Tyll Hans van de Voort
B. 29.09.1948 / D. 09.10.2020“Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives.”
Biodynamic gardener, teacher, artist and social pioneer Tyll Van de Voort died on the 9th of October 2020. Anyone who met Tyll will remember his seemingly boundless energy and zeal for life, his sharp intellect, wonderful aesthetic abilities and deep respect for his fellow humans. The sense of order, beauty and abundance in his biodynamic gardens were a unique expression of a unique man.
Tyll was born in Holland and was raised by his mother in Germany. From an early age Tyll was sent to boarding school, only returning home to his mother during school holidays. Later Tyll remembered these times as sorely lacking; the conditions of boarding school missing the warmth and nurture a child needs.
Tyll went on to study fine art and philosophy in Hamburg. Here he was introduced to Joseph Beuys with whom he studied for a semester. Beuys greatly influenced and broadened Tyll’s outlook on what art can be. Bueys’ notion that an underpinning spiritual structure is needed in forming art is something that Tyll carried into his all of his later work as a gardener and a leader in community life.
Tyll met Sybille in 1976 whilst both working in Hamburg in the creative industries. They quickly developed a deep loving connection. Only weeks into their relationship, Tyll had a serious accident, breaking a frameless heavy mirror over his right arm and cutting it so deeply that he severed all the nerves. Although surgeons saved his right hand, Tyll had to relearn to use his left hand as his dominant one and through remarkable will power not only learned to write effortlessly but developed a new unique, flowing cursive style.
After the birth of their first daughter Johanna in 1977, Tyll and Sybille decided to seek an alternative way of life, moving to a land based commune in 1978. Here Tyll began to gain practical experience in growing, though as he later recalled when he first started, he couldn’t distinguish a dandelion from a nettle and didn’t know what compost was!
In 1979 he went on to undertake a three-year biodynamic training, starting at Gartnerei Thiess near Bremen, a horticultural nursery specializing in vegetables and flowers and then completing his training at Obsthof Mehrens, a biodynamic fruit and vegetable farm in Neumunster. During this period he and Sybille were married and Lisa, their 2nd daughter was born.
In conversation Tyll often evoked with a certain reverence those who had trained him; at pruning time he would proudly display a pair of rather antique secateurs that he’d received as a parting gift from his ‘master’.
Tyll and Sybille arrived at Oaklands Park Camphill Village in the spring of 1983 and their son, Simon soon arrived followed by their youngest daughter Magdalena in 1987. With their young family, they immersed themselves in community life, both running a house with residents and for Tyll running the vegetable production, initially with Joachim Grundmann. Oaklands Garden became Tyll’s palette and he set about animating the landscape as both a place for production, education, social therapy and beauty. Tyll was a tireless worker and leader in the garden, he had an incredible attention to detail. For many a volunteer or apprentice new to the garden his insistence on form was rather perplexing but one soon realised that he was utterly immersed in the garden’s annual choreography; the whole place lived in his etheric body and each detail was important. An uncoiled hose left lying around was an absolute no-no! He showed genuine love and appreciation for the garden team of villagers and often expressed gratitude that they made it possible for us to do this work together. Each of the garden team had their roles, he would see the individuality in each person and find them appropriate tasks. He never wasted peoples time and would often be found in the garden early in the morning or late in the evening preparing work to be one step ahead. Tyll viewed the garden and the community as an enactment of practical love; the more you give, the more you receive in return. The beauty and bounty of the gardens and its produce, the festivals and the community life were all an expression of this ethic.
Soon into his time at Oaklands, Tyll invited apprentices to work with him, recognising the benefit that he had gained in his life under the tutelage of an experienced biodynamic practitioner. With help from other local practitioners (including Bernard Jarman, Richard Swann, Ian Bailey, John Nelligan, Pat Thompson and Aonghus Gordon) the training offer formalised and became the Severn Valley Biodynamic Land Training (SVBDLT) which delivered a practical land based two-year training with regular seminars through the year. Over the years the training further developed, amalgamating and dividing, but in essence it continues to this day as the Level 3 Diploma in Biodynamic Farming and Gardening and the Ruskin Mill Trust Biodynamic Training. Tyll’s approach to training was visionary; he could see wider, deeper and higher than most. Instead of solely referencing a quote from Steiner he would often contextualise this with something cutting edge from further afield, always being so well read on the latest research and thinking. Tyll was convinced of the importance of the apprentices, not only for their work, but also for their enrichment of the social and cultural life of the community. He developed a close bond with many of them and kept in touch over the years, joyfully sharing news of their projects, relationships and new arrivals! Later in his life, Tyll reflected that the real legacy of his biodynamic work was not the gardens that he had overseen, but the forty-five apprentices that he had trained, many of whom had gone on to found horticultural and social projects themselves all over the world.
One of the significant moments in Tyll’s life was in 2001 when he co-led the communities’ resistance to the contiguous cull of their livestock during the foot and mouth outbreak. The community opposed the cull on the grounds that they had no animals that were infected and blocked the Ministry of Agriculture officials from entering their farm. This made national news and after the officials eventually backed down and the livestock were saved, Tyll went on to write a lyrical assessment of the policy of mass culling for the Guardian newspaper. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2001/may/02/guardiansocietysupplement7
In 2009, after 27 years at Oaklands Park, Tyll and Sybille left the community and took up the offer of roles at Ruskin Mill Clervaux in Darlington. Here, Tyll created the foundations of a biodynamic farm and a beautiful garden, specifically designed to help people orientate themselves in space and in place. Although nearing retirement but never one for half measures, Tyll developed several polytunnels, 3 acres of field vegetables and a 2-acre orchard. Alongside this, he brought in and cared for an array of livestock whilst also working as a Trustee for Ruskin Mill Trust. Sybille continued her craft of weaving and home making and delivered a successful program for young vulnerable mothers combining therapeutic craft with the tranquility and aesthetic of the Clervaux gardens.
In January 2013, Tyll was diagnosed with throat cancer. Several harrowing months ensued as Tyll engaged conventional radiotherapy treatment supported with anthroposophical medicine and strict dietary measures. Through immense mental and physical determination and most of all the courageous support of Sybille, Tyll healed. He bounced back with vigour, though minus his trademark beard (this took several years to grow back following the radiotherapy) and left Clervaux in September 2013 for High Riggs nursery near Sheffield, starting the initial establishment of a biodynamic garden for Ruskin Mill Freeman College.
It was now time for Tyll and Sybille to take their long-awaited retirement and they enjoyed months at a time travelling in their camper van ‘Berta’ and walking in central and southern Europe. One of their favourite expeditions was walking the Lycian way in Turkey. They also had more time now to spend with their children and grandchildren and when at home in Darlington they would often welcome family and friends.
In October 2014, Tyll received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Biodynamic Association, in acknowledgement of his contribution to biodynamic practice, training and development in the UK. Towards the end of his life he reflected on his chosen career path as a biodynamic gardener. His conviction was unwavering; “should I have my time again I’d be out there working on the land” he stated; “working with the life realm is of the utmost importance for our time.”
In September 2019 Tyll was diagnosed with lung cancer. His remaining months were a time of profound spiritual deepening in which he further immersed himself in Rudolf Steiner’s work and the Gospels. There were four paintings in his bedroom representing the stages of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, which he contemplated each morning after waking. He spent a lot of time looking at art, perusing all of his favourite books and being regularly visited by his children and grandchildren. He loved sitting quietly in the garden and simply watching nature developing from spring to summer and from summer to autumn.
Although he had been told that he only had six months to live, he lived for a further year.
Tyll was a profoundly hopeful person. His initial training was as an artist, but in gardening and in community life was where where he found his artistic expression; his vision was in creating islands of sanity based on the principles of love, beauty and order.
Tyll is survived by his wife Sybille, children Johanna, Lisa, Simon and Magdalena and grandchildren Diyako, Shanyar and Odessa.By Ed Berger and Roberto Romano