Critique: Walter Pall's Japanese Maple
By Vance Wood
On March 15 of this year Walter Pall posted a picture of his now world famous Japanese Maple. Not apologizing for my ignorance for not seeing this tree before; this was my first time. Needless to say I was awe struck. I have seen some really nice and, yes, spectacular Japanese Maples before but this one has done something in my mind that none previous have ever come close to.
In bonsai we are told that one of the major goals of the art form is to represent and visually sell the idea of great age. Usually this is done by designing a tree that looks like it has been beaten to death by the elements like Rocky Balboa in the boxing ring with King Kong. Dead wood elements, split trunks, twisted branches and torn bark are often employed to give the impression of age. These things work well in their place and do give the illusion of age if done well. The problem here is that seldom are these elements used with the Japanese Maple except when parts of the tree has died on its own.
Generally, at least from my visual experience based on numerous publications, age is not a major element in the display of a Japanese Maple like it would be with a Spruce or a Pine or a Juniper. Maples usually have beautiful and clean looking trunks with a bit of movement in them, crowned by lovely, beautiful shaped and colored leaves; the crowing glory of the J. Maple bonsai.
Then comes fall and winter when the leaves turn color and the J. Maple once more takes center stage with fire-works displays of blazing colors running the entire spectrum of visible light that thrills the viewer at a time when everything else is shutting down for winter. Just when you thought the show was over, there is a wonderful display of structure; fine twigs, branches and shapes, that were not visible before. They become a dance of movement celebrating the engineering prowess of Mother Nature and the bonsai grower's ability to understand her way and work with it.
Because of the wonderful things available to please the eye and tickle the imagination with these trees few growers approach the subject of age, it becomes an almost non-sequiter, and most would not consider it an issue or give it a second thought. However; Walter's Maple has crossed the line and gone into this area not trodden before without devises and concocted elements using carving tools and chemical treatments. He has imparted the element of age into this tree just by using a form seen in nature all of the time, but not common with J. Maples. I am going to save that little bit of revelation for last and I am going to preface it with some other information.
First of all most of the Japanese Maples I have seen growing in my environment are most likely less than fifty years old. According to Dir, the Japanese Maple was not introduced to western culture until the 1820's, so it probably did not become much cultivated in the Americas before the Nineteenth-Century. That leaves this country with the possibility of a few centurion trees but none that I know of or have seen.
I have never seen pictures of very old J. Maples from the country of origin posted anywhere, and most of the Maples that have some age on them tend to be twiggy and sparse with snake like trunks; typical under story trees. So; how does one portray an aged Japanese Maple without trying to make it look like a Shimpaku with Maple leaves? It comes down to the world of plausibility.
Plausibility is defined as giving the deceptive impression of truth, acceptability or validity. In other words it is the art of "What If?" made believable through an artful execution of the foundation premise. This particular maple is the best manifestation of the principle of "What I" I have ever seen. This of course begs the question; "which "What I" are you talking about?" There are a few things I know, or think I know, about Japanese Maples. It is my belief from what I have read that most members of the species are mountain trees and under-story trees. As such they are not likely to reach great age, or great size.
The "What I" I am referring to is the question: What would happen if a Japanese Maple found a home in some secluded valley without competition, with just the right conditions and was allowed to grow without any kind of outside intervention either from man or nature? Is it possible that it could grow to great size and great power? Probably not, but is it plausible? I say yes and Walter has proved it so.
The artist of this magnificent tree has turned around on the standard practices of ageing a tree to look like nature has beaten it near to death, to ageing a tree by showing what would happen if the tree thrived under all the right conditions. Because of this it has grown old and large and powerful, way beyond the normal life span of the species. The tree has been designed into the form more associated with an ancient Beech, a form I am well familiar with, reaching out for maybe a hundred feet and possible just as tall. It appears to stand strong in its valley the master of all it surveys, a haven for hundreds of birds and broad enough at the base that two men cannot reach around it and touch each other. This is an amazing image and a significant accomplishment in the art of bonsai.
In an era where we are obsessed with dead wood displays and contorted ever-greens beaten by nature Walter has created an image of the magnificence of nature allowed to complete her work without interference, catastrophe, competition or human intervention to fulfill the design placed within the tree's DNA before it sprouted from seed; the end game in realizing the possibilities available under the right conditions. As is the case in most bonsai that particular effort of realizing the possibilities available is one of great hard ship, all of the wrong conditions; an exercise in survival and the drama it presents. No one has ever come at this element of age from this direction before.
As a never ending student of bonsai I would suggest that an understanding of this tree's design could add a significant approach and understanding to any aspiring bonsai grower on the planet.