The urge to investigate the slipperier questions of bonsai was the purpose of my apprenticeship memoir, Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk. Also the old Kodansha publication The Classic Bonsai of Japan is a great resource for those of a philosophic bent.
Following this intro is our business philosophy. Then there’s a Statement of Orientation. After that I offer a few thought puzzlers to nibble on. And while most of my blog posts are technical, we’ll wrap up with a few that go a bit beyond that.
We take the mingling of business and philosophy seriously here at Crataegus Bonsai. While we certainly need the students, clients, and book sales that power the ship, here community is the scarce resource, not money. Community is currency. I am grateful that to date three smart young people have wanted to be apprentices here, with a fourth coming in 2021, so it’s not a one-man-show by any stretch. The refinement of the trees, efficiency of the garden, and reach of our services have all skyrocketed from their skills and engagement. By being a part of our programs and offerings, you too, in a very direct way, support the education of new bonsai professionals.
Michael Hagedorn’s Statement of Orientation
Some of my work is traditional, and a lot of it is not. The gifts of tradition are beyond value, and I’m grateful to my teachers Mr. Boon Manakitivipart and Mr. Shinji Suzuki for passing on that tradition. At the same time, my background as a painter and sculptor has me hardwired to fiddle. And then an upbringing around scientists assumed I’d be looking at the natural world in squinty-eyed ways from early on, so there’s a gadfly-to-tradition element there too (the likely origin of Bonsai Heresy).
Maybe the combination of those three primary influences—tradition, creativity, and science—were behind things like this Nurse Log. And this Vine Maple Tower, and Twin-Trunk Mountain Hemlock. While they use traditional bonsai concepts of balance and form that I learned from my teachers, they also work within my primary creative tools of found objects, weird materials, and awe of nature. If awe can be called a tool.
It is commonplace—even an assumption—to create a bonsai as fingerprint of our vision, of ourselves. With the powerful tools and techniques we now have, this is easy. I do find the instinct to do something simply because you can is a dangerous instinct, which has led me to focus on presentation rather than manipulation.
I’ve an ongoing fascination in the regeneration we see in forest ecology. Most of this inspiration comes from what I see locally, in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Often, and irrationally, I think of the Robert Browning poem that starts ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…’ as the perfect beginning of a poem about bonsai, but his poem runs off into other territory and doesn’t mention bonsai even once. Still, it’s a nice beginning.
‘Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.’ — The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
I’ve known newcomers to bonsai to wheel around and ask splutteringly and with amazed eyes, ‘What the blazes is going on here? What is this bonsai thing?’ I’ve been doing bonsai for 40 years and ask myself the same thing nearly daily.
Bonsai confront us in sneaky ways. Of these the following seem the most interesting, offered here as abstracts to much larger conversations:
- Our Relationship to Time. Working with bonsai we are immediately beset with the indignity of being on a leash to the seasons. Instead of rushing, we often have to wait. With bonsai we begin to work with time rather than be its tool.
- Our View of Nature. Health and restoration are some of the reasons we seek out nature. And while the view of bonsai as a stalwart and exhausted survivor of life’s storms is inspirational, it also only relates to half of bonsai. Deciduous trees and accent plants offer a different sensibility, more one of nature’s healing and regeneration.
- Our Tool Choice. Tool choice predicts outcome. There is a reflex assumption that faster is better. And yet as with many things, time saving strategies create problems that weren’t there before. For bonsai, this is the ‘chaff information’ inherent in any tool mark that later must be removed to be natural looking. It’s not absent with hand tools, there’s just more of it with power tools.
- Our Notion of Success. Where do we claim our victory, plant our flag? 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.
- Spirit. ‘Spirit’ is a pretty big word, but another way to say it is it’s anything bigger than oneself or one’s ego. Tradition, if you wanted it to, would give you an answer for what spirit is in bonsai, but you might not connect with the answer it gave. Two interesting things that tradition insists on, however, are technique, and that bonsai mean something beyond the act of bending a branch.
A curated selection of posts that touch on bonsai philosophy:
The Garden of Crataegus Bonsai in New Video
The Blaze of Autumn Sweetly Burns
A few on art:
Retrospective: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, Pots, and Bonsai
Giving Up That Branch You Love
Stephen King’s Advice to Bonsai Artists
Bonsai Economics and Creativity
And a few posts about my life, because bonsai and that are ‘inextricably mixed’, as Tolstoy would have it:
‘Be Easy To Move, But Hard To Knock Over’