Darwinism on Bonsai Forumsby Will HiltzIllustration by Will Heath using open license images
On the BonsaiSite forums, a recent thread started by a newbie with a dying serissa was high-jacked by another newbie, who voiced the common complaint that the old timers had not been nurturing, kind, or patient with the serissa owner. We’ve all heard this before, but this time it began to resonate with a number of seemingly unrelated observations that have been bouncing around in my mind for years now. These observations seemed like they were trying to coalesce around some unified theory to explain why experienced bonsai folks, who are generally nice people, so often seem like such an ornery sub-species of humans, especially when interacting with newbies on the internet.
1. An acquaintance of mine, Robert Cho, is the owner and operator of Asia Pacific Gardening in Kent, WA. For about a decade he has probably imported at least a hundred thousand small bonsai yearly from China for distribution to malls and other such outlets. He has several major and many smaller competitors who do the same. Between those who receive these trees as gifts, and those who buy them for themselves because bonsai seems like a “neat” hobby, there may be perhaps a million or so new bonsai enthusiasts, or at least owners created each year. Many of these make it to the various bonsai-related forums, either lurking or joining in.
2. Unlike forums related to other hobbies/arts/obsessions, those related to bonsai are very prone to old timer posts that more tender people, especially newbies, regard as nasty and not nurturing.
3. The rough exterior and apparent arrogance displayed initially by many of the bonsai greats I've met quickly fades once they realize a person is not just wasting their time.
4. This art is only partially about nurturing trees. It most often utilizes nurturing only to the extent that this it is necessary to ensure survival while the artist imposes unnatural manipulations and injuries to the tree.
5. At the highest levels of the art, trees are mostly valued to the extent that they reflect trees in nature that have survived incredible hardships and trauma, and bear the scars and character of such ancient survivors.
6. Dan Robinson often tells the story of a revelation he had years ago when viewing a diorama at a natural history museum in Victoria, where a 60 year old native Red Alder was depicted. The sign explained what Dan calls "The Harsh Reality"- that of the 20 million seedlings this tree had produced during its life, only two had survived beyond twenty years.
So I wonder if there is perhaps a natural tendency by bonsai old timers and masters, who admire the gnarly character of "ancient survivors" in the tree world, to unconsciously "cull the herd" in this hobby by creating a harsh environment that fosters natural selection - thus weeding out those tender young seedlings who would never survive anyway. If only two in 20 million survive the rigors of nature to become majestic specimens, (and the numbers in bonsai may not be that far off), why should we expect people who admire this natural process, and the admirable results of its apparent cruelty, to go out of their way to protect or coddle those who have not yet proven their strength and will to survive in this difficult way of life we call bonsai?