Fine Bonsai
Art & Nature
William N. Valavanis
Jonathan M. Singer, Photographer

(Abbeville Press Publishers)
A bonsai doesn't exactly look like that fir tree in your backyard shrunk down to size, nor the loblolly next door turned into a dwarf, or the black oak down the street in miniature. No --- a bonsai looks more like a torrey pine along the Pacific shoreline that's been blasted by the winds of March for the last seventy years, bent-over, doubled back on itself, bark torn away and worn, limbs twisted every whichaway ... but they're only 30 inches tall.

You take this clipping from a perfectly normal black pine --- say --- and stick it in a bitty pot, with a handfull of dirt and stone and porous rock, and set it off in the corner of the garden or near a window in your house. You come and look at it every day (one of my friends even talks to hers, like that old song, remember, "I talk to the trees / But they don't listen to me.")

You care for it, spritz it some, trim it on occasion. Be sure it gets sun, and when it has reached a certain size, you take the clips to it, pin on a wire or a stick or both ... set it so the tree will grow the way you want it to grow, not how it wants to grow. A little arbolistic tyranny, no?

I must confess I have some reservations about this business of taking a plant or a seed and watching it grow and then you "train" it like a soldier or a dog. But there is something going on here ... and it is supremely well represented here. The tiny trees have come into their own in this huge tome, a book that weighs in at 10 pounds, size 12" by 15", crammed with 300 full-size shots.

Fine Bonsai is not only a work of art, its a work of passionate intensity and love, and it is so huge --- in construction and passion --- that you can't help being smitten. I had to lay it out on its own table, and spend a few hours poring over it. After a while, I was a goner.

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How long does it take to create Bonsai? Anywhere from five, ten, or twenty years ... to a millennium. No kidding. The oldest one we found in this collection is a Sargent Juniper named "Kami No Yashiro" (they name these babies, like dogs or racehorses) located in Saitama City, Japan. For being so old and hoary it's not all that big: a little over two-and-a-half feet tall. The trunk is swirly, like a swirl of a storm wave. Age: estimated at 800 years. That means that "Kami No Yashiro" was just a bit of a seed before Dante conceived his bottom-up view of the world, long before the Tale of Genji, ... perhaps coming to fruition at the same time that Beowulf was being written out by the monks in their cloister. Even before Chaucer started his pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury "Kami No Yashiro" was starting on his journey.

Humans have spent whole lives constructing these living works of art, weaving subtlety and texture directly into nature. Consider a Juniper named "Seifu." It's twenty-six inches tall, most of the trunk desiccated, bone white, beautiful in twist with a slim reddish-brown section that provides water and nutrient to the upper part of the plant. It lives in Tokyo, in the Shunka-en Bonsai Museum, and since I have a yen, if I could rustle up the yen I would like to visit Seifu at home, look at him (or her) for a couple of hours. Under the tiny cap of greenery, this bark, this trunk, this wave of wood with its various outcroppings that remind me of a storm, a lightning flash; or maybe we can see it as representing the very bend and twist of our own lives, you and I as we age, the turns and twists of our bodies, a living essence that --- in Seifu --- was coming into being as Beethoven was writing his Ninth, Schubert penning "Death and the Maiden," Keats dying of the White Plague there on the Spanish Steps of Rome.

Some of these plants are downright weird. There's a Bald Cypress that is, truly, not only bald, it's damn near naked, looks like the aftermath of an attack from Agent Orange. Turns out it's deciduous, so we may have to visit him some other time to see him at his best. He lives in Federal Way, Washington. Have you ever been to Federal Way? It's like Rahway or Altoona or Fresno or Dallas on a bad day. But evidently, from those on displayed here, Federal Way is a hotbed of bonsai collectors, home to the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection. There are nine such bonsai gardens listed in Fine Bonsai where you can go just to look at these miniatures.

The monster bonsai of them all is a Trident Maple who also resides in Federal Way. This one is seven feet tall, but he has a good excuse. His owner, Toichi Domoto, was shipped off to an internment camp by those nitwits in the 1940s version of Homeland Security, during WWII. Domoto couldn't tend it for four years, but maples can be tough: it grew right through the box, took root in the ground, and thus survived to appear here, lovely and leafy and somewhat lachrymose (being separated from your owner can do that to you if you are a good bonsai) to finally appear in this book.

Second tallest is a Blue Atlas Cedar, but she cheats: she has been encouraged to grow sideways and downwards, reaching out of her tiny container some five-and-a-half feet towards the ground. According to the author, Blue Atlas got to where she is by continual "pinching" --- not pinching like you would try on a geisha, but on the foliage to make it mass downwards. And actually no one in their right mind would pinch a geisha, and I'm not so sure I would ever pinch a bonsai, especially one this old (she's seventy if she's a day).

For smallest bonsai, it's a tie between an English Ivy at the Huntington Museum or a Star Jasmine at the Omiya Jasmine Village, Japan. Both of them come in at just over fifteen inches. The gaudiest (in my opinion) is the Kirishima Azalea, drenched in gorgeous tiny blossoms. The homeliest? It looks like a green triangle, and it is a Trident Maple. This poor baby had to put up with endless pinchings to build "a dense crown of small foliage." It occurs to me that these people torture their plants to make them stay with the program.

Take the lovely Japanese Spindle in Rochester N.Y. whose dainty red fruits are not even permitted to be eaten but are left there on the tree. "In early autumn the fruits become plump and slowly open, revealing a bright orange seed in the center of each." The author tells us the original cutting was purchased in Seattle. "and has been completely container grown and trained." Potty trained, too? Yes. It is potted in a lovely dark blue, nearly black-glazed Chinese container "to provide extra contrast with the fruit." Who is to free this tormented orphan bonsai?

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So here we have a scandal finally revealed in this elegant volume. Instead of being titled Fine Bonsai, it might well have been named Abusing Your Cedar. An artist by the name of Shen Shaomin has documented the brutalities inflicted on these inoffensive plants. Shaomin's on-line illustrations show the machinery by which these plants are forced into bizarre positions, shapes and configurations. "Wire cable, clamps, metal plates are used to 'torture' each bonsai tree into strange positions," he writes. His images at

are shocking: he shows twenty-two tiny instruments of torture (pliers, twisters, cages, splints, scrapers and points) that are used on a benign hinoki cypress, an innocent black pine, a gentle border privet, a shy juniper. Then there is an oriental photinia, an unassuming red-leaf hornbeam, a bashful trident maple, a frail japanese beautyberry, a quiet firethorn, a hoary hornbeam, a lonely Japanese snowbell cedar or black pine shown forced into confinement in a teeny pot with scarcely room for its crowded little roots ... constantly being jabbed and punched and trimmed and twisted, perhaps even being scolded when it tries to escape its little prisons.

The American Nurserymen's Association should take action at once, report the widespread abuse aimed at these innocent plants who have, we are certain, done no wrong. We suggest, no, we demand that The Ladies Garden Clubs of America, The Men's Garden Clubs of America, The National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies, The Future Farmers of America and all 4-H Clubs unite to take arms, rise up in force, move into action --- issue a trumpet call to save our trees from what we now know to be Bonsai Bondage.

We plant lovers should unite, too, to praise Abbeville Press for issuing this manifesto --- a ten pound "J'accuse," a call to arms --- citing these who are, as we speak, inventing new tortures for these innocent plantlings, whose only crime is that they tried to Grow Free ... but are now subject to treely bondage, forbidden the height they deserve, kept down by these arboltrary masochists.

All they are asking --- and all we should ask for them --- is that they be permitted to stand tall once again, with dignity and justice for all.

--- Pamela Wylie
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