When art completely controls nature

Published 10:22 pm Tuesday, April 11, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Last week, we discussed the intersection of art and nature as revealed in Elizabethan formal gardens.

Today, let’s discuss that on a smaller scale of art — bonsai.

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Bonsai may be defined as “tray planting,” the long-term cultivation and shaping of one small tree in a container.

The artist grows the tree to its desired size — usually about 15 inches — transplants it into a display pot and thereafter restricts its growth through root and crown pruning to train it into an acceptable shape and proportion for the next two or three hundred years.

The bonsai artist will never outlive his creation.

Talk about imposing art and artificial rules on nature!

The purpose of bonsai is to stimulate contemplation in the viewer and to exercise ingenuity in the grower/artisan. It is closely tied to Zen Buddhism.

It began in the sixth century, copying the Chinese art of penjing, but by the 18th century, bonsai had become more widely practiced — no longer restricted to a few monks, scholars, and the nobility.

What should the bonsai viewer contemplate? One answer is closely tied to the Japanese concepts of “flawed beauty” and “understated elegance.”

Nothing lasts. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is finished. There is an aesthetic of “wabi sabi,” with “wabi” meaning “rustic simplicity and quietness” and “sabi,” meaning “beauty that comes with age.”

Some key concepts of bonsai:

  • Miniaturization (without genetic dwarfing)
  • Proportion among elements (sounds like Elizabethan gardens)
  • Asymmetry (unlike Elizabethan gardens)
  • No trace of the artist — no scars, wire marks or similar things
  • Poignancy and intimacy (making the viewer long for the place)
  • Ingenuous integrity of natural objects (add some pebbles as boulders)
  • Transience and imperfection
  • Economy, austerity and modesty — nothing fancy

So how do they do it? How do they take a natural tree that would normally grow to 60 feet and keep it from growing too large for a small tray? How do they make it look like a mature tree seen from a great distance — captured at a moment in time?

The leaves or needles are clipped, controlling growth. The trunk, branches and roots are pruned, but without visible scars.

The trunk and branches may be wired into position as it grows, though such controls are removed before it is displayed. New material may be grafted onto the stock as it grows.

So there you have it — a totally mature tree as if seen from a distance. Art is employed to make the tree look naturally grown, but the artifice is hidden (as opposed to artificial Elizabethan gardens). The asymmetry is controlled.

A natural article is presented as it might have looked if man had left it alone on a hillside.

Bonsai is artifice completely controlling nature, artifice revealing an ideal view of nature.

Next week, we’ll look at poetry revealing and capturing nature.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.