Sometimes we just need to question.
What in the hell am I doing? Who do I think I am? Can I even continue what I’m doing? Where can I find peace? When will I be satisfied? How can I learn what I need to learn? (and, of course, for that certain demographic that makes up much of the Bonsai World, “why did I walk into this room?”).
“Why am I even here?” is the biggest question though. It has that one word that tells the story of my life, but too many of my teachers abhorred:
Teachers that can’t handle that question should themselves be questioned.
If my students don’t ask me why, I feel as though I’ve failed them.
Now, for this essay, besides my rambling inner voice, we have this big hunka chunka biggie is a ficus to keep our attention.
It’s a ficus variety that James J. Smith, grandfather of tropical bonsai in the USA, called a willow leaf ficus “89”.
Back then he called the base species: Common name: willow leaf fig but the scientific name he used was either: Ficus nerifolia, or F. salicifolia. We have since learned that those names are for other, different species of ficus with vastly larger leaves and fruit. So, a ficus guy, a botanist, named C.C. Berg, after much research and comparisons to other species, concluded it was an unknown fig and called it Ficus salicaria, which is literally “willow like foliage”.
Now, hanging off the backside of the binomial name, you’ll notice the numerals 8 and 9, in quotes. That means it’s a variety of the main species. To get us to the explanation for the “89” part, and to make this long story longer, the way I heard it is:
In the year of our lord, nineteen hundred and eighty nine, during a cold Florida winter, in the town of Vero Beach, FLA, where Jim Smith’s nursery, Duro-Stone was located, there was a crippling freeze that killed a whole crop of willow leaf ficus that Jim was growing in the ground, down to just above the roots (yes, when we are growing trees commercially, especially by cutting or other propagation techniques, the technical term for that years output is “crop”, just like as if we were growing Brussel sprouts or spinach). That spring, beyond hope, the trees grew back, up from the roots but, oddly, the new shoots had larger leaves, longer internodes, and, a characteristic Jim learned later, they grew faster.
What I’m doing now, for the next fourteen pics or so, is me looking at the tree in what many people equate with a somnambulant trance. If you witness it, there will be movement, a slack jawed visage, maybe I’ll even converse with some semblance of intelligence (as much as I can, that is), but my mind and my eyes are caressing the trees contours, the limbs. It’s much like making love.
I’ll sit and look at a tree for minutes, or hours, or days. Or even years, and that’s a true story right there.
It’s an act of developing a relationship with the tree.
Look. Listen. Watch. Hear.
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing much, the seasons come, and growth, well, grows,
The hardest part of figuring out this tree is finding a compromise with the best root spread and the best apical branch.
And why the tree should grow the way it should after we do the first cut.
Sometimes I’m not sure when the question begins or ends. Why is a difficult question to know. And that’s before the answer. You gotta know what you’re asking why about, before the answer is there.
The root spread above is very interesting.
Below, it’s not. You can even see a ring of callus tissue that shows where that root was chopped. “The hand of man” as they say, and that’s a no no.
We are trying to make a visual representation of a tree that is growing in a forest or by itself on a hill, field, or dale, and has only been acted upon by age and nature’s calamity.
There was a time I hiked through the woods in Maine, in winter. The walking was tough when you had to be the first to make the path through knee deep snow. And when you came to the creek, the ice was not always solid enough to walk on.
It was far from a pristine virgin wood, probably secondary growth after, at the towns founding, the settlers clear cut the surrounding woods for firewood and building supplies. Maine is a place where spring and summer last about two weeks and then you are so focused upon keeping a roof and warming that roof so you don’t freeze to death.
Even being secondary growth, it was untouched, no “mark of man”. And those aforementioned calamities of nature definitely made a mark on the trees.
The places we’ve gone, lived, floated, those spaces are where our visions come from.
I’m from Massachusetts. A place called Brockton, the “City of Champions”. We are a very diverse people, full of many cultures stewed together in a boiling hot melting pot, violent but effective. Polish, Irish, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Italian, French, Venezuelan, African, we all lived and loved side by side. One thing about Massachusetts was that it was (and is) populated by rebels, individualists, iconoclasts. We are more likely to laugh at pomp and pretension than to practice it. During the American Revolution, the rebels from other parts of the country didn’t much care for us. They still don’t. We were questioning of authority, hard to force into molds, and just plain scornful of the idea of obeying our “betters”. There’s a reason the Revolution started there.
“It is one thing to touch a flame and know it is hot, but quite another to jump into that flame and be consumed by it.”
Adyashanti is an assumed name. His given name is Steven Gray. I wonder if he gets the irony in his assumed name, which means “primordial peace” in Sanskrit, and his given name, Steven Gray. First, he has the Americanized spelling of Steven, and then last, the spelling of Gray, with an “A” ….both names are so very unassuming and peaceful.
You know, I get to travel practicing the art of bonsai. I’ve worked on many outstanding trees, from the most surprising places and people, while seeing the landscape as I drive the highways and backroads, trying to get to my next tree. It’s amazing, this country, the USA, from the roads that are mere feet from both the mountain top and the valley’s beginning, (you can’t go up cuz the road don’t go there, but it’s just a quick turn down into the abyss), to the cornfields that are as flat as a two day old cola in the summer heat of the heartland.
Both the abyss and the rows of corn seem like they don’t end, but stretch off into infinity. And you’d lose yourself whether you go down either.
I didn’t have to go far this time. The tree came to The Nook itself actually. This is Doug’s tree, a good friend. Famous for the Hippie Dad bonsai page and he’s making a name for himself in the bonsai pottery scene. He’s a good guy, questing, tolerant, ready to ask you how you’re doing, and meaning it.
The hard lesson to learn about choosing branches and fronts and figuring out wiring strategies: learn what the tree is saying, not what we are saying to the tree.
This is true of all art. Michelangelo said that a block of marble already contained a shape, his job was to chop away the irrelevant pieces and reveal the rocks true form.
We can impose our will upon a tree. We can try to be technically correct. We can follow classical rules.
Or we can let the tree be a tree, with all those written rules known, but knowing that they are general principles, not shackles.
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible”
T. E. Lawrence
What does that mean? Why are the daydreamers dangerous?
Where do we begin? To paraphrase a zen philosophy, “before the beginning, chop wood and carry water. After the beginning, chop wood and carry water”
Go through the basics. We don’t need these branches, simplify the design. The front I chose has these branches poking you in the eyeball. And no one likes that. So we edit them out.
Simplify, just two branches max at each junction.
Which branch will work better, without putting the branch through odd acrobatics, to place the branch where it goes?
Two, no more.
The trunk line is important. This will be a sumo style. Like a Hershey’s Kiss. But the best kisses still have movement.
Chop here and the trunk goes to the right.
And we get rid of these awkward branches at the first trunk chop.
Or I could make this the top. But the taper would be off. Remember, I’m going for Hershey’s Kiss style taper.
Out come the big boy tools. We could use a hand saw but masochism isn’t in my repertoire. That why I power carve, drive automobiles, and cook on a stove, not over an open fire.
I prefer gas grills too.
Here’s a video. Get some popcorn. Don’t watch if your bonsai purity vows wont allow it. Reciprocating saws just have no place in bonsai culture.
And there you go. Timber!
Wire is called for, of course. And welcomed.
You can clip and grow, and I do. But unless you’re doing both, you’re just limiting your art.
Sometimes a man has to impose limits, especially upon himself, granted, but, why?
Guy wires? But isn’t that anathema? We should be making those perfect 45° angle wire wraps (Copper wire too, cuz we are serious bonsai guys…….) Sure, why not? And that’s a true question. If it works, it works. This is the first styling for the tree. It’s not ready for show. A guy wire holds the branch down without cutting into the branch after a summer of Florida growth.
But then we are using regular wiring techniques too (but not copper. Ain’t nobody got money for that on a ficus).
And here’s some clip and grow. This is called “cutting for taper”.
It’ll shoot new buds from the cut tip. Hopefully…ha hah!
Wow. That looks brutal, don’t it? Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing.
No wound sealer, or at least I don’t. Studies show that they tend to slow healing.
Doug planted the chopped top. It was too good to waste.
I think it’ll take. Sometimes the bigger the cutting, the easier it will grow roots. More sugars are in a chunk of wood than a small cutting, and sometimes that makes all the difference.
The tree was recently posted on the socials and someone said that the trunk chop is my trademark.
I feel that could be true, but not because I’m willing to do one, but because I’m able to do it, and I know why it’s necessary to do it.
And each technique takes us to a destination we need to go, whether technique is the trunk chop or wiring. The journey is the lesson, the arrival too. And what comes after.
Now it needs to grow.
Doug must live by these three words: Wait, wait, wait.
Oh! And: Keep it green, Doug. That’s a good tip.
Sometimes I think I should have been a chef. The work is fast, creative, bombastic, and even if you screw up a recipe, unless it’s burnt black and inedible, it’s consumption will continue life.
Food is food, even bad food. I mean, we as a young species used to huddle around a fire, the jackals and scavengers at our backs, hiding in the night, and we’d be gnawing at some haunch of an animal, which meant a successful day at the hunt, the flesh half charred and half raw, and, as long as we filled our bellies, we could survive until the next evening.
As the cook for my family I think I do well enough (I once was traveling up north, tired from hacking on some trees, and I was talking with my family. My oldest son takes the phone from my wife and asks me when I was coming home. I asked him, my heart filling, if he missed me and he said that I needed to come home to cook, as mom wasn’t doing very well), but I couldn’t work in a restaurant now. As Anthony Bourdain says often, cooking is a young man’s game. I couldn’t keep up, I’m too broken and tired. But I can feed my family. Tony says that cooks are doing God’s work. Feeding bellies and continuing life. That might be all that matters.
One last question: Is it worth it?
With all things equal, and at the end of the day, for bonsai, even if it’s just watering the nursery, or pruning one single errant branch, that works for me.