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.