Posted by: Banta | July 9, 2014

Down to Earth

When my dad died five years ago, I had no idea how much I would miss him. If someone had tried to describe to me then the depth and breadth of that loss, I would not have understood. Twice since he died, Dad has visited me, in such a visceral and palpable way that I cannot doubt his presence. Both times he appeared in my half waking state just before dawn. First in a phone call, peppered with the kind of crackling static that made it hard to hear his voice. I told him how much I wanted to talk, but the connection was so poor that I would have to call him back. Imagine my chagrin when I realized what I’d done. There would be no calling him back across that fourth dimension. The next time, he showed up in front of the house where he had lived with my mom in the years before he died, the same house in which he had grown up. He walked right up the driveway, as fit and rosy-cheeked as when he was forty, and wrapped me in a big bear hug. “I sure do love you,” he said, with a warmth that reached down deep and reminded me that he surely did.

The older I get, the more I appreciate George and his legacy. My ecotherapy colleague, Anne Stine, says that one’s legacy is less about accomplishments and more about a quality of being, an energetic impression that remains long after we are gone – like love etched on the heart, and infused into the places we hold sacred.

The quality of being I most associate with George was his down-to-earth approach to life. This odd phrase dates back to 1922, the year before he was born. Then, as now, being down-to-earth meant one was sensible, sober, pragmatic, humble and unpretentious, genuine, perhaps hard-headed, not caught up in superficial things – all of which describe with remarkable accuracy the way George moved through his world and his relationships.

10 With the gnomes

Until recently, I had forgotten that he was also down-to-earth in the most literal sense possible. Up past the garage, between two oak trees, my dad tended a patch of ground that he called the compost pile. He fed it grass clippings, dead leaves, and assorted yard trash. I suspect he tossed in a fair number of fish heads and crab shells, too. But the pile never reeked of dead fish. Rather, it smelled like a forest after rain, and at the bottom of the pile the soil was black and crumbly. Put a spade full of this black gold in a hole, and the scrawniest plant would surely prosper.

At fourteen, I did not yet connect the dots between the grass clippings, leaf mulch, and fish heads, and that black soil at the bottom of the pile. Back then I didn’t know anything about the miracle of compost, the metamorphosis of kitchen and yard refuse into incomparably rich organic fertilizer. When I wanted to make a little garden in the woods next door, Dad suggested I clear out the brush from a sunny clearing first because the plants would need plenty of light. He filled a wheelbarrow with that black gold from his compost pile and showed me how to mix it into the sandy Florida topsoil. Then he left me to my own devices, to plant a few spindly tomato starts and watermelon seeds.

My attention to this fledgling garden was sporadic at best, and I often forgot to check on its progress, or provide regular irrigation. Fortunately, summer in north Florida is nothing if not predictable. Every day dawns with stifling heat and humidity, detonates a few afternoon thunderstorms, and then dissolves into a muggy, mosquito-ridden night. So the tomatoes and the watermelons flourished and bore fruit, with little actual help from me. I attribute the success of that first garden in part to the regular rainfall, but even more to the rich compost that gave it a promising start.

compost happens

Bette Midler once observed: My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap. Every place I have lived for the past thirty-five years – from New Jersey to Florida to western North Carolina – I have planted a vegetable garden and witnessed the magic of compost. The smell of that black gold always reminds me of Dad. With every turn of the pitchfork, every shovel full heaped onto the garden beds, I appreciate the down-to-earth quality of his being. His legacy and his very essence lives on, vibrant and solid, in the very ground beneath my feet.

While not a vegetable gardener himself, Dad certainly put fish and fowl on our family’s table at every opportunity. He loved to hunt and fish, and – back when the St. Johns River was healthy – he even caught crabs off the dock. I think of him as a modern day hunter-gatherer. He had a compost pile because he hated the idea of waste, and he could put to good use the leftovers from the kitchen and yard and from his hunting and fishing. This down-to-earth man, grounded in humility and pragmatism, taught me more about good stewardship of earth’s limited resources than he could ever imagine. With every season of compost, and every bountiful harvest, I am grateful.


  1. Simply Beautiful! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. I remember being 17 or 18 years old and casting a small shrimp net while standing on your dock in the evenings during the times when the shrimp would run the St. Johns River. You were there with me and our friends Jack, Monty or David. The fruits of our labor in those efforts were minimal but the memories are priceless as is your friendship.


  3. What a marvelous and beautifully written tribute to your father and your relationship with him. Thank you!

  4. you write so well. I wish I had known you dad better than I did .I know he would have loved your way of life. Keep me posted. I want you and Bruce to bring your mother for dinner. love Dekle

    Sent from my iPad


  5. My Dad died way to young, 58 to be exact. I had a dream @ some point after his death where, as you described, his presence was palpable. In the dream I seemed to be in an art museum, others were milling around along with me. One painting caused me to stop and take it in. It was very large, an artist rendering of a wide, open space. As I took in the painting, I was aware that someone was standing next to me, turning I gasped to find that it was Dad. I did not recognize was him in his bodily form , but rather by his presence. Next thing I knew, we were in the painting I had observing, walking together in that wide, open space. No surprise, I was “chatting him up, ” as the kids say,” bringing him up on all that had transpired since he died. He said nothing, only his presence, just as he had done the few short years we shared together on this side of the grave. His palpable, presence, no one can ever convince me that wasn’t my Dad… one……ever.

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