Much of the urge to answer the slipperier questions of bonsai, at least for myself, was the purpose of the book about my apprenticeship, Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk. (The irritable argument in Shinji Suzuki’s greenhouses with Thoreau—yes, the dead writer—is maybe my favorite chapter.)
Also I think the old Kodansha publication The Classic Bonsai of Japan is a good resource for those of a philosophic bent.
Following this intro is an Artist’s Statement.
Then there’s a few thought puzzlers to nibble on.
And finally, while most of my blog posts are technical, there are also those that aren’t and I’ll offer a selection of them to wrap up.
Statement of Orientation
Most artists would probably refer to this as the ‘artist’s statement,’ so you can call it that if you wish.
One part of bonsai that I find particularly resonant is the chance for the artist to be a bit invisible, to have the tree eventually be its own spokesperson. I think the highest form of the art is where the artist’s fingerprints are obliterated by the tree itself, and the tree takes over possession of itself again as its own expression and statement.
Another awareness with bonsai is that it is analog. One can digitize and mechanize nearly anything, including bonsai, but in my own work and with students I try to keep bonsai as direct as possible. Portland’s own Gary Wogowski says in his book Handmade, ‘Long ago we learned to think by using our hands, not the other way around.’
Having just moved to a city I am also deeply aware of urbanization, and these days think a lot about what is wild. I am arrested by natural beauty, the kind of beauty that is not created but born. The use of collected trees, even deciduous, as ‘found objects’ has allowed some exploration of these themes of wildness and naturalness. Also the minimization of the bonsai container to the point of it vanishing completely has had continued relevance in my recent work (a bit ironic given that I’m a potter), which brings the tree into the foreground. At least that’s the intention.
I really don’t think we need wabi-sabi to make viable and excellent bonsai, having been to Southeast Asia and other places where there’s almost none of it and yet one sees brilliant bonsai. But for me the original, raw aesthetic values that gave birth to bonsai are still meaningful and often guide my work, even if I sometimes use unconventional and irreverent means of getting there.
Though I avidly work with all kinds of trees and enjoy thick-trunked trees for their grounding qualities, thin-trunked trees have perennially touched me for their poetic potential—as those old, slender trees pack the wallop of a haiku—and are unmatched for expression in sekikazari, bonsai display in a tokonoma.
Although it might stray beyond the usual artist’s statement to say anything about business, running a business by art and by feel has served me well. So as for Crataegus Bonsai, I run with the idea that community is the scarce resource, not money. Social exchanges build, money exchanges distance. Yes, we do need money to run things, but there’s as much barter going on here as anything else.
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 over 35 years and ask myself the same thing nearly daily.
Bonsai confronts us in sneaky ways. I think these are among the most interesting:
- 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 inspirational view of bonsai is as a stalwart survivor of life’s storms—and it is indeed inspirational—it also only relates to half of bonsai. Deciduous trees and accent plants often offer a different feeling, more one of nature’s healing and benevolence.
- 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 the insistence that bonsai mean something beyond the act of bending a branch. That second part is what Western practitioners are currently investigating.
A curated selection of posts that touch on bonsai philosophy:
And a few posts about my life, because bonsai and that are ‘inextricably mixed’, as Tolstoy would have it: