What we do at Crataegus Bonsai is modeled on the following concerns and orientations.
first with the head, then with the heart– All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. Learn the technical first, before venturing into the experimental and creative. The tradition is here to serve us. It is a very great gift. When we’ve gotten comfortable with it, then is the time to push at the boundaries and to nibble around at the question, what else could it be?
bonsai tend to challenge our human wiring- We are wired as destination beings. We like conclusions, and preferably to have them yesterday. Modern approaches to bonsai often give in to the urge for speed—and it’s hard to argue this, as bonsai development can be as slow as molasses. Still, the bonsai community has willingly given up the use of time as a medium, often at the expense of quality and meaning.
we say that practice makes perfect, but really practice makes practice- Most things we practice have no finish line. Practices are things like yoga. Partner dancing. Martial arts. Bonsai. These are practices. They benefit anyone who engages; perfection of them is a fantasy.
you have to do whatever you can’t not do- Bonsai practice is centered on this simple but tough principle. Those who do bonsai best fully embrace such things as watering, seasonal care, and timely bonsai technique. It also includes less savory but also necessary acts like disease and pest control. Notice, this has nothing to do with styling. Styling and maintenance are two parts of the whole, yet maintenance is by far the more important of the two.
creating and analyzing are two separate processes- Don’t confuse the two, and don’t do them at the same time.
the bonsai artist thinks beyond the self- Bonsai is firstly about a tree. And secondarily, others. Something very beautiful about the practice of bonsai is that this future-orientation strengthens the work. For example, if we do not set the structure of trunk or nebari when a tree is young, the next person often can’t improve it much. Having the enjoyment of future stewards in mind when practicing bonsai is a core feature of the art.
nothing at the high chance of a tree’s life- That is a river too far. No aesthetic gain is ever worth it.
all relationships have the same structure- We fall in love with something that is the outward expression of something shy in oneself. We do this in our romances, in our relationship with our work, and certainly also with our attraction to trees. Whatever the current bonsai vogue is may drown out what you personally love about trees. Stay with your relationship.
the internet is a fine place to begin and an awful place to end- Study bonsai in person. There is no subsititute for a present teacher, since this is a craft that we do with our bodies. A student can get 99% of the information correct from mute sources and then fail 100% in application…which is what a physically present teacher will prevent.
In Japan there is a practice known as ‘forest bathing.’ On the surface, this sounds similar the ‘air bathing’ that the quirky Benjamin Franklin practiced, who would start each day sitting stark naked on his bed with all the windows open. Forest bathing is not quite so alternative, it is simply being around trees. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to ‘effort’ it by running or hiking. Forest bathing is just being with trees, surrounded by them. The Japanese spent 8 years studying the psychological and physiological benefits of forest bathing, and found that breathing in phytoncide, which is produced in forests, is a significant boost to immune system health. Research by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University found that “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”
This probably is no surprise to many of us who walk in deep forests frequently. We come back refreshed. And as our urban spaces become more dense and access to wilderness more remote, bonsai, being small and a surrogate to those wild spaces, become increasingly relevant. We have big cities that are painfully devoid of green. And this is not just the lack of visual appeal or a romantic notion. Geoffrey Donovan’s forestry research suggests that growing up in those dense urban spaces truly impacts us early on, as having 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, which clearly suggests psychological benefits. 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. The multi-dimensionality of this modern research adds weight to the conclusions that having green growing things around us deeply impacts our wellbeing and health.
Life in a city, divorced from a slower pace and fully tapped into societal assumptions can make us live a very lemming-like life. We follow those around us. For example, a societally sourced conceit is that getting a larger home or a bigger bank account changes us for the better. And yet 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.” And as many of us have found, all this goalpost changing is darn exhausting. We get in our own way. And since the practice of bonsai exists outside of these reflexive ways of living, it may be a respite from them.
It is also deeply curious that we have the view that bonsai is a metaphor for surviving the storms and stresses of life, for it is not a very apt umbrella definition for the art. While this might be true for some bonsai, many bonsai do not show any of this implicit burden and loss, such as many deciduous trees and forest plantings, neither does it relate particularly well to accent plants, which also fall under the canopy of bonsai. Perhaps the attraction to the negative only proves our inability to pull away from its gravitational force. We are left with the irony that modern bonsai often communicate stress, not relief from it. And more to the point, they have become more about us than trees.
Having green beauty around us is one positive step up, as the scientific evidence suggests to us. And then there’s a greater step that is our own engagement with beauty, in the dance between simplicity and complexity, in getting our hands dirty with it, in creating, adjusting, and maintaining, for it is then that we begin to make authentic forays into ourselves.
Involvement in bonsai, then, is an aspirational activity. It is an internal compass, a personal statement of orientation, and a marker of what we think is good. But it is equally clear that simply having bonsai doesn’t make us better people, won’t solve our problems, and can’t change our mistakes. Matisse said that he wished to make paintings so beautiful that people’s problems would simply fade away. This is valuable for sure, yet it is a brief reprieve. Aspirational acts are engaged acts. What do you wish to awake to every morning? Bonsai answers this in two ways: You can observe, and you can participate. Living with bonsai can be a reflection of not just our love of woods, or the ephemeral bloom of a flower, but the participation in, perhaps, the addressing of material surplus or the act of careful, mindful watering. It is possible that any interaction with bonsai on a daily basis is a statement of what is good.
And what is good? The bonsai universe of wabi-sabi—minor, fewer, and ephemeral things, to internalize contentment in the ordinary, the rustic, and the old, and the sense that beauty is an open state of mind—is essentially a statement of values, not visual aesthetics as is often assumed. Since wabi-sabi is part of the bones of what bonsai is, it can be a daily reminder of how we wish to be with the world. Sir Boyle Roche proudly said, “Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity? For what has posterity ever done for us?” Well, for the bonsaiist, posterity has done nearly everything. It would be beyond any one person to independently to come up with the quiet, resourceful, and honest aesthetic tradition of wabi-sabi. Experimentation is important but overrated in bonsai, and as this one example shows, we owe many people a debt of gratitude.
What we feel is good might influence how we regard beauty in the wider world, too. Regardless what one thinks the reasons are—whether it’s poor forestry practices, population increase, climate change, or a combination of those—deforestation worldwide is a fact. 30% of the world’s surface is forest, and yet in 100 years all our rainforest is expected to be gone. And that fact lessens the beauty in the world, which is not a fact but an opinion. But if that rings true, that fewer wild spaces lessens our access to it, then it may also feel true that the remaining forest equates to remaining beauty. Bonsai may be viewed through the shrinking lens of what is most dear to us, a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. It may even be that we have more possible paths of involvement with bonsai in our current age than in the past, more ways to connect with them, and more reasons for having them around us.
For more, my book Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk has similar threads in stories and essays, with a focus on the Japanese view of bonsai and how Westerners might more easily understand it.