There he was the man who he was to use my body for a tool to create a garden that was legendary. He dressed in his homemade sandals made from old tires me in my sporty basketball shoes. He wore or should I say let hang from his body an old khaki shirt with torn sleeves me in my colored v neck t-shirt. He with his blue jean shorts with holes barely covering his body me in my new shorts. He wore a circle broad rimmed straw hat and I had my trusty baseball cap. I was at least five inches taller and hundred pounds heavier. He was shorter than average and not an inch of wasted sinew. He looked at me and you could see an internal shaking of the head as he thought, “big and strong but won’t last an hour in the south Georgia sun.” He watched as he handed me a hoe he thought “hasn’t gardened much because he is uncomfortable handling a hoe.” You could almost hear a sigh as he grumbled “this is what they give me.” I didn’t take it personal I had a funny feeling this was a similar assessment of all the volunteers he was given.
He had went to Bangladesh with a United States aid organization after receiving his horticultural degree. He was ready to share his wealth of knowledge. But as with so many young Americans who travel to Third World countries with starving populations, he was the one who learned. He learned how much you really need to survive. And it wasn’t much. He learned that you can be happy with little. He learned how fragile human life is and how nature was blind to human welfare and governments did not value most of their people’s lives. He learned that it was hard to change even suffering people’s minds about new techniques of farming, and that living in areas that constantly flood would eventually lead to death and destruction. He learned too often governments are only concerned with spending money on things that help the elite maintain power. He learned that poor people did not matter to governments as much as national prestige did. He learned that in a land of poverty, being able to grow your own food was key to survival and the only way to withstand the whims of a wayward government.
He came back to America and experienced culture shock. Survival here was so easy. But the easiness also was on the backs of other less privileged folk. So he vowed to himself to get as near as he could to the basics of survival and life. He could not buy his own land. So he told a commune in southwest Georgia that he would grow them a garden. They would eat well and treat the land with the respect it deserved. They said yes and the garden grew.
Bob was short and wiry without any fat on his body. He was dark-skinned from working in the sun all day. He was a blur in constant motion making you wonder if he had his own personal hydro-electric plant inside. He walked fast and with purpose on feet shorn with shoes made from old tires and leather he stitched together, at least when he was not bare foot. When he wore a shirt (the commune demanded it at meals and community meetings) he wore an old khaki shirt with the sleeves cut out and unbuttoned in the front. Some in the community joked that when he went to weddings his formal dress was he wore his shoes and shirt at the same time.
People laughed about his simple living. “What did he use for toilet paper”’, they wondered. But it was always done with a sense of awe. Because no one really wanted to know what he used for toilet paper. He refused to use anything that did not need human power (except when he used the old steering wheel stick-shift truck to get around the commune) in the garden or elsewhere. His volunteers would often comment they were Bob’s plow; they were confused when he did not make them stay in the barn overnight so he would have access to them 24/7.
He worked me and the volunteers hard but we always left inspired and informed about gardening. He gave impromptu lectures on cow, chicken, and horse manure. You learned the various acidities of the manures and what plants prefer which manure. He did this all while he held it in his hand to show you. He even asked you to smell the sample manure in his hand because he claimed you could tell the potency by smell. Many volunteers passed on this. When we passed he gave us his sheepish grin and a shake of his head implying “I have not made a true gardener out of you yet.”
He foraged for mushrooms and edible greens (read weeds). Occasionally, he would lead groups through the forest showing us all the things there were to eat. There would only be a few who would eat his forage. He cooked his food by a solar cooker he made out of aluminum foil and discarded wood. He had a staff and a sari he wore on special occasions, making him look like Gandhi on a salt march. He rarely left the commune’s land. There was an abundance of things to do on these 1,200 acres; he reasoned, who needed more? He started a recycling program before it was the fad and the commune filled the barn with cardboard. He would invent ways to use the card board in the garden or elsewhere. The world may not have caught the recycling bug but Bob led the movement here. But it made him disgruntled when he realized how much packaged items the commune used. You can never win with these American consumers. He grinned; he saw a new trend start, not buying things with packaging. He could hear the bellyaching already.
He also enjoyed life. He loved community events and would attend all of them unless the garden called louder. He shared his journal readings and they oozed with the passion of nature mystics such as Muir, Thoreau, or Thomas Starr King. There was a lot happening inside that small man’s heart and brain.
He loved the non-edible plants too, just not as much as the food plants. So he planted lush indigenous plants around his shared abode. It became one of the stops along your way no matter how many times you passed. He became an expert on organic gardening in Georgia. His gardens were a mecca for organic growers in the state.
He demonstrated with his life how to survive and thrive with little. Like most people who have found how to eke out meaning in life, he had his detractors. And sure people would take one thing out of context and use it to distort the rest of what he did. But the totality of his way could only leave you breathless at the simple beauty of it all. Some claim no one else could live like him. But that was not the point. Do not be me but do not let your life become cluttered with things. Appreciate and know the things you need to survive and add as little more as possible was his message.
He would eventually move from the commune to live on land he purchased by saving his small weekly commune stipend of $15. The garden is not as vibrant as it once was but his spirit still inspires the community. Even folks who have come years after he left hear the stories and see the skeleton of the garden he once grew. They know the legend of the gardener.
What motivated him could probably be found in pages he has not shared in his journal. But I imagine in those pages there is some poor Bangladesh family who struggled to survive in a land subject to flooding of their fields and homes every three years. That family came to live in the depths of his soul. And ever since, he does not want or need to have more than his share of the abundance of this earth. He wants to show the world we can have food for everyone but first we must get back to basics.
He lived so simply, you could not say, “I cannot live like that.” No, you would have to say I won’t live like that.