Posted 12 August 2006 - 09:29 AM
It was a dark and stormy night...
Actually, it was a sunny Seattle autumn afternoon in the early 90s when I first logged onto the Gardening Forum of CompuServe during my lunch hour at the office.
I was in the forum for about 3 minutes when my screen split in half and someone typed a message, “Do you know Dr. Frasier Crane?”
This was the new age of the Internet for the masses and we’d been warned of stalkers and dangerous beings lurking online waiting to rob us of our identities or our possessions. I immediately disconnected. The next day the same thing happened and I bravely answered.
It was, of course, Bob Riffle. We were never sure why he chose “Diane Laird / Seattle” to talk to; he didn’t normally chat online. I later imagined all of us online as individual entities circling the earth, sometimes on parallel paths and sometimes the paths crossing in a wonderful way.
Bob and I chatted online for hours and hours at a time over the next months until finally he insisted on calling me. Our first conversation lasted 9 hours. Over the past 13 years, our phone conversations have averaged about 20-30 hours a week.
The first conversation covered an interesting event in his life – Timber Press had asked him to do a proposal for a book on tropical plants. He wasn’t sure he would; wasn’t sure they were serious. Subsequent conversations were my forcing him to write the proposal which we emailed back and forth (I have a business background and can edit ruthlessly) until it was right. Off to Timber it went and thus The Tropical Look: An Encyclopedia of Dramatic Landscape Plants was born.
Over the next year or two I would torture and he would write. He’d email and I’d edit (writing, not information). We would get tired and have terrible fights about things like how to pronounce “hosta.” (He put the plant name pronunciations in at my request.) Bob discovered that the MS dictionary pronounced (mispronounced) hosta the way he did; one day I answered the phone to an electronic voice saying “hoesta” over and over again as he clicked the speaker icon in the dictionary.
I would say that about 90 percent of the information in The Tropical Look came straight from his marvelous brain without any need to consult outside references. It was a life-changing experience for me to be a part of that project and the two of us together opened doors in the horticultural world for each other. He said I changed his life, too; I know I did.
When The Tropical Look was published, the first half of the dedication read, “This book is for Diane Laird, who wanted it so much she made it happen….” That’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
This story has a lot of me in it because the two of us have been inextricably entwined. I’ll continue Bob’s story as my aching heart allows so you can see a little more of the person who was Robert Lee Riffle.
Did you see the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral? There was a poem by W. H. Auden that caused many of us to dissolve in tears. These lines are with me today:
“He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song…”
To be continued…
Diane (“Kirkland”) Laird
East of Seattle & Lake Washington