Doing bonsai is in the same universe as building a fire in a wood stove, meditation, writing a letter with a fountain pen, or any time-out, intentional, healing activity that is a counter to the insistent pull of needing to be places, do things, on time. Oddly enough, 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. And these grievous struggles with time are commented on frequently in the past. 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.
And yet working with bonsai we are immediately beset with the indignity of being on a leash to the seasons, so that only some things may be done with the remotest degree of safety to our bonsai at any one time. This is a puff of temporal relief that most of us—except perhaps remotely living monks—can use. With bonsai we begin to work with time rather than be its tool.
The Victorian wingnut Oscar Wilde said that nature is ‘the place where birds fly around uncooked.’ He lays out the disconnect many of us feel, especially those that live in cities, from anything about the outdoors. They can seem so remote, those wild birds, that 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.
Of course, being surrounded by nature won’t solve our fear of elevators or make right our lumbago. But bonsai may be the thing that jettisons us from feeling like one is zip-lined to something out of control, to a timepiece, to a social machine. It happened to me.
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). It was guesswork, that minimizing and restructuring would help. And it did. I found that even if we’re not engaging with our things, they are engaging with us. And the restructuring included a new relationship with my phone (less relationship). Although some of my closest friends thought this new illness should be cleared up with a simple doctor’s visit, living with only 5 percent of what I owned turned out to be the opposite of a traumatic experience. As I sifted through the piles of things that I’d magically accumulated over 10 years, giving most of it away, many of the stresses I had been living with vanished along with them as if they had been life-sucking voodoo dolls.
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 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, it’s 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. Tradition, if you wanted it to, would give you an answer, but you might not connect with the answer it gave. Vanishingly few Westerners truly connect with the 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. And that might not be you. The middle road of mixing the gift of your nationality—whatever that might be—with the gift of tradition, is often the strongest and most authentic route.
For you bonsai might be something wildly different, maybe like an opera or a racetrack, and I would like to visit your bonsai yard if that is so. For my yard, you would need to get out of your car and slow down to less than a walk, to strip down to the pace of a snail, to see what there is to see. But that’s just my yard.
In the wildly diverse expressions of bonsai around the world we see more fully who we are as a band of tree folk. As 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 see what it was he meant by that, and, in a wider view, recognizing 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.