NOTES ON BERNARD TAPER’S INTERVIEWS WITH ALAN CHADWICK
In 1978 Alan Chadwick – Master gardener – was nearly seventy years old and living unhappily in a small house in Napa, California. He had found some land for a proposed new garden project at nearby Lemon Soda Springs, but otherwise he was without a garden and was feeling stranded and enclosed by suburbia. It was at this time that he was first visited by the writer Bernard Taper who was planning to write Alan’s biography. Taper, a writer for the New Yorker, best known for his biography of the choreographer Balanchine, won Alan’s confidence and Alan agreed to a series of interviews in which Taper would take notes and make recordings of their conversations. As things have transpired, the biography never came to be written. The audio tapes made of the meetings, however, have survived. There are many, many hours of them. It is a rich source of information, both about Chadwick’s life and biography, and about his philosophy and approach to nature.
Much of the material on the tapes is superfluous – Taper let the recorder run unchecked. And there are many sections that are poor quality, usually because the speakers have moved too far from the microphone. But there is a substantial body of material – literally hours of it – that preserves Alan Chadwick at his most direct and intimate. It is quite different to his surviving lectures. His lectures were usually set pieces, crafted performances. He rehearses many such set pieces for Taper during the course of their conversations, but Taper is able to go beyond Chadwick-the-performer and manages to reveal aspects of Chadwick’s complex character that are not on show in his lectures. It is a small gold-mine of material, therefore, not least because it is the most extensive body of talks surviving from Alan’s final years. In these tapes he has probably already been diagnosed with cancer. He has less than eighteen months to live.
The interviews are gold, too, as artifacts in and of themselves. Over many encounters there are quite enthralling exchanges between the two characters as they discuss a wide range of issues, and as Taper very patiently tries to work out who and what Alan Chadwick is and how to deal with him. Throughout, Chadwick is characteristically difficult, cantankerous, unpredictable, rambling, tangential, but also warm, entertaining, funny, with passages of sublime visionary reverie. Amongst other things, the tapes are a testament to Chadwick-as-visionary. Taper is at first caught unawares. Nothing he has heard about Alan quite prepares him for what he meets. Taper is warm, gentle, intelligent, cultured and above all diplomatic. Chadwick gradually lets down his guard. It is wonderfully entertaining stuff.
There are a number of themes that stand out from these tapes and that add important dimensions to our appreciation of Alan Chadwick. Some are biographical and some philosophical. There is nothing to titillate a lurid curiosity. Chadwick despises small talk and gossip. He is always lofty. He never descends to the ordinary. What he has to say is vitally important. He traverses universal themes. Even stranded there in the suburbs of Napa, and feeling disillusioned and lost, he is a man on a mission. He has glimpsed the vast scope of what the garden represents. He has an idiosyncratic assembly of references and skills with which to communicate it, and this is made all the more difficult because he is trying to communicate to Americans and he feels a gulf between himself and them. We encounter this profoundly British character adrift in California. Taper is a quiet, thoughtful American. This is a thread that runs throughout: the meeting of British and American sensibilities.
The following are some of the gems to be mined from these extensive audio tapes, including some memorable verbatim exchanges and examples of the Chadwickean idiom. Some of it almost works as theatre. Here (slightly reworked), for example, is the opening scene from Tape 1A:
Alan Chadwick’s sitting room. The door is open to a garden. A window looks out into the garden. The sounds of the garden – birds – can be heard accompanied by wind chimes.
Bernard Taper is seated at the coffee table and is preparing his audio recorder and notebook for the interview. Chadwick is off stage in the kitchen.
Taper is casually dressed. Chadwick is in Bermuda shorts and seems dressed for going out.
TAPER: Yes. It’s a new venture.
CHADWICK: [entering from the kitchen with a tray of coffee] And now I am glad to know you because I am… I am very diffident with… with people. You know that? But I don’t feel that now. With you. And, you know, if you want to start writing about me, you must do so. And if you want to do further interviews, I will do so. And if you want me or need me to come to your house, I will do so.
TAPER: Oh, I hope that this will be the first of a number of meetings. But I’m… I’m very happy to come out. Its very pleasant. So…
CHADWICK: Well, I’m going to be here for a while anyway. Although I’ve found the most utterly miraculous place for a garden. An extraordinary place!
TAPER: I hope I get a chance to see it.
CHADWICK: I would love you to see it! Its a spring! Its one of the most famous springs in the world, equal to Baden Baden – which I’ve drunk – and its identical. I can tell you. And its not being used. And it has the most beautiful buildings in America. All in hand-faced stone. It’s an enchanted place. I find all of this, you know, suburbia… it doesn’t really ring true. Very beautiful country and lovely climatics, though.
TAPER: Well, the country here, I would think, horticulturally, it would be as good…
CHADWICK: As good as you can get. TAPER: Anywhere in the world.
CHADWICK: Yes. As good as… well, no——–, I wouldn’t say that. But for America.
TAPER: For America?
CHADWICK: Yes, because America is governed by the two coldest ice flows in the world, you see.
CHADWICK: So it’s climatic is never… genteel.
TAPER: We also have to have artificial rain here. Watering. Which you don’t have in some places.
CHADWICK: Exactly. Yes.
TAPER: You’ll find that I know very little about gardening. Writing a biography of a gardener is going to be a challenge, in that respect, I’m afraid.
CHADWICK: Monsieur, who if they lived for a thousand years would not know less, as it were, at the end of a thousand years?
TAPER: Ah huh.
CHADWICK: You see, the higher the mountain you go, the grander the panorama. I think this attitude I found at the University in Santa Cruz of people suggesting ignorance is ludicrous. It means a lack of vision of totality.
TAPER: Ah, hmm.
CHADWICK: [Suddenly enthused] This is what I think is so exciting about life!
[Chadwick fixes the coffee.]
CHADWICK: When I do things I have to concentrate. Because of the theatre. My time in the theatre. Focus. I cannot do two things at the same time. So I’m just making the coffee. Do you take milk and sugar?
CHADWICK: So you’re not entirely American. You don’t seem to me to be American at all…
One of the central themes of the tapes is announced very early in tape 1A. Alan is complaining that the contemporary world has become “unreal” (its the language of Eliot’s Wasteland, ‘Unreal City.’) which he contrasts with the garden. He says:
“You see the whole thing has become unreal. This is where this incredible magic of the whole garden comes in. Its a secret, of course. You see, that’s another thing that is so terrible today. Secret.“
Taper doesn’t understand this. He says: “What do you.. I.. I don’t follow…” and Alan announces the dictum: “Everything that is real is secret.”
In the context, the ambiguity of this declaration is slightly humorous, because the listener can hear Taper’s discomfort. It is not the sort of thing that a biographer wants to hear. If everything that is real – and therefore true – is secret, then what is Taper to make of whatever Chadwick is to share with him? Suddenly, the biographer feels the ground beneath his feet turning into quicksand. There is also, by accident, the fact that at exactly this moment someone outdoors in the garden starts up a motorized power tool as if to illustrate Chadwick’s point exactly. Its a nice touch. Taper, though, is confounded. After a long pause he pleads: “You’ll have to explain that.”
This is just the queue for which Alan was fishing. He suddenly moves into a set piece, his recital of Paracelsus:
CHADWICK: Alright. Do you know of Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim?
CHADWICK: You’ve heard of Paracelsus? TAPER: Yes.
CHADWICK: That is Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He was pushed over a cliff. At night. Because he was so beautiful. [Pause.] May I quote?
CHADWICK: [theatrical recitation]
From the zodiac comes the veritable secrets of God. The star angels are transmitters.
And flowers become symbols of their communications. The closer our communion with the angels the greater will be our sense of understanding of the mysteries of the plant kingdom and the greater our realisation of
the spiritual ministry of the world of flowers.
This, then, is the answer to Taper’s request for a fuller explanation of the realities that are secret. When he says, ‘Everything that is real is secret’, what secrets is Alan talking about? The answer is in Paracelsus – the “veritable secrets of God.” These, then, are the only realities. And, specifically – Paracelsus again – he is referring to the archetypes of the zodiac. Chadwick is making a Platonic point. Only the paradigmata are real. And in these “unreal” times they are submerged in contemporary decadence. The garden, however, is a revelation of the stellar realities (via the angelic intermediaries.) The world of flowers is a manifestation of the stellar realm. We can still find reality in the garden. Indeed, it is the “spiritual ministry of the world of flowers” to reveal these realities to us. But they are also secret. The garden is a place of mysteries.
This is a theme to which Chadwick returns again and again; the theme of the garden of secrets and also the secret garden. In a lovely biographical vignette in one of the tapes, he relates that as a child a tutor – who recognized his affinity with plants – took him to a “secret garden.” The tutor, he relates, taught him the Latin names of plants:
[He] knew the names of plants. He was beautiful at the illustrae. Pen and ink. Would make wonderful drawings of these orchids and their roots. He would take me to the secret wood. At Upwey. A secret wood there by the wishing well. I could go there now, to the very spot and find the habinarium. The white butterfly orchis. With the scent of the madonna lily…
It is not going too far to say that Alan thinks of the garden as a living Scripture, a revelation of the secrets of God. His recital of Paracelsus encapsulates themes and ideas that resound throughout his whole approach to nature – it is a capsule statement of his entire cosmology. He hits Taper with it early because it says so concisely how Alan sees the cosmos and the place of the garden in it.
In trying to situate Chadwick’s thinking in the wider spectrum of spiritual philosophies, his affinity with traditions and viewpoints explored by the great modern scholar of esoteric religion, Henri Corbin, is too strong to overlook. There is not the slightest evidence that Chadwick knew of Corbin’s work, or that he would have had any interest in it, and yet he is decidedly Corbinian in many ways. The angelic intermediaries, introduced in the aforementioned recital from Paracelsus and featuring in several of Alan’s conversations with Taper, are specifically so. Corbin devoted his life to explicating angelic cosmologies, east and west, and especially those of the Illuminationist School of Persia. As it happens, Alan seems to have acquired his angelology from a book by Rudolf Steiner, The Archangels & the Four Seasons. It is a theme that becomes more pronounced as Alan ages in years. In the Taper sessions the season/angel correlation is a well- established feature of the Chadwickean universe. Chadwick, like Corbin, is interested in inter-realms. It is Paracelsus’ account of the inter-realms – the angelic – that he selects as his encapsulation. Corbin extends his Persian studies to the Grail myths of Europe and into German romanticism: this is the Corbinian tradition of which we find elements in Chadwick.
Another Corbinian feature is what we might call Chadwick’s ‘cult of Aurora.’ As in his lectures, in the Taper Interviews he demonstrates a preoccupation with the symbolism and mystical import of the dawn, the marriage of Aurora. In another set piece that he offers Taper in the very first session, he explains the miracles of the dawn:
CHADWICK: I wish to lay before you this. When the sun rises in the morning, what really happens is this. The sun is a cold planet. There’s no question of that. And the earth – this earth – is a participle of the planets. Therefore it has a magnetic force within it, like we have as individuals. And therefore that magnetic force that is in it is a response. But the Sun is the leader. Of the secundus mobile. When the sun rises, it is a living thing. It is an energy. It is love. Whatever you like to call it. But can’t think in terms of the word love as we do in the world. But it is that. And immediately that happens in the morning, there is no argument, it is obedience. The love that is in the earth must come out in friendship and meet it and it is the marriage of this incredible happening every day that is what we call… warmth, light.
Here, Chadwick goes into reverie. The beauty of it leaves him speechless:
“Oh! Oh! How beautiful! And all the flowers! The plants. They – like the mythology of the first thousand years – live this!”
The most telling antecedent of this account is in the symbolism of the ‘Orient’ as a spiritual and metaphysical concept in the Persian Illuminationists. Corbin writes about it extensively. Alan insists on denouncing the scientific account of the rising sun. He tells Taper:
“We are taught in school today that the sun is hot. Never has there been greater drivel in the whole world than such a statement!”
Why? “Because,” he says, “it removes the deep, deep vision of what the sun is.”
This is perhaps the most Corbinian utterance Alan ever makes. The scientific world-view has disenchanted Creation, but most sinister of all is the way it has “eclipsed” (to use the Chadwickean term) that spiritual reality that Corbin and the illuminationists call ‘The Orient’ and that Chadwick calls ‘Aurora’, the revelation of the (spiritual) dawn.
Chadwick finds all of this expressed in the Friar’s speech from Romeo and Juliet. When Taper arrives the book is open on the table. He asks Alan, “May I see what you’re reading?” Alan explains that he has Romeo and Juliet out in preparation for Taper’s visit. It is, significantly, the Friar’s speech concerning the sublimity of the dawn that Alan has pre-prepared for his guest. He gives Taper a full Shakespearean performance, reading quite beautifully:
“The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night, Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light, And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels…”
For Alan, this is Shakespeare’s invocation of Aurora. Alan calls it an “Incomparable formation of the very matter.”
DESTINY and RAROTONGA
Bernard Taper’s response to Alan’s reading from Romeo and Juliet opens another important theme in the tapes: destiny. It is a personal and biographical theme, but not by any means unrelated to Alan’s philosophical musings. Taper makes the observation that:
What many people fail to notice in that play is that Romeo is really just as passionate for Roselyn at the very start of the play and that whole play could have become Romeo and Roselyn.
To this Chadwick says, “Absolutely. Cosmic destiny, isn’t it? A huge matter.” Indeed, destiny is a “huge matter” to which Chadwick returns again and again in these tapes. It is his sense of his own destiny, he admits, that keeps him in America. He tells Taper that his whole instinct is to “bolt” (a botanical term) and flee America for some idyllic Pacific island – he nominates Rarotonga where “people are real.” In all, he doesn’t much like America. He compliments Bernard Taper by telling him, “You don’t seem to me to be an American at all.” He’d rather be elsewhere. So what keeps him in America? A sense that his destiny lay there, and – an important concomitant – a deep sense of duty to fulfill and not run away from this destiny. He relates that he himself was very slow to recognize his calling. Freya Von Molkte – effectively his patroness – saw it long before he did. To “bolt” would be a betrayal of her, and himself.
Chadwick’s sense of destiny goes hand in hand with his religiosity. In a revealing passage he talks about how he came to a religio-spiritual world- view, how his life had been changed miraculously.
Now, if you’re talking horticulturally… about vision… We’ve entered the circle where the miracle took place. The complete change of aspect and the whole of life. Since that I’ve become infinitely more religious, you know.
He says, “I love religion. I love the ritual.” And relates that he attended St Edmunds, a Roman Catholic school. “But,” he says:
“it’s become… real. Religion. God. None of it is word anymore. So there has come about an enigma, because none of this was in my life at all. I didn’t know the meaning of the word destiny.”
He gives numerous accounts of his misspent youth. Since then he had found God – as a reality, not as a word – in the garden. It is an “enigma”, a mystery to him, that this “miracle” took place. He had lived his life as an aesthete. For some reason, destiny had taken him to America to answer an entirely different calling. However much he might of dreamed of sailing off to Rarotonga, the only response he could have to such a calling was “reverence and obedience.” You don’t fight your destiny. You are fulfilled through obeying it. It is folly, and impious, to do otherwise. Shakespearean themes indeed.
In the end, we are left feeling that Chadwick doesn’t know why his fate had led him to America. In so many obvious ways he was a fish out of water. But he did know – as a very strong conviction central to his character – that his destiny, his telos, lay ahead of him, not behind. He and Taper have the following exchange:
TAPER: You know, some people end their lives at forty or thirty-five… CHADWICK: Or eighteen.
TAPER: And they’ve done what they were going to do and the rest is just… decline. But apparently, you did not…
CHADWICK: Oh, I haven’t begun yet. I know that.
TAPER: You didn’t begin to begin till you were in your late fifties?
CHADWICK: Exactly. And yet, it becomes more and more apparent to me that the seed was there.
He tells Taper:
“I can’t really tell you what an astonishing revelation life has been to me. I have no connection now with my early days at all. Its as though I’ve lived a thousand years in a totally different realm.
Destiny had carried him to strange shores to meet a strange fate “a thousand years in a totally different realm” removed from his earlier life. All of this on the tapes is entirely genuine; no performance. Alan is genuinely bewildered, astonished, by what had happened to him. And he knows well
that the only proper response he can have is ‘reverence and obedience’, qualities he finds replete within nature and that he learns from the garden.”
Chadwick is theatrical throughout, sometimes outrageously so. But when Bernard Taper at one point innocently says that Alan was being theatrical, Alan stiffens, goes all serious and says, in an offended tone, “I’m not theatrical!” (Any reasonable listener, and no doubt Taper, is thinking ‘Like hell you’re not!’) He wants to distinguish between actors – who are theatrical – and artists – who are not. And he thinks of himself as an artist. This is a very pronounced theme on these tapes because Bernard Taper is a man of the arts, and the performing arts especially. He admits he knows virtually nothing about gardening. He had written the biography of a great choreographer. It is theatre, ballet, opera, that he and Chadwick have in common. Accordingly, a lot more of this side of Alan Chadwick emerges on these recordings than in his extant lectures and other sources. He has rapport with Taper on this level. Warmth and understanding between the two men grows throughout the sequence of the tapes. Their conversations on the arts foster this more than anything else.
It is very obvious in this context, though, that Alan considers gardening as a high art, indeed the highest, and that he sees himself – gardener – as choreographer. Gardening, let us note, is not some “hobby” that he maintains on the side. He is enraged when Taper suggests otherwise. Rather, his other pursuits – singing, painting, ballet, theatre, violin, piano – all converge in the garden, the supreme art. In one exchange he and Taper marvel at various instances of great art, but Chadwick ends by saying:
How enchanting is a symphony! How wonderful is a ballet! BUT, in comparison to an orchard in full bloom….!
Chadwick’s motivation throughout his life, in all respects, was the pursuit of beauty. Not pleasure – he was not a hedonist – but beauty – he was an aesthete. His quest for the ultimate Beauty takes him beyond art to nature, then beyond that to the Invisible. A symphony is wonderful, but a garden is more wonderful still, a symphony of colour and sound and living process. When Alan gives Taper (he insists on calling him “Bernardo”) his rendition of the princess bee’s nuptial dance, Taper responds by saying, “What a marvellous ballet that is!” Wild nature does not fit Alan’s purpose, though. He is interested in the garden as the great work of art, the place where all arts come together. This is his interest in Balanchine:
The great magic that I perceive in the theatre. Its connected somewhat to Balanchine. Here was a person who could multiply the handling of the arts together. Choreography and the ballet – this is one of the nearest fits to me.
These passages on the tapes explain something important about Alan Chadwick. He sees himself and aspires to be “a person who could multiply the handling of the arts together.” There is a video interview extant where another interviewer asks Alan if he identifies with the Art & Craft movement, William Morris, Ruskin and co. Chadwick admits that it would seem he might identify strongly with such a movement, but, in fact, he says, he identifies more with Leonardo [da Vinci]. The difference is that Morris, Ruskin and co. have a vocational ideal where the artisan devotes himself to a single art or craft. This was too restrictive for Chadwick. He was a man of bold, expansive vision and a Renaissance sensibility. He admired those who could master a dozen arts and bring them together in a great synthesis.
In view of this aspect of the Taper Interviews, we should give much more weight to Steve Crimi’s characterization of Alan as:
“… one of the most extraordinary artists of the twentieth century; his canvas an acre of stony soil; his brushes a Clarington Forge spade and Haws watering can; his palate the endless colours, textures and scents of the floral kingdom.”
It emerges from these tapes that that is largely how Alan saw himself.
There are many places in Chadwick’s recorded lectures and their transcripts where one would like him to explain further what he means. He is sometimes cryptic, sometimes circular and he deploys a unique terminology. But when people in his audience ask for clarification, he is often offended and responds with hostility. This happens to Barnard Taper too. He asks Alan to repeat some statement for the sake of clarification. Alan explodes. But Taper persists and because Alan is performing his set pieces to an audience of one, there are many opportunities for Taper to extract explanations and clarifications where Alan is less than perspicuous. Often when Alan asks, “Do you follow?” Taper gives an unconvincing “Ah huh.” This happens a lot. But on other occasions Taper says, “I wish you’d say that in another way, Alan.” And Chadwick does. The tapes are illuminating in this respect. We have explanations from a man who had a lifelong policy of not offering explanations.
An example of this is Alan’s dictum: “All birth comes from darkness.” This is the sort of grand statement to which Alan is given, but he is rarely inclined to explain such statements in terms that don’t make them even more opaque. He tends to be impatient when people fail to grasp what he is saying first off. He is more persevering with Bernard Taper. Chadwick explains to him that there is a class of plants that bloom in winter, and others only at night.
CHADWICK: Do you understand that the camellia blooms in the middle of winter? The snowdrops. The crochus. Bloom, when all the helios are asleep. The nicotina anthenis will only come out when the sun is gone and dusk is come. And then suddenly the whole scent fills the whole garden. And before dawn, light, Aurora is arriving… its all finished. We don’t know any of this today. Do you see?
TAPER: No, we don’t.
CHADWICK: You understand that all birth comes out of darkness?
TAPER: Mmm. Yes.
CHADWICK: If you want to think of something very intensely…
TAPER: You close your eyes.
CHADWICK: And that’s where it comes from. I’m only alluding symbolically to something… Now we come to a matter that you will discover a visibility in, an actual tangible thing. This growth at night is – as I always say – longtitudinal… Now what happens is the growth of that stalk is most fascinating! It grows far more on the side that has been in the shade. You do realise that during the daytime one part of the stalk is more in the shade?
TAPER: Of course.
CHADWICK: Well? Do you see what I’m talking about? Its terribly subtle.
We say that a plant bends toward the light. Alan is pointing out that if this is so then the stalk is growing more on the shaded side than on the sunlit side. It’s a very zen sort of observation. The useful part of a cup is the empty space inside. A plant doesn’t grow towards the light – it grows away from (out of) the darkness. Even so, Alan has trouble communicating to Taper all the implications of this subtle observation:
CHADWICK: Now you must see how veritably secret all of this is and that I can’t find any way to write it in words, do you see? Words of themselves have many meanings.
TAPER: That’s why I’m listening to your stories and your metaphors rather than… necessarily than to your definitions.
THE ETERNAL CHILD
Finally, the interviews offer substantial insights into the enigma of just who and what Alan Chadwick was. As already noted, his behaviour is often quite bad in these interviews; Bernard Taper becomes genuinely fond of Alan, but at the same time he puts up with a lot. Chadwick explodes at the slightest provocation. He whines, complains and is sometimes self- indulgent. During one of his rages – because Taper has mistaken winter savory for sage – Taper confronts him and says, “You mustn’t go into rages like this, Alan, everytime I say something wrong out of my ignorance.” Over their discussions, and his reminiscences, Chadwick admits to Taper that his “behaviour really is very bad.” He is surprised that Taper hasn’t worked out why. “Because I’m just a child!” Alan says. Taper surmises about why Chadwick is different than most people:
TAPER: I was thinking that you’re different than most people because you’re aware that you can’t become accustomed to…
CHADWICK: You know, that difference you are referring to is a very strange thing, because in a sense its ludicrous. I have never gone out of childhood. You can accuse a child of not following the world and talking nonsense. This you really could apply to me.
At one point he becomes annoyed with Taper and they have this exchange:
CHADWICK: You must realize that I’m an incomparably stupid child. I’m not clever and brilliant like you people are. I am really an incomparably stupid child. So if you think I can go on eulogizing about such things and say things in different ways, you are very much mistaken.
TAPER: No, you mustn’t… Don’t misunderstand me. And don’t be defensive if I say to you, ‘Alan, put that in another way… Alan, give me another metaphor. Alan…
CHADWICK: Ah, but you see…
TAPER: Let me finish. If you don’t feel like it, then you say ‘I don’t feel like it.’ Or ‘I can’t do it.’
CHADWICK: Can’t is the answer.
TAPER: Alright. Alright. Then… that’s, that’s all. I sometimes make impossible demands.
CHADWICK: Very frequently, it seems. I’m also aware…
TAPER: Then don’t be distressed if I do.
Elsewhere, too, Chadwick explains that he had never really become a comfortable denizen of the adult world. “I have never, never allowed myself to grow up. Not by edict. But by nature,” he tells his biographer. He characterizes the adult world as a cage, a trap he had managed to avoid:
In a sense, I’m referring to this childhood, these early days of mine… and also the world and its ways – it did not ever get me in the cage. And my presumption and statement is that everybody is in the cage. Sooner or later. And generally sooner. But I’ve never been in the cage. I think sometimes I have been very near the door, and turned and done a colossal flit.
This in itself is interesting because it is Alan’s own account of what it is that makes him different to everyone else. Most people are “in the cage” but he has managed to stay free of it.
He offers these points of self-reflection in the context of Taper’s amazement at Alan’s empathy with plants and with nature in general. You can almost hear Taper’s mind thinking this over. Alan mentions this plant and that. His intimacy with plants is extraordinary. Taper notices it and is deeply impressed. So, what makes his subject (Alan) so attuned? On one of the tapes a bird starts singing outside the window. Alan whistles in reply and soon he and the bird are communicating. Taper is fascinated by such displays of unusual rapport. The basis of this trait in Alan is his childlikeness, the fact that he is not “in the cage.” He has retained a child- like empathy with nature. He never lost it. Almost everyone else does.
This theme overlaps with Taper’s inquiries about Rudolf Steiner and Alan’s relationship to him. Chadwick, as is well known, had Rudolf Steiner among his many tutors as a child. It emerges that Taper’s children went to a Waldorf School and so he is familiar with and has some sympathy for Steiner’s ideas on education and child-rearing. This is an often unspoken backdrop to discussions about Alan’s childhood. Regarding Steiner, Alan praises him as a great visionary but is scathing about the Anthroposophical Society. He is critical of Steiner education in America. It has become “all theory” he says. Taper says, diplomatically, “We just ignore that side of it.”
But, as Taper probably knows since it is a mainstay of Steiner pedagogy, the empathetic extension of the child’s consciousness into the outer world of objects is a defining quality of childhood, and a quality Steiner education seeks to prolong and nurture. Steiner sometimes used the example of the child chasing the bouncing ball. The child, Steiner asks us to observe, bounces along after the ball. An adult chasing a bouncing ball runs flat – linear – without a bounce or a skip. The difference is that the child extends him or herself into the external object. The adult loses this capacity and becomes closed off, hardened, psychologically enclosed from the outer world. Alan Chadwick’s gift is entirely explicable in terms of Steiner pedagogy. This is what Alan means when he says he is still a child who has never stepped into “the cage.” This is exactly the capacity he has retained, specifically in regards to plants to an exceptional degree, but extending to other things as well. In all aspects of life, Alan bounced after the ball. Who
can quibble if sometimes this childlikeness lapses into childishness? When Alan is relating one of his boyhood pranks (involving a homemade firecracker) to Bernard Taper, he says, “I was very wicked when I was young.” “So was I,” says Taper. “Were you?” says Alan. “I love wickedness!”
We hear the many sides of Alan Chadwick on these tapes. We also hear Bernard Taper’s audio notes to himself, for example in the car on the way home after visiting Alan. He tries to assemble some sort of coherent overview of his subject. He has doubts about some of the biographical information Alan has provided – Alan admits that he imbues matters with image – as he attempts to obtain a clear picture of such things as Alan’s reasons for foregoing his inheritance when he joined the theatre. As Taper knows, it was not completely unheard of for a man of Alan’s aristocratic background to pursue a career in theatre. Then Alan says it was his father’s doing. But Taper establishes that Alan’s father must have been dead by then. So why? Finally, all Alan can say is that he is an all-or-nothing sort of guy, that’s why. Taper is left puzzled. Why did Alan fight for conscientious objector status in World War II, only to volunteer for minesweeping in the navy as soon as he was granted the formal CO? Then there are Alan’s accounts of breaking his back, twice, or was it three times?, during the war. These are the things that interest Taper. As a biographer he is interested in all the color and fascination of Alan’s larger-than-life life, with a focus on his many adventures. Taper is certain he is dealing with a creative genius, but what sort? What’s the source of his expansive vitality? His thumos? What drives him?
The remainder of the tapes capture visits to and deliberations concerning the project at Lemon Soda Springs. Characteristically, Alan had big plans. “A garden,” he tells Taper, “must be conceived and conceived and conceived.” Like Taper’s biography project, however, Alan’s plans for the spring did not come to fruition. We can hear on the tapes that there is some manner of disfunction in the negotiations. Where is the money coming
from? It’s not a question Alan even cares to address. Why not fund it by bottling the spring water? Alan won’t hear of it. Meetings are held. No progress is made. It is disappointing. These taped sessions are the record of a gardener seeking a garden, pursuing a vision, but tripping up on the hard facts and tedium that comes with starting any major project. Taper points out that the temperamental Balanchine had a patron who dealt with the sordid practicalities of modern living, and who put up with Balanchine’s tantrums so that the choreographer was free to create; Taper says he wishes that Alan – maestro of plants – had such a patron too.
The other disappointing thing about the tapes is the overall lack of material pertaining to gardening, per se. There is little or no practical material. Since Taper is not a gardener he doesn’t ask horticultural questions. Several times, though, Alan reiterates that the key to his success as a gardener is attention to techne, technique. It is not magic or wizardry. Techne! he says. Techne! He is a stickler for techne. But he doesn’t talk about specific techniques, and Taper doesn’t ask. It’s a pity. The tapes are about the gardener but not about his gardening.
In many respects, the Alan Chadwick we meet on these tapes is himself a disappointed man. Yet his positivity is overwhelming. The modern world is crazy – there is an evil amok – but he refuses to see it as real. The real is secret and the only thing that counts in the end. Chadwick, stranded in Napa, gardenless, facing cancer, pursuing an impossible dream as the world at large descends deeper into industrial unreality is irrepressible:
CHADWICK: Look at this. [holding up a cup.] You can produce as many of these as you want. Its black magic. But you see, Bernardo, none of that matters. Because it isn’t real. I don’t believe – like war – that its really true. It’s a fantasia. It’s fantasmal. Somewhere. And that the only thing that really matters for us is positiveness. This tiny little link with something that is invisible but real. The real. Its not obvious. That is the only thing that matters. And to look at all that other rubbish, and to deplore it, and to chew it over, is total rubbish. An idiocy to do so.
TAPER: Where do you get the signs that are positive though…
CHADWICK: The garden, dear boy! The performance of! The garden is reverence and obedience. And along with that, art and craft… This is what we must do!