The Essence of Bonsai

Scale miniatures will always be more accurate at reproduction than bonsai.

For example, Michael Paul Smith’s cars.

I mean, really now. If they can do cars this well…

The articulation you can achieve, the deceptive qualities of paint, the resolution of plastic are all much better than you can achieve with a plant. If you were to ask me how to create the most convincing and accurate miniature tree I would tell you to work in plastic.

So what the hell is the point of bonsai?

Why do we even bother with these plants?

I’ve seen many arguments about how to define bonsai. Beginners will proudly display their ikea bought ficus or roadside juniper cutting and say “Well, yes, but it is a tree in a pot!” and more picky veterans will argue that it is about creating a scale miniature of a tree.

Yet exception, after exception abound!

When have you seen a tree like this?

No, bonsai is not simply miniaturization, that, like most of the rules of bonsai is a means to an end. We must consider the essence of bonsai. We must ask ourself, what is this thing? What is its first principle? Or, like a good molecular biologist, what bit absolutely cannot be removed without breaking it?

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a cutting, pre bonsai, yamadori or a masterpiece that has been passed down from bonsai artist to bonsai artist, they all have one thing in common: they are alive and as soon as they are not they have ceased to be bonsai. The transformation from a piece of driftwood to a bonsai through a phoenix graft or tanuki should be proof positive of this, it is only through the introduction of life, of living tissue that what is essentially fire wood can become a bonsai.

These thoughts were heavily on my mind at the most recent wood stock, an educational program led by Jim Doyle and Walter Pall at Nature’s Way Nursery. A very old Rocky Mountain Juniper that had once appeared healthy was in bad shape. Very little green foliage, mostly pale yellow, not the reassuring copper of a wintering RMJ. I can’t explain the heartache of looking at a tree like this. The tree was easily world class and, by everyone’s estimation it was likely to die.

I didn’t take any pictures. Doing so would seem… I don’t know. Obscene.

Walter would not oversee the operation. Instead he put the tree in the hands of a trusted student who directed a few of us to start removing the ‘duff.’ More than once a comparison to a coding patient was made, likely to die, but you still do CPR. One of the employees, Kyp, commented grimly “It’ll die if you repot it and it will definitely die if you don’t repot it.”

With chopsticks we combed through the roots, clipping away those that had already died and decomposed into grub like tubules of rot. Every so often someone would mumble “Damn I hope this makes it.” Walter would glance over anxiously, then concentrate on other trees.

For me this was the most educational aspect of the entire weekend. It was the transmission of the secret knowledge of bonsai, last ditch efforts to save a dying and beautiful tree. I spend my days watching how bonsai live, but very rarely have I ever learned how bonsai die and become something less than themselves. When it occurs it is over so quickly that I do not have time to understand it. This was a chance to observe the expert treatment of the soon to be lost.

I should be familiar with this though.

The bonsai stock I view as most magnificent, most beautiful and most ‘tree’ are those that have been kept on the edge of death for years, decades, sometimes centuries. Battered by time and the elements, these trees grow despite the adversity they face. It should be no surprise to us when one finally ceases and gives up its battle. We should not view it as a failure of horticulture, but the frame of our painting, the point at which all possibilities are exhausted. Bonsai, like all great art, is concerned with life and death. More than any other though, this art form demonstrates them in its essence. Because that is bonsai, the interplay of life and death, the living vein against bleached white driftwood. All trees will die. Very few will ever be bonsai.

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