Alan Chadwick, Gardener of Souls
Alan Chadwick was no friend of the modern world with its superficial contrivances and ephemeral trends. He was rooted in a deeper soil of more timeless ideals that emphasized self reliance, self knowledge and personal creative activity. Besides gardening, he offered his students classes in mime and deportment, where they could learn to take control of their gestures and other non-verbal expressions. He also gave classes in elocution so that his students could develop the skills necessary to communicate articulately in every situation of their lives. They practiced reciting Shakespearean sonnets, for example, as an exercise in the elevated use of language.
The term Alan used to sum up any skill, technique or activity that partook of this timeless character and lifted the human soul above the modern world’s materialistic decadence was “classical.” Art, Music, theatre, gardening, landscape design, forms of personal expression, mode of thought etc., all had a “classical” foundation. Classical procedure was the gold standard in the garden, and there were harsh consequences when your endeavors did not measure up.
"The Four Seasons" by Libby Haynes Jackson
Alan Chadwick’s Two-fold Mission
Alan Chadwick had a two-fold mission during that phase of his life that began in 1967, when Freya von Moltke persuaded him to begin working with students at Santa Cruz, California. The first of these was horticultural. Alan had learned centuries-old techniques of gardening that had been practiced for ages before the advent of pernicious chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Now that the long-term destructive effect of “chemical” agriculture was becoming more widely known, the world was ready—even if it didn’t quite yet know it—to relearn and revalue the agricultural methods that had successfully served humanity for millennia. But not only humanity: The earth itself is a complex and vastly interrelating organism that needs the health and diversity of all of life in order for each one of its species to prosper and thrive.
But Alan’s horticultural knowledge went far beyond the merely prosaic methodology of producing food organically. He had a strong artistic temperament and recognized beauty as an inspirational force that could awaken a higher sense of reverence in the human spirit. Alan believed in a transcendent reality that is far wiser and more powerful than what we can experience in our limited, conscious minds. From this other, more expansive realm come true inspirations that illuminate our understanding in ways that go beyond our logical and utilitarian calculations. It is also from this largely unconscious source that we sometimes experience the mysterious destiny-connections that can lead us to a particular place and time that becomes essential to our further development.
Because Alan had observed the strong positive influences that beauty can awaken in developing human beings, and because he knew that Nature is the epitome and paragon of everything creative that gives rise to the beautiful, Alan dedicated himself to the task of working with the natural world as a catalyst to awaken the slumbering human spirit to a more vital, even transcendent, reality.
Most of Alan’s apprentices, if pressed, would attest to the transformation that they experienced in their own lives through an intimate encounter with the beauty of the natural world as it was manifested in Alan’s gardens. As difficult as it is to explain in words, it is simple and obvious to anyone who has experienced this kind of awakening. Unfortunately, much of the depression and alienation that is suffered in the world today is a direct result of the lack of a meaningful contact with nature. Psychologists now identify this syndrome as Nature Deficit Disorder.
It was for this reason that Alan sometimes characterized his Garden Project as, “a religio-philosophical endeavor. Its goal, he said, was to awaken the human being to an awareness of “the affinity between his soul and the soul of creation.” By affinity Alan meant that our own souls have been formed out of the same forces that, on a macro-level, provide intelligent guidance to nature and human destiny. Call it God, Nature, or Creation, it represents an intelligence far above the merely human. When the human being aligns his or her personal intentions with the energetic force of this higher reality, then there is a flowing together in unity with the river of divine guidance, not against it.
This is a very imprecise and metaphorical way of alluding to something that defies verbal description, although that was not a problem for Alan because he had other methods of pointing you in the right direction without putting it all into words. You had only to follow his instructions in interacting with the natural world of the garden in order to grasp his message. Nature has its own language, by which it speaks to you directly when you are ready. Alan would say, “The gardener does not make the garden; the garden makes the gardener.” He meant that the forces of nature would tap you on the shoulder day by day, revealing insights that over time would ripen into unimagined gifts to all those who were sensitive, reverent and observant. Afterwards you would never be quite the same.
This dynamic held good for everyone regardless of age, gender, education, or religion. Anyone could walk through the garden gate and by means of the powerful nature-forces that were concentrated there by dint of Alan’s mastery, could experience an “uplift” that was more than transitory. Little by little, a person who began to work with plants under Alan’s guidance found that his personal energy was becoming more and more “in sync” with the natural forces in the garden. And because the result of this was a relaxation of the psychic tension caused by being “out of sync” out there in the modern world, Alan’s apprentices often experienced feelings of peace, attunement, and inner strength.
Alan, however, would not let you stay there for long. He knew that he had to keep up the pressure so that you kept moving onward to higher degrees of competence and mastery. That which stops moving, stagnates, and Alan would not let that happen. This leads us to a consideration of Alan’s second mission.
Alan Chadwick’s Mission for Independence
Alan Chadwick had a second goal for his apprentices that went beyond horticulture. Alan wanted his students to become powerful, free-thinking individuals who were competent in their work, independent in their personal tastes, and free to determine their own directions in life. He knew that they could not achieve these goals if they were weak, overly sensitive to criticism, addicted to drugs, or self indulgent.
For this reason, he adopted a method that constantly pushed, prodded, and punished your every weakness. If you were over-confident, he would trip you up. If you were lax in attention to your duties, he would take you to task. If you mumbled foolish platitudes, he would mimic you in front of others. He was a relentless taskmaster that seemed to challenge you all the more aggressively the more you progressed in the attainment of competence and responsibility.
Alan once confided to me the goal of the extreme methods he used in this regard. He said that he considered it to be his job to knock his students off their balance whenever he could. If he could upset their equanimity by a harsh word, then it was to their own benefit to face that fact and overcome the limitation. The best way to awaken one’s awareness of such a weakness was for Alan to offer the harsh word that they feared most. After they fell apart, got angry, resolved to quit, contemplated revenge, or whatever other instinctive reactions passed through their minds (and if they didn’t actually quit), they would get back up onto their feet, dust themselves off, and get back to work.
Alan told me that once a person had been knocked off balance in a particular way, it became very difficult to knock them off balance in the same way again later. The student would have overcome the fear, reformed his ego along more realistic lines, sharpened up his technique, or done whatever else was necessary to strengthen himself so that Alan had to look for other weaknesses to exploit in the future. But this was Alan’s forte. His keen observations of human nature made him a master at recognizing a student’s vulnerabilities, which he could then use for his pedagogical purposes. His mastery of horticulture was secondary to his mastery of human foibles, probably because he originally had them all himself, and so knew from personal experience how to confront them.
But finally, as he explained to me that day, if a student persisted in standing back up, ready again to face whatever Alan might try next, eventually he would achieve his “classic stance,” where nothing Alan could do would throw him off balance again. No matter what stratagem Alan employed, the student was able to maintain his calm, thereby deflecting Alan’s tirades and turning the tables back on him—in effect treating Alan’s grandiose confrontations like one might brush aside a gnat. He had reached the point where he no longer needed Alan to educate him about his weaknesses. By achieving his “classic stance,” he had earned his graduate degree from the Chadwick school of life.
Only then did Alan feel like he had finished his job. You had become his peer, mentally, emotionally, physically, and technically, and you were now ready to go out into the world and work on your own. You had developed the strength to face the forces of opposition that you were destined to encounter, and you would not need to shrink before them any more. You had become a stronger, more courageous, independent, authentic, and resourceful human being. You were like a Knight of the Round Table of the lowest degree, but you now had the foundation to advance on your own to greater levels of competence in the ongoing trials of life ahead.
This was not in any way a schooling suited to everyone. Many were the students who dropped out after only a few rounds in the ring with Alan. He was a tough opponent who showed little mercy to over-indulged youths whose backbones were too soft to stand on their own. With Alan you either had to learn fast or suffer an emotional pummeling in the process. But this urgency to avoid the bruising of such an onslaught was what motivated you to progress at a faster pace than you formerly would have been able. It was amazing how fast people changed for the better while they were within Alan’s sphere of influence. He was a formidable and demanding gardener of souls.
The people for whom this method worked well were those with stout hearts and resilient spirits. The beauty of Alan’s program is that it was self-selecting. If you could stand up for another round, then you were still in the game. If you quit, well then, you were out. It was as simple as that. And even if you dropped out, Alan would take you back again whenever you felt motivated to give it another go. He might make light of you at first, just to test your resolve, but eventually you just fit right back in with everybody else, standing or falling on your own merits.
A military boot camp is perhaps similar in some ways to what Alan provided in his garden projects, the difference being that Chadwick’s training was not for the purposes of war and destruction, but rather for life and creative social action. The purpose was to serve humanity in the same way as gardeners cultivate the soil, building fertility and harvesting quality produce. It didn’t matter what area of specialization would ultimately be chosen in later life, the basic attitude of approach that Alan taught applied universally.
Although many apprentices started their own farming projects, others became doctors, teachers, land trust managers, school administrators, community agriculture organizers, bee keepers, or landscape architects. The common denominator to all of these professions is that they generally involved leadership, socially progressive goals, overcoming of obstacles, and self-directed perseverance. These are the talents that Alan inculcated in his apprentices, and they have served us well.
Those who dropped out generally realized they needed to look elsewhere for learning opportunities that were less rigorous, less demanding, or less threatening, and they often ended up doing just fine in their chosen fields. But there are always a few who grumble that something must be wrong with a program if they themselves were not able to handle it. Chadwick was too harsh, the demands were too great, or their treatment was altogether unfair. Indeed we all have a strong human tendency to avoid the pain of facing our own weaknesses or taking responsibility for our own failures. But for those stout enough to confront in themselves these basic shortcomings of human nature, mentors like Alan Chadwick are always to be greatly appreciated and venerated.
— Greg Haynes, September, 2013