For The Love Of Bonsaiby Attila Soos
Bonsai is as much part of my life as is coffee, chill-out music and public radio. It seems like it always has been that way. Well, at least for the past 15 years. It was a natural evolution: I always loved nature, and living things fascinated me. The arts, in one form or another, provided a sort of backdrop to my life; a medium necessary for keeping my sanity. So, bonsai was a natural choice. What else could it be that so wonderfully combines all that is worth living for, in this journey called life?
I often wonder about how others perceive it. Are they touched by it the way I am? After all, I didn't plan to fall under its spell. It grabbed my imagination like an alligator grabs a hapless chicken, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I was never the same again, after that moment.
It certainly can't be that I am amongst the select few, fascinated by them. I have nothing special that in others would be in short supply. There are millions who love nature and enjoy things of beauty. Millions own pets and love to care for plants. So, how come the love of bonsai is such a rarity amongst us?
In order to find some answers, I sought and received help and advice from a number of friends on this website.
Firstly, I made an attempt to define the segment of population who would most likely enjoy owning a bonsai.
There were two broad groups, defined by their answers. The first group are those I will call the optimists. They believe that a large portion of our society belongs in this category: anyone who loves the beauty of nature and trees in particular; anyone with a passion for horticultural pursuits and a basic understanding of art. The second group had quite a different view. They argued that bonsai is the privilege of a select few. They listed wealth, time, patience and exquisite taste as requirements. This would exclude most of the masses.
I belong to the first group.Illustration by David Loughran
There is a question that will inevitably arise... for those of us who would enjoy owning a bonsai, do we need to know how to create or maintain one? Obviously, we need to know how to keep it alive. But beyond that, is it really necessary to know how to prune, bend and shape a bonsai?
The overwhelming majority of opinions maintained that beyond a very basic horticultural knowledge, we don't need to be learned in the craft of bonsai. We could always get someone to do the maintenance for us. The cost would vary according to quality, but it would likely be very affordable.
There are a few who beg to differ: maintenance services are few and far between. We need to do it all by ourselves.
It is true that in some areas there is very little in the way of help. But in the urban areas, I don't see this as a problem. The bonsai nurserymen I know would be more than happy to help with maintenance. Some would charge a few dollars; others would do it for free, in the hope of repeat business.
I believe that this is one of those misconceptions perpetuating the status of bonsai as a mere curiosity: the belief that we need to know how to create bonsai. We, most of us, don't know how to properly maintain our cars, preserve our works of art, nor maintain many other things we own. But we can always find someone who can do it for us.
I believe that keeping a bonsai happy is just as easy, if not considerably easier, than owning a pet. To some, this may sound absurd but the majority of those whom I asked share my belief, on this issue. Of course, there is a minor problem with this survey... those asked were all experienced with bonsai. And this suspicion was reinforced by my survey: people with less experience leaned toward perceiving bonsai as more difficult.
Here is the reality as I see it. Bonsai requires very little effort. It takes less effort than keeping any pet. All one needs is a little specialized knowledge. This knowledge is essential, but once a person has it, there are few things easier. People who don't know these basic skills see it as very difficult. For them, it would be easier to run a marathon: it takes a lot of work, but at least you know how to run. Bonsai for them is largely a big, blank unknown.Illustration by David Loughran
Having worked through these questions, let's assume that we have arrived to this conclusion: Bonsai can potentially be enjoyed by a large segment of the population and bonsai are relatively easy to keep alive and healthy. This is a reasonable assumption, although there are a few opinions to the contrary. Why should it be, then, that ownership of bonsai is so rare?
The number one hurdle mentioned by those asked is lack of knowledge; lack of education. And I must agree with that. Bonsai are perceived as something that is difficult to be kept alive. Other reasons mentioned were lack of time; lack of money; lack of suitable support systems; lack of commitment; and cultural reasons.
On the question of lack of education, I must agree. This is a big one.
Firstly, let me address the other reasons:Time.
How long it takes to water 3 plants? 1 minute each day? How about fertilizing twice a month? Let's be real. Yes, it might take some time to visit your nursery a few times a year, but this should be the fun part.Lack of money
. Here is a suggestion: You can acquire a reasonable bonsai for the price of a family dinner. For maintenance: the price of a movie ticket for two. This is of course a starter bonsai, but it could be a great start for a lot of people. Is that cost beyond the reach of most middle class income earners or retirees?Lack of support system
. The biggest problem is not the lack of help. The problem here is that people don't know where to get help. They simply don't know whom they should ask.Lack of commitment
. Yes, that would be a problem. But if you don't care, you shouldn't have one anyway. Stick with your chia pet
. Bonsai is associated with the Asian, and particularly Japanese, cultures. This is an attraction to some, who may have a real fascination for the Far East. It is also an attraction to the snobs, happy to show off a certain degree of sophistication. It is a turn-off to those nationalists who believe in the superiority of their own culture. But I believe that the solution to the cultural barrier is, again, education. We need to de-Orientalize bonsai and make it our own.
And so I came to the end of this exercise, and time for a few closing thoughts. At the risk of offending a few, I believe that the main problem with making bonsai more popular lies within ourselves, those who practice bonsai. Bluntly put, we bonsai practitioners are discouraging the average person who might wish to own a bonsai. We are the problem, not the solution. For those who still don't get it: We are our own worst enemy!
I drew this conclusion from my observations, after attending many bonsai conventions and exhibits and countless club meetings, in many different places.Illustration by Will Heath
We are going to great lengths to preserve an aura of mystery around bonsai: instead of presenting them as common plants, not unlike the hundreds of plants people keep at their homes, we show them as an oriental tradition. Instead of saying, "This is an apple tree from my grandmother's backyard.
", we say, "This is a valuable Japanese miniature tree.
" People have no idea that this is an ordinary apple tree, in a pot. If they knew, everything would change.
Whenever I go to a large exhibit, I see nothing but demonstrations.
How many times do you go to your local art gallery to see an artist demonstrate to the audience how he created his paintings or sculptures? Demos are for a select few who want to improve on their technical skills or want to learn how to create bonsai. But what about the masses who would be happy to learn how to keep them alive and healthy?
I believe that instead of trying to recruit hobbyists, we should do much more in terms of educating people. The exhibits would be the place to demonstrate the basics of horticulture, a knowledge that every person should have. To show people how and when to water bonsai. To teach people about the native species growing in their own backyard, and how they can grow them as bonsai. To teach them about basic soil requirements. To dispel all the blatant and ridiculous misconceptions, such as the one I heard a few weeks ago, stating that bonsai lives only a few weeks.
Just like any other art form, bonsai can't exist as a viable business without patrons; people who are not interested in creating them, but are willing to spend money in order to enjoy them. As it stands right now, we are the creators and consumers as well: a totally inbred, closed society. We need to reach out to these potential consumers. And perpetuating the mentality that buying finished bonsai, instead of creating, is a way of cheating, doesn't exactly help.
Of course, doing the above would be far less glamorous and exotic than putting on a headband and kimono, and performing some hitherto unseen techniques on a tree, just like doing a martial arts demonstration. But, instead of instantly forgetting everything they saw at the demo, and dismissing bonsai as "Oriental mumbo-jumbo", people would leave with some commonsense knowledge that they could apply in their own backyard.
Let's do the demos in the back rooms, for the benefit of those who are already committed to the hobby. Let's start educating the masses about what bonsai really is about. It is not about rules and culture. More than anything, it is playing and having fun with real trees. The ones that grow in your backyards. And if we pay attention, and take care, they can live for a long, long time.