Last Sunday I received a phone call from Suzanne Gerber, who heads up Next Avenue’s Living & Learning section.
She apologized for calling me on the weekend, then told me, in a sober tone, that she had some difficult news to share: Next Avenue gardening writer Leslie Land had passed away. Leslie had been ill for a while, but we hadn’t known that.
After letting myself feel the fierce emotional wallop of this “here yesterday but gone now” news, the harshness of the vacancy struck — the experience was akin to looking into the gaping hole a majestic overturned tree leaves behind: all that beauty toppled alongside palpable absence.
I said a silent prayer as my mind turned to the interactions I had had with Leslie over the years.
The truth is they weren’t all that numerous, and there were protracted gaps of silence along the way. Yet Leslie’s impact was significant if unspoken. She came into my life in the late ’80s at a very critical time in my career — when I was a young editor at Metropolitan Home magazine just beginning to immerse myself in many of the subjects that, to me, make life worth living.
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Writer (Leslie) and editor (I) began collaborating on gardening and landscaping stories, and as I dug into her work, a world of tumbling vines, moon-kissed white gardens, voluptuous fruit trees and fragrant rosemary and basil opened up.
And since Leslie’s first love (and expertise) was cooking — she had been one of the first chefs at Chez Panisse in Berkeley — food became a rich part of our conversations too.
She wrote food and gardening articles for numerous outlets (among them the New York Times and Yankee magazine) and published two cookbooks. All the while, she kept expanding her own gardens in Upstate New York and Maine and throwing lavish dinner parties for her many friends. Somehow she found time to write not one but two blogs, “In Kitchen and Garden” and “All Around the House.”
Leslie was all about so many other things I value: irreverence, enthusiasm and dedication to what she cared about, clear and well-defined opinions, a fresh and quirky way of looking at things, and a fervent desire to get the most out of nature by sensitively collaborating with her rather than beating her into submission.
I admired her gusto and her willingness to experiment and share her exciting discoveries, most of which revolved around lushness, color and form, and flavor.
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Reconnecting With an Old Friend
Nearly 25 years had passed since I last worked with Leslie, and when we launched Next Avenue, I suggested to Suzanne that she approach Leslie about writing for us. Over the next year, Leslie wrote a monthly gardening blog for the site, and, as expected, her pieces were eminently practical, expert and brimming with her unique voice.
She came to our launch party in May 2012, and it was so delightful to see her in person after such a long time. We went out for drinks afterward, and she regaled us with heartwarming and inspiring tales of her relationship with her husband Bill Bakaitis, a mushroom expert and clearly the center of her life. She also talked about other extraordinary men that she wanted to introduce me to, a lovely gesture. I felt she “got me” more than most and that these connections would be worth my while. Unfortunately, we never made them happen.
In reviewing our friendship, it became evident how little sense of a person’s impact we might have unless we take the time to focus on it and consider all its nuances and their magnitude. It also struck me how easily Leslie and I could have never crossed paths again after I left Metropolitan Home and how much we (and our readers) would have missed out on.
We truly are sowing seeds with every single action we take at all stages of life, and these will take root and sprout in one way or another, in accordance with the ways in which we nurture them.
None of us knows where we will ultimately land, but I’m quite certain that magnificent Leslie Land gardens are being cultivated in many, many spheres and that what she planted here will continue to grow and thrive.