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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Bonsai

A leisurely walk through our botanical gardens today took us down a path lined with specimens of Bonsai eventually leading us in a winding arc to a contemplation pool filled with lily pads and koi. I am quite attracted to the serenity of Japanese gardens and especially to these miniature trees, many hundreds of years old with their twisted and gnarled trunks, but as they always do, the longer I study them the more they represent a lesson in contradiction. While my eye takes in their artful composition, I am mindful that they are not natural, but a product of human intervention that however gently, has shaped them to men’s desires and aesthetics.


It is not clear who bears the weight of the Bonsai’s contorted beauty, the plant or its human trainers. Bonsai are not cultivated or grown, they are trained over decades, even centuries. One of the oldest can be traced to 1610. It currently resides in the Tokyo Imperial Palace where it is considered one of Japan’s national treasures.


Trainers use heavy copper wire as an armature to shape the young branches and trunk of an immature tree and with exceeding patience over what is often a lifetime ever so gradually impose the desired shape and posture. Special pruning tools are used to rid the tree of undesired shoots, concave in design so as to leave a depression and not a stump or open wound so that in time the tree will heal with minimal disfigurement. It is not unusual for a Bonsai to outlive its trainer, patiently enduring the tender mercies of many generations.


By design, Bonsai are not simply miniature forms of a healthy tree. They are created not found—although they start as shoots or plants, very rarely as fully formed specimens. Asymmetry—even in the formal upright style is found in every type of Bonsai but comes into its greatest expression in my view in what is known as the cascading or slanting styles—the former mimicking the posture common to trees that grow over water while the latter emulate those shaped by wind and slanting sunlight. Like so many ineffable works of art, Bonsai are meant to show imperfection, an aesthetic known as wabi-sabi. Beauty, it is thought, is transient, imperfect, and impermanent.


As long as humans have walked this planet, we have sought mastery over nature. One might argue that at large scale those desires have wreaked havoc. Bonsai afford a smaller and more finite attempt to bend nature to human will and perhaps the lesson within the lesson is not simply about patience, but becoming one with the nature we seek to shape. Indeed, the entirety of the natural world can be glimpsed in the Bonsai—an appreciation of the forces that govern us all and bend us into who we are.


Perhaps the precarious forces of earthquake, fire, and tsunami that Japan has so frequently suffered may have led to a more subtle appreciation for the ways in which nature shapes us. They are a reminder that even those forces which oppress, contort, or afflict us with unwelcome stress can mark us with an indelible character, our own imperfect, and impermanent beauty.

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