After all that work on other people’s trees these last few posts, I finally get to play with one of my own.
And I’ll share it with you. Including all the random stuff that goes through my head, of course.
I picked up this fat little tiger bark ficus from a one of my Ft. Myers Studygroup students, Deb. From what she told me, she got it from an employee of Wigert’s Bonsai. Not from Wigert’s, mind you, but from an employee. Not sure where he got it, maybe from Wigert’s, but it’s not styled like it was from Erik, so it’s not a Wigert’s tree. So the tree was from a student, who got it from a Wigert’s employee, who could have gotten it from his work, but it’s not a product of his work. And I think that guy, the employee is named John. Or Jon. But not Juan, or Ian.
Anyway, the tree is now mine, and I kinda have an idea (but not really) of the hands it’s gone through until it came to me. But I do have a guess where it originated. Which is a different kind of story. There’s where you were made and how you got where you are. I’m more inclined to believe you are the how and less the where, and your true roots are the growth away from the place of germination. When we grow our roots and stretch our branches they go away from the spot where our first seed-leaves broke soil.
Now, this origin story is a little bit speculation and mostly hearsay, but, I think this particular variety, which grows with a fat base, heals wounds quickly, has good leaf size, and just looks cool, was a variety discovered or developed in China, and, about 20 years ago, the American bonsai master, Suthin Sukosolvisit, who’s from Thailand but lives in Massachusetts now, brought a limited batch into the USA. I heard that story from another customer who had given me a specimen a few years ago (which I ended up selling to a lady in Ohio, by the name of Darlene).
Just to confuse you all (if I haven’t done it well enough already) Suthin lives about 3 miles from where I grew up, and Deb is also from Massachusetts. But neither she or I did bonsai when we lived up there, but the distances and circumstances of the origin of this tree and how it came from China to Massachusetts and through several hands to Florida in Ft. Myers (which is peopled by a lot of Ohioans) and then to me is very interesting. The concept is called synchronicity.
The reason I know it grows a fat base by itself (genetically, that is) is I have cuttings off of the original one I had (that’s in Ohio with Darlene) that are like fat little eggs. Pretty neat, right.
Getting back to our specimen (it’s about time!!) I’m thinking it might be ready for some serious branch editing. Which might be daunting for many, but there’s a reason I have a chainsaw drawing laser-etched on my tools…..
The branch above is a mature branch, with secondary branches and all that, but it has to go. First, it’s directly across from a better branch and it’s technically growing on the inside curve of the trunk line.
If you’ve been in bonsai for a while, you’ll have heard that a branch shouldn’t be on the inside curve of a trunk. It’s a pretty standard styling principle. You hear it from people like Suthin down to that Facebook bonsai group troll that just kinda raises his head up drunkenly from the table and says,
“Yeah, like , you know that’s wrong, duh, dude!” And never explains why.
And here you’re wondering why, right? Well, I’m gonna tell you why.
First, horticulturally, a branch tends not to grow inside a the curve because it’s usually shaded, and shade tends to dissuade growth. Plants need sun and if a branch is shaded, the tree tends to kill off that branch. Second, if a tree does manage to make it inside the curve, and it does happen, the structure is compromised and tends to break off in storms.
Now, artistically, which is at least half of the practice of bonsai (some bonsai people would say more, but the tree should survive our barbaric ministrations and techniques; the only finished tree, they say, is a dead tree), a branch on the inside of a curve disrupts the line, stopping the eye from continuing its exploration of the whole tree. The line is one of the main ways we as artists compose our work of art. You’ve heard the word composition in music or poetry and writing. In the visual arts it’s the way the artist moves your eye arguing the piece of art. It can be as simple as line or as complex as color, texture, and tone values that move the eye. In bonsai it’s as simple as the old “first branch, second branch, back branch” trope you see in all the books. But in more nuanced works we can and do use texture, or line, or even color, to move the eye around the work.
This is a visual art and that means, well, you look at it. The main job of the artist is making it stand out from the rest of the trees on the table in an exhibit. Or on your backyard bench if you’ve decided never to show a tree again.
And when you have a branch in the inside of a curve (or the “line”), you disrupt that eye movement and make the tree tedious and boring to look at. Of course there are exceptions that can prove the rule, as even happens in nature, but it’s your job to make the line work, keep the composition flowing, make it interesting.
You know, there’s nothing more true than a down and dirty bass line in a funk song. A walking, reality-affirming boom-boom boom boom boom, setting the foundation and creating the world for those soaring horns with the guitars ringing out those high jazz chords: changalangalang- bass going ba-doom doom doom, high hat and sharp snare like gunshots and Gypsy dancers snapping those finger tambourines. In all art, the compositions rely on foundational concepts like a strong bass line, in time drumming and rhythmic guitars.
The line of your bonsai is one of those foundations towards good bonsai art.
There’s a good cutting.
That’ll make a nice tree in time.
You can’t see it yet, before I clean it up, but the trunk line has been greatly improved with the chop.
A few passes with the ol’ knob cutter and….
Now we have a nice line and a sweet curve. Like a Ruben or a George Clinton song.
And you can’t do that cut with a pair of Felco secateurs, so go out and get some good bonsai tools.
Just a little more smoothing and that’ll be nice.
The leaves on this variety are a little thicker than the regular ficus microcarpa, and smaller generally. What they call a “more desirable” leaf shape.
And the bark color and texture shows why many call it “tiger bark”.
A better (if sideways) pic of the green clay on the current pot.
It’s tough to find anything on the internet about these green clay pots. It was made in the Tokoname area of Japan.
You know it’s older as it has a rectangle for a drain hole. I’m guessing from the seventies. But that’s just a guess.
Here’s the chop. Upside down because it’ll bug some people (there’s a running joke about people posting pics of upside down or sideways japanese bonsai chops).
I found the mark here in a series of four chops. I believe the maker is Suishouen Hekisui, or his real name was Mr Mizukami Shinji.
This is the chop as it should be, right side up.
They aren’t worth much but they are old and unique and that green clay body intrigues me.
My collection so far. I’m talking about the pot and it’s history and aesthetics and all that but the funny thing is I’m not going to use it for this tree. More on that later though.
With most arts, we have physical objects, like marble busts, or books, or stretched canvases that can last almost forever.
A Bonsai tree, as an art piece, though it can be passed down, is still an impermanent thing. It’s a living organism that will die. But we do have pottery.
One of the oldest trees in the USA, that’s been continually trained as a bonsai, from seed to the magnificent piece it is now, is called the Yamaki Pine. It’s almost 400 yrs old.
Stunning in person, but even more stunning when you hear its history.
The tree was grown from seed, germinated all those years ago, and owned by a single family, The Yamaki, for at least six generations. That’s a lot of passing down to the next generation. It was a part of a gift from Japan to the USA for the USA’s bicentennial celebration in 1976.
The most amazing thing, beyond a family keeping a tree alive for that long, is that it survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In fact, it was only two miles away from ground zero. Then, in a show of friendship and continued peace with the USA, Japan gave the pine to us. Could you do that to an enemy that totally defeated you and humiliated your spirit?
Getting back to our ficus, which though it doesn’t have the age, it does have a history I have (kinda) related to you.
Just a light repot. It’s late summer/early fall here in Central Florida, which really means second spring to us. The nights are in the high 60’sF (15-20c) and will hold like that until December. Repotting of tropicals should occur so that you have at least 6 weeks of consistent above 60f (15c) nighttime temps (or you can provide that at the root zone) to allow for optimal root growth and recovery.
A slight raking out and now we get down to the pot choices.
It’s these small choices and routine things like repotting or wiring that make up the Art of bonsai. Like the old Zen teaching, before all else, chop wood and carry water.
I didn’t start bonsai as a vocation to be the best or the brightest. I did it because it was the only passion that I had left after leaving a bad job.
Many who begin in bonsai want to be the next rockstar, and I can understand that mentality. But I read a book when I was but a young lad that made me understand a bit about the “second-handers” who don’t want you to succeed and that made me wary.
I travel a lot, and as the anticipation builds for the trip, and the work it involves, which is not just the actual dirty physical bonsai work but the part I play, the character I have to represent not just for one or two hours but for four days straight sometimes, I get exhausted before I even leave.
But then, when I’m doing it, the actual job gives me energy. Enough to make it through the trip and back home, at least.
Let’s talk pots. I look at all types of art and I try to be inspired by those pieces. In bonsai, the Art is technically a marriage between the tree and the pot but it’s also a narrative form. The main story is “tree” but we have ways of making those stories more interesting.
Carving, or twisty trunks, branches, and taper or fractal spacing of leaf pads.
But then we have the pot. We are constrained a bit by the limited “canvas” of the pot, or the “frame”, as some call it.
Bonsai is Art and Horticulture, so the vessel, or container, or pot, must be aesthetically pleasing and effective in the composition and the scale, but it must also be able to sustain life.
Let’s look at our options today.
I like the two shallow pots two pictured above, but I don’t think, horticulturally, they will work right now. Maybe if the tree is ever in a show I’d find a good pot that’ll work that’s only about a pinky’s width deep. I think low fat ficus with spreading canopies go very well with insanely shallow pots. But I also happen to think that McDonald’s Quarter Pounder With Cheese is the best burger they make as opposed to the Big Mac. It’s pure beef, minimal toppings, and more evocative as a burger, especially since they’ve starting cooking them to order too. The Big Mac is just….ew.
What I’m saying is that taste has much to do with bonsai aesthetics. Bonsai dilettantes think that what they’ve been taught or told is bonsai law. And it is true that many principles of bonsai design (like the “no branch on the inside curve” one) help to make better trees. And as I described above, many of the “rules” have both an aesthetic and a horticultural reason. Which brings us nicely (as though I was composing this essay with intent and not just rambling, even) to the selection of the pot.
If you compare all four pots I’ve set out to choose from you can get an idea of what each style, construction, and color do for the tree.
Pot one:This one goes well with the style and shape the tree has.
Pot two:This one is one of those two shallow ones. You can see how shape (oval) and depth really set off the trees trunk thickness and line. I like the width too. It’ll be good for the tree to grow into.
Pot three:This pot is the second shallow one. It might be even better. The color is a grey, understated glaze.
Pot four:This pot is probably better horticulturally, being deeper. And classically its depth is more correct (meaning the pots depth should be about 1-1/2 times the trunks thickness. If this were a black pine it might be perfect, as a pine needs better drainage and a deeper pot provides it). But the more shallow a pot is, the bigger the trunk looks, and a ficus can survive and even thrive in a more shallow pot.
The pot I’m choosing is the first one. It’s the right shape, and a compromise between the deep and the shallow (like listening to Gordon lightfoot as opposed to KC and the Sunshine Band-a shallow example, or Harry Chapin, deep. This is a nice Carly Simon song, poppy but with feeling).
I like it…..for now.
Here’s how I really work a tree, when no one is looking.
First, I prune off all I don’t need. Taking each branching to only two at each point. And choosing branches so that there are no ups or downs, or crotch growth, and I’ll cut to taper and for movement.
Next, I’ll remove most of the leaves, but preserving maybe one of the leaves, if the branch seems weak. Think of like how you siphon gas out of your neighbors car at the end of the month and your bank account is empty. The one leaf helps to move the energy to the tip of the branch.
This is when I’m most brutal. You thought that first branch removal above was rough, but it’s here where the tree loses most of its biomass.
Denuded, as they say. Seems harsh but this tree, at this time, can take it. It even seems as though it stimulates it. But that’s a debate for another blog post.
Now the wire comes out. Bondage. My favorite part.
I relate it to when I begin an oil painting, or start a carving. All the under-sketching has been done, now it’s time to layer or chop away at the piece. It’s intense, physical, sometimes manic.
If it’s painting, I’m slapping the paint on the canvas, blocking out the sky and the earth. If it’s a carving, the material is flying, as I take away everything that doesn’t belong.
With wire, it’s wrapping, twisting. Trying to figure out the third piece of wire on a branch before I even have the first wrap layer down. The strategy is the same: the blocks of color, the material removal, the foundational wiring. All these things bring me closer to the final touches which make the piece what I want it to be. I’ve heard that people take their time doing this, but I rarely do the wiring over several sessions. I need the maniacal wiring to be done in one frenzied stretch, with no interruptions. It’s exhausting at times.
But it’s invigorating too. It’s what I live for.
At this moment, as I look at the tree, tweaking each branch until it’s just right, this is my favorite bonsai.
But I say that about them all.
The next one I work tomorrow night will be my favorite too.
But for now, as I sit back and look, sipping my beer and bourbon, puffing a stogie maybe, this one tree, beyond all the other hundreds I own, is my favorite.
Do you remember when you were a kid, laying in the sweet warm grass of summertime, looking up at the clouds and turning the amorphous masses into animals in your imagination; maybe a dragon chasing a unicorn or a bunny hopping along, eyes to the sky and the hawks hunting it, and you see a high altitude jet, so high you think it’s transparent or made of glass or something, is shooting across the sky with a contrail marking its path? I always wondered if they could see me, so I’d wave as big and wide as I could, in case they were looking down on me laying there, in that sweet, sweet grass of childhood.
When I’m done with a tree, exhausted from the labor, the work, and I’m sitting back like this, I might not be waving, but I am nodding my head in acknowledgement to the tree, thanking it for letting me watch it fly, tracking across my sky like that high altitude jet of all those years ago, soaring across the blue.
Take time to sit and watch.