Pasadena Field Trip Part 2: Bonsai

As we were being ushered out of the Huntington, we stumbled into the Bonsai Court, where my heart nearly stopped in awe. I find bonsai profoundly moving. There is something weirdly arrogant about deciding to contain a massive tree in a dish, and shape and kink and twist and nip its growth as if the tree were clinging to the edge of a wind-whipped cliff.

At the Imperial Bonsai Collection in Japan I watched as bonsai gardeners tumped their trees out of their bowls, brushed off the roots, pruned them with tiny scissors, and refreshed the soil.

With bonsai, man takes a god-like hand in growing something, and stands with a god-like perspective, towering over a tree that in nature would of course dwarf any human ego. These wizened trees look ancient--and some are hundreds of years old--but they also look as though they had stopped time. Though not greatly varied, the specimens at the Huntington were stunning. I could have lingered among them for hours, taking in the intention of the designer, and wondering at the beauty that comes of such exquisite torture.

I happen to love pruning, it is one of my favorite garden activities. It is much like editing; you have to find the shape of a sentence, or a paragraph; one that is natural, flows smoothly, but remains interesting, and prune away whatever interferes with the line. Some of the pruning of the trees in the Japanese gardens is admirable, particularly when you can appreciate the gardener's craft from underneath the tree's canopy. This is a great way to train your eye in preparation for an assault on your own trees.

My ex-garden in Pelham, New York, was full of hundred-year-old white azaleas. They had been planted by the original owners, whose name was White. (Of course.) The azaleas had been pruned, just before we bought the house twenty two years ago, in inauspicious lumps. I let them outgrow that hackwork, for a couple of years, and then began to coax them into graceful shapes, selecting strong branches, cutting away suckers and weak stems. Eventually, the shrubs were large enough that I could hide underneath them and see my work from inside out, much like a seamstress might view her dressmaking. The pruning was effective. We were rewarded, every spring, by the dazzling sight of azaleas clothed in glowing white raiments.

So there you have it, travel that returns me to thoughts of home, lost home...And to new thoughts of home-making, future tense.


dterrydraw said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

First of all, I probably should thank you for allowing folks to post responses as regularly as they please. To be honest?....I've been using your website as an aid in going cold-turkey on what I'd come to regard as a vicious, love/hate addiction to Salon.com


Your post made me recall Allan Gurganus's mention of bonsai (in his story "Nativity, Caucasian"). The narrator describes his mother as "..the classic amateur, product of a Richmond that deftly and early on espaliers, topiaries, and bonsais its young ladies, pruning this and that, preparing them for decorative, rootbound existences either in or very near the home."

And as I mentioned in my previous response? I became obsessed with bonsai while I was pubescing in Upper East Tennessee. I forced my parents to buy pots for me (my father could get these when he travelled out West)and somehow got my hands on the two or three books-on-the-subject that were available in 1976. As mentioned earlier, I had a running-battle with my grandmother, who grew tired of my drilling holes in what she regarded as perfectly fine ashtrays (these were the days when ashtrays were, indeed, usually the size of a shoebox). Most weekends, I'd make someone drive me up to the top of Roan mountain, where I would dig up ready-made bonsais (it's a very high mountain), transport them back home, and (yes) spend a couple of years torturing them to death.

I even ended up, at age 15 or so, corresponding with the President of the American Bonsai Association....a patient, elderly woman named "Davina Kosh". She was half-Japanese and lived on the California coast (which I considered a double-dose of unbelievable exoticism).

She once sent to me a pair of stone which are sitting in front of me as I type this. 35 years later. They're each palm-sized, utterly smooth, black rocks....striated with the fossilized, white remains of various shells and sea-creatures.

Perhaps one of your readers will know where these came from? In a letter, Mrs. Kosh told me that she'd collected them from some Californian beach decades previously....and that the beach used to consist entirely of these rocks before tourists had carried them all, one by one by one, away, until there were none at all left.

the tale made a great impression on me at the time and, I suppose, still does....which is why I still have the rocks on my desk.

Thanks for your evocative posting.


David Terry

Anonymous said...

Enjoy reading your blog. It makes me happy first thin in the morning.

virginia said...

I'm certain that your hosts in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have made suggestions for "field trips", but I do hope you manage to tour the Santa Fe Opera grounds http://www.santafeopera.org/communityactivities/communityevents/backstagetours.aspx, and take a leisurely drive through Tesuque.

This flamenco group offers performances in July, I think, but you may be able to watch a rehearsal: http://mariabenitez.com/

Stock up on water as soon as you arrive in ABQ - it will help you acclimate to the high altitude.

mary said...

The last five lines of this post seem to describe the path of personal spiritual growth....To see ourselves from the inside out and see that the work is good. Not very different from bonsai. Thank you.