Challenges Faced by Alan Chadwick at Green Gulch
Alan Chadwick spent about a year at Green Gulch, a 70 acre onetime horse ranch on the California coast just north of the San Francisco Bay at a spot called Muir Beach. The site had been newly acquired by the San Francisco Zen Center. Chadwick’s stay lasted from February of 1972 until mid January of 1973. To begin with, Alan was optimistic about the prospect of creating a garden within the context of a spiritually-oriented community. He was weary from battling bureaucrats and materialists in the administration and science departments at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Green Gulch Valley, ca. 1972
Old world Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi, was the founder and spiritual leader of the San Francisco Zen Center. His humility was proverbial; he used the barest minimum of money for his personal life, did not own a car, and valued the independence of his followers. He was universally beloved and respected by his students. But Suzuki had just recently died on December 4, 1971, with the leadership of the Zen Center passing to his successor, Richard Baker.
Alan Chadwick had been introduced to Richard Baker by UCSC Philosophy Professor Paul Lee in 1969, when Lee escorted Chadwick on a weekend visit to the Zen Center’s Tassajara retreat in the Big Sur Mountains south of Monterey. On the basis of that visit and Paul Lee’s friendship with Baker Roshi, Chadwick was invited to start a garden project at Green Gulch, following his departure from the university at Santa Cruz.
Alan Chadwick arrived at Green Gulch in early February 1972 accompanied by two staff members from Santa Cruz, Peter Jorris and Allen Kalpin. After walking and evaluating the entire 70-acre property, Alan decided that a small western-inclining valley nestled in amongst the hills as far away as possible from the coastline was the best site for the garden. But because it had been used for years as a corral for horses, the soil was highly compacted and difficult to work. A key factor that influenced the choice was that this spot often remained sunny when the rest of the lower valley was enveloped in coastal fog.
Alan might never have gone to Green Gulch if the fog had been present during his preliminary one-day visit there, which took place a month earlier in January on a mild clear day. What he soon found when he settled in was how terribly oppressive and pervasive the heavy coastal marine layer truly could be. Most of the spring, summer, and fall the valley was shrouded in a cold, dense, sea fog that chilled to the bone, obscured the sun, and prevented the full healthy and vibrant development of many garden plants. Yes, your cabbages and Brussels sprouts, lettuce and spinach will still manage to do fine in such conditions. But tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, carrots, beets, cucumbers, and many others will suffer from lack of sunlight. Alan was accustomed to working in the Santa Cruz garden wearing only a pair of shorts and work boots, but here we all had to wear long pants, shirts, sweaters, and jackets in order to keep warm. It was one of the most dreary and dismal climates imaginable from a horticultural point of view, at least in the year 1972. On later visits to Green Gulch it seemed not to have such extremely cold and foggy days as during that first pioneering summer.
Another difficult problem was the compacted soil of the former horse paddock. Alan made the decision to attack it with pick-axes in a dry condition, pulverizing the rocklike soil and, by aerating it, bringing it back to fertility. Every day a long line of us laborers would spread out along the upper edge of the previously cultivated area, standing about six feet apart, and swinging pick-axes against the unyielding ground. Inch by inch the line would progress up the slope by painstakingly tiny increments. I remember one day when a particularly astute Zen student had an idea that helped alleviate some of the frustration of that slow process. He briefly broke ranks from the column of workers and walked ahead a pace or two. With the point of his pick-axe he scribed a line in the earth about six feet ahead of where we were working.
“This is now the horizon,” he said. “You can’t see beyond it.”
With newfound enthusiasm we set about our task more aggressively, keeping our eyes on that new goal. Earlier, having measured our forward progress against the whole field, which seemed to go on forever, we were hopelessly discouraged by our negligible headway. Now we could see real progress toward the line that was drawn just a few feet away. Later, when we reached our provisional goal, we stopped briefly and celebrated. Then, without any further ceremony, that same Zen student walked out and scratched a new line in the ground, another six feet farther up the slope, and once again we went at it vigorously. It was a brilliant psychological strategy, and I have used that concept many times in my life since then.
In working the soil in a dry condition, Chadwick was being careful not to damage it further. Manipulating soil when it is wet drives the air out, turning it to mud, which then dries to an adobe brick-like hardness. That is what had caused the problem in the first place. Horses weighing about a thousand pounds each had for years stomped around in the paddock that was muddy from winter rains. Alan did not want to compound the existing problem, so he was being extra careful to cultivate the soil only when it was dry.
After awhile I began to question whether this was an overly-cautious and counterproductive decision on Alan’s part, as the strain of devoting long weeks to this backbreaking toil was wearing us down. When I first arrived at Green Gulch in the springtime about a month or so after the garden had been started, only about thirty feet of the paddock had been successfully cultivated. Now, weeks later, morale was low on all sides due to the combination of painfully slow progress and the dismal weather. Contrary to Alan’s orders, I made up my mind to water part of the still uncultivated area, lying further ahead up the hill, being careful not to wet the soil that we would soon reach within the next five days or so. He was naturally quite angry when he discovered my disobedience, but I explained that the now wet soil would dry out significantly before we reached it. By then that slight bit of remaining moisture would make the cultivation go much faster, but without damaging the soil. He gave me an indignant and somewhat skeptical look, but did not contradict my claims, instead leaving me with a gruff snort as he abruptly walked off. But my prediction turned out to be correct. Progress was then quite a bit faster.
Contrast between Zen Students and Chadwickians
This first phase of the project, involving the arduous and protracted breaking-up of the densely compacted soil, was not enjoyable for anyone, Zen or Chadwick staff –except for Peter Jorris, who liked the methodical physical exertion of pickaxing. About this time the Zen students had started referring to Alan and his staff members collectively as “Chadwickians,” a variation of the term “Pickwickians,” derived from Charles Dickens’s novel, The Pickwick Papers. The name stuck, partly because of its amusing allusion to eccentric English characteristics and partly as a way to accentuate the striking differences between our two groups. The Zen students, always dressed in their black robes (except during garden work), were practicing a reserved and dispassionate Apollonian attitude toward life, in imitation of their serious and somber leaders.
We, on the other hand, reveled in a more passionate Dionysian enjoyment of Nature’s abundant enchantment and vast array of sensory experience. The fragrance of a flower, for example, was for us a revelation of creation’s profound magic. Even if it proved to be illusory maya in the end, beauty, in all of its incarnations, filled us with the richest and deepest joy. The Zen students, on the other hand, didn’t seem to value or take notice of that aspect in the same way. While we celebrated the flowers, colors, scents, bees and butterflies that flourish all around you as the natural aura of a healthy garden, the Zen authorities seemed to focus predominantly on the prosaic vegetables that could be put on the supper table as additional sustenance for their daily meals.
Peter Jorris started the idea of holding periodic after-hours celebrations as a kind of tension release and counterbalance to the rigors of our day-in and day-out demanding labors. We instituted a practice called “full moon parties.” Every month, on the night of the full moon, we gathered near the large pond, perhaps a quarter of a mile seaward down the valley from the office and living complex on the property. We built a bonfire, partook of delicious food, and, if the weather was nice, shed our clothes and went for a splashing good swim in the moonlit waters, surrounded by the shadowy hills and the vast vaulted night sky. One condition for participation was that each person had to memorize a poem to recite to the group around the fire. It was enlivening fun; wild but literary at the same time.
Such carryings-on were not sanctioned by the Zen authorities; at least not insofar as any Zen students’ involvement was concerned. When more than just two or three began slipping out of their monastic cells to participate, we Chadwickians started receiving disparaging looks from the Zen officials. They frowned upon the idea of us civilians introducing a contrary element into their sequestered retreat, especially activities that encouraged disobedience among certain of the monks and compounded the subtle tension between the two camps.
Labor Force and Work Ethic
All of the foregoing problems (except the weather) were relatively minor issues and could probably have been sorted out in time with a little patience and good will. But two other more serious conflicts would prove to be major setbacks to this combined venture and to Chadwick’s continued presence and involvement at the Zen Center. The first was the lack of dedicated workers needed to establish the gardens. The second was the opposition on the part of the Zen officials to our plans for growing flowers along with the vegetable crops.
During the initial negotiations, prior to Chadwick’s committing to the project at Green Gulch, Richard Baker had given the impression that there would be large numbers of enthusiastic Zen students to help in the establishment of the gardens there. These helpers never fully materialized in anything like the sufficient numbers that were needed and expected, making this an ongoing obstacle and sore point for Alan during his year at Green Gulch. Yes, there were a faithful few: David Schneider, Steve Allen, Mark Harris, Reuven BenYuhmin, and Patricia Buttitta to name some of the outstanding Zen students who come readily to mind. But even these workers were only available for a small part of each day. The schedule allowed for morning and afternoon work periods, but these were relatively short intervals out of the day, not the kind of commitment that was needed to make a really impressive garden, as Alan was so uniquely qualified and spiritually inspired to do.
In August 2012, David Schneider wrote about his memories of working with Alan in that first year at Green Gulch. He describes how he and the other Zen students would arrive in the morning to help with cultivation, after their pre-dawn meditation, and how after about an hour they had had enough and were eager for the breakfast bell to ring. As soon as they heard it they would drop their tools and hasten off to the dining room, happy to be done with their labors until the afternoon work period rolled around. This was one of the many frustrating daily disruptions that Alan was obliged to make allowance for, much to his disliking.
In Santa Cruz he had become accustomed to a crew of 15 or 20 eager workers who would show up at the crack of dawn and work energetically all day until it was too dark to see. Naturally there were always breaks for breakfast, lunch, and again for tea time in the mid afternoon, but we were truly inspired and determined to make Alan’s vision a reality and sometimes spent twelve-hour days working towards that goal. In contrast, the Zen students were more detached about the outcome, not intrinsically committed and mostly glad to spend as little time as possible in the hard work necessary to get the project off the ground. Their garden time rarely went beyond a few hours in a day, hardly enough to make much of a difference, and not nearly what Alan had been expecting to have at his command in this case.
The result of this pattern was that Alan, Peter, Miriam and I had to do most of the work ourselves. The Zen Center officials seemed to interpret the nature of our relationship as that of common employees who were being paid to perform a standard type of service and do only what we were told. But that was not the original arrangement envisioned, at least not for the nominal compensation that was being provided each month. No, we were there more as artists and partners working toward the establishment of a garden that would inspire human beings to a greater appreciation of beauty and lead into a deeper awakening of one’s inner spirit. As an added benefit, the garden would also feed the Zen students. By providing a harmonious natural environment for the spiritual community, the garden served as an attractive aesthetic complement to the inner contemplative serenity being cultivated by the Zen way of life. But our time and talents were definitely not solely of the nature of an ordinary business proposition for hire.
It was a letdown for Alan to realize that Green Gulch was not the place where he could manifest his artistic, horticultural and pedagogical intentions. He was 63 years old at that time and really didn’t have an extra year to spare in working at cross purposes with the Zen Center. The dissolution of the partnership disheartened him and wore him down. As his brief but heroic role there came to an end, Alan, who rarely ever suffered any illness, fell sick for two weeks, bedridden with a miserable flu as his parting experience, before finally leaving the fog shrouded climate of Green Gulch.
Zen Center, on the other hand, certainly benefited from Alan’s efforts at Green Gulch. The gardens were established there and a number of Zen students were trained in his methods. But as the businessman, John Harlander, told me years later, “It’s not a good deal unless it’s a good deal for both parties to the transaction.” Zen Center gained, but Alan lost a valuable year of his life without coming any closer to reaching his envisioned goal. That loss was later partly redeemed by Zen Center’s welcoming Alan back during the last six months of his life, when he was terminally stricken with cancer. But even with that, I personally consider the debt to Alan Chadwick to still be unbalanced in his favor, with significant tribute still outstanding.
Zen Center Administrators
Richard Baker, who was instrumental in inviting Alan Chadwick to Green Gulch, spent most of his time either at the City Center, or at the mountain retreat of Tassajara. He would visit Green Gulch from time to time, but this was probably less than once per month. Alan was left alone to fend against the recently instituted and inexperienced administrative staff. Chadwick had a colorful and volatile temperament to go along with his ardent teaching style. This contrasted strikingly with the Zen Center’s approach at Green Gulch. Zen leaders exhibited a more cool and dispassionate demeanor, while at times exercising a strict and inflexible discipline.
Overall, I do not believe that the two approaches were necessarily incompatible; each had a unique value to contribute to the spiritual community. However, in describing the Zen Center’s policy, Edward Brown, a Zen devotee and author, has noted that if someone broke the rules, they were expelled –a rather severe repercussion to be sure. On the other hand with Alan, if you erred in some major way he would let you know it in very direct terms: you would be chided in a tempestuous outburst of fury. But then, if you had the fortitude to accept and learn from his tirade, you were welcome to continue your apprenticeship with a clean slate. He was direct and caustic, but also as forgiving as a fresh new day.
At the same time Chadwick admired people who stood up to him, defended themselves or met him half-way with a similar energy level. Miriam Dobkins, who was described by Mark Harris (one of the early Zen students to work with Chadwick) as a “beautiful, sweet, young woman who was a favorite of Alan’s,” actually earned her favored status by snapping back at Alan like an infuriated diva the first time he unleashed his famous temper on her. Alan seemed to respect that kind of spunk and henceforth treated her with special deference and appreciation.
Suzuki Roshi was far more flexible in dealing with his students than were most of those who followed after him. Chadwick in turn was a lot like Suzuki’s own teacher in Japan, the master So-on, who could also be harsh and punitive when he believed that it would help his students. Suzuki Roshi acknowledged this, but deeply revered So-on all his life. He said one time about his teacher, “To encourage a student by setting a good example is one sort of mercy. To shout at me when I was proudly showing off was another sort of mercy, another kindness.”
Although Chadwick generally disavowed any claim to being a teacher, since he was trained along altogether different paths, mostly as an actor and artist, nonetheless his many apprentices fully recognized him as a mentor, master of his art and craft and a profound source of unique knowledge. Because monastic and horticultural-artistic pursuits are not inherently at odds with each other within the wide framework of the Zen philosophy, certainly the 70-acre Green Gulch ranch was an ideal retreat with natural surroundings and ample room for both the meditation practices and the full scale Chadwick-style gardens. Unfortunately, however, the differences seemed to wind up displacing the more positive common ground.
Zen students paid tuition to be at Green Gulch, Tassajara, or the San Francisco City Center. Their support provided much of the income-stream to the organization, similar to a religious seminary, vocational college or even a health resort. Unlike Suzuki Roshi’s teacher, the Zen administrators had to treat their students more like patrons and operate the monastery largely on business principles, where special deference must be given to the clientele. Alan on the other hand never charged his apprentices any payment, believing that their work was sufficient compensation for what they received in knowledge. That also freed him to tell them whatever they needed to hear. If they didn’t like it, they could leave. At Zen Center the business model seemed to become a compromising factor to the more visionary aspirations and disciplined monastic training that was intended to lead to a deepened self-awareness.
Longtime Zen disciple, David Chadwick, described Alan Chadwick as “a charismatic gardener who used the Rudolf Steiner method of gardening. He was brilliant, inspiring and so eccentric and on his own trip that he could only last so long at Zen Center.” The term "eccentric” has often been used to indicate some critical flaw in Chadwick’s own character, at least in the eyes of his detractors, that they believe is to blame in part for upending the garden project. But the term really only highlights the overt contrast between Alan, as a cultured Englishman with a passionate artistic nature accentuated by a strong theatrical background, and the more laid back California-type college students of 1972, who were trying to break out of the deadening influences of a diabolically materialistic culture by experimenting with drugs and eastern religions, while fundamentally still prone to a physical and spiritual laziness.
Alan had his own mission, which differed appreciably from the main focus of Zen Center, though not altogether. Horticulturally, Alan was out to demonstrate that organic methods of agriculture were less destructive to the natural environment than the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He was also intent on employing the practice of gardening as a form of psychological therapy, though he would never have expressed it that way. Many were the lost souls who wandered into his gardens at Santa Cruz, lacking direction in their lives and despairing of ever finding personal meaning in an upside-down world.
Today, this problem has gotten even worse and has come to be known in one of its forms as Nature Deficit Disorder. It results from a lack of contact with the natural world: spending too much time in buildings, watching television, playing computer games, riding in cars, talking on telephones. Alan could cure that problem. His method was to put you to work in the garden and not accept any laziness, while also guiding his adherents to a greater mindfulness of themselves and nature. He was able to awaken insight into the mystery and wisdom of Creation, pointing to a deeper reality hidden behind surface appearances. Using this technique he saved many young people from self-destructive behaviors and wasted lives. His success was impressive. None of this was in conflict with the mission of Zen Center, although it was indeed different. The two were like the sun and the moon, both shining into the soul with different light.
Regrettably misunderstandings were not corrected in time. Alan Chadwick took umbrage over promises made to him about the number of garden workers, which did not come about. Nor were the hours dedicated to the garden consistent with what he had been led to believe. No doubt Richard Baker and the Zen community did not realize the full force of Alan Chadwick’s character and the intensity of his vision and methods, perhaps his strongest attributes, which have come to be known as an “eccentricity.” Certainly he spoke directly with respect to competency in the work of his apprentices, but that was to their own benefit just like Suzuki Roshi’s own teacher had done with his students in Japan. Was that too much for the young American Zen seekers of the early 1970s to deal with?
In a 2003 interview, Zen chronicler David Chadwick and Zen Abbot Steve Weintraub discuss the difficult challenges posed when absolute authority is fully vested in a traditional Zen Master, as it was with Suzuki Roshi. But Suzuki Roshi also had the benefit of a classical and highly disciplined Zen training in the old world Japanese culture. When the potent authority of the roshi’s position was passed on to Richard Baker, a young 35 year-old American scholar, at the same time as Green Gulch was being opened and Zen Center’s budget was vastly expanding, it set the stage for potential misuse and loss of focus.
I would argue that Chadwick appeared eccentric to Zen Center officials because he was in many ways better grounded in his classical stance than the novice administrators of the Green Gulch farm and monastery back then. They were not in a position to see the true potential of the partnership. The automatic reverence and obedience commanded by the roshi’s position confers a most elevated status on the person who holds that title in the realm of the Zen Center. When Richard Baker inherited that authoritarian influence over the members, it was not unlike other religious or spiritual cultures, where autocratic leadership and unquestioned allegiance create potential for baser human instincts to supersede the more ideal saintly principles. It becomes easier to lose perspective and stray from the higher path. While there were exceptions, of course, too many Zen officials succumbed to a pride of office that enlarged their sense of self-importance.
Although it was difficult for the few of us Chadwickians to carry the weight of the labor required to build up the gardens, we probably would have soldiered on, waiting for wider recognition of the garden we had created to generate more interest and attract additional apprentices who were newcomers or unaffiliated with Zen Center. But before that could happen another problem arose that chilled our enthusiasm and cast doubt on the whole venture: the resistance of the Zen hierarchy to our growing of flowers.
Vegetables and/or Flowers
As noted earlier Richard Baker spent most of his time elsewhere and may have been visiting Japan at this point. Day-to-day operations were left in the hands of a small group of Zen officials who lived there full-time on the farm. This group included Bill Lane, Steve Weintraub, Yvonne Rand, and a few others. Since we Chadwickians did not participate in their deliberations, it was unknown to us how decisions were made or who among them may have exerted a dominant influence. What was clearly communicated, however, was that these leaders saw no value in the aesthetic qualities of a garden and therefore did not approve of flower cultivation. What they wanted were vegetables to feed the Zen Center members: In their minds, flowers were an unnecessary distraction from the main event.
Indications of this attitude did not surface in the beginning, because Alan had focused his initial efforts chiefly on getting vegetables into production. All of us needed good quality, organic vegetables to live on. But as soon as the first paddock was cultivated, planted, and beginning to produce, Alan turned his attention to the production of cut flowers. We boxed in two or three beds for anemones, sowed calendula, stocks, sweet peas, and others of his favorites. It was then that the truly magical and ethereal quality of the garden began to come alive for the first time. Vegetables are for the stomach, flowers are for the soul—and Alan definitely emphasized the importance of the latter of these two.
We were horticultural artists and thus needed the full pallet of colors, textures, scents, and insects that only flowers can attract and provide to bring to full expression the profound enchantment and mystery of nature. Our spiritual path was to create a place where the oppressed and withered human soul could be inspired to wake up through a heightened relationship with Creation. In contrast, the Zen practice at Green Gulch at that time focused more on detachment from the outer world of nature, lest it become a distraction from the enlightenment that should arise from within.
Although the accounts of Suzuki Roshi’s life that I have read describe a different spirit of Zen practice, that was in fact the point of view of the governing council at Green Gulch. In time, their disinterest in flowers caused a serious rift between their wishes and Alan Chadwick’s vision. I remember that one day we had a general meeting on the small gravel roadway that led up from the office compound past the barn to the garden area. With great enthusiasm, Alan announced his plan to plant a border of climbing roses along both sides of the roadway so that everyone who walked up to the garden would be surrounded by exquisite colors and fragrances along the way. We apprentices thought it was a grand idea and were ready to start digging on the spot. But almost immediately one of the Zen officials stood up and began to speak pointedly against the project, saying more or less the following:
“Mr. Chadwick, why would you want to waste our time on such a useless project? What we need most are more vegetables not more of these impractical flowers. You have to understand that this is a Zen monastery. Our aesthetic is within us, and we discover it through our meditation practice. We cannot be concerned about the ephemeral allurements of the outer world. We are definitely not in agreement with such a plan to plant roses here.”
That was one of the few times I have seen Alan at a loss for words. For one thing, he wasn’t accustomed to being contradicted by what he probably felt was a puffed up and misguided subordinate of the absent Roshi, and for another, he just could not fathom that anyone could be so blind as not to adore roses. For a moment, he seemed not to know what to say. Finally he stammered indignantly, “As long as I live I will grow flowers.” With that, he stormed off, and everyone else just drifted away.
After that meeting, Alan seemed to be in a temporary denial about what had happened. For me it was obvious that the project at Green Gulch would never become the beautiful, artistic creation that we all had envisioned in the beginning. Expecting Alan Chadwick to simply grow vegetables for the kitchens of the short-sighted Zen functionaries was like instructing Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel without the use of color. He would have objected that, “painting with color is what I do.” Likewise, Alan demonstrably made it known that, “Growing flowers is what I do.” It was obvious to me that the project had come to a serious impasse.
Invitation to Saratoga
I then began thinking beyond Green Gulch, certain that it was just a matter of time until the relationship fell apart. It was only three or four weeks later that Alan Chadwick announced that he had received a letter of invitation for him to start a community garden in Saratoga, California –just north of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the Santa Clara Valley. He said that he was still committed there at the Green Gulch project and would not be able to accept the offer from Saratoga. He asked if any one of his apprentices might be interested in going down there to help the community to get the new project off the ground.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I spoke up and declared my willingness to undertake the task. Alan seemed a bit surprised at my eagerness. I suspect that his question had been mostly rhetorical and that he never imagined anyone of us would actually take him up on the offer. Obviously, he was not very keen on losing one of his key lieutenants, as this would make life more difficult for those remaining behind. But there was no going back on it now. He finally managed to summon up the words, “Well, well. So you are ready to take that on are you, Greg? Let me think it over for a day or two, and we’ll talk about it later.” I saw this as my deliverance from the inevitable “death by a thousand cuts” that was certain to be our fate at Green Gulch. I left for Saratoga in the early fall of 1972, and, just as I had anticipated, Alan Chadwick also soon parted company with the Zen Center a few months later.
― Submitted by Greg Haynes, February, 2014 (with significant contributions from Peter Jorris)