kiosk on the main road into campus and used it as a flower stall for displaying and freely giving away the magnificent array of blossoms that were cut every morning from the garden. Legend has it that, at the height of the season, over ten thousand blooms were given away each day. While nobody ever kept count, it cannot be denied that many thousands of the most impressive varieties of exquisite flowers were freely enjoyed by the university staff and students on a daily basis, for which no one ever had to pay as much as a dime in return.
Vegetables were also sometimes placed in the special “flower stall,” as it came to be known, but more often they were arranged in the most sumptuous and attractive gift baskets and distributed among a select group of garden-project supporters such as Chancellor McHenry, Cowell College Provost Page Smith and several others in the university hierarchy who were dedicated admirers of the garden. Most of the vegetables grown by Chadwick, however, were consumed by the students and apprentices who labored day by day to keep the small but inspirational paradise flourishing. A free breakfast and lunch were served to anyone who cared to join in—it didn’t matter if you worked all day long or only for a half an hour. And those meals, which were almost entirely prepared from the garden’s abundance, were a miracle of nourishment and sensory delight.
With respect to the apprentices, Alan’s approach was always to accept their labor as sufficient compensation for the education and experience they received; he never charged for the unique training he provided in the time-honored classical techniques of horticulture. In many instances, he also gave lessons in mime, deportment, singing and elocution to whoever wished to participate, and all without any charge whatsoever. Contrast this to the apprenticeship program operated by UCSC today, where students pay between seven and ten thousand dollars to participate in a program that lasts only six months.
During the morning meeting in the garden every day, Alan would deliver an inspirational talk on a variety of themes that ranged from horticultural, philosophical, mythological or most frequently, a combination of all these topics and more. Anyone interested was welcome to participate: apprentices, students, or visitors. Alan never charged admission to any of his captivating performance-enhanced presentations; they were all given in the spirit of freely sharing his remarkable talents and knowledge. The same is true for the public lecture series that he delivered throughout the course of his life. He was never in it for the money, which hardly ever crossed his mind.
David Worden, one of Alan’s apprentices from Covelo recently wrote:
One observation about the nature and form of Alan’s philosophy of giving: It was “gift perfected” in that it contained within itself the obligation to give in return. For this reason, it is a gift that continues to live. Self-sufficient, self-sustaining, and self-replicating. Alan Chadwick didn’t give to us for the “taking." He gave, that we would give in return. The gift is recursive, self-referential; containing within itself the very philosophy of giving that inspired it in the first place.
One example: When I attended his lectures in Saratoga in 1978, a fellow approached him and asked if he could tape the lectures. Alan agreed, with the following stipulation: the person would make copies available to anyone who asked—for the cost of the tape only. (Craig Siska told me Alan told him the same thing when he asked to tape the Virginia lectures). Alan did not say, “the cost of the tape, plus compensation for your time duplicating it, 10% profit, shipping and handling, send me a percentage, put a copyright notice on each tape, etc.”
Receiving permission to tape the lecture was a gift to the person taping, but not just a gift for the “taking." It was intended to be a gift replicated. Alan actively recruited and involved that person in the larger economy of giving. A gift that is “taken" is terminal. A gift that is received and then given over again continues to live. A gift that contains within itself the obligation to give is eternal.
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One recurrent theme that can be found in many of Chadwick’s presentations concerned what he called your “attitude of approach.” He always contrasted the type of person who looks at ten acres and calculates how much money he can derive from farming it, as distinct from the person who asks the following kind of questions: How can I increase the fertility of this soil? How can I create beauty here? How can I foster the widest possible diversity of life within my farm? Alan would invariably say that the first attitude will get you exactly what you desire: the maximum profit, but it will be a loss for nature and the rest of the world. In return for your profits, you will have left a bleak legacy of degraded soil, barrenness, and the destruction of nature. You will end by being nothing more than a thief and a scoundrel. On the other hand, if your attitude is oriented toward creating fertility, beauty and diversity, then you will be on the road toward a re-creation of paradise. The earth will provide you with everything that you need, and you will experience the joy and satisfaction of living within nature's laws.
When, after a period of time at Santa Cruz, Alan began to receive a salary from the University, he did not hesitate in sharing it generously with four of his most advanced apprentices, thereby enabling them to continue working as support staff in the garden. Although he put himself at a considerable disadvantage financially, in this way he was able to help others, while also making it possible for the garden to prosper and flourish beyond what it would otherwise have done. He lived the most Spartan of lives so that the vibrant garden he created and its spiritual mission could have the maximum impact on the cultural life of the community around him.
In addition to the salaries for the support-staff, Alan would commonly provide money to buy whatever necessities the garden project required. If the chicken feed was gone, Alan would write a personal check so that we could go down to the feed store and buy more. On a regular basis he donated money to a fund that was administered by the Apprentice President so that extra food not grown in the garden could be purchased. Bread, butter, cheese, olive oil, and other necessary commodities were thus provided so that the apprentices were at all times well-nourished and healthy.
On one occasion, a local teacher visited the garden and requested Alan’s help in starting a gardening program for a group of high school students. Although the man was passionate and persuasive, Alan had to tell him that his hands were already full with the project at the University. As a consolation, he asked the apprentices if anyone would be willing to assist in the school garden endeavor. When I volunteered for the task and soon visited the site, I discovered that the school had absolutely no money to budget for seeds, plants, or gardening tools. I then approached Alan and asked him if the University garden budget could possibly spare some funds to purchase a basic set of tools for the new school project. Without hesitating for an instant, Alan pulled out his personal check book and gave me several hundred dollars to meet the need.
As long as I knew him, Alan Chadwick always advocated a life of service to the world, and he backed that up by his own example. Yes, there were times when he had precious few personal funds to meet his economic needs, but by and large the cosmos always made sure he was provided with the basic necessities for his life and work. The example that he set for his apprentices in this way, became, for many of them, a cornerstone of their own lives. As one of those apprentices, Dan McGuire, recently wrote:
The whole purpose of the Garden was to uplift, to sanctify and to consecrate the earth, the plants, and the elemental beings that dwell there. In fact, it was apparent to anyone with sensitivity who visited Alan’s garden at that time, that there was an intense atmosphere filled with spiritual forces.
It was a very sacred place.
We can be inspired even now… by the work of this great man. And in some small way, we may bring his inspiration into our own lives, so that we live not merely for our temporal selves. We can become in tune with the infinite, and bring the blessings of Eternity into earth existence. In so doing we bless and uplift the Earth planet, and ensure its future.
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Looked at in this way, Alan Chadwick’s overall message to the world can be distilled into three affirmative elements:
- The teaching of a classic form of agriculture that respects and preserves the earth and all of its life, and that is therefore conducive toward a sustainable future.
- The recognition that beauty is a transformative force for good within the human soul.
- The example that a life of service to the world without seeking anything in return, can unfold powerful forces beyond the individual human personality and contribute a lasting positive effect on earth evolution.
We should also remember as well that the converse of these three propositions unfortunately and predictably leads in the opposite direction. An agriculture that is dependent on petrochemicals, poisons and artificial fertilizers will destroy the soil and its productive capacities for future generations. Blight, selfishness and the absence of beauty will drag the human spirit downward into despair and depravity. A materialistic attitude of personal enrichment will condemn humanity to increasing exploitation, poverty and injustice.
Alan Chadwick’s idealism prompted him to manifest in every way possible the more positive aspects of these outcomes. He firmly believed that focusing on the creative, the beneficial and the constructive was the only way to survive the all-too-pervasive incoming tide of destruction and egotism. He believed that the individual can make a difference, but only by standing firmly for what is good, true and beautiful. His whole life constitutes a singular and illuminating example of the true spirit of giving and the economy of gift for all those who might choose to follow him on the same path.
Contributed by Greg Haynes, August, 2015