Finding Courage Through a Kyoto Apprenticeship

A local gardener charts her journey through Japanese gardening traditions.


Leslie Buck left her Bay Area world behind to learn gardening from Kyoto masters.

Maya Blum

Leslie Buck’s charming memoir Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto tells a surprising story of courage. Traveling to Japan with only letters of introduction and no job offers to seek employment in the country’s male-centric gardening industry, Buck’s two decades as a successful Bay Area garden designer with degrees in fine arts from UC Berkeley and the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts in France were like fallen leaves—blown aside or destined to become mulch—hardly impressive to her soon-to-be bossman, Nakaji.

Remarkably, passion, persistence, and sheer luck landed Buck an apprenticeship with the renowned Uetoh Zoen landscape company. Courage displayed by her journey had daily application as she fought freezing temperatures, hunger, cultural discomfort, gender bias, Nakaji’s “Olympic level” shouting, bouts of homesickness, depression, self-pity, and self-doubt. With impressive candor, Buck reveals her weaknesses: a tendency to over-ruminate about personal slights and physical challenges, impulsive assumptions made about other people’s intensions, and other forgivable acts.

Where Buck’s writing excels is in the vivid, sometimes poetic descriptions of Japanese gardens and gardening traditions. The memoir steps beyond the limitations of a personal account to become astute and appealing to readers not fascinated by the proper way to prune a Camellia in cultural conclusions she draws while observing social and horticultural differences between American and Japanese clients and gardens.

Trimming the “rank outline” of Camellias preserves their naturally undulating form, she writes, but allows light to penetrate the leaves, creating a dappled, shimmering effect on underlying moss. Similarly, working for three months under Nakaji’s cutting managerial style did not extinguish Buck’s luminescent passion for nature, gardening, and centuries-old traditions. The major mark against Buck’s memoir is the lack of illustrations. With her background and training, the small sketches she made and describes would be a welcome addition.

Cutting Back encourages reflection and marvelously endorses slowing down and taking risks without worrying about the inherent contradiction of yin-yang behaviors. Like a garden of native plants following an organic cycle, Buck’s writing expresses confidence that one life can end and a new, enlightened life will take its place. Courage, it seems, has its rewards and is found unquestionably in nature and in good books.

Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto by Leslie Buck (Timber Press, May 2017, 280 pp., $24.95).


This report appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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