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Bonsai and Trees

When they start automatically giving you seniors' discount at Dunkin Donuts without asking for ID, you know you've reached the age when you can, with impunity, begin monologues with phrases such as: "Back in the old days...." 

Well...  Back in the old days, when I first started bonsai, there was only one book available in the UK - pitiful in its lack of useful information and embarrassingly bad even in those early days. Most of the books back then, even the dumbed-down interpretations of old Japanese nursery manuals were pretty stiff, basic and filled mostly with information that any half-experienced gardener already had. But that first book did contain one simple black and white photograph (in the plate section - remember those?) that really moved me. It showed a gentleman at a Royal Horticultural Society show gazing intensely at a small broom style zelkova that was pretty darn good.  What seemed to me to be an almost perfect miniature image of a young tree and the look of immense satisfaction on the face of its owner told me I was not alone. 

Then came a couple of books by Peter Adams. First was "Successful Bonsai Growing" which gave more practical and especially purposeful information with an actual goal in mind. Things were now beginning to make sense. Then the dawn broke with his "The Art of Bonsai" (I still recommend it as essential reading for all my students). It was the first and is still almost the only book to deal with the aesthetics of bonsai imagery in western aesthetic terms. An epiphany! So this was how you could simplify and distill an image of a tree, and endow it with all the power and emotion that the genuine article would convey. This was about making each tree an original work of art.  This was good.

This was very good.  And not a hint of direct Japanese influence - his images were a westerner's distillation of tree forms with explanations of why each design was selected. They were trees designed and sculpted according to western aesthetics and planted in containers. In other words, they were trees in pots, not bonsai in a pots. Much kudos and respect.

Peter taught us what he knew, and what he didn't know, we found out on our own.  We all did.  We learned more from experience and observation and each other than from books. As far as design goes, visual references from Japan were rare so we roamed around the hills and woods enthusing over gnarled old hollow oaks or hundred foot tall scots pines with a tiny cap of tangled branches. Wizzened old hawthorns in hedgerows, giant beech in parks or  thousand year-old yews in ancient churchyards.  We would get together at every opportunity and analyze each other's trees, give and receive advice, argue, cajole....  We were totally unfettered by any preconception of what qualifies as good or bad, we just did our best to make very cool looking trees in pots. And we made some very cool trees indeed. I was recently looking through a set of slides (old fashioned photographs, to anyone under thirty!) of a national exhibition in England a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps, the level of 'sophistication' was not what can be today, but the care and quality of workmanship was every bit as good. More significantly,  I swear the variety of shape, concept, style, emotion was generally far greater than you would see today.

Too Much Bonsai

Bonsai: The word itself is unambiguous. The two syllables mean tree and pot, whichever way around you want to read them the meaning is the same - tree, pot - pot, tree.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the "tree" bit became less significant, and the term "bonsai" took on its own independent definition of form. There emerged a "bonsai shape" which, even if the pot was eliminated from the picture, would still be recognizable as a bonsai. Even people who scarcely know what a bonsai is will recognize it as such.

I guess this was inevitable in light of the rapid increase in popularity of bonsai in the west which, in turn, gave rise to a mushrooming demand for affordable commercial bonsai-like plants. This was accompanied by a growth in demand for itinerant professionals to conduct demonstrations, workshops and private consultations.
We have to accept that the prime concern of commercial or professional practitioners in any sector is to earn a living, and that means maximizing revenue and minimizing investment of both money and time. Part time enthusiasts were content with cookie-cutter imports, and neither student nor client wants spend years gradually developing a design when they are paying for help! They are much more likely to forgo a unique, spectacular, dynamic tree-like image for the sake of an acceptable but formulaic image, officially approved and rubber stamped as a bona fide bonsai form. One which can be achieved by reduction and contortion in just a few hours.

It's entirely understandable how the bulk of the bonsai community was - and largely still is - perfectly content with that approach: it's a win-win situation for commercial producers, professionals and customers alike.

But it would be a terrible mistake to be lulled into the false belief that this way is the only way, or even the best way, for it is neither.

Not Enough Tree

And thus it happened. Now there is a thing called a bonsai and any similarity between its form and a tree, should one exist at all, is purely coincidental. It appears the aim now is to take any piece of raw material and, regardless of the creative possibilities it offers, regardless of the species, manipulate it into yet another uniform, squat, domed triangle, to make it conform to the standard, predictable, predetermined, un-tree-like bonsai shape. This is ingenuity not art. It coerces people into believing that there is only one visual goal and any attempt to use their own imagination will lead to having their knuckles rapped by the bonsai community at large. It is as bad, if not worse in terms of the development of bonsai as an art, as blindly following the old defunct classic styles and the clockwork 'left branch, right branch' rule-driven approach.

There have been other victims of the 'homogenization' of bonsai. One is the various styles that must be grown over time, and cannot be molded into shape in a season or two: exposed root, root-over-rock, raft, even mature forests. You see very few new masterpiece examples in major shows nowadays. These take a great deal of time to produce successfully, they need concept, planning, and long-term development, and are thus less inviting to the professional or commercial practitioners.

Such styles can only be produced for pure pleasure by those who are passionate enough about the anticipated result to invest the time and dedication required. As such styles become less common in the public arena either or both of two things could happen: Fewer people teach or attempt such styles until they become virtually extinct, and/or the increasing rarity elevates the value of top quality trees produced by those who had the vision and dedication to begin the process many years ago. in twenty years time, today will be many years ago.

Another victim is deciduous bonsai in general - you can't make one in a demonstration or a workshop or a day's visit to a client's garden. You can't bend, prune and crank a collected plant into shape and wait a year for it to fill in. You have to go back to square one and build the tree slowly, year after year after year. You need to have a blueprint, a strategy, that guides you through the long and often frustrating process toward the distant goal. Again, not a good return on investment - unless, of course, the immense satisfaction and continuing pleasure you gain from both the process and the result can be considered sufficient return.

You can't survive on pleasure and satisfaction (tried it once, lasted about a week, had a good time though!) so the process is seldom taught or practiced professionally.  But the dedicated amateur can do this for the pleasure of the journey alone, no matter how long. Even if you are not the one to finish the journey, you would be remembered as the one who looked beyond the horizon and set the course.

At the very highest levels of bonsai, in both the east and the west, imagination and creativity are still very much alive, but down here where most of us live it seems it is being driven out by this cancerous preconception of what a bonsai should look like. There seem to be no younger emerging Nick Lenzes or Vaughn Bantings to pioneer bonsai images of native species or to further westernize the practice and aesthetics of the art.

It is not the bonsai master, not the itinerant bonsai journeyman, and certainly not the commercial market traders, but the committed, motivated and talented enthusiasts who hold the future evolution of bonsai art in their hands. It is they who are free to experiment, create, push the boundaries, be adventurous. They have no reputation to build, no ego to boost, no big investment to lose apart from time. It is they, and only they, who can preserve the variety of style and species, adding more as time goes by. It is they who are most likely to practice bonsai as an expressive art, forever pushing the boundaries, rather than as an investment or a performance. All they need to do is believe in their own dreams, set their sights on the highest goal and, take the longest path to reach it.

It's been repeated so many times over the past few decades, but it's a lesson that seems to be taking its time to sink in, so I'll leave you with this most poignant quote from the late John Yoshio Naka who chose to draw his inspiration from the trees he saw in nature instead of from textbooks or the work of others:

"Don't try to make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree."

"...in twenty years time, today will be many years ago"

"We just made
very cool looking trees in pots"