The Art of Bonsai
Updated: Oct 5
The burly hunk of a man, a thatch of coarse flaxen hair sticking out from under his straw hat on the right side, concluded his demonstration by holding up the bonsai plant. “We are growing small.”
With sweet calls of morning birds in accompaniment, a diverse group of wanna-be bonsai-ers gathered in mirrored sunglasses, sunblock, and garden hats at Mission Hills Nursery, eager for both knowledge and the icy cold bottles of water being passed on trays.
We were there to learn how to bonsai succulent plants. The expert, his strong hands and arms burnished a rich tan, the color of cognac, began by showing a few of his prized works. First an interesting, gnarled Euphorbia; he joked, “It’s a Mammillarias Variegata, but you can remember it as a corn cob!”
“This is a jade plant, the Crassula Ovata;” he switched plants. “Fleshy, green, easy to bonsai. Just remember, bonsai plants require attention, nourishment, maintenance.”
His last example, an Operculicarya Decaryi. He grinned like a proud papa and boasted, “This is my favorite of all the South African species.”
I was smitten. I had made my choice for a succulent bonsai project, enthralled by the captivating Madagascar specimen he held up for us all to admire. However, when he commented “This one is twenty years old” I began to think I might look for a faster-moving new hobby. I remembered hearing bonsai referred to as an endless ritual. A lifelong endeavor.
The outlook for some lives is longer than others…
The stunning bonsais we’d seen at the Gaku-ken Exhibition in Kyoto, Japan took their turns in my mind. As far back as 500 BC, the Chinese began growing these small potted plants. I realigned my patience virtue and dug back into the learning.
At home, as I struggled to mimic what had been demonstrated at the nursery on my own Operculicarya Decaryi, no bigger than a pilgrim’s quill and just as delicate, my fingers and hands seemed to enlarge. I fumbled nervously with the tiny specimen and tinier tools. So awkward. Me. King Kong atop the Empire State Building with Faye Wray in one hand and a smashed plane in the other.
I stepped back, breathed in deeply and centered myself in front of my project. In baby steps, like we had been shown, I dumped the gravel from the four-inch pot, massaged its’ sides until the plant came loose, and turned it over onto my hand. Carefully, I shook the loose dirt from the root ball and held the plant up high to examine which straggler roots to trim. Snip. Snip. Snip.
I placed the undressed plant, it’s wire-thin trunk and polished deep green itty-bitty eyelash-like leaves, aside and began to mix the potting soil. Eighty percent pumice and twenty percent organic cactus soil plus a bit of bone meal. I dampened the mixture, placed a two-inch layer in the bottom of my chosen rounded pot, a rich russet color certain to compliment the itty-bitty evergreen leaves, and then reached for scraggly weed-like growth that would be my small potted tree, a perfect replica of its larger version.
As I worked, I meditated.
Growing small—the opposite of everything I’ve known about growing since my mom stood me up against the wall and measured my height just before kindergarten; she marked it on the kitchen wall in pencil. Each year taller and taller.
It occurred to me that the concept of “growing small” is a good one which both intrigues and haunts me. Although Covid-19 wreaked havoc on all life we had known, it’s legacy for me is a yearning for more of quarantine time. That alone time. A smaller time.
I am living smaller, but I continue to grow which seems to make my life more artful. Much like bonsai, an art that has been studied and refined for centuries, and finally found its way into my everyday life on a summer Sunday morning.
The art of bonsai.
As the expert had done in the demonstration, before final placement in the pot, I put my soon-to-be-tree on a lazy Susan so that I could study all its’ angles and select the most pleasing. If it survives, my prized specie will gently curve slight right and upward and then gracefully arc left.
It may need some help and I studied how he wired his young planting, guiding its gentle s-shape swing left and back to right. Making studied decisions and choices each step of the way. I want that for my life.
The trunk is foremost in the art of bonsai. I am the trunk of this life of mine. In both cases, extremely important that the trunk twists naturally in its own unique manner, has some graceful curves, and interesting lumps and knobs. I’m not even going to comment on this parallel except to say the trunk forms the foundation, provides inner strength and character.
After careful selection of our plants and the planting, the demonstration had turned to pruning, an essential part of creating the perfect small tree. It would occur to me later as I worked on my miniature tree that pruning is exactly what I’m trying so hard to do with my post-pandemic life. It touched me when I heard the nurseryman say, “Ultimately, pruning is not about following strict rules, but about establishing the best design for your tree.”
I so want the best design for my life now, retaining a goodly amount of the solitude and slowness and thoughtfulness of isolation. Nourishment. Maintenance.
My takeaway on pruning that morning—you snip unnecessary things. Get rid of cross branches that don’t go the way you intend the growth. There is a purposefulness about the selection of which cut to make. I intend for this purposefulness in choices to guide my everyday life.
This is what I learned from the enforced isolation of Covid-19 and the pandemic about my inner strength—I am more effective, efficient, creative, and satisfied when I trim away cross branches of worn-out obligations, unwanted or unnecessary activities, and busy work.
The bonsai grows slowly.
All my life I went fast. College choice made on a whim; the experience compressed into three years and three summers. Immediate first marriage, Unplanned pregnancies. Rapid divorce. Rapid remarriage. Relocations. Job changes. Adventures. Victories. Losses. A whirl of a lifetime leading to now.
Now, I want to go slow. Maintain well. Nourish myself.
There are more snips to make as me and my small tree grow small.
Go slow and sure, with purpose, like the art of bonsai.
I’m going to resist the line about “that’s not your only new hobby!…” and talk about this essay which I absolutely love!!!
Seriously, I love this one so much! Maybe my all time favorite of your works!
deep green itty-bitty eyelash-like leaves” SOOO good. Delightful and so descriptive.
Growing small—the opposite of everything I’ve known about growing since my mom stood me up against the wall and measured my height just before kindergarten; she marked it on the kitchen wall in pencil. Each year taller and taller. SUCH a good paragraph! Your metaphor is woven so beautifully. You move gracefully from the bonsai to the life. I hope you stay with this one. It needs to be published. GVL
From DI in Texas - Thoughtful analogies -- and very timely.
And MM in Texas - Enjoyed your bonsai article and had to laugh at the twenty-year time reference. I have a wonderful group of friends who like to eat, drink, and have a good time, but I frequently find myself as the oldest.
Me: I love my Texas friends so much!
I took a class at the Balboa Park once with BonsaiClub. Demo. at Drawing Salon? MP
And this lovely and sentimental remembrance from Marty in San Diego:
I was fourteen the first time I remember seeing my mother cry. We were on the last leg of our trip from Meridian, Mississippi to San Diego. We were moving (again), but this time it was for good. Dad would serve two more years as a naval aviator, based in San Diego, and then retire there, in our home town. We knew he was headed for Vietnam (it was 1969) so the feeling was bittersweet. We were travelling in two cars, my mom driving our Buick Skylark with my little brother and me as copilots. My dad drove the VW Bug, my younger sister and our cat as his passengers, following closely behind us. There was precious cargo in that Skylark: my mother’s prized Bonsai, an azalea she had trained and nurtured since our time in Key West, Florida, four years ago. It was a family joke that she loved that little plant more than she loved us.
As we approached the Arizona-California border, we were elated. Almost home! Beaches, Mexican food, and friends and family were eagerly awaiting our arrival. Just one stop at the border for the California Department of Agriculture. We had to relinquish all fruits and vegetables (Good-bye overripe bananas and peaches!) We were on our way, but no, the officer took one last look in the back seat, spotted the little bonsai, and pulled us over. He pointed to the little plant and gestured that I hand it to him as he unceremoniously opened the car door. I looked at my mother who was visibly shaking, tears streaming down her cheeks. I handed him the beautiful plant in its exquisite Japanese pot. Without saying a word, he pulled the azalea from the pot, dumped it on the ground, handed me the empty pot, and motioned for us to move on. His only words,
“Welcome to California!”