Paul Lee

Creating an Organic Movement

Recorded: 5/17/13

Huey Johnson introduces Paul Lee, a distinguished professor from University of California Santa Cruz, who founded the organic garden at the University with Alan Chadwick. Paul shares a story about Alan Chadwick its visionary gardener and elaborates on the creation of the Chadwick garden.  Here is a fascinating story about one of the earliest organic gardens in California and how it sprouted roots in the "flower power" days 1967.

Paul Lee was born in La Veta, Colorado, and was educated at St. Olaf College, Luther Theological Seminary, the University of Minnesota and Harvard, where he received a divinity degree and PhD and was a teaching assistant for Paul Tillich. He served as the Protestant chaplain at Brandeis University and was the founding editor of the Psychedelic Review. He has taught at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of the children’s book Florence the Goose and the The Quality of Mercy, an account of his work with the homeless in Santa Cruz.

Paul Lee’s new memoir/biography, There is a Garden in the Mind has been hailed by Publishers Weekly as “part philosophy, part personal meditation, and part tribute to a man who was a transformational figure in the organic movement that began from small seeds in California and has now reached a global community.” Lee and his former UC Santa Cruz colleague, English gardener Alan Chadwick, helped spark California’s organic movement and continues to inspire new methods and movements for sustainable farming and gardening today. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife Charlene. His website is




Huey Johnson:    You’re about to meet Paul Lee.  Dr. Lee is a philosopher, was a giant historian I’m going to provide an introduction to.  A dream that many had in California was a new campus and it was to be of the University of California to be at Santa Cruz in a Redwood Forest and it was to be a new kind of university.  Liberal arts and environment, no pressure for publishing required of the faculty, they would be teachers.  It had a wonderful outlook.

So it began, and it built very quickly, one of the best, I think — the best environmental policy program group in the nation.  And it was going quite well, but all of the sudden things started to go wrong, and it turned out that there was a garden that had been suddenly built in the middle of the campus when things were going in turmoil, really.  They were under the gun of the University of California Campus at Davis, which is a big agricultural center and is really, we always felt run by the chemical companies. Huge enterprises and they did not want anybody having anything to do with agriculture, particularly whatever this organic agriculture was.  This being toyed around with at Santa Cruz, they wanted nothing to happen to happen there.  

The garden became a symbol, Dr. Lee came up with an Englishman who went and bought a shovel and started digging on campus, he’ll describe this, it became a really wonderful garden.  I got into it when I was a guest of the Zen Center at their monastery down in that area and, one weekend and they asked me on the way home please do them a favor and stop, there was a land problem at the campus, would I stop and visit.  So meet Paul Lee,  I did, and I was introduced to Alan Chadwick, the gardener.  And he with his crew invited us to have tea, white tablecloths, silver tea set, in the garden under garlands of flowers, just wonderful.  Well, he was feeling the pressures of the competition from the UC Davis agricultural interests who were trying to stifle what was trying to emerge at Santa Cruz in part of it and they succeeded really. But he settled in and became a fixture of prominence in organic gardening circles.  It was viewed as the beginning of the organic gardening movement, certainly in California and maybe the nation, I don’t know.  But Dr. Lee will tell his own story now.


Paul Lee:    We’re rationally self conscious and therefore, we’re in effect, I don’t want to say strange that the outset, but we’re in some sense alienated from nature by virtue of living in our minds and this somehow gives us an exploitative edge.  So rational self consciousness is a really difficult ambiguous theme, it’s something I’ve taught all my life.

I love teaching the Greeks from Homer to Plato and the rise of rational self consciousness in ancient Greece, but its got a big down side and one of it is the way its juxiposed against native consciousness and folk consciousness and how much it eclipses and in a way, undermines native consciousness.  But that’s been a big motif, is the conflict between oral native cultures and rational literate cultures.

And the unfortunate thing is the latter is almost completely dominated by males.  In a way that was a big aspect of what Chadwick did, I mean he was as male as you could get I suppose in his demeanor and what not.  But the sense-ability that he manifested was very feminine and the care that he took in what he planted and grew.  You know that all had a nurturing, nourishing character to it, I call it sacramental.

I came here in 1966, so it was the age of flower power.  I mean that was the big slogan and the campus here was, in a way the new age campus.  I mean it started in 1965, I came the second year and so it was a place for taking psychedelic drugs.  It was as if they opened up a campus for that purpose.  If you want to get high and go crazy, you come to Santa Cruz, and it was amazing how the institution accommodated that.

 Well, there wasn’t anything they could do about it because it was such a, you know, tidal wave.  And so I thought flower power was a great slogan, and students when they took acid, saw eternity in a grain of sand.  So they didn’t want a technical industrial relationship to make nature they wanted a sacramental one, and they wanted to reverence nature and that’s exactly what Chadwick transmitted.

So we started the garden here in 1967, a year after I came and as I said, was a great ranch landscape.  It was a perfect setting for a garden, the chancellor was in favor of it.  And it all seemed pre-ordained because two weeks after I proposed it, Chadwick happened to come to the campus just to visit and was asked if he would do the garden and he said he would, he didn’t really have anything going.  He looked, he was free to do it so he simply went out and bought a spade and picked the slope at the entrance to the campus and started to dig.

Chadwick’s organic garden was in some sense, in opposition to the science establishment on the campus as well as to Davis, which was industrial agriculture and food and flower production.  So we were a complete antithesis to Davis.  And I didn’t have that in mind when Chadwick took on the job as gardener, it just happened that he was a strict organic practitioner before anybody really caught onto it.  This was before organic became the big buzz word, that took decades for that to happen.  And so when Chadwick brought his organic procedures here, it was real innovative and it annoyed the science faculty because they thought organic meant artificial and synthetic.  “What?”  And organic chemistry is the artificial synthesis of whatever’s found in organic nature through inorganic means.  That was the big breakthrough for me when I found that that’s what they thought organic meant as opposed to what Chadwick meant by organic.  And so they took us as a kind of hippy plot meant to further embarrass them.  And so like you said at the outset, the garden was always kind of unintegrated appendage, it never really got integrated into the university per se and still like that.

They have kind of a [unintelligible] program of apprentices that come for 6 months at a time and study and they’re enrolled in that program, but it’s – it stands aside from the university.  That was a signal moment for me.  I’m at dinner, there’s an organic chemist colleague, he would have had to of been one and he stepped it off on our way to the dinner table and said “Paul, you know the garden has done more to ruin the cause of science on this campus than anything else.”

That was the warning shot.  And so I had to find out why an organic chemist, which sounds already like an oxymoron, should feel that way about our garden project.  And then I got into it and I found out that organic chemistry started with the artificial synthesis of urea in 1828 and that was the beginning of the undermining of the integrity of organic nature because it mean that you could artificially synthesize from inorganic sources whatever was found in organic nature as long as you knew the chemistry.  And urea is such a fabulous symbolic example of the origins of organic chemistry because it led to artificial fertilizers, urea is a nitrogen, and plastic, polyurethane.  So you could grow plastic food in synthetic soils and go the industrial route.

So that’s what happened.  You know the whole food production system in this country as well as elsewhere, came under the sway of modern science and modern industry and that’s what we got with our food production system.  I’m really thrilled at every time I read about guys doing community gardens, you know finding vacant lots and starting a garden, I mean there’s a, there’s a really appreciable movement in the country to do that.  So anybody that can get into gardening at all, whether it’s in their own back yard or even in just boxes that they can construct. To grow your own food, that’s a big support I think for one’s sense of being alive.  And so that’s the nicest outcome of the whole organic movement.  And so yeah, that whole theme of, you know an economy of gift has been central to my life.

Peggy:    Nice.

Paul Lee:    It’s been a real rewarding one.  So that’s my message to the next generation, you have it to give it away.

Peggy:    Excellent.

Paul Lee:    And the more you do, the more you get.

  • Alan Chadwick was a visionary who was very important in the beginnings of organic gardening and farming in the United States. But his philosophical perspectives and teaching methods were just as important. A lot more on those aspects of his life and work can be found here:

    Alan Chadwick, a Gardener of Souls

  • Rosalie Howlett

    Those of us fortunate enough to participate in the Methuselah program on the Cowell campus during the summer of 1967 met Alan Chadwick and were introduced to his new garden, but I’m sure we were very unaware of the importance of what he and Paul Lee were initiating and of any political implications.