Skip Kimura Remembers Alan Chadwick
Skip Kimura joined the garden project in Covelo as an apprentice in 1977. The following year Alan Chadwick left for Virginia, and Skip was one of the last people left in the garden at Covelo. Later, he worked at Commonweal, a Chadwick-style garden project in Bolinas, California, and then at the Waldorf Institute in Michigan with Hilmar Moore and Alan York. After several years, Skip was hired by the San Francisco Zen Center to redesign and reestablish the gardens at Green Gulch because the original garden that Alan made there had been destroyed by building projects.
So Skip laid out the Green Gulch gardens more or less as they appear today. He and Wendy Johnson have worked together teaching classes in various venues over the years. He now runs a landscaping business in San Rafael, specializing in designs using native plants. He also does fruit tree and Japanese maple tree pruning (of which he is a renowned expert) and garden coaching. In August, 2012, he spoke with Peter Jorris and Greg Haynes in San Rafael.
Interview of Skip Kimura, August 12, 2012, in San Rafael, California, with Peter Jorris and Greg Haynes
GH: How did you first hear about Alan Chadwick?
SK: I had taken a basic horticulture class just for fun. And it actually turned into a …, it was an interesting department because, unlike other departments that had lots of 18 year-olds, the horticulture department had 18 to 65 year-olds.
PJ: How old were you?
SK: I was probably 24 or so. So I just started taking more classes. That’s where I first heard about Alan. There was an article about him in the San Francisco Chronicle that talked a bit about Santa Cruz, as I recall. I think it was announcing a talk that Alan was going to give at UC Berkeley that he did jointly with Paolo Solari, who was the architect who built Arcosanti in Arizona. I have some friends now who were down there with him and they remember when Paolo came up to UC to do this talk; I think it was in 1975 or 1976. The article quoted Alan in a couple of ways and it was just a remarkable thing for me because I was getting this very dry horticultural education. Soils, and… It’s a program set up to get you a civil service job, or a job in the florist industry, or to set you up as a landscaper, or to do design work.
When I read just a couple of quotes by Alan it was clear that this was something completely different. So, I can’t remember the sequence … how soon it was before I went up to see Alan. I went to the lecture, and Paolo spoke first. He was Italian, so English was not his first language. He was very soft-spoken, short and soft-spoken, and it was really hard to understand what he was talking about. He was talking about architecture, but in a way that was a little like Alan talking about horticulture. I listened but didn’t really understand much of what he was talking about. Then Alan strode in, and you know what he looked like: striking and unmistakable.
PJ: A stage presence.
SK: Yes, it was a drama for him to just walk into the room. It was, for me, being in that horticulture program at [San Francisco] City College, it was just clear that this was something that was coming from a completely different world than the horticulture I was learning.
What I learned there [at SFCC] was great, useful, practical, and not just practical. I remember after my first plant identification course there, all of a sudden I went around seeing things that I had never seen before. I’d had this course to identify plants, so all of a sudden, you know, things that I drove by without looking at them, I was identifying them, or at least trying to. It actually changed the way I looked at the world. All of a sudden I had a reason or a way to look at something and say, "I know what that is." I might not know specifically, but at least I could say, "That’s a fern," or "That’s a cedar." I took design courses and got some really good experience out of it. It was interesting because... it was the first day after—I don’t know if you guys had two-week sessions to screen apprentices…?
PJ: It was much less structured in those days [1968 to 1971].
SK: By the time I got there [Covelo] you went for a two week period before the apprentice-year officially started. In the time I went, which was in June, 1977, I think there were six of us. We camped out near where the creek entered the valley. We had a pretty tight group. I think that there were some of those two-week groups that had more people in them—ten or twelve.
The intention was that if they gave you the worst possible work—this is my theory—that it just weeded you out, because by … The understanding was if you asked to come back as an apprentice, and you were accepted, then you agreed to stay the full year. No second thoughts, no buyer’s remorse. It was a way to give you some sense of what you were in for, if you decided to come back. I remember someone telling me, “Don’t talk to Alan, don’t look at Alan, and don’t ask him any questions. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.” It was a little bit better as an apprentice, but as a “two-weeker”… this is the way it is… Don’t talk to Alan. As a two-weeker you weren’t there yet, and he wasn’t having it with you.
I remember my first day there, when the apprentice year started. I was walking around with this fellow, an older student, and I questioned something going on, a practice, and he just said— maybe he knew that I had some horticultural experience already, I don’t really know how much they talked about the two-weekers—but he said, “Look, don’t bring everything that you think you know already. Just forget about it and just be open to what you learn here.” That was really great advice, and it was nice that I got it right from the beginning. It just helped a lot because I might have challenged more things—probably not; you know, I would have got my head chopped off—but I always remember that it was lucky for me to get that on the first day so I didn’t have to go through that in public, like having Alan scream at me in public or something. [laughs]
My previous horticultural experience was useful, I suppose. I was used to work, because I’d done some landscape work while I was in school…
PJ: You were familiar with many of the crops?
SK: It was mostly an ornamental horticulture program, so that was really more of what I had experience in… But I had experience at least with soil amendments, soil, irrigation and all that, but it was probably as much a hindrance as a benefit, just because of what this fellow told me: “Just forget about it.”
I survived the two weeks, and even those two weeks were kind of amazing. Our group bonded quite a bit. Some of the apprentices from the previous year told me that our group had…, you know, by June you‘re dragging a little. They said we worked together really well, our group. We were just a bunch of guys that got along well.
PJ: So did you leave after the two weeks and then come back?
SK: Yes, we came in June, and once all of those two-week sessions had finished, then they took the pool of people who had asked to come back and then they decided how many people they were going to accept that year. We started in September. Some people did their two week sessions in April. That would be as early as they would have started.
I was actually the last person in the garden. Alan had left for Virginia. My girlfriend at the time… Did you ever meet Gregg Everhart? She was in my apprentice group. She’s now a landscape architect in Portland. Somebody got in touch with her. We were the last ones there. Everybody else was gone. We stayed into the fall or early winter, and then we came down and worked at Commonweal down in Bolinas which was a project started by two of Alan’s older students who had been in Covelo when I got there. They left sometime during that first year when I was there. A lot of people during that period… some of the older students started drifting away. Denis [Tamura] went back to Santa Cruz and took over the garden there. Do you know Chris and Stephie Tebbutt?
GH: No but I’ve heard about their place in Anderson valley.
SK: They’re incredible in what they’re doing. They were clearly two of the best students while I was there. They went from Covelo and studied in England. They went around to many of the really great estates and manor houses in England and worked there.
GH: So when they told you earlier not to talk to Alan, later did it warm up? Did you have opportunities to interact with Alan while you were an apprentice?
GH: Really, no?
SK: Mostly in the studies, but you were the audience.
PJ: He gave talks?
SK: Yes, I recall that, generally, two times per week he would give a talk. They were performances. You were told, “Do not make a sound. Do not clear your voice.” Like when you’re at the symphony and they are doing a recording, they tell you not to make a sound. There were times that if you moved like this or made a noise he would stop in mid-sentence and turn and look at you for about three seconds, and you just melted. Then he would go on.
The thing that I was remembering was what Alan York told me. There was some complaining going on, which he got as head gardener because he fielded lots of that sort of thing: complaints from people. There was something about carrots and how many of them there were. In the west garden the beds were a hundred and fifty feet long. We had sown two beds and people were crabbing because it was so much work. He and I were talking and he said, “Don’t worry about this kind of stuff. Just do what the old man says. When you’re in charge of a garden and you think sowing three hundred feet of carrots doesn’t make any sense, then don’t sow three hundred feet of carrots. But just don’t worry about it. Just do what he’s telling you.” That was the other really great piece of advice.
This is thirty-some-odd years later and I still remember him saying that to me because it was some of the best advice I got. Just don’t worry about the little things. It didn’t feel like a little thing when there were three hundred feet of carrots to thin, but what he was saying was to try to get the big picture, a sense of getting the idea of what he’s talking about. Those were the two best pieces of advice I remember getting from people that have stuck with me and that were really useful. It allowed me to be there in a way that I didn’t worry about all the little stuff, whether it was a question of sowing three hundred feet of carrots or something personal or whatever. All this time I’ve never had a regret about having gone to Covelo, which I think is rather remarkable for something that turned out to be my major life decision. I’ve never thought back and thought that I should have done this or that, or that Alan was crazy or any of those things.
GH: From your perspective, what really transpired such that Alan left Covelo and the whole thing wound down? I’d like to hear from your perspective what happened.
SK: He hated Covelo. I don’t know if Alan was like that at the beginning, but by the time I got there … just the climate, for him, was the exact opposite of what he wanted. He came from England—and I spent almost a full year in England going around looking at gardens. Being there gave me a lot of background as to, not so much who he was, but at least the environment that he grew up in. At least from the climatic perspective, it’s all cool and soft and rolling hills and summer rainfall and muted soft light, not the harshness of Covelo like it is in the summertime. You were there in the summer in Covelo? Well then you know what it was like; it could be brutal. For him, he was always talking about the temperate, the median point, opening the soils at the equinox etc. Well, in Covelo, it didn’t matter. There were two weeks of spring that were beautiful; then it went from winter to summer. So by the time I got there he was just beside himself over the climate. And yet he built this incredibly beautiful garden. But he hated it.
And he was isolated. I realized later in life that he didn’t have any peers there. He was surrounded by all these scruffy young people that didn’t have any sense of where he came from, the culture that had bred him. I think that there were some people, probably Ramon [Raymond Chavez] of the students. He was in Covelo that year, and he came around to give some of the studies, but he wasn’t really in the garden. Fred [Marshall] was around more. During my apprentice year Alan York was the head gardener.
PJ: How long had Alan York been there?
SK: That was his third year.
GH: So your interaction with Alan was mostly limited to the studies and so on. Did you see him in the garden? Was he blowing up at people, was he talking to people?
GH: What was the experience that you had?
SK: Well, I remember one time I was there on a weekend, and I don’t think there was anybody else in the garden. I was tending the nursery. Alan came along and he kind of took me aside and did a little personal study with me. It was completely different. There were times when I would be walking down the path in the west garden and Alan would be coming down the path in the opposite direction—because at that time he lived in a house that was beyond the chicken yard and beyond the perennial border—and he was coming toward me and I’m thinking, “OK what do I do, what do I do?” He just stopped at a certain point and faced the other direction until I got by and then he went on his way. So there was that kind of interaction. Alan York told me—and you understood this from Alan—he didn’t want a personal relationship. He had personal relationships with certain people like Fred and Raymond, but for the most part, he wanted a professional relationship. You were the apprentice.
I’ve always thought of it as an apprenticeship in the old world idea of it. It wasn’t some new thing; it was an old-world apprenticeship. I knew a little bit about how apprenticeships worked in Japan, which were similar. You were starting at the bottom, and you had to work your way up. I talked to some of the Japanese carpenters, the Americans who trained in Japan to become carpenters. One fellow told me that he didn’t do anything for six months except to sharpen chisels.
I think Alan had some expectation of that kind of relationship. You were the apprentice, and you simply did what he said. Obedience was a big word in the garden—focus and obedience. They’re not the kind of words that this culture goes for much. You had to recognize what it actually meant. He did this little individual study with me. He was incredibly gentle. He hated it if you said, “um.” If he asked you a question, and you started out with “um,” he just let you have it.
This is the way he was. What people told me—because I didn’t do this either. He was giving mime and deportment classes, and people said that he was always completely different. “He’s not breathing fire. He’s really gentle with you. He knows that this is not what you really have come for or know anything about.” In this particular instance he led me into a … cajoled me. It was a completely different experience than what I had with him in the garden, which was me being completely afraid to make a mistake and get yelled at.
PJ: What was he talking about with you that day.
SK: It was about the seedlings that were coming up in the flats: what they were, how to identify them. There was something that was coming up that I didn’t know. There were other times when he would ask me, “What is that plant?” He would say, “You should know every single plant that grows in the garden.” Whether it was wild, an exotic weed, something in the pasture: that was his expectation. It wasn’t very realistic, but …
GH: And you had to know them by their cotyledons. You couldn’t wait for them to develop their true leaves.
SK: Yes. Sometimes he would come along and he’d ask, “What’s that plant.” And you’d say, “I don’t know.” If you said, “um,” you were going to get yelled at. But he let me guess at things during this particular interaction. I said, “Well, it looks to me like a solanum.” It was some wild solanum. I remember this instance. He didn’t say, “Yes that’s right.” He said in that kind of dramatic voice, “Yes, Sausage, that’s the way.”
You know, I lived off that, the energy of that interaction for months. As you know, he could have that effect on you, both good and bad. I think mostly—at least this is true for me—there was a kind of inspiration, and you could put up with a lot because of it.
I remember that first year, at some point when it was going into the summer when it was hot, and people were starting to drag, but I thought, “One of the great things about this is that my threshold has really been raised.” Eight months ago, I would have said, “No, I don’t think I can do that.” I was really appreciative of that. I remember one day coming to that notion that it’s really a gift to be there. It felt life-changing.
GH: Looking back on the whole thing, what would you say was the most meaningful thing that you took away from the experience?
SK: Well I think it’s not so much about the horticultural knowledge, although I still listen to Alan’s tapes and I still get things. I’ll hear something and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” or “I never heard that before, or never understood it like I understand it now.” Not to diminish the practical part of it, but when I talk—sometimes I’ll try to describe Alan to somebody who didn’t know him or know anything about him—and one of the phrases that comes up, that I’ve used in describing him, is that he could talk about nature from the inside out, which was a different sort of notion for me. I remember, maybe in the first week I was there, he did a study. It was early evening, probably five or six in the evening. We were out on the road, and he gave a talk about taking sweet pea seed. You would think that, well, he could give that talk in five minutes. You know, here’s the dried pod, take the seed…
But he was talking about it in a completely different way, and it was like he was talking from the plant’s perspective, not from the human perspective. I think that is what I mean by that. He had some sense of being able to—I don’t know quite the right phrasing—but he could talk from nature’s perspective or nature’s intention or something like that, but in a way that didn’t seem silly. I often think that after Covelo a lot of people—certainly I did this, I tried to talk like Alan. You know, you start channeling your teacher and you take some of his language and you start using it. But it doesn’t really ring true until you have some experience and you find your own voice and you actually talk out of your own experience.
One of the things I really appreciated about Alan was that he used to rail at us for taking notes. He would say, “Put away that pencil.” We’d ask certain kinds of questions and he’d get really ticked off, and would say, “You just want answers that work all the time in every situation.” Because he would also say, “It’s never the same.” He wanted you to recognize that. He wanted you to always be seeing the little, subtle differences, always from one year to the next, or from one spring to the next, or from one week to the next. And he also said that you have to—this is my language—You have to validate everything through the garden. When he would get fed up with us taking notes he would say, “Talking about it, this isn’t it. You have to make this true by doing the work,” which is also something that is a little uncommon in this culture. We think we can take a two-week course in something and we’re experts.
As much as I got out of the experience in terms of horticultural knowledge and the experience of seeing a garden function in the way Covelo did, and I, you know, I still work that way. I still basically work in the way that I was trained there. I was just talking to someone yesterday and I think I maybe have one more project left in me. It might come about; there’s a possibility that it might come about. And, you know, it will be basically a garden like I learned to do with Alan. I’ll do the same kind of cultivation, and I’ll use the knowledge I got growing a garden that I got from him, that’s what I’ll do.
GH: Is that going to be a public teaching garden, or will it be private?
SK: It’ll be private, but it will have a public component. It will be a place where the public has access, if it happens. It’s just a possibility right now, but it’s made me think that maybe I have the energy to do one more project.
I’m still working off the inspiration of having been around Alan. I still have him in my head. I mean, if I drag a hose across a bed, I think, “Oh Alan would have killed me for that.” [laughter] Yeah, I hear his voice in my head a lot. Still things come up and I think—often times it is that phrase— “Alan would have killed me for that.” But also, when I listen to Alan’s tapes or think back, there are things that I remember that I don’t know if I understood them then. Maybe I understand them a little better now.
There was something he said in the last public talk he gave at Green Gulch—and I’ve never seen it in print—but I remember him saying, and I don’t remember the context, but he said, “To eat food that you haven’t grown yourself, it can have no influence on you.” I don’t think I could make that up on my own, so I’m pretty sure that he said it. You can take it literally, which is sort of what I did because I didn’t know how else to take it. But I’ve held on to the notion and every so often it comes up in my head, and I think, “I wonder what he meant?” Or perhaps he was alluding to something else besides—I still don’t understand. When I listen to those tapes, it’s funny, that this sort of thing; I have to pass on, you know?
I always come away from listening to one of Alan’s tapes with something new. It’s either something remembered that I’d forgotten, or I think, “I’ve listened to this tape before but I didn’t get that, or I didn’t hear that.”
GH: How many tapes do you have?
SK: I have a collection of tapes that I did when I became the official tape recorder of his studies, so I was particularly … Because I was always hiding, trying to hide from him, because at a certain point I had to change the tape or turn it over, and that noise would completely set him off. So I’d just hide around the corner. I think I had a little microphone that I shoved out a little bit on the floor. But I think all those got copied by …, Was it Craig [Siska] that came out? When I was at Green Gulch, all the tapes that I had got copied.
GH: He has them but he’s but he‘s very reluctant to share them.
SK: Oh really?
GH: Would it be possible for me to get copies now?
SK: Possibly, I would have to talk to Virginia, because Richard Baker actually has literary jurisdiction. He’s the literary executor of Alan’s, so he has the right to …, but I thought you were sort of working with Craig …?
GH: He and I have been in communication, and he has sent me a few things. I’ve requested access to those tapes that he has from Covelo, and he just … His point of view is that it’s better to edit everything and reprocess everything, re-master everything and in a number of years maybe it will be ready, and it can be accessible to the world at that time, at that future date. And I have argued that, “Craig, you’ve been sitting on this stuff for thirty-two years.”
In my opinion, the time has come for Alan's message to go out into the world. More people need access to what Alan had to say. Craig Siska keeps saying, “Be patient, we’re working on it, and so on and so forth.” But whenever I get a hold of anything, the Saratoga Lectures, for example—I don’t know if you have seen our website—we publish whatever we get. Even if everything isn’t perfect, and the sound quality isn’t perfect, we just move ahead with publishing everything so people can gain some understanding of Alan.
SK: Those were the Villa Montalvo tapes?
SK: I still listen to those. I think those are great because it was sort of Alan at his best. They were really some of the first lectures that he gave. He was on his best behavior, and was very charming in those. And he knew he had a public audience. I think that was when he was at his best, in a certain way, when he was with the public. With us, when he—I mean the studies were incredible. He was just …, he was full on in the performance when he was doing these public talks, I think, and at his most charming.
PJ: Greg used to drive him down to Montalvo from Green Gulch.
SK: Oh yeah? They were great because he kind of spanned …, he was trying to present an overview of this new garden, and so I listen to those a lot.
I met him [Craig Siska] once, I think, when he was out here a long time ago, when he came to Green Gulch. I was either working at Green Gulch or I was working at Commonweal when I met him, I can’t really remember. I don’t really remember our meeting. I think he was probably talking to Ginny at the time because he was interested in the archives. Is he still doing…? I read something called the Verdant Earth. I think they were trying to get together a site and do a new garden project or something?
GH: I don’t think there is anything like that going on now. They had a farm out there in North Carolina that they moved off of a number of years ago. He was sick and …
SK: Craig was sick?
GH: Yes, so he gave all the material he had to a fellow named Steve Crimi who published some of Alan’s lectures…
SK: Yes, I’ve heard from him. He’s got in touch with me.
GH: So they work together, and I guess it’s good what they’re doing. They're trying to gather all of the material related to Alan and they want to make an official archive.
SK: Crimi? Is that the fellow that did the book?
GH: Yes, he edited some of Alan’s lectures. I sort of wondered if they were just trying to make money off Alan’s work. They’re selling the Villa Montalvo lectures on CD, they’re selling the book and so on, and I told them of my concerns. And they said, “Oh no. All the money we make is going to support the work of the archives…”
I can’t say I fully understand what they’re doing and what they’re all about. I’m much more interested in sharing material, not gaining ownership of original documents. I just want to make it public and give as wide and broad a perspective of Alan Chadwick as possible and as soon as possible.
SK: I’ve thought about this. We tried to do the Alan Chadwick Society after his death. I know that there’s a natural reaction for me, I think. I mean this kind of holding on to him for myself. It’s a kind of greedy reaction that is kind of, “Alan was my teacher.” But it also partly comes from knowing how complicated he was, and knowing, in a sense, how little I really understand. I mean I was there and I listened to him, and worked with him, or worked in his garden, and in many ways he’s still completely mysterious to me. Just about anything you could say about Alan, you could also say the opposite. And so, I think it’s fine to edit the studies; the context—nobody can have that if they weren’t actually there, if they didn’t actually sit in the room with him. Sometimes he’ll come off as a little wild or crazy or whatever. I don’t know how people will react to it. So there’s part of me that s always asking, “What did he mean by that, or what could he have possibly meant by that? I always have this worry that he’ll be misunderstood, but I guess that just goes with the territory.
GH: With this website, we’re coming from the point of view, with our various writings and with what we’ve gathered, the bottom line is a fundamental respect for Alan Chadwick: what he brought into the world, what he brought to us as individuals, and who he was as a person and so on. So, in some cases where it was a little ambiguous, we’ve tried to provide explanations so that it actually is understandable. If something was really susceptible or prone to be misunderstood, we probably wouldn’t even put it on there, so as to not give the wrong impression.
Your experience, the way it sounds, was very formalized and somewhat limited in your contact with Alan. In the old days it was like what you described when he was working with you in the nursery in Covelo. That’s the way it was every day with us. So consequently we were just filled up with Alan and with that sense of reverence and learning like you say, not only the horticulture. That was a nice part of it, but more than that it was a way of looking at the world, a way of living creatively and independently out of your own self-determination rather than being formed by all the forces around you. It was about being sensitive and awake and having the will forces to carry out your intentions. We’ve grappled in our conversations and our work about how to express that in a way that’s not sentimental, but in such a way that his example can actually continue to have an effect in the world. I thought—and I don’t think I was alone back in the old days—that we were going to make a revolution, and that the whole world was going to catch the message, and everything was going to change. That hasn’t happened; it’s kind of gone in the other direction.
SK: Well, I remember when I was working in Michigan. I was working at the Waldorf Institute in Southfield, with Alan York. He had gone there, and one of the apprentices from my year, Hilmar Moore, who wrote his remembrance, they were there together. Hilmar was teaching in the college, and Alan was running the garden program, so Gregg and I went to work with them after Commonweal. I remember one day—this is in maybe 1980—going into a natural food store, which was the kind of place you went to get vitamins in those days. There was no Whole Foods back then. And I was looking at the produce, the organic produce, and I remember thinking, “Well this organic produce, this organic thing is never going anywhere,” because the produce was horrible.
GH: Gnarly and wormy…
SK: Yeah, terrible. And Alan made a point of …, when you went to market, when you took anything to market, it was perfect. We did a little marketing in Covelo, but you never took anything with a blemish, never. So when I looked at this stuff I thought, “It’s never going to go anywhere in this country.” But now you can go into any supermarket, any basic supermarket around, and there’s some pretty nice organic produce.
PJ: So things have changed a little.
SK: Things have changed. I don’t necessarily think that …, I’ve had this conversation with a few people. I think the organic movement, or whatever you want to call it, has lost its way a little bit. If you want to be certified organic you have to grow in sterile medium, which, right off the bat is to me antithetical to all the people that we studied and read: Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Balfour, all these people who were the foundation for a lot of this. They were talking about the life of the soil. And for organic to be defined as seeding in sterile medium, I think it’s becoming—because its big business now—it’s becoming just a version of chemical agriculture, just using different chemicals. It doesn’t have that sense of the whole system, the interactions of soil and air and water and the whole environment that Alan advocated. I think that the organic agriculture that we’re seeing now is certainly better, and what we get in terms of produce is better, but in the long run it’s no more sustainable than chemical agriculture. They’re not really talking about that enough, I think, and they’re starting to lose some of the sense of how to bring that about.
PJ: When you were at Covelo, did Alan speak very much about Anthroposophy or Rudolf Steiner?
SK: Yes, he referenced him. Certainly Steiner was a great influence on Alan, and he acknowledged that a lot. A lot of that actually went over my head, or wasn’t really my interest. I tried reading Agriculture [Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course]. Frankly it just put me to sleep. For me, the thing that I think has happened with Steiner, with his students, is what I would not like to see happen with Alan. One of the things that I really appreciated about him is that he kind of deflected the adoration part of it. Not to say that he was a shrinking violet or without ego or anything, but it goes back to that notion of him wanting a professional relationship not a personal one. I remember, right at the time I was in Covelo, the whole People’s Temple thing happened [a mass suicide ritual under Rev. Jim Jones], and that was a local story because they started in San Francisco.
GH: Well there were also a lot of people from Redwood Valley involved [a community near Covelo].
SK: Really? So it was a very local story. I remember one of the other, actually one of the older, students asking me, “Do you think we’re a cult?” And I said, “Well I’ve thought about that and I don’t really think so.” Because Alan would never allow that, which is something I completely appreciated about him. I think he knew the possibility. I think that that’s something that he worked against in us. Whether he did it really consciously or not, I don’t know. But maybe it was just part of him not wanting that kind of relationship.
He had a really deep and close relationship with certain people like Fred. They were so intertwined with each other in certain ways, well certainly in a way that most of the other students that were there when I was there didn’t have. But the thing that I think about the biodynamic movement and all of that is that there is a kind of adoration and almost deification of Steiner in the Anthroposophical movement. That’s the way it seems to me. People could maybe argue against that, people who know better. But the way I see it is that people act like every word that Steiner ever wrote down or uttered is like some kind of gospel. I see it more as indications that he was writing about or thoughts he had. Well, I would say that I wouldn’t want the same thing to happen to Alan: that we deify him or create something that wasn’t really there.
For me, when I think about Alan, I just think about the whole thing. Within any lecture of study or writing of his there is hyperbole. You could pick it apart, you could go into one of his studies and you could say, “This isn’t right, or this is factually wrong.” But it’s really the whole experience of having been around Alan: it just doesn’t matter. So what, that there was hyperbole in what he was saying all the time? But it’s like what Alan York was telling me, “Forget about the three hundred feet of carrots. Get to the fuller picture of what’s going on. Don’t worry about the details.”
GH: He once told me, “Sausage whatever I do, I undo. If I tell people one thing, then, later on, I tell them the opposite so that eventually they can make their own decision out of their own freedom."
SK: Right. He wanted you to be responsible for your learning. He didn’t want to be somehow some final arbiter of everything, I think. That’s really a lot of what I appreciate about him still. I’ve always thought that it came from his…, someone told me once that he had read Krishnamurti, which would make sense because he was tied to the whole anthroposophical thing.
PJ: He never read Krishnamurti, but he knew Krishnamurti.
SK: Did he?
PJ: Because I actually…, when I was at Santa Cruz, Krishnamurti came to speak. I had been talking with Alan about…, I was a young student coming from Los Angeles and I was introduced to Zen and reincarnation, and a whole different way of looking at the world. I heard that Krishnamurti was coming to speak and so I said to Alan, “Do you know anything about this guy?” He said, “Yes, Krishnamurti fell out of my tree house when I was a boy.” Alan’s mother was very involved with the Theosophical Society and Rudolf Steiner, and a lot of these people came to his house. I don’t think that Krishnamurti was too much older than Alan. Alan thought he was a bit uncoordinated. We went to the talk together, and …
SK: Yes, they chose Krishnamurti when he was nine or ten, or somewhere in there. He was quite young.
PJ: My understanding is that he was educated in England.
SK: Yes, he was, and that probably came after he was chosen by Annie Besant and Madam Blavatsky.
PJ: Yes, my understanding is that it was probably when he was being groomed as the Second Coming. But I’m sure that Alan was not…, Alan was too young at that time—even Krishnamurti was too young—to understand what all that was about. My understanding is that when Krishnamurti was twenty-one he repudiated all of that.
SK: Yes, his brother died, so he had this kind of catharsis, and so yes, he did. He repudiated that avatar position. And I’ve always kind of related the two. That Alan had some—and this made sense after someone said that he’d read Krishnamurti—it made sense to me that he didn’t want that position with us.
PJ: I’m assuming that you’ve been to some of Krishnamurti’s talks?
SK: Yes, I have. When he came to San Francisco…
PJ: He had a place in Ojai, and he would come every spring, and a friend and I would go listen to his talks every spring. Even in that talk at Santa Cruz he always emphasized that there are no gurus.
GH: Steiner would say the same thing. He would say, “Verify everything I say. Don’t accept any of it on face value.” But people ignored that.
SK: Right. And you could hear Alan saying that exact thing, right? So that’s the thing that when I was at the Waldorf Institute in Michigan. Anthroposophy was never really interesting to me. Even biodynamics is not that interesting to me. I was just listening to a tape the other day and Alan was talking about composting—it was one of the Montalvo tapes when he talks about the BD setter-offers [Biodynamic Compost Starters] and he said that he was never really interested in that. I remember someone asked him that in a study that I was sitting-in on and basically he said that it was unnecessary, that all of that kind of human handling wasn’t really essential.
GH: I one time asked him, “Alan, why don’t you use those biodynamic preparations?” He had been invited to give a lecture at a meeting of the Anthroposophical Society in Los Angeles one year. So several of us went down with him, and that was our first introduction to Waldorf Education and Rudolf Steiner and all that business, because he never really talked about it before that. Somebody got a copy of Steiner’s Agriculture Course there and was reading it, and I read it, and so I said, “Alan, how come you don’t use these preparations?” And he said, “I don’t want people to get the idea that all the success and the exuberance and abundance of the garden is a result of those preparations, because it has nothing to do with that. It is classical technique and the right attitude of approach.”
SK: Right. Some of Alan’s students who went on to work in biodynamics—I don’t know how they feel now—but at the time they felt like they needed to repudiate Alan in order to be real biodynamic people, which I sort of thought was silly. But there is this kind of feeling like you have to dismiss Alan if you’re going to fully embrace biodynamics, which to me is just, well, silly. So anyway, when I look at all of this publication of Alan’s work, there’s no way to control what happens. I’ve talked about this with someone who has seen that book by Steve Crimi, and I looked at a lot of it. I didn’t read through the whole thing, but I read through the foreword that he wrote. It was clear to me that someone was coaching him who had been around Alan, because some of the things he wrote you would only know if you had been around, if you had gotten coached not to make noise, or to realize that, at least from Alan’s perspective, these were performances. It was like him being in the theater again. It will be interesting to see how these things are received, and what people do with them. I guess, in the end, you have to just let it go out and see what happens with it. Whether it’s understood or misunderstood, that’s going to happen anyway.
PJ: Rudolf Steiner originally did not want any of his lectures recorded. Nothing. The idea was that you had to be there. You had to take it in with your own soul. But as I understand what started happening was that people were taking notes, and the notes were getting disseminated and the notes were inaccurate to a large degree. So he compromised and he conceded to have a stenographer. Originally he made an effort to edit the texts that the stenographer put together, but eventually things got so busy that he didn’t have the time to edit them. Although he allowed it to happen, he obviously had the concern that we’re talking about.
SK: Which Alan clearly learned because it was basically the same thing with him. He had the same reaction to all of that. Don’t take notes. It’s about the experience; it’s not about the words. I remember hearing him say…, at a certain point in a lecture he would get fed up. He would say that talking about it was really obscene. He’d say something like that. The reference was always back to, “Go do the work. You have to learn this in the garden, through your own experience.”
GH: Well, I wonder though, if perhaps, unlike Steiner who had his whole esoteric world and so many different facets of the world, and people began to worship him. But with Alan Chadwick I don’t know if it’s the same danger. What could go wrong? How could it be interpreted so that it would be a negative, a problem of some kind? I’ve launched on this project because every time I talk about Alan Chadwick, people are interested. They stop what they are doing and listen very carefully. And so I conclude that there is a possibility to pass a little bit of it onward. It seemed that to make that available to a wider circle would only be better. But on the other hand, if you can tell me about something that could be a potential danger or problem that could arise from it, then maybe I would reconsider the whole thing.
PJ: Just to add something to that. Greg was telling me that he recently went down to Santa Cruz and was talking to a young lady in the garden. And she was of the mind that ..., she was kind of dismissive of Alan, saying that he was misogynist and a whole bunch of horrible things. So there is this image floating around that is quite distorted actually. And so there is some value to maybe give a fuller and more objective picture.
SK: Yeah, Alan was too complicated for us to really fully understand, so things like that are going to happen. It reminds me a little bit of the notion that goes around that Joseph Campbell was an anti-Semite. I’ve talked to people who swear to that. And I’ve read a little bit about the genesis of that notion, but those things get a hold and they become “real”. Joseph Campbell knew Krishnamurti too. They met on the boat voyage that…, if you read the biography of Krishnamurti, this voyage that he takes from the States back to England is a really significant one. It’s where they become close friends. These are my three main teachers in life: Joseph Campbell, Krishnamurti and Alan, and they all have this connection. Without me looking for them or finding them independently of each other, they all have this connection. And the fact that you said that Krishnamurti as a boy played on Alan’s family’s estate is mind boggling to me because it completes the circle.
PJ: And it was quite an experience to attend the lecture that Krishnamurti did at Santa Cruz. It must have been late ‘68 or early ‘69. We sat in the front row. Alan put on his best suit. There is an element about both Alan and Krishnamurti that I’ve observed from time to time. Their faces and their expressions transcend race; they’re almost universal. I see that a little bit when I look at the photographs of Rudolf Steiner. Even though Krishnamurti is very different, in a lot of ways there was a similar intensity. Alan sat there and he didn’t move through the whole lecture.
SK: That’s a great story. I think that for Alan that experience is a lot of what he missed in Covelo and that what made it so hard for him is that there was no culture for him, nothing that fed that part of him. It was like being banished to the hinterlands. There was a point there, the following summer after I got there, a possibility of a new project in Sonoma. It didn’t happen, but I remember going down and meeting with him to talk about it with another student. Of course, I made a faux pas, and he got really pissed.
GH: What did you do?
SK: He brought out the tea set and served tea and he said, “Cream? And for me, I had never had cream in tea before. I’d grown up drinking Japanese green tea. So for me the whole notion of cream in tea was not appealing. So I said, “No thank you.” And that was just it. That was the end of it. He just stormed off and threw the whole thing in the sink.
PJ: That was pretty extreme.
SK: Well, it was like I didn’t play my part, right? But I always think that it’s too bad because Sonoma was culturally a place where he might have gotten a little bit of the juice that he needed. He might have met people who were more like him, more like colleagues or peers, people closer to his own age and who had a sense, had more refined, better sensibilities.
GH: A better climate too.
SK: A better climate too. My regrets around Alan are that it’s too bad that he didn’t live longer to see and influence the next sort of step from the germ of it all to now where we are. Because that’s what is missing in this whole notion of organic, now that it’s come to mean “not chemical.” But it’s lost a deeper meaning because all it is is it’s not that. That’s my regret around Alan, and so maybe that argues for his work to come out so that…, there are still the words. I always refer people to places like An Agricultural Testament, which is one of the books that Sir Albert Howard wrote. His discussion about soil in there, in the foreword, is to me one of the most basic writings about what we call organic now. But it’s basic. I think it’s titled something like…, it’s basically the soil cycle in nature and how that operates. So for me it’s one of the most basic things I have ever studied. I’ve read that little brief foreword many, many, times. Whenever I’ve taught classes that relate to those things I always go back and read that. It’s that sensibility that’s disappearing, I think. It describes the notion of the natural cycles all in balance in a real ecosystem. It seems to me that as organic growers, we’re still trying to extract ourselves from that.
PJ: I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and I didn’t have any pre-connection with horticulture or gardening. I came to the university at Santa Cruz and stumbled into the garden, was initially fascinated by the character of Alan Chadwick. You are struck by his presence, his drama, his sensitivity to something more than just the material world. But you start listening to the talks and start working in the garden…, just his whole concept of fertility, the life in the soil and the life in the air, and the water and everything interconnected. And then you start building on that fertility and increasing the vitality of everything and then observing the garden and the results. We’re talking about the whole dynamic. It’s a package; it’s not just “no chemicals.”
GH: Well, the difference between Rudolf Steiner and Alan Chadwick for me is that Rudolf Steiner said that you should sow by the cycles of the moon, for example, but his reasons are that there are all these archangels and elemental spirits and so on. It’s a whole construct that’s outside of our experience. Whereas Alan would say you should sow by the cycles of the moon because, look, the moon has nine times more gravitational force on the earth’s water than the sun does. Look at the tides, look at the human female menstrual cycles; these are tied into the twenty-eight day cycle. It was not this kind of esoteric construct. It is rooted in observation of nature and so, for me, there’s less danger of it being misinterpreted and people creating a religion out of it.
SK: Right. Well I don’t think I have an answer about what is the danger. It may just be a kind of protectiveness I feel about it. But the truth is that I’ve been working on this for [… Skip’s cell phone rings…] Can you imagine how Alan would have hated cell phones. [laughter] I’ve kept studying Alan all these years and I don’t know that I can say that I understand much.
GH: I think you’re being modest.
SK: Well, I mean, I have more horticulture experience now, and so I probably get more out of it now than I did before. I think things will come up still that I hear and I say, “OK, now I get it.” But even in those Montalvo tapes that are pretty basic, they still are very rich for me to hear. He’s really talking on a fairly basic level. So it never gets old. I remember listening to the Santa Cruz tapes a little bit. I remember listening to them before; I think they were around in Covelo. Somebody had a copy of those. I don’t remember them very well.
GH: I have a copy of two of those that I’ll give you.
SK: Do they still sell those?
GH: No, they’re guarded within the Special Collections Department of the [UCSC] library. You can’t make copies of them or buy them. You can go in and listen to them. I have the one he gave on the cycles, the sun and the moon and that sort of thing. And the first one that was a kind of introduction.
SK: These are the ones that he used to do in some big amphitheater, is that right?
GH: Well, at first they were held in the natural science lecture hall, but eventually the crowds became so large that they couldn’t accommodate everyone, so they moved them out to the quarry.
SK: That’s kind of amazing. And was it mostly students?
GH: No. I went to several of them, and people would come up from the town. There would be a few professors finding their way in there. It was a varied group of people: a few students, apprentices and so on, but mostly people from the town.
SK: So that’s interesting. So he got to be something of a phenomenon around there?
GH: I’ve never seen anything that approaches that garden in Santa Cruz, the sounds and the sights and the smells and everything. It was for me an experience that has never been repeated. We made a garden at Green Gulch that was pretty nice. We had a pretty nice little garden at Saratoga. I visited up in Covelo, and it was great, but that garden in Santa Cruz was orders of magnitude more abundant, just teeming with beauty on every side. Covelo was basically flat but in Santa Cruz there were hills and natural places. You would come out of the garden beds and there would be a little formal garden here or there with ferns and lilies and fuchsias. It was just very integrated and organic, very charming.
PJ: Did Alan create herbaceous borders and such at Covelo?
SK: Oh yeah; it was massive. It was a full three hundred feet long. The west garden was the main production garden. There was the main path that went east to west and the beds all ran north to south and they were one hundred and fifty feet long on either side of the path. You went through all the production beds and then you got to the herbaceous perennial border. There were two borders, each forty feet deep, separated by a ten foot grass greensward, and then another forty-foot border. Forty by three hundred, and there were rose bays all along the back side, climbing roses that backed the whole thing. And it was all sighted on the clairvoyer. It all centered on this hill, the tallest little peak in sight to the north. The whole thing was centered on that little peak. I’d never seen anything like that.