Richard Merrill Remembers Alan Chadwick
Intentional Deception or Selective Memory?
A couple of years ago, when first planning out my contributions for this website, I made a list of all the memories involving Alan Chadwick that I could recollect. Little by little, I have woven most of them into the various writings and audio clips that have been posted here under my name during the last two years. At this point, only a few of these memories remain unmentioned and some of them are so fragmentary that I have questioned whether they will ever find a suitable context for presentation.
One of these still-unmentioned memories appears in my notes as: “A man from Santa Barbara is thrown out of the garden in Santa Cruz by Alan Chadwick for picking roses without permission.” The story is so brief that I initially decided not to post it, but something recently brought this episode once more vividly to mind. So, first I will tell the story as it happened, and then I will describe what made it relevant again.
* * *
Sometime in the summer or fall of 1971, two men from Santa Barbara paid a visit to the garden in Santa Cruz. One of them was Warren Pierce, whom I already knew. If my memory serves me correctly, he had visited the garden earlier that year. He struck me as a gentle, respectful person, soft spoken and ready to listen whenever he thought he could learn something. I recognized him immediately on this second visit, and was glad to renew our acquaintance.
Warren brought a friend of his to see Alan’s garden, but this fellow had quite a different character. He was loud, brash, and very full of himself. Despite knowing very little about gardening, he was at the same time full of opinions about how it should be done. He and Warren had come up to observe the garden and to speak with Alan about some horticultural project that they had in mind for the Santa Barbara area. In the meantime, they were wandering around the garden enjoying the peace and beauty of the place.
I noticed one thing immediately, however, that did not bode well for their future encounter with Alan Chadwick. Richard, Warren’s friend, had picked a rose and was wearing it in one of the buttonholes of his shirt. Now, Alan was never stingy with flowers—he gave thousands of them away every morning—but the roses were for everyone to enjoy and were definitely not cut flowers. Alan was strict about this. No one was allowed to pick the roses for any reason whatsoever. There was always an abundance of fragrant carnations, and dozens of other varieties to choose from, but the roses were off limits.
Since Richard was new to the place, he obviously did not understand these things, and so could possibly be forgiven the indiscretion. I say possibly, because most well-educated people will not presume to take anything from someone else’s garden without first asking permission. But, for whatever reason, he apparently felt entitled to help himself to the beautiful bloom that he had placed, very conspicuously, on his chest.
Alan used to characterize such people from time to time. He said that a gardener could work for half the year, trying to coax a reluctant plant to flower so that gardeners and visitors could marvel at the beauty of those few rare blossoms that it eventually produced. Months of watering, cultivation, fertilization, and pruning, all went into the culture of the plant. And then, just when the culmination of this process had finally arrived, some selfish boor would pass by, pluck off the infinitely delicate flower, stick it in his lapel, wear it for a half an hour, and then discard it onto the ground as soon as it began to wilt.
I knew that if Alan were to encounter this fellow, who was pompously sporting one of our prized roses in his buttonhole, he definitely would not be well-received. I explained this to Richard as succinctly as I could in the limited time available, but my words seemed to fall on deaf ears. “Oh, I’m not worried about Alan Chadwick,” he said, “After all, it’s just a flower; how can that be such a big deal?”
I glanced over at Warren, who seemed a bit uncomfortable with his friend’s attitude, but he said nothing, so I didn’t press the issue. Some people just need to learn the hard way, I thought, and so went on about my work in the nursery-area as the two of them sauntered off down the path.
It must have been fifteen or twenty minutes later that I heard a loud commotion from over in the main garden. It was Alan’s voice booming out a string of invectives that would make a sailor blush, as only he knew how to do. I headed over that way to see what was going on and arrived just as Alan was unceremoniously ordering Richard out of the garden with a severe warning never to return.
* * *
In the late Fall of 1971, Alan rented a large, three-story house on Mission Street in Santa Cruz for his apprentices so that they would not have to sleep out in the woods during the winter. No doubt he wanted to keep them around so that in the early spring of the following year we could renew our efforts in the development of the new Farm Project. It was never an easy process attracting and keeping good apprentices, so it paid to help them with housing during the period of the year that they could not easily sleep outside.
Despite the relative comfort of these accommodations, I was losing patience with the direction the project was going. Steve Kaffka had worked to create factions among the apprentices, and this had caused bad blood between he and Alan that was infecting everything that we were doing. Early in January, 1972, I made my decision to leave Santa Cruz and move up to Sonoma County, where I spent a month or two on a commune run by Robert deRopp. This, unfortunately, did not turn out to be the kind of place I was looking for because it was merely another one of those pseudo-spiritual experiments in group living that lacked any competent leadership. I had been spoiled by Alan Chadwick’s astute horticultural mastery and by his excellent teaching abilities, so anything less than that was a disappointment for me.
It must have been in early March that I swung my backpack over my shoulder, garden-spade lashed to its side, and hitch-hiked south. I planned to work for a while in Southern California to save some money, and then see what was happening with the Chadwick project later in the spring. As it happened, a ride dropped me off in Santa Barbara just after dark, so I decided to see if I could find a place to sleep for the night there. I wandered up toward the area where I had lived a few years earlier after a short stint at UC Santa Barbara.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered a fairly good-sized community garden right downtown. Not seeing anyone around, I figured I could just set out my sleeping bag amid the shrubbery, and pass the night unnoticed by the cops or anyone else. As I walked down the path in the darkness, two or three men jumped out of the bushes nearby and accosted me. “What do you think you are doing here?” they demanded. As I looked at them, I recognized Warren and Richard, deducing in that moment that this must be the garden project that they had been planning the year before. At the same time, they recognized me and relaxed. Thieves had been stealing produce from the garden, they said, and it was especially infuriating to lose the cauliflower that had taken so much effort to produce.
I expressed my sympathies, explaining that I was just passing through, and asked permission to sleep in the garden for the night. I also added that I would keep my eyes open for any intruders and chase them out if necessary. This was accepted by them, and I enjoyed a peaceful rest that night, leaving early the next morning before any of the gardeners arrived for work.
* * *
That is the story, and it probably would have remained untold except for one chance event. Early in September of 2013, while checking the internet for material on Alan Chadwick, I happened upon a UCSC oral history interview with Richard Merrill from 2007. In that interview, he describes coming up to Santa Cruz with Warren Pierce in 1971 and being thrown out of the garden by Alan Chadwick. The reason he gives for this treatment by Alan is that he had been sowing seeds while straddling a garden bed. He fails to mention anything about having picked the rose, or having failed to remove it at my suggestion. Because of this event, he expresses his opinion that Alan was a “megalomaniac,” and, “He just wasn’t a really nice guy.”
Richard obviously didn’t realize, during the time of his visit to Santa Cruz, the necessity of enforcing rules about what can and can’t be picked by visitors in a public garden. If you don’t aggressively protect what you have grown, people will denude everything that you have planted and leave your garden looking like a plague of locusts has come and gone. Richard obviously learned that lesson from his experience making the project in Santa Barbara, as witnessed by his patrolling of the cauliflower bed the night I spent in the garden there.
* * *
One has to wonder if Richard Merrill is intentionally trying to deceive readers of this oral history interview by withholding certain important details in the story, thereby casting Alan Chadwick in an unfavorable light. Or is this just a typical case of selective memory, where one tends to forget facts that are unflattering to oneself? The real cause behind his expulsion from the garden in Santa Cruz was his disregard of the rules there. His later characterization of Alan as a megalomaniac is grossly unfair, and should more accurately be applied to himself.
It is also questionable if, even now, we have the whole story. Merrill’s omission of certain key details about the rose in his buttonhole indicates that he is probably unreliable is his telling of other parts of the story. Did he, for example, exhibit a defiant attitude to Alan when first called to task for picking the rose? That would have escalated the confrontation from a mere reprimand to the more drastic and unusual consequence of being told to leave the garden.
* * *
Unfortunately, Richard Merrill does not stop there in his oral history interview. He goes on to criticize Alan for not wanting to entertain Richard’s suggestions about the best horticultural methods to employ in his garden. At that time, Merrill knew nothing about gardening. It was four years later when he began teaching horticulture at Cabrillo College where he “learned as he went along,” as he says later in the interview, adding that he had never studied horticulture anywhere. Despite this lack of training and knowledge, he presumes to tell Alan Chadwick—the greatest horticulturist of the twentieth century, according to E. F. Schumacher—how he should cultivate the soil, what crops he should grow, or what fertilizations he should use! Alan merely treated him like the pompous fool that he was, pointing out to him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. At least Merrill is half-right when he says, “We were both ornery, arrogant.”
The interviewer, Ellen Farmer, does no better. At one point she says,
“We were talking about Chadwick and how he sort of intimidated people into doing what he wanted them to do...”
This is absolutely false. Alan inspired people to do what he wanted them to do, usually by his own example. Intimidation is for the fearful, but Alan’s students were, for the most part, courageous and free spirited. It would take far more than Alan to intimidate us, and we wouldn’t have stuck around very long if intimidation was his means of motivation. Chadwick ran no cult of weak and subservient followers, you can be sure of that. As the famous sound-artist, John Cage said, when he visited Alan and his apprentices in Santa Cruz, “These people live; others haven’t even been born.”
* * *
Ellen Farmer then proceeds to fault Alan for “not being a scientist.” In this, she falls into the error of thinking that the opinions of everyone are equally believable, and that a master of his craft should spend his valuable time trying out the glib and uneducated ideas of every novice who arrogantly expresses his opinion. Farmer is not alone in this error. Modern notions of democracy have been taken to unrealistic extremes by many idealistic theorists in their ivory towers. Those who work effectively in the practical world, however, see things very differently.
Ray Dalio, for example, is arguably the most successful financial fund manager in history. His firm, Bridgewater Associates, is unique in having significantly outperformed market averages on a consistent basis for over thirty years. Dalio has a strong management style that regularly challenges his employees to expand their capabilities and rise to higher levels of competence. His training manual, Principles, lays out the ground-rules for personal interactions within his company. This publication is also instructive for anyone who wishes to understand how truly excellent organizations function. In speaking about opinions, Dalio says,
“Don’t treat all opinions as equally valuable. Almost everyone has an opinion, but many are worthless or harmful. The views of people without track records are not equal to the views of people with strong track records. Treating all people equally is more likely to lead away from truth than toward it. People without records of success who are nonetheless confident about how things should be done are either naïve or arrogant. In either case, they’re potentially dangerous to themselves and others…
A hierarchy of merit is not only consistent with a meritocracy of ideas but essential for it. Not only is better decision-making enhanced, so is time management. It’s not possible for everyone to debate everything all the time and still get work done effectively.
Ask yourself whether you have earned the right to have an opinion. As a general rule, if you have a demonstrated track record, then you can have an opinion of how to do it—if you don’t, you can’t, though you can have theories and questions…
Someone new who doesn’t know much, has little believability, or isn’t confident in his views should ask questions. On the other hand, a highly believable person with experience and a good track record who is highly confident in his views should be assertive. Everyone should be upfront in expressing how confident they are in their thoughts. A suggestion should be called a suggestion; a firmly held conviction should be presented as such. Don’t make the mistake of being a dumb shit with a confident opinion.”
Science can be defined as the organized and efficient pursuit of truth, so that whatever tends to lead toward truth is scientific. But since, as Dalio states above, “Treating all people equally is more likely to lead away from truth than toward it,” recognizing the differing levels of knowledge and competence between people is conducive to the scientific pursuit of truth. By this reasoning, one would arrive at the opposite conclusion of Ellen Farmer with respect to what is scientific. Expecting master-horticulturist, Alan Chadwick, to abandon the techniques that he knows are effective in order to test the uninformed conjectures of an absolute novice would be a gross misallocation of time and effort.
On the other hand, Alan was always refining his technique by trying new varieties of plants in the different locations where he built his gardens. His work in plant breeding, which involves very careful attention to detail, resulted in new and improved strains of cherry tomatoes and sweet peas, both of which, to this day, are sold under his name. His constant experimentation with companion plants, which he called “biodynamics,” helped to create a garden ecology that made the use of pernicious chemical insecticides unnecessary. It was largely through the work of Alan Chadwick that DDT was made illegal in the USA, a major achievement for the cause of environmentalism. Despite all of these major achievements, Ellen Farmer has the audacity to accuse Alan of being “unscientific.”
It is difficult not to take umbrage at such arrogance. The pattern of defamatory interviews that slander Alan Chadwick and belittle his many achievements in this “oral history” series suggests either an intentional or unconscious bias on the part of those involved in organizing it. It appears as if the university administration is attempting to justify its shabby treatment of Chadwick by denigrating him at every possible opportunity. Steve Kaffka, Orin Martin, Harold Hyde, and Richard Merrill were all, at one time, employees of UCSC. Each one of them has a demonstrated bias or has been shown to be unreliable (or untruthful) in their statements about Alan. What then, are we to conclude from this?
Alan committed one, supreme, unpardonable sin during the time of his work at the University of California: He denounced the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides as the road to environmental suicide. This is now much more widely understood than it was in his day, as he was decades ahead of his time. But the strong stance he took then earned him the hatred of the entrenched commercial and academic partnership that had a vested economic interest in preserving the status quo, regardless of its effect on the environment. Kenneth Thimann, the herbicide king at UCSC, along with the pesticide cabal at UC Davis, lobbied hard to get rid of Chadwick, and they finally succeeded. They were wrong, as we now know, and this is an embarrassment to the UC system. That shameful fact, it seems, must now be covered up by vilifying the prophet who spoke the naked truth almost fifty years ago. This campaign of misinformation must stop now.
* * *
Richard Merrill Interview with UCSC Oral History Project (excerpt)
The full interview can be found here:
Farmer: Did you ever know Alan Chadwick?
Merrill: (laughs) Alan—
In 1971, a botanist friend of mine, Warren Pierce, and I went up from Santa Barbara to see a guy who apparently was revolutionizing horticulture. And we walked into UCSC and I have to tell you, I saw him teaching in the Garden and I had a real catharsis at the time. I thought, hey, this is what I want to do. So I give him credit for that. I knew it would be easy to teach in a garden because everything is there. There it is. The whole ecosystem is there. It’s easy to teach. But the trouble was we were both triple Leos. So I’m sitting there straddling this bed with Steve Kaffka, who was up there at the time. We were sowing seeds. And he came. “You can’t straddle this bed. I’ve seen you here,” he says, “Get out of my garden!” So he kicked me out of his garden. That was it. That’s the extent of my contact with Alan Chadwick. I love him and I hate him. But he was a wizard. You don’t mess with wizards. You just let them do their megalomaniac thing. It’s cool. He was fine. I have a lot of admiration for him. He just wasn’t a really nice guy. (laughter)
Farmer: I never met him. But did you ever see the Saratoga Community Gardens?
Merrill: Oh, sure. I was over there too.
Farmer: That’s what I saw in the early seventies. I couldn’t believe it. It was so beautiful. And that was easier land to deal with than the hillside up at UCSC.
Merrill: Yes, it was. They gave him a rough assignment up there.
Farmer: Well, he picked it, apparently. He found the spot. That’s the story.
Merrill: He did. Really? I can see that. Yes. He was an interesting guy. He was British. I did have a small conversation with him. In fact, we had a big debate on what was better, cow manure or chicken manure. It turns out they’re both important for different reasons, but that’s another story. I said, “Well, why don’t you grow any corn here?” Again, this was kind of the beginning of it. He just looked at me and he said, “Corn? That’s a peasant crop. I don’t grow corn.” Okay. I mean, he had that sort of air that was annoying, but he sure did get people going. Everybody from John Jeavons on down just did it. The other thing I asked him once was, “How long do you think people can double dig? Is there another way to do this?” That got him really riled too. That’s why he and I didn’t get along. He had a method. And my attitude was there is no method, there’s only what works locally. That’s the method. And that’s why we had this—We were both ornery, arrogant—Anyway. It was bound to happen. (laughter)
Farmer: Well, I haven’t heard of anybody who says they just totally got along with him.
Merrill: Oh, no. No way. But he had enough of the guru in him for people to step back and say, okay.
Farmer: Give him his space.
Merrill: Give him his space…
… Farmer: So we were talking about Chadwick and how he sort of intimidated people into doing what he wanted them to do, or learning about gardening.
Farmer: He worked with [Rudolf] Steiner when he was a young teenager. The way he was trained was in the garden, hands-on. He got his knuckles rapped if he did it wrong. So that was his teaching method.
Merrill: Yes, that was his teaching method. But, you know, if someone asks you how you define genius, which is a word that’s thrown around all the time, I always say, at what? But part of that is being able to see two things, or more than two things that somehow go together. You put them together, and no one has ever put them together before. He put biodynamics—which I think is a much more encompassing philosophy of gardening than organics—with a technique of double digging that the French had. So he was purely European: French and English. I mean, you can’t beat that. He brought them together. Now, in bringing them together he had to create the togetherness, to create what it was. Therefore I can see why he didn’t accept criticism very well, because it was his baby, not someone else’s. So I understand that part. But he just wasn’t open to suggestions at all. He didn’t even go, “Yes, that’s a nice idea but I think we’ll do it this way for a while.” It was just, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Farmer: So he didn’t want to do experimentation.
Farmer: He wasn’t being a scientist.
Merrill: No, no. That’s what bugged me about it. Because to me it’s always, always experimenting and finding something—See, if you don’t experiment then you miss the point, and that’s that nature is always changing. It’s always evolving, always moving along, and you’ve just got to keep up with it. So by definition, if you don’t change you won’t keep up with it. You’ve got to keep changing.
Farmer: And he had a tried-and-true method that he felt worked, and he wanted to try it on that land, with those—
Merrill: Ellen, it was called “The Method.”
Farmer: Really? (laughs) The Method?
Merrill: It was called The Method. Now, other people have taken it. Jeavons has taken it as a tool for improving Third World production and that’s great, that’s fine.
Farmer: And he’s [Jeavons] changed it some, according to his writings.
Merrill: Yes, he’s changed it. And it should change. It should change. Again, it’s not anything I would do, because double digging—I mean, you’re limited. My next-door neighbor was sifting soil through a screen and I said, “Al, you better double dig that.” And then I thought, he can’t double dig that. He’s seventy-eight years old. That’s crazy.
Farmer: It’s a lot of hard work.
Merrill: So I gave him another method that I think is just as good, and that’s that you just cover the top of it with a bunch of mulch—really, really deep mulch—and let the worms do it for you. That works. That’s the old no-dig method.
Farmer: But I saw in a film that they made about Chadwick that they invented this big tool that had—
Merrill: The double digger. I know.
Farmer: You could stand on it and move it back and forth.
Merrill: I worked with that too. It’s just twice as hard. (laughter) Trust me, I had students double dig for ten years out in the garden. And they’re all adults. From little women to giant football players, I had the whole range. And I’m telling you, it’s really limited. Double digging limits people. That’s what I didn’t like about it. It was an extremely efficient way of aerating your soil without destroying the structure, which is really hard to do. It’s very efficient at that.
― Contributed by Greg Haynes, December, 2013