What we do at Crataegus Bonsai is modeled on the following concerns and orientations:
first with the head, then with the heart– study the technical first, before venturing into the experimental and creative
bonsai challenge the idea that faster is better- with modern approaches to bonsai often giving in to the urge for speed, 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- practices are things like yoga, partner dancing, martial arts, bonsai—they benefit anyone who engages; perfection of them is a fantasy
you have to do whatever you can’t not do- those who do bonsai best fully embrace everything under the bonsai umbrella, including such unsavory acts like disease and pest control
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- having future stewards in mind when practicing bonsai is a core feature of the art
nothing at the high chance of a tree’s life- no aesthetic gain is ever worth it
if you have a strong opinion of bonsai, stay with it- 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- 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 to 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.
We’re a lot like birds. We tend to follow those around us, like a flocking behavior. What others want, we want too. We want a larger home or a bigger bank account, because this flocking assumes others have thought this out, that having more 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. And since the practice of bonsai exists outside of these reflexive ways of living, it may be a respite from them.
Bonsai being small are so often the ambassadors of their larger brethren. I’ve seen it so many times, bonsai being the first green tendril of nature in someone’s life—sometimes a city dweller but not always—bonsai being a conduit to trees, to the wild lands. This is no small thing. Awareness of trees, forests, the contradictory toughness and yet vulnerability of them, their role in ecosystems from soil stabilizers to watershed protectors to CO2 scrubbers—awarenesses which teach, enrich, and can lead to activism.
Involvement in bonsai might be thought of as an aspirational activity. We know trees to be good for us. And it pays to be reminded that small is not necessarily less. So bonsai, which are both of those things, can be 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. Engaging with bonsai can be a reflection of not just our love of woods, or the ephemeral bloom of a flower, but the participation in a unique interspecies connection. 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. Wabi-sabi is embedded in the aesthetic values, the bones, of what bonsai is. 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 its quiet and resourceful aesthetic tradition. Experimentation is important but overrated in bonsai, and as this one example shows, we owe many people a debt of gratitude.
My teacher, Mr. Shinji Suzuki, used to tell me that bonsai was about peace. And he told me not to be shy about talking about it. I didn’t for years, mostly because I didn’t understand what he meant. Peace made me think of white doves and laurel, an image that rusted in place and I couldn’t see beyond. But in more ways than one, bonsai appears not only rooted in this idea, but dependent on it. By being around bonsai we can feel peace, as a micro-forest bather might. By engaging in a win-less activity, bonsai supports non-competitiveness that can release us from social stresses. By extending our awareness of a bonsai’s past we can be grateful for the work of those that came before, some of whom might have been from other countries. Recently I went to Taiwan to teach bonsai at a huge international multi-convention, and at the welcome dinner flags of many nations surrounded the space. There were 58 nations represented there. And I thought, Mr. Suzuki is right. We think bonsai is about bending branches, but it’s really about peace. Bonsai both offers it and is created by it.