Bonsai brings indomitable nature

My introduction to bonsai was an encounter with a collection of small, scattered junipers in pots in a friend’s yard. The plants were attached to the roots and malnourished, and they had taken on the gray-green color that precedes death. They weren’t happy. Bonsai are “tortured little trees”, I was told. It was an uninteresting introduction. But it left me curious. I started reading about art. The belief expressed in these introductory words is a common misconception. It is far from the truth.

Word bonsai, translated into English, means “planted in a container”. A bonsai is a tree grown in a decorative container, the shape of which resembles a full-sized tree. For this to happen, the tree must be exceptionally healthy.

The polished tip of the hook next to an old Japanese pruner.

Bonsai comes from a Chinese horticultural tradition adopted and perfected by the Japanese over a thousand years ago. The principles of Zen Buddhism were integrated and an art form was born. The bonsai artist, the guardian of the tree, strives to achieve the aesthetics of a tree that one would find in nature, the feeling of being near a tree carrying a truth or of a story that invites the viewer to stop and be still.

Much like a landscape painting, a garden, or a flower arrangement, a bonsai tree brings elements of untamed nature into our own world, into our yard, into our home, on a scale we can handle. The result is a satisfying result, but the well-executed process is the goal. As the guardian shapes the trees, the trees also tend to shape the guardian.

Every spring, between mid-March and mid-April, trees that have been in the same soil for two or three years must be repotted. Trees in nature send their roots out into new soil. Bonsai, confined to their pots, need the guardian’s hand for this. Otherwise, they will eventually overfill their containers and begin to compact the soil, losing their ability to absorb oxygen, water, and nutrients.

When it’s time to repot, the tree is carefully lifted from its container, its roots a mass of white, a molding of the inside of the pot. A metal root hook, the tip of which has been polished after years of moving through coarse soil, is used to loosen the roots. The hook is pulled outward, coaxed and pulled, from the splay of the root to the plump, white ends of the roots. Delicate tendrils are held and straightened. When ever are the roots of a tree held in one hand? Fingers, curled up, massage the floor for free. He falls. Compacted clay and stone, pumice and gravel separate. Over the years, salts and toxins have built up in the soil from fertilizers. These things will inhibit the health of the tree in time if not removed. With a little help, by doing what the tree cannot do on its own, the things that no longer serve the tree are discarded.

The mind wanders. Habits, resentments, grudges. Two years of editing. Toxins. Things to let go.

Free of soil, the tree is an organism independent of the earth. Its secret half, the part we never see, rests on the workbench. A body of wood, flesh and energy, seeking to create more. He seems both terribly vulnerable and immensely strong.

The caretaker’s job is to provide the tree with the conditions in which it can thrive. She can’t make it grow. It can only create the possibility that growth is the natural result. If a bonsai is in trouble, it is not the plant’s fault. Life seeks only to prosper; these are the conditions that must be changed.

How are we really different?

A boxwood bonsai from the writer’s collection has already been shaped and cared for by Bob LaPointe. The tree is about 40 years old. (Pictures Kai Potter)

Sharp shears are used, the roots held taut, the tips cut off. Long coarse roots are removed. Damage, rot, misdirected shoots that do more harm than good are taken out with clean, neat cuts. Work should be fearless. Just as we clear the canopy of trees, the parts that the world sees, the roots, the parts no one sees, must also be pruned. As above, so below.

How to make more space to grow within the container that is oneself? What can be cut out to create space? What to let go? What to add?

The pot is prepared with wires passed through the drainage holes to anchor the tree. A mixture of fresh new soil, freed from the weight of past years, is poured around the roots. The rods are pushed into the gaps and gently shaken to let the soil fill in and settle. The tree is watered until the water runs through the soil as clear as rain.

What are my roots? What is my cool land? What is my water?

The pipe is off. The tools are put away. The tree is put back on its support.

New England Bonsai Gardens in Bellingham is an excellent bonsai resource. They offer courses and have a massive collection of material for beginners and experts alike.

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