A theme which has been playing on my mind of late is the lack of expression of youth within bonsai, not just in the West but also in modern Japan. What is that you say??? surely this is contrary to all the accepted aesthetic idea and teachings that we have drummed into us…wabi-sabi , mochikomi, patina, antiquity, bending all our branches down to make them look old, dead wood etc.
I’m a big fan of proverbs and sayings, although they can be quite trite, there is generally a truth behind them and it can spark off a train of thought which can often derail…as it did with “saruyama no taisho“. One that I read which has stayed with me is applicable to this situation i have found myself in…”You start with flowers, end with flowers…”. In a sense, this refers to the focal point of one’s interest within bonsai as you age, something which changes as experience builds up and life ebbs and flows.
As a youth, the attraction is to the bright, immediate and showy, so colourful flowers are appealing. They are easy to understand and disposable. As we age, gain power and wealth in our lives; big, powerful black pines, convoluted, deadwood heavy junipers and elephant footed maples become the focal point. Immediate and obvious impression making trees. Time passes, we grow weary and the novelty of power and wealth fades along with our vigour. Subtle trees with less showy characteristics become more and more prevalent in our thoughts; aged literati and elegant deciduous built on years of dedicated work and patience, both of which are understood better after years of suffering. Once we reach the twilight years and a profound understanding of the vagaries of life has been achieved, the spectre of death looms. At this point we come almost full circle and flowers become appealing once again.
At this point although the focal point is the same, the perspective is entirely different. A lifetime of experience and a change of priorities make the same flowers appear in a new light. When faced with the truth of human mortalilty it is inevitable to celebrate new life and the awakening of buds after the harsh winter. Although this may seem morbid, traditionally death is not to be feared in the Japanese mentality, it is not seen with the same finality as it is from a Western perspective.
So coming almost full circle, we return to the appreciation of youth, something which is really only apparent in the use of accent plants within our bonsai world. When was the last time you styled a tree with upward pointing branches? Reachng for the sun, striving to explore, grow and experience….now I am not saying we should turn our back on the traditions of bonsai, making our trees look as old as they can is as important as ever, it too has its deeper meaning, but the follies of youth should not be forgotten, they are still a part of the natural cycle, an essential part of life yet strangely overlooked in a rush to get towards the finish line. I should say that creating a tree to look young still takes time and effort and the point I am trying to make should not be confused with trees that are still young in development.
So what caused this refrigerated truck of thought to veer into conciousness? Travelling around looking at trees in their various natural habitat I have always been struck by the difference between much of the deciduous styling and natural growth habits, but the main catalyst was a chance meeting between me and a sweet and tender hawthorn. I was rooting around behind the benches of a nursery and there she sat, under a tree, surrounded by others; unappreciated because of the upward pointing branches, the slender pubescent trunk and lack of commonly accepted character. The uniqueness of it struck me and made me feel invigorated and I was moved to purchase it for further development. Moving the tree around the other day, I wish it could have invigorated me more, sadly my vigour, especially in the lower back is lacking.
Yes, I know that it is a little on the strange side and doesn’t fit in with the normal accepted side of bonsai but…well, it’s important to be at every stage on the natural cycle and if we always stay camped within our own box and show a distinct lack of adventure, then eventually we will go out on penalties.
Once the garden is finished, I will work on styling it, so expect some pictures eventually. I may even use a camera.