Alan Chadwick and Joseline Stauffacher in Santa Cruz

Alan Chadwick a Gardener of Souls

You Just Need to Start the Emanation

A brief glimpse into Alan Chadwick's approach to dealing with critters that threaten the garden; ways of addressing the problem, even if one is not entirely certain how to proceed. Some examples are given, notably accounts of battles with sparrows and gophers.



A wire fence surrounded the garden that we made at Green Gulch. It was part of Alan’s method to make use of such perimeter fences to grow peas, since they need something to climb on anyway. Accordingly, we had planted snow peas in deeply cultivated soil around the entire circumference of the garden. But when the plants reached a height of about 6” it was observed that sparrows were eating their leaves and were doing considerable damage. What was to be the solution?

Now, when plants are concentrated in a regular garden beds, there are some things that you can do. Alan used a method he called “Black Cotton.” It consisted in stringing strands of black, cotton, sewing-thread back and forth across the surface of the bed, suspended from little pegs that stick up about 6” or 8” above the ground. The sparrows have a difficult time seeing the black thread as they fly, and when they come into contact with it they are frightened and so fly away. This is actually quite effective, and also very humane as opposed to the alternatives.

But at Green Gulch, the garden area was perhaps 40 yards wide by 90 yards long, and so it would have been highly impractical to run zigzag rows of cotton thread around the whole perimeter. I personally was at a loss about how to deal with the problem, but Alan had an idea: He made us build clackers. These were simple affairs, just two short lengths of 2x4 lumber, maybe 16” long, connected at one end by a metal hinge. You could open the jaws of the thing and then snap them shut with a sharp CLACK! and this noise would frighten the bajeebers out of any bird that happened to be close by. He recruited two female Zen students to walk the perimeter fence, clacking constantly as they went. They were to keep on opposite sides of the garden from each other so that the sparrows wouldn’t just fly over to the other side when they heard the clackers approaching. Both flanks would thus be guarded.

When somebody suggested that it would be cruel to assign someone to perform this boring duty all day long, Alan replied with a laugh that it was a very Zen kind of practice—you know—non-attachment and all that. When I suggested that the birds were just going to flit to the areas between the two clackers, Alan declared that it didn’t matter. “You just have to start the emanation,” he said. He went on to describe how sometimes, even when you are not sure what the correct solution is to a problem, you just do something, and that communicates to the cosmos your intention to address the issue. The simple fact that you have engaged your will-forces in an active way creates a spiritual emanation that radiates outward and puts the world on notice: Don’t mess with me!

I knew Alan to utilize this method many times over the years, and came to recognize the wisdom of it. You can almost visualize a magnetic field around your body that reflects the intensity of your sheer determination. When your commitment is weak, the magnetic field is correspondingly weak, and so does not intimidate the birds or other forces of opposition. But when you are adamant in your position, in your defiance, in your resolute determination to confront and resist all assaults, then almost magically the cosmos gives you some space.

There is a famous quote, often attributed to Goethe, that says:

“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

This is a great mystery, and it is related to that other aspect of Alan’s philosophy, which he called attitude of approach. He claimed that when you approach nature with an attitude of respect, of reverence, with a willingness to work within her laws, then she responds with a gift to you of incalculable abundance. You can’t quantify it: “Two plus two does not equal four,” he would say. The mysterious and ineffable soul of creation will respond to your attitude, and this will affect the outcomes you experience. Everything has to do with your attitude of approach, your intention, your inward radiation, your emanation.

Of course, mere intentions do not take the place of actions. Many years ago, I made a garden for a woman I loved. After a while, when gophers noticed the plants in the new garden, they began to eat them, as is their nature. Although I hate killing gophers, there is no alternative if you want to harvest anything at all from your labors, so I bought some traps and “started the emanation.” When this woman saw what I was doing, she became indignant and derogatory. She told me that I should just communicate with the divas of the gophers, and request that they stay away from our garden. How dare I inflict violence and pain on some of God’s creatures?

I suppose I should have asked her what she thought the farmers who grew the vegetables she was buying in the market were doing with the gophers in their fields, but when criticized my mind freezes up. Pained by her cavalier rejection of my loving efforts on her behalf, I just said that I would no longer trap the gophers, and that we would see how long the garden lasted using her philosophy. In two or three weeks there was nothing left. Apparently, communicating with the divas is not enough.

I have observed over the years that there is no act of creation, however laudable, that does not also involve some element of destruction. Ideally, the destructive element is minimal, but it can never be escaped entirely. If you build a little house for some destitute orphans, for example, you have to cut down trees in order to mill the lumber. If you construct a modest hospital in a rural area of some impoverished country, the concrete slab of the floor will destroy the fertility of the soil in that spot. It just can’t be helped. Just in feeding yourself or your child, plants or animals are destroyed somewhere.

There is no utopia where everything is sweet and nice, where there is no suffering. But the scale of the suffering can be reduced enormously by using sustainable practices. Alan Chadwick was no fool. He understood the way nature’s economy worked, and he was ready to accept the consequences of his actions even when they involved some minimal elements of destruction. Compared to the “factory farms” of modern corporate agriculture, however, Alan Chadwick’s methods were supremely respectful of the natural world.

But Alan had no patience for hypocritical students who denied responsibility for the destruction that they themselves caused in the world. Such people were judgmental in the extreme when it came to the acts of others, but blissfully oblivious to the effects of their own actions. Alan would rattle their cage by making them see what they preferred not to see. Whenever a gopher began to work in the garden, Alan would set at work to trap it. When he was successful (which was almost always) he had a habit of carrying the trap (with the now dead gopher still in it) and laying it on the potting table right outside the tool shed. When squeamish visitors or apprentices passed by they would be mortified and disgusted at the sight. “How could Alan be so cruel?” they would say. But this was Alan’s way of reminding them that every time they ate a lettuce, an apple, or any other food, that they were causing a similar series of deaths. By being remote and removed from the process, they could feel good about themselves as they paid someone else to do their dirty work for them.

In general, Alan was the only one who would roll up his sleeves and tackle that unpleasant chore. One time, however, while working in the main garden at Santa Cruz, I decided to take a little break and rest in the shade for a while. I sauntered over to the area that Alan called the “Formal Garden,” a small shady planting of fuchsias, jasmine, and azaleas all nestled under a clump of redwood trees located at the westerly end of the garden. As I entered from the south side, I noticed that a gopher had made a fresh mound in the middle of a small clump of flowers that occupied the one sunny area of that Formal Garden. All of a sudden, something inspired me to try my hand at trapping him, so off I went to collect what I needed from the tool shed.

Without saying anything to anybody, I proceeded to clear out the hole, insert the trap, and cover the whole thing up again, more or less as I had observed Alan do, albeit from a distance. As I learned later, this was a very foolish thing to do. A gopher almost always pushes soil in front of himself whenever he enters one of the side-tunnels that lead up to the surface, and this soil would spring the trap before the gopher entered it. The experience would serve only to educate the little critter and make him much harder to trap later. You have to dig down to the main run and set traps in both directions down there, well below the surface. But, as it was, I got lucky and the next day found that my efforts had been successful. Very proud of myself, I carried the trap with the dead gopher in it up past the chalet and left it on top of the potting table as was Alan’s habit.

Later, when Alan went to fetch something out of the tool shed, he saw the trap and the gopher on the table outside. I suspect he formulated a short list in his mind of the possible apprentices who might have been responsible, and went about making inquires. All I really know is that he tracked me down in the nursery area, where I could almost always be found, and demanded to know if it was I who had caught the gopher.

I casually acknowledged that, yes, it had been me, but at the same time assuming a nonchalant air as if to imply that it was all in a day’s work; nothing at all out of the ordinary; why make a fuss about it. I remember Alan beaming like a proud father whose young son had just caught his first fish. It was like we two were the only members of a fraternity that, behind the scenes, kept the whole thing running: one that nobody else knew about or appreciated. He offered to instruct me in the finer points of gopher hunting so that if the occasion should arise again I would have the necessary skills, rather than just relying on blind luck. Of course I accepted his offer, and for a week or so he involved me in all of his strategies and works-in-progress that pertained to the never-ending battles with these destructive rodents.

In a more natural setting, owls and rattlesnakes would have performed the services of keeping the gopher population in check. But since neither of those animals is comfortable around people, much less around roads and endless streams of cars roaring about, we had to step in and fulfill that function in their stead. As I said before, it’s an unsavory business, but somebody’s got to do it or we’ll all starve to death.

After that, Alan never trapped in the nursery. If he noticed the tell-tale signs of gopher activities before I did, he would merely mention that I had better take a look down among the raspberries, or the Korean chrysanthemums, or wherever he had observed them working. I dutifully did my part, and rarely did he have cause to regret his decision about inducting me into the brotherhood. He was a good teacher, and I somehow managed to keep from disappointing him.

The most fundamental rule he taught me was the need to inspect every trap every day. He explained that sometimes the trap sprung before the animal was in the perfect position, and the result was a pinned and wounded gopher, but one that was still alive. This was a horribly painful predicament for the animal, and it was irresponsible for the trapper to leave it in that condition for any longer than necessary. So, even if it was pouring rain, freezing cold, on a personal day off, or whatever the pretext for postponement might be, you had to set it aside and check your traps before pleasing yourself. It was an inviolable duty, and to this day, forty some odd years later, I have never breeched it.




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