Doing bonsai is in the same universe as building a fire in a wood stove, meditation, or writing a letter with a fountain pen—it is a time-out activity that is a counter to the insistent pull of needing to be places, and to do things, on time. And this problem with time isn’t new. It isn’t even an old problem, it’s an ancient problem. We have notes from the Roman writer Plautus, who in 200 BC complained:
The Gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish the hours—confound him, too
Who in this place set up a sundial
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small pieces!
Good thing Plautus never lived to see a smartphone. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, written in 1726, the Lilliputions, on seeing how often Gulliver checked his watch, concluded that it must be his god. No, the problem isn’t new.
And yet working with bonsai we are immediately beset with the indignity of being on a leash to the seasons—a much broader span of time than a watch or phone offers. Instead of rushing, we often have to wait. This is a puff of temporal relativity that most of us—except perhaps remotely living monks—can use. With bonsai we begin to work with time rather than be its tool.
So being unhinged to time is one gift of bonsai. Another is nature itself. The Victorian wingnut Oscar Wilde said that nature is ‘the place where birds fly around uncooked.’ Nature can seem so darn remote, especially for those that live in cities. Those wild birds, maybe they don’t exist? But, yes, they do, and there is some fascinating research, such as Portland’s own Geoffrey Donovan, whose studies suggest that growing up in a house surrounded by trees beneficially affects the health of infants born there. Current research into hospitals strongly correlates greenspace viewed through a window to swifter healing. And studies of a person seated in a car going though a concrete-saturated urban space with body sensors attached is anxious; that same person driving down a street with even 50% green cover is a totally different person, calmer, happier even. Bonsai can serve as that green space balm, too.
The third thing that bonsai confronts us with is our notion of success. What is the end goal of a bonsai? Where do we claim our victory, plant our flag? Our feelings of fulfillment and success are oddly tied to how well we belly up to the expectations of our culture—that fast-driving, forward-ho, take-no-prisoners accent that so many of us share as a career trajectory. And yet bonsai teaches that those expectations are a false friend. That success can come as a surprise, and that maybe we don’t understand fulfillment very well, either.
My own version of ‘OK, this is nuts, I need to get off this train’ came about the year I spaced my sister’s 50th birthday. (She was pretty clear about pointing that out.) Partly as a reaction to this, in 2017 I built a micro home to live in, and relinquished my larger suburban home to my apprentices (I wrote a blog post about that year-long adventure). Like everyone (most everyone) I fell into working and living as if I were a bird, flocking with our group expectations of more being better. And yet over-stuffed, busy lives and grandiose environs do not make us grander in our interiors, as any few lines of Thoreau suggest and current happiness research proves. As Shaun Achor states in his hilarious and thought-provoking TED talk, we are very good at putting happiness over the cognitive horizon, so that we never attain it: “If we get good grades we need better grades, if we hit the sales target, we need to change the sales target. Every time we have a success, we just change the goalpost of what success looks like.”
This has been bonsai for me, its gift. Well, I know it doesn’t seem like there’s a connection, but there is one. To create and maintain bonsai is to engage in a win-less act, where to compete isn’t the point, where more things and bigger things aren’t better things. Success is ongoing. It grows. It changes. It isn’t what you thought it was. It’s better.
Why we do bonsai is intensely personal. And no one should tell you why you’re doing it. Only ridiculous people move into micro homes, for instance, because they want to know how bonsai live. That is probably clinically bonkers. But all this, all our reasons for doing bonsai, are deeply personal, for they are our answers to what brings us meaning in bonsai.
Tradition, if you wanted it to, would give you an answer for that, but you might not connect with the answer it gave. Vanishingly few Westerners truly connect with the wabi-sabi aesthetic philosophy of the Japanese arts—that somewhat bizarre blending of beauty and ugliness, a lean toward that which is not hip or jazzy but rather subdued and worn, as if beauty could be held as an open state of mind. Although there’s a lot of beauty there, it might not be for you. The middle road of mixing the gift of your nationality—whatever that might be—with the gift of tradition might be the strongest and most authentic route. And yet the gifts of tradition cannot be understated. The gifts of tradition are technique, and the insistence that bonsai mean something beyond the act of bending a branch.
In the wildly diverse expressions of bonsai around the world we see more fully who we are as a band of tree folk. The potter Bernard Leach said, ‘extremes touch’.
Although there certainly are differences in what bonsai means to each of us, one thing that is clear is that bonsai is creating international bonds, connecting us across boundaries. Mr. Suzuki used to tell me that bonsai was about peace, and not to be shy about talking about that. For years I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t understand what he meant. Peace called to mind things like the United Nations and doves, and I didn’t see the connection. It took travel abroad to understand this better, and also just time being around people doing bonsai to recognize the therapeutic gifts bonsai has offering all along.
In 2017 I went to Taiwan to teach at a multi-convention event. On the first day there was a huge welcoming ceremony with tons of food and a fair number of local politicians who took turns thanking us for being there (and enhancing the local economy). I made a new friend from Poland, a man seated to my right. Above us there was a display of the national flags of the participants: 57 countries were represented there. For any who think bonsai is simply about bending branches and puffing out the artist’s chest, this was an arresting sight. And I began to think Mr. Suzuki was right. If there is one overarching philosophy of bonsai that applies to what we do—and not the personal meaning that we must find for ourselves—it is that bonsai is about peace. Bonsai both offers it and is created by it.