Alan Chadwick's Birthday at Green Gulch in 1972
A memory of Alan Chadwick, transcribed from the audio recording located elsewhere on this website, and lightly edited.
How We Celebrated Alan's Birthday: A Hike, a Swim, and a Feast
It was Alan Chadwick’s birthday in the year 1972. I don’t remember who organized it, but we took off early from work and all went on a picnic. It was Alan, me, Peter Jorris, Miriam Dobkins, and there were probably ten or twelve Zen students who also came along. We hiked, as we often did, up into the hills behind Green Gulch to the southeast. There were some old dirt roads that went winding up through the hills there, partly on Zen Center property, partly on the land of others. Along the way conversation usually focused on subjects of nature. For example, a particular wild plant: what was its name, its family affiliation? Are there any known cultivars of garden plants that are related to it?
Alan was always testing you. He would say, “Please identify this for me.” And if you didn’t know the name right off, he would say in his highly theatrical style, “Sausage, I care nothing about the name, just tell me that you know it intimately.” The name, of course, is purely arbitrary. Yes, it has some scientific, practical, or taxonomic use, but the link, the connection between the human soul and the soul of the plant—that was the main thing, the important thing. Everything else is just “toys of the nursery,” as Alan would say, mere erudition.
So we traversed up over the hills and then down. There are some obscure little beaches along the Marin coast between Muir Beach and San Francisco Bay. There is no way to reach them except by walking quite a long distance along these old, abandoned, dirt roads. I don’t know how Alan knew that this beach was there. I never knew him to go tromping off by himself on these paths, but he seemed to know exactly where he was going. We ended up at a lovely little cove with a sandy, pebbly beach, rock formations, and beautiful, clear water. None of us had expected that we would be arriving at the ocean, nor that we would possibly be swimming and so no one brought swimming suits. We had just been expecting a hike and a picnic.
But of course an encounter with the sea is always something special. With Alan, any encounter with nature, any intimate, profound encounter with nature is the height of life; there is nothing greater. And I don’t mean a merely superficial encounter. I mean a communion with nature in her various visible forms. So, there we were, suddenly confronted with the ocean, the mighty Pacific Ocean, in this remote, isolated, and unspoiled place; this place where the spirit of creation, the spirit of nature, was untrammeled, unspoiled, still intact in its purity. Perhaps the possibility of a true communion still existed at this particular, special place. Alan never used the word “power spot,” but the implication was that certain places retained their natural power, their natural force of nature, which perhaps the whole world was imbued with at one time. But most of the world has been desecrated to the point to where the spirit of nature has had to retreat to certain isolated and specially preserved places. OK, so maybe this was one of those, and not to partake, not to commune with it would be not only a loss, but even a sin, one could say.
So it was clear that we had to swim in the ocean, as cold as it would have been, even during the summer. In the vicinity of San Francisco the ocean is always cold. But it didn’t matter. It was all the better, all the more reason to have a jolt, to have an awakening through a communion with the sea, to feel the salt water on the skin, the smell of the algae, and the sound of the bird cries, the sound of the waves coming in. There was nothing else to it but that we had to swim. And since we had no bathing suits, we would have to swim without them.
None of this was even spoken. Not a word was said by Alan or anyone else as we stood there, admiring the view. But imagine our astonishment as Alan proceeded to remove his clothing and plunge into the surf. Without a word to anyone, without a look back, it was a gesture that recognized the imperative, the natural imperative of the situation without a quavering of a doubt. There was no Percival here, questioning, and dithering, and unsure. No. it was an immediate and natural reflex, a healthy, spontaneous, innocent reflex, of the call of the natural world. And Alan was not one to shirk from such a call.
So there he was, immersed in the bracing purity of the ocean. And there the rest of us were, standing and gawking, fully dressed on the shore, un-baptized, irresolute, and reluctant. Reluctant believers we were, but not for long. I don’t remember who was the first one in. It may have been me; I’m not sure. But we all began to disrobe, and we all, one after the other, plunged in. There were a few equivocators; I recall Miriam. Yes, she did remove her blouse and her bra, but her panties she kept on. Miriam was a conservative young lady—in a very healthy way. I don’t mean at all to demean Miriam. She had a good sense of boundaries, and a good sense of appropriateness. I’ll come back to her later.
So, whereas we all found ourselves shivering and writhing with the cold, Alan’s gestures exhibited nothing but pure enjoyment. It reminds me of when I went walking with him up in the Napa Valley one time, where he was going to make a garden project where natural effervescent springs bubble to the surface and ancient olive trees still grow. Now, you may know that uncured olives are as bitter as bitter; there is almost nothing more awful, nothing more terrible than eating an uncured olive. But as we walked among the olive trees, probably at least a hundred years old, I commented on the olives. Alan said, “Oh yes, these are Frangois,” or something like that. He knew the name of this particular type of olive. He just popped one in his mouth, chewed it up, and only spit out the pit as if it were the most natural thing in the world. With no grimace, no sign of any bitterness or regret, he savored it. I know about raw olives. I had made the mistake once of biting into an uncured olive and I will never do that again. I was just astonished at his powers, the powers that he had to remove his attention from any stimulus that was unpleasant, to separate from it all that which was positive, which was intense, which was true. To go beyond the bitterness of an uncured olive and savor its potential qualities, that is an art.
It was the same with the dip in the freezing ocean. He could disregard the cold, and thus be absolutely open to the message, the communication, and the essence of the sea. That perhaps is a lesson worth a lifetime right there. And such was Alan’s enjoyment of the ocean.
The point came when none of us could tolerate the cold of the water any longer and we began to swim back to shore. Although Alan would be the first one in, he would never be the first out; that would be undignified and not a good example for one who would commune with the sea on her terms, however cold those should be. So he waited, and after a few of us had straggled back upon the sand, he came out. How were we to dry ourselves, as there were no towels? He merely lay down upon the sand and dried off in the sun. It didn’t take long. It was delicious, lying there in the sun, the warm sand, and the breeze, surrounded by naked Zen students of both genders.
And Miriam… Miriam was lying in the sand just a little below where Peter and I were, with her cute little panties. Not slinky at all; they were very conservative panties, quite amply covering her private parts. I still can recall the delicious, healthy skin of her back, with her breasts concealed as she lay face down in the sand.
I’m sure it was not me. I’m sure it was Peter who had the idea of somehow piquing Miriam, trying to get her to stand up and bare her breasts. I’m almost positive that it was Peter who tossed the first pebble onto her back. At first she ignored it; she tried to ignore it. One could feel her displeasure though. The vibe of her displeasure was palpable, as well concealed as it might have been—and that added more intensity to the fun of teasing her.
So now—I have to admit—I joined the fun. I found a nice pebble: not too big, not too small, just something that would be distinctly felt. So, I lobbed one of those over. It hit nicely between the wing bones, between the scapulae. This time, Miriam winced. She was not happy and she showed her displeasure by a “humph,” a turn of her head to the other side, and a “how immature” kind of exhalation of the breath, a snort. So now we were getting somewhere; we had got a reaction from her.
If the truth were known, I had a crush on Miriam. I really liked her. But it miffed me that she did not reciprocate. Miriam seemed to have no love for me, and that may have contributed somewhat to my enjoyment at teasing her. Immature? Yes, I acknowledge. But on the second pebble, Miriam was not amused. On the second pebble—my second pebble, the third in all—she gathered up her blouse, she covered her breasts, and she stood up. Then she said, in no uncertain terms, that the two of us were intolerable, immature, babies. We were infantile, and she wanted nothing more to do with us. Then, with all of the more interesting parts of her anatomy covered with her clothing, she stomped off to some other less-accessible region where she could enjoy and commune with nature uninterrupted by the puerile childishness of the likes of Peter and me.
I can’t remember exactly where we had our picnic. I vaguely remember lunch up on a grass-covered ridge top, overlooking the sea. Picnics with Alan were always an experience. Everyone would have brought something that they considered festive—or most people anyway. There was no real obligation; you just showed up. Alan always had enough and to spare of goodies. It was something he actually enjoyed quite a lot, sharing delicious foods with other people. There would be exotic crackers, imported from England or France. There would be cheeses of the most unusual and delicious flavors: soft spreadable cheeses, gruyere, gorgonzola, bleu cheese from time to time, camembert, brie, or intensely flavorful cheddars. Cheeses were something Alan loved. And there would always be olives, cured in brine: Greek, Kalamata, and Sicilian. There was always wine too: perhaps a Champaign, perhaps a Gewürztraminer. Alan’s taste in wine tended toward the sweet, so wine snobs would probably find fault with some of his choices. He liked the sweet and he liked the economical wines.
And then there were the things that he had cooked. There might even be a rice pilaf that he had cooked up, or some kind of salad. There would be hand-crafted breads that Alan would have got from the bakery. He would have long since have found the best bakeries in Mill Valley where he would get whole grain, deliciously hand-formed breads. Maybe there would even be a thermos of tea with a container of sweetened, condensed milk to put in it, maybe pickles of some kind, and perhaps a thermos of Medaglia de Oro coffee. Those were in the days before you could get imported Guatemalan coffee beans, or Sumatra beans that you get at Starbucks or wherever else people buy those things. In those days there was Yuban, Maxwell House, and then for the connoisseur, Medaglia de Oro. At home, Alan used a special ceramic porcelain coffee maker. You put the coffee in and you added boiling water at the top, and it slowly percolated into the coffee pot below, and when it was done you removed the upper portion where the coffee grounds were. It was a high culture, a classical culture of coffee making that we all learned from Alan.
There would always be sweets too, cookies, specially made cookies, or maybe even chocolate éclairs that would be divided into fourths so everyone could have a little bit, or chocolates, always chocolates. His favorite was Cadburys, the English Cadbury brand. There were various varieties, but Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut became a favorite. Sometimes after a long, hard day, Peter and I would go back to our little habitation and collapse, in no way having the strength to cook a meal. Suddenly we remembered that there were two large bars of Cadburys Fruit and Nut that we had recently purchased. We would make an entire meal out of those.
The chocolates, yes, and probably also nuts would make their appearance. We would all partake of the cheese and the bread, the olives, the chocolates and so on. Most people would have brought something, thrown together at the last minute, and by supplementing those crude contributions with some of the delicacies that Alan shared out, rarely did anyone go away hungry. Everyone had an exquisitely stimulating experience of food that provided a degree of satisfaction beyond simply getting the calories, simply getting filled up. But it wasn’t merely that, it wasn’t a type of sensual experience that was merely on the surface; it was a profound appreciation and respect for the quality and the real flavor, the honest-to-goodness flavors of wholesome foods. There was nothing of the ersatz, highly processed garbage that passes for food in the modern world.
Sometimes Alan would even make a blackberry tart. He would pick blackberries that grew on the hillsides and make the crust with whole wheat flour, and good ingredients. It was the most incredibly delicious blackberry tart imaginable. The flavor of those fresh blackberries penetrated not only your mouth and your stomach but would tingle out to the extremities of your fingers and toes.
For someone raised on canned vegetables, it was a revelation to eat the food that Alan put together, the vegetables that he grew in the garden. Someone who has never tasted a carrot fresh from the ground or Bibb lettuce harvested minutes before eating, or tomatoes off the vine, or even Swiss chard—it didn’t matter—every vegetable that he grew was delicious. I fear that many people do not have that experience. They do not know the difference, the potential for food, for good, healthy, nutritious food that exists in the world. I didn’t. I was oblivious. I did not realize that food could be a religious communion with all that is good and true about nature and the world.