Our Story



"We went to the Metroparks
to live deliberately."

                                                                                                                                                              - Art Leafman


The origins of The LEAF date back to the 19th Century with two kindred spirits who never met each other. These visionaries were Henry David Thoreau and John Baldwin. While both Henry David Thoreau and John Baldwin sought spiritual transcendence, they did so through quite divergent paths. 

Thoreau experienced his spiritual practice through communing with nature. As an outgrowth, Thoreau changed the world through the writings he penned in his transformative opus, “On Walden Pond.” This book anchors the transcendental movement in American literature and continues to serve as a bell-weather for anyone seeking to use nature to live deliberately. 

John Baldwin (or “Uncle Johnny” as he was often called) was also known as the “Barefoot Millionaire.” He earned this title because he spent his life inventing useful systems that yielded multiple economic windfalls. However, he never used that money for selfish luxuries. Rather, time and time again, Uncle Johnny used his substantial resources to establish institutes of higher learning throughout the world – most notably, the world-class institution that later came to be known as Baldwin Wallace University.

There are two characteristics of Baldwin’s philanthropy that are truly remarkable. First, he was the first to pioneer a system that allowed students of low economic status to attend college by offering opportunities for them to earn their tuition through a combination of their work, and his patronage. This system is now adopted across all American institutions and has come to be known as “work-study.”

Secondly, John Baldwin passionately insisted that all of his institutions be open to all people willing to work hard and grow spiritually. This inclusivity included gender, race, and financial status. Baldwin College (as it was then known as) was the second institute of higher learning in the country to adopt such a Progressive vision.


The connection between Henry David Thoreau and John Baldwin can be examined through understanding how both men saw their life’s calling as “living deliberately,” and helping others who likewise sought the development of their soul through work and love.
The connection between Thoreau and Baldwin might never have been made had it not been for The Cleveland Metroparks bringing people together to discover commonalities. It is through this melding that The LEAF came to be.
Brendan Caldwell is a conductor at the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music. When presented with the opportunity to move to Cleveland he was incredibly excited at the prospect of working at such a world-renown conservatory. However, his love of nature also made him reluctant to move to a city whose reputation was best known for its river catching on fire.
Upon arrival for his interview, he walked out the front doors of the BW campus and discovered that Cleveland was not the reputed “mistake on the lake.” Rather, and inversely, Cleveland is a city whose Progressive preservation of nature is its greatest asset.
Standing there, trying to fully grasp the paradigm shift from such a negative perspective to such a positive one, Caldwell knew he had found his home. From then on, he spent time everyday walking through the Metroparks, discovering its beauty, and listening to the wisdom nature shared to all those willing to listen.

It has been said that The Cleveland Metroparks is the most democratic space in America. This is so because it is a shared space where people from literally all walks of life come together to explore, reflect, and celebrate the stunning beauty of Northeast Ohio. Accordingly, regarding the creation of The LEAF, everyone who helped bring it to life met by “coincidence” while walking through the Metroparks.

The first “coincidence” occurred one day while Brendan was standing in Wallace Park and came across a person wearing a Henry David Thoreau t-shirt that caught his eye. They had a brief conversation in which both spoke about their unending love for The Cleveland Metroparks. The person later introduced himself as Jim Szudy and said that in addition to being an alumnus of BW, he had just returned from Walden Pond. 

Wallace Lake & Walden Pond

Brendan asked him, “What is Walden Pond like?” Jim replied by saying that it felt like a “spiritual twin” to Wallace Lake. Jim, a photographer by trade, then showed Brendan two pictures: one of Walden and one of Wallace and asked him to identify which was which. Even though Caldwell was standing only 50 feet away from Wallace Lake, he was unable to differentiate between Wallace Lake and Walden Pond.

The two men instinctively knew that they had been brought into each other’s lives for a reason, but did not yet know why. So they continued to explore the Metroparks together until the wisdom of the land spoke more clearly to them.
One day while dreaming about the connections between Wallace Lake and Walden Pond, Jim presented Brendan with a gift. It was a frame holding a leaf from Walden Pond. Both men knew in this instant that this frame was a seed for whatever was to come next.

New to Cleveland, Caldwell was still trying to figure out which sports teams he would ally with in this recently adopted city. As his professional life had taken him to seven other cities with major sport’s franchises, he was understandably reluctant to jump onto a new bandwagon. 

Caldwell’s nephew had long been a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan. So when the Cubs played the Indians in the 2016 World Series, the Caldwell family knew they had to fly to Chicago to attend. 

While in Chicago, the Indians won both games that Brendan witnessed. He could feel his allegiance slowly turning away from Chicago and toward his new hometown. One night, after a Cleveland victory, his family retired to their hotel filled with sadness. As Brendan could not sleep with quiet excitement, he walked alone through the city of Chicago feeling his heart turn toward Cleveland.

As Brendan walked around the windy city, he felt this very strange sensation of a triangulation between the cities of Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland. All three cities were home to baseball franchises that have suffered long championship droughts. As Brendan did not know what to do with this intuitive sense of “triangulation,” he sat still and listened to the “voice of the universe.” It told him to take the long walk over to “The Bean” at Millennium Park.

Upon arrival, the voice told him to lie down beneath The Bean and look up into its distorted reflection. Silently, he sat. 

After about 30 minutes, the voice re-emerged by quoting the movie “Field of Dreams.” It whispered, “If you build it, they will come.”

Brendan thought that baseball must simply be in the air, and thus, in his imagination. But then, he heard the voice again, this time louder. As if it were coming from someone on the other side of The Bean. But he was alone.

Not knowing what exactly this voice meant, Brendan recalled the intuitive thought of the “baseball triangle” of the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs, and the Cleveland Indians. This thought intuitively felt like he was somehow on to something. So he persisted in his listening.

The voice then whispered, “It’s not your turn.” 

At that moment Brendan somehow internally knew that the Cubbies were going to win the World Series. Bummed though he was, he did experience some relief in the realization that at least is made karmic sense for the Cubs to win this time – since their drought began all the way back in 1908.

Caldwell then decided to ask the voice a question. He whispered, “When will it be Cleveland’s turn?”

 The voice replied with a statement that changed his life. It said:

“Take this bean with you in your heart, return to Cleveland, 

and plant it in the Metroparks. It will yield a leaf.”

Brendan had no idea what this meant. Even though this response did not directly answer his question, it nevertheless felt as real to him as anything he had experienced in his entire life. So he continued to follow where the universe was telling him to go.


Returning to Cleveland, Brendan could not shake the thought of the voice, asking him to bring The Bean with him in his heart and planting it in the Metroparks. 

For the coming weeks, he walked the paths of the Metroparks for hours and hours on end, contemplating what that voice meant. 

One day, on a walk with his family, Caldwell found himself drawn again to Wallace Lake. While there, his wife Luda (a native Russian) came across another family of similar origin. Since the Metroparks is the most democratic space in America, such heartfelt meetings between strangers are a regular occurrence. In this case, since they were all speaking Russian, Brendan removed himself from the conversation and walked over to the huge empty field at Wallace Park.

Staring at that open space, Caldwell noticed that it seemed to have been designed for something that had yet to be built. At that moment he remembered the voice, “If you build it, they will come.” Eureka! This is the spot at which to plant The Bean.

As a conductor, Dr. Caldwell had long yearned for a new concert hall at BW – as Gamble Hall is a lovely space designed for the music of J.S. Bach, but unable to handle the power of modern day ensembles. His thoughts turned to the idea that perhaps this space would be ideal for a world-class, state-of-the-art concert hall, though which BW and its partners could serve Southwest Cleveland. 

While staring out into the open field, the husband (Martin Zoro) from the new Russian family came over and asked Brendan what he was looking at. He responded by saying that he was imagining a concert hall in this space. Martin looked around, leaned toward him and quietly said, “I am an architect. I will design this for you.”

Shocked, Caldwell remembered the voice underneath The Bean in Chicago and realized this spiritual journey was becoming a reality. Martin asked Brendan what he imagined the concert hall to look like. Caldwell pondered, then soon recalled the voice suggesting that the planting of “the bean” would yield “a leaf.”

Brendan then turned to Martin, they met eyes and simultaneously exulted, “How about a leaf?”

Only a few weeks after this second seismic “coincidence,”, Martin met Brendan at BW and presented him with his initial vision of the concert hall. Thus, the seed of The LEAF was planted and its manifestation, begun. 


As Brendan anxiously connected again with Jim, together they realized how The LEAF would be a “game changer” for The Metroparks, The City of Berea, Baldwin Wallace University, Southwest Cleveland, and Northeast Ohio. The LEAF represents that which is best about Cleveland by turning the often-held prejudice of Cleveland’s negative reputation on its head. 

Not only could Cleveland overcome its wrongly perceived stigma, it could again assert itself as a city of champions, a city of natural beauty, a city of higher learning, a city of artistic excellence, and a city that will serve as a leader in the practice of civility that lies at the heart of a healthy democracy.

The LEAF will nurture this new paradigm of civil discourse through its core mission aimed at developing our community’s capacity to listen though music and nature. 

By achieving this mission, The LEAF asserts Wallace Lake and Walden Pond to be “spiritual twins,” as both spaces aim to serve the ascendancy of consciousness through listening. Likewise, The LEAF aims to build on the spirit of Henry David Thoreau and John Baldwin by helping to develop our collective soul.