On Beauty in Bonsai-

If we check in with our natural instincts around beauty, most of us prefer the pristine lake over the muddy swamp. 

Those who have been to Crater Lake in Oregon will remember the brilliantly clear water contrasted with the arid surrounding landscape, and it probably struck you as speechlessly beautiful. Wetlands, with their reeds and mucky shorelines—and unknown slimy things that might attach themselves to you—are distasteful. If we get too close our shoes get dirty. Mosquitos abound. So, generally, we route our vacations to avoid swamps and move on to pristine lakes.

And although not many of us are moved to appreciate the qualities of the swamp, the biological truths of the swamp vs. Crater Lake are stark. At Crater Lake the only fish present were stocked long ago; none are native. Aquatic plants are scarce, mostly a moss that grows between 100-400 feet down. And the lake has little nitrogen, restricting the microbiotic life it can support. It’s nearly a desert. Because of this there are no migratory waterfowl that choose Crater Lake as a stopping place, landing there only by mistake. It’s the wetlands that get the nod from them, places spilling over with life in the shallow littoral zones—nutrient rich areas that swarm with fish, insects and aquatic plants. Dinner is served where the Swamp Thing was born.

So how does this relate to bonsai? 

The Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic isn’t one that appreciates dirty things; that’s a poor rendering of the feeling. The reason though that the swamp is a tad closer to the feeling of wabi-sabi than the pristine lake isn’t about a lack of cleanliness, it’s temporal. At Crater Lake the sense is timelessness. It’s nearly bolted to the surface of time, that lake. One could take a photo of it and come back the next month and compare, and the lake would be remarkably the same—like a stone cathedral. Eternal. In the swamp, every moment something is changing. Ephemerality is its heartbeat. 

And that is a bonsai quality. A wabi-sabi quality.

Bonsai change, often significantly, in the space of hours, days, months. The growth of spring shoots; flowers turning to fruit. The nibbles of insects. The loss of a branch, a restyling. Formation of bark. A pot change. A new viewpoint. Time and the passage of it are what we work with in bonsai, as much a medium as a leaf or needle. And that ephemerality and mutability is an integral part of the beauty of bonsai.


  1. Peter Pelofske says:

    Thanks for that insight. Makes sense, especially these days when even I see daily changes.

    • crataegus says:

      In spring we see so many changes, yes. The weak areas that the tree seems to have been pondering over the winter finally gets the boot in spring, and we see the branches that don’t shoot out. And the normal spring growth changes.

  2. Linda Price-May says:

    As a biologist I truly appreciate your compare and contrast statements on wabi-sabi pertaining to pristine lakes and swamps.

    • crataegus says:

      Well thanks! I’m definitely not an expert. My father was an entomologist, though, which helped absorb some of the backdrop of ecological things. And I’m a birder so that’s kept me curious about interrelationships.

  3. peterclimb says:

    Well said, Michael. I appreciate your words and insight.

  4. Jane Hall says:

    You have great insight into what ‘life’ is about…change. Your piece is outstanding in its comparing and contrasting two bio-systems to the innate nature of bonsai aestheticism. Thank you!

  5. Ken says:

    Thorns are not your only feature. Beautifully said. Love wetlands, BTW. And savannas.

  6. And that is why I like to explore and play with vessels that are subject to change and the ravages of time… I am not permanent. Bonsai is not permanent, yet we put our trees into vessels that are unchanging (apart from a bit of patina)… And those changes to swamp and marshes and such are part of the appeal of living in a state like Wisconsin… Bonsai is difficult here with with the radical and unpredictable changes, but I find that preferable to a never changing landscape such as at Crater Lake… Beautiful ? Yes, but in the words of David Byrne: Same as it ever was 😉

  7. anijhuis says:

    Well said! We have a family of beavers that moved in behind us this spring creating a new wetland. My neighbour brings his children to see the progress on the small dam. Ducks come to check it out but not ready yet for them. A heron was there looking around no fish yet and a kingfisher flies by. Great place to get a drink for our local bear, deer and my dogs on our way back home after our morning walk. This will be home to some wild flowers; Kalmia, Alpine azalea, Aquilegia, Labrador Tea, Cornus etc. Interesting fact on bogs is that globally 3% of land mass but provide 10% of freshwater filtration.

    • crataegus says:

      A very interesting fact! Wetlands are remarkable filters. But I didn’t know that one about bogs. Beavers are the best…inadvertently they create a lot of snags where many things can nest.

  8. Vanaja says:

    Very nice observation and thought, Michael.
    Loved your concluding sentence. Ephemerality and mutability… …of bonsai.
    Life and Bonsai are akin to each other.
    They should be vibrant and constantly evolving, like the wetlands and not static like the Crater Lake.

  9. Philip Klar says:

    Great reflection and deep insight in these fast moving times! Thank you for giving the stability in instability ..………

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