Books

'Cutting Back': The collected wisdom of an aesthetic pruner

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

For Leslie Buck, it must have been a plucky decision relocating to Kyoto at 35, a time in life regarded as well into middle-age in Japan; and arguably even more courageous, to join a team of all-male uekiya (gardeners and nurserymen) in a notoriously gender-tilted profession. With men dominating their closely confined craft for centuries, the numbers of Japanese women working within the inner sanctum of gardening are small; accepting an American woman was virtually unprecedented.

Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto, by Leslie Buck.
280 pages
TIMBER PRESS, Memoir.

In 1999, the author was fortunate enough to obtain an apprenticeship for three seasons at Uetoh Zohen, a prestigious, long-established Kyoto firm. Buck, who had run her own successful pruning business in the San Francisco Bay Area for several years, may not have considered herself typical apprentice material, but, as her Japanese mentor in California noted, “In America you are some of the best pruners. In Japan, you are beginners.”

The privilege of working in some of the most exquisite gardens in the world was not without personal cost. While maintaining a brave face, Buck experienced bouts of homesickness and self-recrimination. She was besieged by doubts that she was slowing down the crew, agonizing about what they thought about her. Slumping exhausted into bed every night, she admits to occasionally shedding tears in private.

Finding the strength to overcome adversity, however, drawing on determination she may never have imagined she possessed, resulted in an unexpected maturity, learning to accept directives without analyzing their purpose, developing coping strategies, accustoming herself to working in silence, accepting the toil of an unrelenting six-day week, to “appreciate how hard I tried rather than how much I succeeded.” Her apprenticeship was predicated on the deeply rooted idea of substituting verbal tuition for observation, imitation and application. Compliments and flattery were rare, the absence of scorn and criticism was the closest a gardener could get to understanding the work was being executed correctly.

What is singular about this book is that it provides not only insights into the grueling daily schedules of professional gardeners in Japan, but also into the alternating emotions of the writer.

What comes through in her account, however, is not weakness, but strength earned from dogged tenacity and an ability to manage obedience and work within the confines of a rigid artisanal hierarchy. The author felt that approval by the senior pruner in her company, an unrelenting taskmaster who never once conveyed anything approaching an audible compliment, was expressed by setting her incrementally more challenging assignments. Foregoing the Westerners’ yearning for praise, Buck appears to have made some progress in intuiting what people think, an essential skill to acquire in Japan.

She was also privy to occasional comments that helped her to temper the urge to indignantly storm off the job. One person explains that, if her boss yells at her, she should count herself lucky. “That means,” he expands, “you’re being treated like one of the guys, not an outsider.”

While adapting to an entirely different set of work ethics, Buck gets to learn some useful basic tasks, like using black jute to tie traditional Japanese knots, the most efficient way to brush dry leaves from a ditch and the best method to stone-sharpen a blade. Working for a well-established gardening company provides entry into some very prestigious gardens, including a monastery courtyard garden attached to the great temple of Tenryuji, and the imperial garden of Shugakuin. “How many American women,” she ponders, “had been allowed to prune in Emperor Go-Mizunoo’s 340-year-old estate.” The likely answer is that she was the first.

During a morning pep talk of the kind common in Japanese companies, the patriarch of the firm, when asked why he would take on an American trainee, touches on the dilemma facing the contemporary garden. With fewer young Japanese committing to the craft, he explains, he hoped that foreigners might help to keep the tradition alive.

“As with every detail of the Japanese garden, the source and inspiration of karikomi (topiary),” Jake Hobson wrote in “Niwaki,” his book on pruning in the Japanese style, “is always the landscape, whether it is the real, physical landscapes of Japan itself, or the metaphysical landscapes of Buddhist philosophy.” Buck does not dwell on the abstract symbolism inherent in certain garden designs, but would no doubt agree with Hobson’s observation that the Japanese aesthetic, deriving “inspiration from natural landscapes, tends toward organic shapes.”

The work of a craftswoman “devoted to nature,” “Cutting Back” is an engaging, highly informed account, written in a breezy, frequently humorous and self-scolding style, with light touches that mask a good deal of erudition. Privy to some of the most beautiful gardens in the world, the author is also able to observe home owners who are prepared to pay large sums to maintain them in a city where you can encounter gardens as exquisite as handcrafted objects.

The result is a book based on direct experience and encounter, stemming as much from the heart as from backbreaking toil, aching joints and calloused hands.