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Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film

Photo: Elizabeth Lennard.

“My life, the memories of its sorrows, of its joys, had been forming a reserve like albumen in the ovule of a plant.”

— Marcel Proust

In 1971, when I was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I would wander through the campus Redwoods to a dense flower-filled garden and an adjoining small log cabin. A suntanned man in his early sixties, dressed only in shorts and armed with a simple spade, would barely look up from his work. When he ceased digging, he spoke in a fine British accent about a variety of subjects ranging from plants to literature to Greek philosophy.

I asked permission to photograph him and he posed willingly. I admired how professional he was in front of my camera. l only learned some years later, that the articulate gardener and father of modern “organic” farming techniqueAlan Chadwick,had in a former life, been a Shakespearean stage actor in Great Britain and South Africa.

Recently a request came in from Modern Farmer magazine to use those photographs. The piece opens: “Biodynamic pioneer Alan Chadwick turned America on to radical growing methods—influencing everyone from Alice Waters to winemakers Fetzer & Frey. So how come you’ve never heard of him?”

Horticulturalist Alan Chadwick was the leading educator and innovator of a movement that combines French Intensive and Biodynamic gardening. His influence stretches from California Cuisine to the study of the problems that face mankind in our food production systems. I would like to make a documentary that tells the unique story of the charismatic Alan Chadwick, whose teachings are at the root of sustainable farming methods.

Photo: Elizabeth Lennard.

Chadwick’s name came up ten years ago, when former UCSC philosophy professor, Paul Lee asked permission to use my Chadwick portrait for the cover of his book: Alan Chadwick, There is a Garden in the Mind. Paul Lee had been responsible for inviting him to UC Santa Cruz to create the Garden Project in 1967. In the documentary, Lee will tell us how the university’s Natural Science Department, lead by a botanist who had been instrumental in the development of Agent Orange, suspicious of non-chemical gardening methods, forced Chadwick to abandon his Garden Project only five years later. Not without irony, the Garden Project was renamed the Alan Chadwick Garden and UCSC is now considered by some to be the birthplace of modern organic farming.

The film will weave together highlights from Chadwick’s lectures on a wealth of subjects: the difference between horticulture and agriculture;the importance of weeds; preparations for compost; the life of bees, ants, worms and seeds and how this relates to Classic theater. On the University of California campus, I will film what is now called the Alan Chadwick Garden in its current incarnation as an outdoor classroom.

Chadwick’s unique discourse places horticulture in a complete relationship with the world encompassing the fine arts. He sees Classic Theater and the other arts as the support of the garden, “but the art of the garden is the acme/instigator of it all”. In one interview, Chadwick recounts that taken to see Maeterlinck’s Bluebird, at age four, he discovered the magic of theatrical space that was to dictate the course of his life. Chadwick’s “Garden Project”, gave me the feeling of having awoken inside Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. This will be a personal account and one goal of this documentary will be to convey the specificity of Alan Chadwick’s garden as poetic space. The documentary could begin with a filmed interview of Chadwick in his Covelo, California garden reciting- in jest- a passage from a Shakespeare Sonnet. Then a black and white photo sequence of Chadwick working in his lush garden at Santa Cruz and a color film archive of students picking handfuls of flowers in the 1970s garden and Chadwick’s distinguished voice:

“Agriculture is that area of culture whereby man grows a quantity of food on less cultural abilities.. Horticulture is the fine art of agriculture. They have division, – all agriculture throughout the world should never be so vast as to be out of the manipulative hands of man’s technique.”  (Saratoga Lectures, 1972)

Filmed interviews from the Chadwick Archives and Chadwick’s recorded lectures will be interlaced with images I will shoot of gardens and farms inspired by Chadwick’s teachings.

I will ask former apprentices and people influenced by Chadwick to clarify the impact of his methods today.

To get a perspective on the Classic roots of French Intensive gardening, one of Chadwick’s primary sources, I will go to Le Potager du Roi, the King’s Fruit and Kitchen Gardens, at Versailles. Planted for King Louis XIV, it was a highpoint in the history of French Intensive production. A French landscape architect and horticulturalist will describe the historical context of the “Intensive method” employed by Chadwick, where plants are sowed very close together to retain moisture and reduce weed growth.This will lead us to Louis Lorette with whom Chadwick studied in the 1920s. Lorette invented an effective technique of summer pruning to induce fruit trees to bear abnormally high yields.

It was Austrian philosopher/social reformer Rudolph Steiner who taught Chadwick the basics of “biodynamic” non-chemical methods of agriculture. Steiner had been Chadwick’s private tutor when he was a teenager.

At a bio-intensive farm in Willits, California, we see compost heaps stockpiled with labels indicating the stage of decomposition. In voiceover, Chadwick explains the uses of manure and gives a personal account of Rudolph Steiner. What is the purpose of raised beds and double digging, a key component of Biodynamic agriculture? This is Chadwick’s method, where topsoil is removed to the level of subsoil, then broken up, overlaid with manure and mixed back in with topsoil.

In Covelo, California, I will talk to Robert Wilson, who invited Alan Chadwick to do a garden on his property when he was forced to leave Santa Cruz. Former Chadwick apprentice, Steven Decater, calls Chadwick’s garden “a living being that spoke through the plants”. Decater founded one of the first Community Supported Agriculture farms in California where subscribers receive shares of organic produce in exchange for sharing the risks of food production.

Why talk about Chadwick’s philosophy now? How did he give credibility to the organic gardening movement? In 1993, what took root in the garden Alan Chadwick had begun digging in 1970, became the Center for Agro Ecology and Sustainable Food Systems: helping “Third World farmers to use organic gardening to obtain high yields of food in small spaces with a minimal use of chemicals.” On a farm using sustainable methods, an apprentice will explain this technique. Today, the subject of “organic-versus-chemical pesticides” is, to say the least, topical. Soil protection has entered the conversation on Global Warming and soil ecology has come into the forefront of today’s sustainable agriculture.  Water conservation has become a global issue.

Forerunner of California cuisine, Alice Waters, has spoken about Chadwick’s influence. She said that listening to Chadwick’s lectures at Muir Beach’sGreen Gulch Zen Center,not only influenced her cooking style, but also planted the seed for the organic garden she founded with pre-teens in Berkeley: the Edible Schoolyard Project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. A far cry from the inedible food at GarfieldJunior High School, as it was called when I went there in the 60s. I will return to my own “middle school” past in Berkeley and film the Edible Schoolyard.

You can donate to help fund this project here.

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