Bonsai, pattern recognition and developing taste

If you look up ‘beginner’s guide to bonsai’ on the internet, you will find a plethora of resources. Perhaps the best site I’ve ever seen on the subject was Harry Harrington’s bonsai4me.com. If you have not, I highly suggest that you read through every article in his bonsai basics section; the effort is well worth it. http://bonsai4me.com/bonsai_basics.html

I will not talk about bonsai techniques in this post, or bonsai horticulture. Those topics are well covered on the internet. What I would instead like to talk about is the cultivation of artistic taste in bonsai.

Taste can never be wrong. 

To argue otherwise is simply snobbery. Taste is an expression of a personal experience. Art moves us, compels us, delights, seduces, mesmerizes, whatever. It makes us feel something. My girlfriend has spoken many times of jewelry looking delectable, tasty.

Indeed, this bracelet looks like candy or cake. Every time I see paintings in the museum I want to touch them, feel the movement of the artist’s brushstrokes through the layers of paint. One of the most gratifying elements of painting for me is the feel of paint leaving my brush and trailing over the canvas.

I have not been arrested or escorted out of a museum… Yet. I can taste the saltwater running down my nose as my head submerges and my muscles ache for the surface in this painting. Can you not?

And don’t good bonsai do that to you? Don’t you want to delicately feel the bark, stroke the needles of an old white pine? Am I the only one who occasionally tastes the sap of his trees?

The point is that these trees call to us, they move us. My sensory exploration of bonsai or painting is not simply an odd appreciation of tree sap in my gin and tonic, it is an interrogation of the tree: Are you real? It is formed by an immediate disjoint between what my eyes see, the size and apparent age and the tree in front of us, and the reality of it, so small and fit into such a small pot.

Bonsai display forces that ocular contradiction further. Such an old tree in such a thin pot, hovering over the air. As if someone has simply summoned a slice of the planet into this small pot.

The question is then, what gives you this experience? What makes you yearn for a tree, to feel the shari that stripes its trunk? Inevitably our first bonsai efforts are crude, fumbling, technically insufficient and perpetrated on mallsai with no hope for achieving what we see in our dreams.

This, will likely never become this:

In an appreciable, human time scale. More importantly, it would take the care of an expert to achieve these results. Mallsai are simply funky plants, they do not grant access to that experience of bonsai.

Now you might say, “Hey Nimrod, they totally do!” Which I will use as a departure point to discuss the difference between an appreciator of art and an artist. The bonsai artist is not simply concerned with his personal experience, he is attempting to influence the experiences of others. To do that, we need honest criticism about what works vs. what doesn’t work. And, simply put, the elements of a mallsai don’t do any work.

So how do we figure out what works and what doesn’t work? 

Years ago my girlfriend put a book in my hands and twisted my arm until I read it. The book was “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins. I cannot recommend it enough. Rather than get his hands dirty in the biology and neuronal firing rates and such, Hawkins attempted to set out to come up with a larger, overarching theory of intelligence. His claim was that the brain is essentially a very sophisticated pattern recognition system. It takes in patterns, understands them and then synthesizes them in reality.
I think of this as kind of a neo-platonism, with Plato’s forms describing more how we see the world rather than what the world itself is. Our brain relies upon limited amounts of information to very quickly come to conclusions about the world and what it is.

From the movement of ten points, we are able to see that it is a person walking. Now that’s really remarkable for three pounds of meat! This pattern works, in that we are able to recognize that it shows the movement of a person walking.

This one… sort of works? If you come to it already knowing what you’re looking at, perhaps you can still discern that it is a person walking, but, to the naive or uninitiated it does not appear to really be anything at all.

The same is true of bonsai; they either work or do not.

Referring back to my post about fractals, there are certainly patterns that determine if a bonsai screams “TREE” or does not. How do we learn about those patterns? How do we speak the language of “TREE”? How do we learn what screams and what mumbles? If the brain is a pattern recognition system, you must feed the machine. We have lived our lives watching people walk and inferring spatial relationships from two dimensional images. To effectively understand what works and what does not, we must look at thousands of bonsai, but critically. We must study trees in nature, such that a drive through the woods is an inspirational experience.

One caveat: you must learn what you are seeing and what your brain tells you that you are seeing. Your brain is a trickster, and will tell you “This is a square,” when, due to perspective, what your eye sees is a rhombus. The whole thing reminds me of pre-perspective art, where you can almost feel the artist’s pain as he attempts to carve space out of the picture plane.

The painter here simply did not know how to convincingly trick the eye into perceiving space.
We see this in bonsai as well, when a tree, for all its virtues, simply does not convince us that it is a tree! How many trident maples have you seen styled to look like a pine? They might be very nice bonsai, as this is a very nice painting (something of an understatement!!!), but they don’t let us know that they are trees effectively.
Go to shows, examine the trees in person (do not lick them though, that is too far), talk to the artists about their goals with each tree, silently assess whether those goals have been accomplished. But before all that, feed the beast. Consume bonsai and trees, dissect them with your eyes and look far afield for the exceptions, the departures and the radicalisms that nevertheless still work.
Most importantly, stay hungry. Feed that strange beast that is your brain.

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15 thoughts on “Bonsai, pattern recognition and developing taste

  1. Well done, nice blog. Problem is majority of bonsai folks are trying to make a bonsai and not a tree in the pot. May be it will change a bit some time in future. But still, there will be many people who like to have rules, forms, guides and simple handbooks.

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    • Thanks for the kind words! In the argument between tradition and naturalism, I find that with my own trees I tend towards naturalism, but still hold great appreciation for traditional trees. A professor I had once said “Philosophers tend to be right in what they affirm but wrong in what they omit or deny”; I think it applies to bonsai as well. As for the future of bonsai, I think that it is very bright. Quite a lot of people gaining attention for doing things that are new and different. One can hope!
      Joe

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  2. Great read. Honestly I think a google image search is a powerful tool for what you are describing. Searching “[species name] bonsai” will return a plethora of results of varying quality and provide a great resource for evaluating styling as well as inspiration. I think the naturalistic style is taking over. I favor it as well, but I think its growing prevalence is due in large part to the blossoming amateur scene and ambivalence towards the ‘rules’ of bonsai. That being said, I think to disregard altogether them is folly. Look forward to your next post and I’m glad you (or someone) post them on /r/bonsai so I don’t miss one.

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    • Totally! I find that I often spend hours just searching different bonsai and such. I think another great resource is looking up bonsai progressions, so that you can learn what’s possible in what sort of time span. I think you’re right about the naturalistic bonsai – my suspicion is that the more traditional minded bonsai-ists are also correct and view the rules as sort of guidelines. Certainly some of my teachers have had very traditional views but have broken the rules wholesale when necessary. I’m the one who posts them on reddit, Zerojoke is an anagram of my name Joe Rozek. Glad to hear it’s not regarded as annoying spam!

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  3. Joe, I’m enjoying your blog and hope to see you at Jim’s. I won’t be at Woodstock, but hope to get there for Mauro. I’ll definitely plan on December. I’m going to the ABS Symposium in DC. Are you? Keep up the philosophy. Carolee

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    • Hey Carolee!
      Shame about spring, but maybe I will see you at Mauro’s. I’d love to go to the ABS symposium, but I think it depends on how my research goes. Had to pull some real strings to get free for Woodstock. Thanks for reading!
      Cheers,
      Joe

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  4. Thank you, Joe, for your follow on Forest Garden today. I was reading your posts late (early into the morning) last night and found your approach to Bonsai, and plant culture in general, engrossing and intriguing. I’ve heard quite a few garden architects liken their designs to fine art, but I love your description of cultivating a Bonsai as an act of artistic creation. It helps me penetrate to a new level of understanding what it is we do when we take plants out of the soil where they grow, and put them into a pot for our own enjoyment. After reading a few of your posts, I’m beginning to feel the inclination to work in Bonsai, which I’ve never before attempted. Thank you for keeping this beautiful site. Best wishes, WG/Elizabeth

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    • Wow! Thanks so much Elizabeth! I’m glad that you’re getting more interested in bonsai, I suggest you go to a bonsai nursery near you as soon as possible, you can often find great teachers and some great trees. If you want to just play around with it, maybe go out and get some 5 gallon junipers, some shears, wire and just hack away at them. Don’t worry if you kill your first couple, it’s kind of just what happens until you get a feel for the plants. Bonsai is a great hobby, and it’s very satisfying to walk out and see the trees doing their thing.

      In turn I am hideously jealous of your garden! It looks absolutely beautiful! Right now I am living on rental property, but as soon as I have my own yard I am very excited about planting some things.

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      • Why thank you, Joe 😉 After many years of rentals, I was thrilled to have my first real garden years ago. There is nothing quite like digging in your own dirt 😉 I had a great landlord who let me garden when I had a house on the Rappahannock River at one time It was an old family property with lots of flowers already growing. I added a vegetable garden which produced hideous amounts of produce because I mulched with sea weed from the river. It was great fun. Thank you for the tips on getting started with Bonsai. I have lots of little potted trees around, but I see your point in purchasing one with the intention of pruning root and branch into something beautiful. I was given a cute but struggling little Ceris canadensis several years ago which would have made a good subject. I’ve planted it in the ground,….. but it could always be dug up again, couldn’t it 😉 So, Joe- do I really need to buy a set of Bonsai pruners, etc. to get started? Best wishes, WG

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      • I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner! Yes, I’m very envious. Do try your hand at bonsai, the very best website to go to is bonsai4me.com. Every article in it is a gem – particularly those that trace a tree’s evolution over the course of several years. It’s hard to know what is and is not possible without looking at many of those. Specialized bonsai tools are certainly a joy to work with. They make very precise cuts that heal over quickly, they’re smooth to use, more like a scalpel than a steak knife. With that said they can also be quite expensive, with low grade tools hitting around $20 a pop, medium grade for $50 and high grade, well, shoot, spend as much as you want. If you want to just dip your toes in, I’d say you’d be fine working with gardening shears, but would encourage you to buy bonsai wire and a bonsai wire cutter. Wire allows you to move tree branches into different positions and sculpt the tree (will have some blog posts on that process soon!). Bonsai wire cutters have dull tips that allow you to get right up next to the bark and clip the wire (when it is time to remove it) without damaging the tree.

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      • Joe, Thank you for this. I rescued 2 little Acer palmatum seedlings today growing randomly in my parents’ yard. Seeds must have blown in from a neighbor, and my dad didn’t know them from any other seedling. Each is about 8-10″ tall. I was so happy to notice them, leaves just beginning to open 😉 it was a few months back when I investigated Bonsai tools online and was in sticker shock 😉 Thank you for the tip to begin with the wire and wire cutters first. I’ve also been on teh Bonsai4me site a few times already, and will check back for the series of postings about the same tree which you mentioned. I feel like I need to know and understand a tree and how it grows first, before trying to do much in the way of pruning or shaping. There is a ‘volunteer’ growing in our front border, however, that I’ve been cautiously pruning for two years now. It is just beginning to leaf out this year. I think I’ll leave it in the ground, as it is near a water feature. It should be shaped and trained a bit, however, to bring out its inherent elegance. The work you do with a tree’s roots to give them character and presence intrigues me especially. I’ll watch for your post on wiring branches. Bonsai is such a large and complex discipline.
        So much to learn 😉 Hope your weekend is going well, Joe… Cheers!

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