As I go through my day, working on trees or just making soup, there’s an ever present question on my mind. That question is: “Why?” Especially of late, but that’s a rabbit hole I won’t go down today.
It’s a tough question to answer,”Why?”. Most people mistake my online moniker “Adamaskwhy” as meaning that you can ask me “why?” and I’ll tend to answer. And that’s ok. I usually know the answer, or if I don’t, I can find it (and if I can’t find it I just might make something up).
But the real meaning behind “Adamaskwhy” stems from my propensity to ask my teachers, when I was a young and inquisitive lad, “Why?”.
For example, my teacher might expound “When drafting an exclamatory sentence, one should use simple, declaratory prose.” and I might ask, innocently, “Why?”. Now, the best teachers knew the answer. The competent ones knew where to find the answer. The average would just quote what they’ve been taught. The worst would say “just because”.
Obviously, from the preceding paragraph, I didn’t take the lesson of short declarative sentences to heart. Mainly because, sometimes, obfuscation and evasion is the quickest path to The Truth. But, more importantly, I don’t want my style to sound like The Old Man and the Sea (“….here is a bonsai. It curves to the left, then to the right.” I’m more of a “.. The blue sky paints the cream glazed pot with streaks of azure. The sun silhouettes the canopy like an umbrella, shading the mossy soil. The old, sun-browned man, wizened eyes staring at the green foliage, raises his shears and snips at a dry branch…..”).
Needless to say, many of my past teachers did not appreciate the question “Why?”. Truth be told, many teachers can’t answer the question. They feel that, just because they are the teacher, their teaching is inviolate, sacred, and not to be questioned. And the more narrow the focus of the lesson, the more pedantic and authoritarian the teacher becomes. As an example, let’s say the lesson is on bonsai soil, (just to bring bonsai into this essay, since this is a bonsai blog after all), the reasoning style usually used by bonsai professionals is Reasoning from Authority. They’ll say “so and so uses such and such, and they are so and so, therefore it’s correct. Or, depending on the particular pedant flailing his hands around whilst lecturing, the verbiage becomes a word salad of technical jargon with one needing a degree in soil mechanics to understand just what they are saying.
Anywho, why (heh) am I “why-ing” now? Well, dear reader, I recently posted a video in the social media webosphere concerning a certain willow leaf ficus, and what I did to the poor thing. This one to be precise:
Now, with such a raw piece of stock, I could’ve done all kinds of things to it. The scene: Ikebana Club international, Orlando Florida. This is my fourth visit to this Ikebana club. My visit usually consists of me bringing starter trees (in todays case, willow leaf ficus) a few different choices of containers, soil, wire etc., and potting, styling those trees, or re-potting members trees from past sessions. Irene, who’s been to all of them, decided to get two willow leaf this time. The first one we wired up and made into an informal-upright. The second one….well, you can see below what happened to it….
As you might have noticed, we chopped it. And Irene was right there with me on the decision to do it. It was actually her idea. It’s a drastic technique, for sure, somewhat controversial, as dramatic as my teenage boys trying to get through a Fortnight Battle, and, in my case, it makes me look badass for how casual I can do it, with just a pair of scissors.
You see, many people may misunderstand the decision to do a trunk chop. Let’s go through another willow leaf (below) and the decision tree (no pun intended) used to decide when and if to trunk-chop a tree.
Below: Hand for scale. Ficus salicaria, the willow leaf fig. It belongs to Mike, who’s visiting from the Naples area. The tree is a stock tree from Wigert’s Nursery in North Ft Myers. It has a fair sized base (nebari) and a good sized trunk. But it has little taper, the branches are way high, and it kinda looks like a slingshot. Just need a rubber band and a good rock, and we can go squirrel hunting.
Ok now, you ready? As one should, let’s begin at the beginning. You can probably guess the ending to this post, a trunk chop, but the question, the one in the title, is “Why?” Why a trunk chop?
The beginning begins with the first interrogative “What?” What is Bonsai?
Bonsai is the Art of taking a relatively small, and relatively young tree and, using various techniques and principles of art, trying to make it look like a big and old tree.
One of those principles is the one we call “Taper”. The concept of taper means that, starting at the bottom, we should start with a wide base and, as we go up the trunk, it should taper, or get skinnier, coming to a point at the top.
The tree below has some taper. It could be used to describe (style) a tree as seen from a distance. Throughout most of the history of bonsai, most trees were styled from a distant view perspective. Think of observing a tree on a mountain. But, as tastes and visions change, so has the idea of perspective. In the real world, trees have a trunk-width to tree-height of 1(trunk width) to 12-14 (trunk height). If you read the old books, it was taught that the ideal ratio was about 1-8 or 10. Today they teach 1-6. But there are extreme examples of 1-4 or even 1-1 (the so called “sumo style”). Now, I have been known to style a sumo style in the past, and, if a tree could support it, I still do. But let’s get back to Mike’s tree.
Here’s the slingshot I was talking about.
It’s not generally a good design choice to keep that. Why? Well, horticulturally, a tree in nature tends not to grow that way. Or, if it does, when a good wind storm comes along, the tree will break at the “V”. It’s physics. Artistically, a v acts as a visual stop for the viewer. Bonsai being an art, that wide V will stop your eye as it moves up and down the tree. Your eye is drawn to open spaces and you’ll be looking at what’s behind the tree and not at the tree. Your eye moving around the piece of art, as designed by the artist, is called “composition”. I could get really into it, and talk about line, form, focal point, and negative space, but I think you get the idea.
For Mike’s tree, I could remove the bigger branch, like below.
And I’d still have good taper.
I could remove the smaller branch and have a more natural taper. That’s Doug hiding between the “V” btw.
Proportion (how the limbs are arraigned as you move up a tree) would satisfy a natural looking design.
The thickness of the trunk should decrease, in shorter lengths, as you go up the tree (main trunk is longer than the next level, the middle part by about 1/2-1/3, the third part, even shorter and thinner, until you get to the top, which should be your fine twigs. This makes the tree appear as though it’s taller).
I could not cut anything and use that first branch as, well, the first branch, and wire it down. We could make a good natural style.
To give an example of keeping most of the tree, let’s go on a tangent. Here’s a tree from a club member, George
We cut out the middle and wired that slingshot.
And it’ll make a good tree, in time, as well.
Getting back to Mike’s tree, we could start over, and chop the whole thing and make an exaggerated tree with quick taper.
You can guess what we did.
We didn’t cut here
We cut even lower. Doug had to close his eyes, the horror was so extreme.
The reason why? Proportion. The first third is where the chop is. The tree now needs to grow up to have believable taper. Ultimately, we wanted (and it was a collaboration with Mike, I don’t go willy nilly chopping another person’s tree without a full discussion of what can be done with everything. Even on my trees I keep asking myself “why?”. Why cut here, why wire there, etc. )
And the real answer to the question “Why?” is that Mike wanted a smaller tree. And, with a willow leaf, we can chop it and regrow the top in short time.
Something like this is the final vision.
Here’s Mike. He took a pic, for posterity,
Here’s another of Mike’s trees we worked on that day. A Ficus Microcarpa.
It had been chopped already, and we just had to move the branches a bit.
Styling a tree is all about asking questions. “What happens if I do this?” “Will this improve or destroy the tree?” And ultimately, “Why am I doing this?”
Those questions are answered by experience, experimentation, and by people who’ve done whatever you want to do to the tree. And feel free to ask those who’ve come before. Just make sure you ask “Why?”
To finish out this essay, let me quote this (my wife is a third Dan backbeat in taekwondo, for background) it’s from a part of the taekwondo Black Belt Oath:
“…….I am a student yesterday, I am a student today, I am a student always……”
If only we all lived by just that part…..
Nice article and good advice.
Reblogged this on Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog.
love your comments. greatings from Tongeren, Belgium
“If only we all lived by just that part…..”
Thank you once again for a wonderfully entertaining and enriching learning experience.