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The Universe in a Small Space – Art of Bonsai

2019.03.04

The word Bonsai translates as Tray Plant.  It is a popular Japanese art form, often associated with minimalism and close dedication to detail. Many regard it as a hobby for retired granddads.

If that is the case, one may be excused for wondering why are there so many Bonsai museums and merchants around the world.

Portable Wabi Sabi Scenery

An activity called Penjing, from China, is the origin of Bonsai. This is Tray Scenery, and is said to have started about 2500 years ago; by the 7th century it was considered an art form.  It had been introduced to Japan around the 10th century, and became a perfect technique for decorating alcoves called Tokonoma, especially in guestrooms.  Beautiful and imposing bonsai were combined with delicate ceramics and scrolls to create a small space in which one could, in a sense, experience the entire universe.  This practice was perfected during the height of the tea ceremony culture at the end of the 15th century.

Rules to Enjoy the Universe

It involves not merely putting any old plants on a tray.  There are certain frameworks and rules to follow.

The tray or pot and the plant must be in perfect harmony.  This combination is one of the critical aspects, and the golden rule is that evergreens, mainly pines, must be planted in unglazed pots, whereas deciduous trees, such as maples, go in glazed containers.  It is up to the artistic sense of the master to pick the perfect container for a tree – for example, one having red fruits will often go with glazed blue pots – to enhance the beauty of the plant by using balance and contrast.

The plant and pot have to have a facing side.  Any natural plant will not have a front or back as such, but for bonsai, there is one optimal angle that presents the most beautiful aspect.  In this way, the artist can decide how and in which direction it should grow its roots and branches.  It is somewhat the same as the activity of painting or sculpture.

Bonsai is to be enjoyed indoors, either in a Tokonoma alcove or on a small table. In Japanese architecture, where people must remove their shoes, it is essential to conceal raw soil, often by developing roots and branches or by growing moss.

Dearer than the Dearest

The delicate nature of Bonsai trees means that they need constant, tender loving care.

Some nature enthusiasts actually argue that Bonsai is cruel to plants.  Humans [so this line of argument goes] should leave plants to grow as they like, without being constricted into a small pot or being tied up with wires. Artists and enthusiasts accept that the activity may be seen as a bit harsh towards Mother Nature, but they counter-argue that they treat bonsai with the most profound love.

One bonsai master says that it is similar to nurturing talented athletes.  Only one or two out of 1000 seedlings develop into beautiful bonsai trees.  When an enthusiast encounters one, he will dedicate himself to it, using all his skills and knowledge, to grow it into a most delicately balanced tree full of miniaturised life.

The ultimate goal is to reproduce nature on a tray – to feel, so to speak, the movement of breezes, the play of light and shadow – in fact, the whole spirit of the Earth, in a small and concentrated space.  It is similar to Haiku, a concise and stylized form of Japanese poetry which expresses everything minimally in just 17 letters.

The Goal of the Bonsai Arts

The philosophy of Bonsai attracts botanists all around the world.

The exports of bonsai created by masters in Japan has increased tenfold in the past ten years.  Government and industry are busy learning about the export/import regulations of target markets.

However, as prices shoot up, theft is becoming a significant problem.  Thieves target only high-value items from renowned gardens: This can only mean that there must be  an involvement by highly trained bonsai merchants. Plants tended with love and devotion are sold on black markets, potentially falling into the hands of amateurs who do not know how to look after them.

Bonsai trees can live for hundreds of years.  Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel Prize winner, tended many that are 200 to 400 years old.  The imperial palace contains many older trees, including an 800-year-old pine tree that was once the favourite of the third Shogun of the Edo government, Iemitsu Tokugawa.

They have extraordinary cultural values, but are yet to be registered as national cultural assets.

Now is the time to look into protecting these beautiful living things – simple tracking devices may be a start in this.  It has long been a closed industry, supported by senior citizens, but new ideas and technologies could help to develop measures for the protection of these beloved life forms.

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