Sculpting trees

To view them in the rarefied atmosphere of a greenhouse is to newly appreciate the insistent personality of bonsai trees. Encountered in a garden shop or someone’s home, they may seem nothing more than cool oddities — exotic icons from an incomprehensible culture. Viewed in a group, though, they brim with a gentle clarity, humbling you with a fact you subconsciously must have already known:

They’re grown in miniature and live in containers, but these tiny avatars of nature’s giants have needs no different than their bigger outdoor brethren’s.

“Some people believe that bonsai is a species all to itself, and somehow separate [from “real” trees] — that you don’t water them or feed them or give them fertilizer,” relates Arthur Joura, bonsai curator at the North Carolina Arboretum. “They’re the same trees, grown in different conditions.” The easygoing horticulturist is alternately amused and chagrined by some of the common misconceptions surrounding the art of bonsai.

“One person made a terrible analogy between the horticultural techniques [employed to control the tree’s growth] and the feudal practice of binding women’s feet. It angers me that people would voice these observations, because they’re very far from the mark, and they denigrate other people’s good work,” Joura explains. “These trees are babied. A good grower is lavishing so much care and attention upon them; there are trees in Japan in excess of 800 years old.

“I’ve also been questioned about the morality of it, if it’s torturing the tree,” he continues, with a troubled air, “and it hurts me a little bit to hear that, because I would never want to be described as a tree torturer. The analogy I like to make to [skeptics] is to ask them if they’ve mowed their lawns lately — because it’s the exact same thing, but done for a different purpose. Grass would naturally like to be about three feet tall, but we don’t like it that way. We think it looks better three inches tall, so — once a week, through the growing season — we come out with a machine and cut it down. But we’re not killing it. We’re still allowing it to grow, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with bonsai, but for a higher purpose — not to have a carpet lawn, but to express something through a living medium.”

The art of bonsai, more than 1,000 years old, actually originated in China — which may disappoint some western Japanophiles.

“Some people’s only interest in the bonsai is as a way to indulge their interest in Japan, as with green tea, kimonos, sushi bars, and so many other aspects of Japanese culture that have been integrated,” says Joura. But, for him, bonsai’s spiritual impact goes much deeper than that.

“It’s a real life-affirming thing,” he enthuses. “You [can] go out and see [a regular tree] — maybe up on the mountain or down on the coastline, someplace where life is difficult — and who knows how many years this tree has been hanging onto this cliff face, being whipped down by the wind and beaten down by the rain and ice and snow. … And every year limbs break off, and every year it struggles to survive, and there’s inspiration in that, to me. It’s a visible manifestation of the struggle to live and survive, despite what life throws at you. With bonsai, you can capture that spirit and recreate it.”

He gently chides the cavalier attitude of hobbyists who stop taking the art seriously — and merchants who exploit bonsai trees as cute novelties.

“I still see the sick and injured plants pretty regularly,” he relates. “People know that [the Arboretum is] involved with them and will call up for advice (‘I got this as a gift from Lowe’s. What am I doing wrong?’). Some [trees] are brought in dead, and it’s only then that the person becomes aware that something is wrong. But generally, these trees were not so good to begin with. They’re not true bonsai that someone has invested a lot of time and effort in, but a quick-and-dirty project. Someone might buy a juniper [bush] meant for landscaping for four or five dollars, trim it into a lollipop shape, put it into a little decorative pot, and sell it for $30. It’s a get-rich-quick scheme, and people go home without any idea of what they’ve got.”

As part of the Carolina Bonsai Exposition (to be held at the Arboretum Oct. 10 and 11), Joura has imported two internationally known bonsai experts — William Valavanis of New York and his own former teacher, Susumu Nakamura of Japan — to host workshops on the expert care of these diminutive trees.

And, since becoming immersed in this miniature world, Joura says he has pondered the bonsai’s relevance in his own country, asking himself whether the vast cultural difference between east and west will forever bar Americans from being able to personalize the art. He struggles to make the answer a positive one.

“When I went to Japan, the question in my mind was, could [a non-Japanese person] try a whole lifetime to become [proficient at the art] and yet never be able to do it right?” he remembers. “Well, I found out that wasn’t the case, at all. … I’m working more and more toward the idea that, in order for the bonsai to be enjoyed, we have to identify it in our own way. We can’t be making bonsai trees that reflect Japanese trees; they have to reflect our own experience of nature. It can’t always be a secondhand thing and never something inspired by our own experience.”

The bonsai I saw in the greenhouse, notes Joura, are delicate subtropical specimens, whereas the exposition will also include many examples of trees native to western North Carolina.

“I’m leaning more toward [trees] that grow naturally in our area, and trying to work more and more of our native plants into this collection,” he explains. “This area is the one of the most botanically diverse areas in the world, and that’s something to be proud of.”

At the crux of the art is the intensely personal relationship that grows between the tree and its caretaker. In Joura’s mind, this crucial rapport far overshadows the tree owner’s birthplace in determining the success of the project.

“When you first find a plant — whatever kind, even a little maple seedling — it’s just a maple, out of countless maple trees all around. And then you take it home, and you begin to focus on it and nurture it,” he muses. “You become sympathetic to its needs, and it ceases to be one of a number and becomes an individual. And this is not exclusive to bonsai. People with a pet are doing the same thing: They’re taking an animal and recognizing it as an individual, raising the consciousness of it.

“There are physical therapists who like to use bonsai as a way for people to recover from physical or emotional trauma,” he concludes, “because it helps you focus on the individuality of a thing and to recognize the habit and process of health, growth, nurturing and recovery.”

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