A couple years back I visited two friends who lived in Chicago. They had their bonsai up in skyscraper apartments, like tree eyries. One had his bonsai up on the rooftop. What a view! But there were two views, actually, two realities. One of the bonsai close up, another of a breathtaking cityscape. And they seemed to fit. They seemed to be necessary to one another.
Seeing the life there in the city—the busy city, the many colored lights at night, the hum of busyness and energy and excitement and ridiculously good food everywhere—and then the quiet bonsai, was a very affecting experience.
I’ve pondered over bonsai and cities, and the following has bubbled up a few times over the last couple of decades:
The closer we bring bonsai to the ultimate urban life, the greater their relevance. It almost becomes urgent.
Maybe others don’t feel this, but my experience visiting large cities has been a feeling of loss, of disconnect with nature. And not just a need for something green, but a contact with what is wild, or looks wild, or suggests wild.
15 years ago I lived in Arizona, at the foothills of a significant mountain with snow on top. I lived in a small village. This village was an afterthought to the environment, not creating the environment, the way a big city does. I lived in the scrub oak/juniper lands: That was the environment. Curiously, the bonsai I had out there on my deck in the desert country took on an invisibility, as if they were redundant. They were still nice, heck, I didn’t love them any differently than I do now…but they didn’t have that feeling of being necessary.
The history of almost any city is that they grow increasingly dense with mortar and metal and fewer and fewer trees. Very old cities prove this. Prague is a great example. I went there a few years ago before going to the Noelander’s Trophy, and found it to be a city of stone. I was hard pressed to find a tree in the middle of the city, until near the outskirts, near the castle. Greenspace is increasingly claimed in antique cities, literally whittled away, over centuries of the housing needs of the population. Leaving us with a vacancy.
What creates the environment? Is the city big or old enough to have its own gravity, and then have a need for plants, or is the town an afterthought to nature?
Bonsai just might be more than just a pretty thing to put on our railings. Especially for urban dwellers, they might be deeply relevant.