I just ran across these amazing photos of bonsai by Walter Pall, who has developed what bonsai purists call a “naturalistic” style, though the viewer unfamiliar with the formal styles of traditional bonsai might not choose the adjective “natural” to describe these tress. All that apparently lifeless wood, by the way, called jin, is part of the living tree. What one calls natural is, clearly, a matter of perspective & relationship. There is no one thing that is nature, of course, over against which there is something else, presumably a mind observing nature as if from the outside. There is no outside. Nor any inside, either. Can you tell I’ve been reading Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope in between the Patrick O’Brian novels? It is one of those books that tells me what I already have already thought intuitively, but which gives me contextualized & clearly argued reasons for my sense of things.
Two bonsai pots I’d ordered from Bonsai by the Monastery came yesterday. Two of my favorite trees needed repotting — a juniper created out of nursery stock a couple of years ago & a rosemary I bought as a little herb planting about five years ago. The rosemary is the bonsai I’ve had the longest & I could tell it was root-bound even before I pulled it out of its previous pot. Technically, I should write tray rather than pot — English-speaking bonsai purists do not put their trees in mere pots, but in trays (though I notice that the link below, from Japan, uses pots to translate choukaku, explaining that it means “rectangle.” There is some logic in English to support the distinction between pot & tray, because most (but not all) bonsai containers are relatively shallow, much wider than they are deep. Both my new trays are very nice gray stoneware, neither very expensive. I paid $60 for the pair. At the other end of the price spectrum, you can pay $400 for a Tokoname container: they come from a traditional kiln in Japan & are signed by the artist. If I had a very valuable bonsai, I’d want it in a Tokoname pot, er, tray. But my bonsai are mostly small & common, so I’m happy with the mass-produced stoneware. They’re durable and have very pretty proportions.
The rosemary needed fairly immediate action, so yesterday morning I pried it out of its old container, into which I put a ficus religiosa I bought last year, already a mature, but small, tree that had been underpotted for effect by the seller. (Some people apparently think that the point of bonsai is toput the largest possible tree in the smallest possible container.) The rosemary was indeed rootbound, so I fluffed out the roots, loosened the rootball, clipped off dangling roots, prepared the new container with a layers of soil (added a bit of slow-release fertilizer), then wired the rosemary into position & filled in around the roots with more soil, tamped it down & gave it a good watering. You can buy bonsai soil from Japan and from specialty shops in the US, but I make my own by mixing store-bought potting soil half & half with local sand & small gravel that I screen myself. Seems to work pretty well. After only a few hours in its new tray, the rosemary looked brighter, with deeper green needles & a generally more contented look.
I was also more contented. I find that working with my trees gives me more pleasure & is the most meditative thing I do. More than reading or writing poetry, more than regular gardening, certainly more than working on the house, which I do purely out of the instrumental desire to have a room finished & comfortable. Bonsai is a bit like poetry in that there is no real purpose to it beyond the doing of it. (And yes I’d probably argue with that statement if I came across it in an essay on poetry!) With bonsai, one uses simple tools within a circumscribed technical and aesthetic universe in order to present the trees to their best advantage, which in my practice is to show off their “treeness.” This is a pretty common aesthetic in the West, whereas Japanese enthusiasts tend to go for more radical presentation, often foregrounding one particular aspect or quality of a tree. Here is a picture of the repotted rosemary:
The title of this post sounds sort of dirty if you don’t know the exact meanings of the words, or take them just as sound. Go swab a ficus, mate! In fact, the post title refers to the fact that I spent an hour this evening with cotton swabs & insecticidal soap swabbing the leaves of a favorite little fig tree. It’s about seven inches tall & probably has a hundred & fifty leaves, each about three quarters of an inch long. Looks like some spider mites have moved in, though the tree seems healthy & is putting out new spring foliage. This is the sort of process in which I can happily lose myself, which may seem strange, I admit. I’m not going to claim it’s a form of meditation or anything spacey like that. But I do enjoy focusing on small things. Even if I’m not working on one, I sometimes find myself staring at one of my trees, just focusing on the shape & structure of the branches, for minutes on end. The closest analogy I can think of is listening to music that I know well, following its shapes & textures. Swabbing is just a closer form of looking.
Warm enough today to take the pine & the juniper off the front porch & put them outside. It will be great if we get the rain that’s predicted. Bonsai love rainwater. This is the time of the year when we humans have to slosh through rain sitting on top of snow; the hardy bonsai begin to emerge from dormancy now, however. On the enclosed front porch over the winter they stay around the freezing point & they get water only every four to five weeks. As the days get longer & the temperatures warm, their soil unfreezes & they need to be watered weekly. In another three or four weeks I will begin to see bits of new growth on these trees.
The indoor trees all seem to have survived the winter, but it will be at least another six weeks before they begin spending time outside and even then it will only be during the day. By early summer they will have all moved outdoors to various places in the yard where light conditions are right.
I take a disinterested pleasure in my dozen or so trees. I’m not competitive about them, though I want them to do well & look good. I think I’ve written before that Carole calls them my “plant pets.” I trim them all regularly & the process of trimming & shaping makes me intimately familiar with each tree’s shape & tendencies of growth. After trimming one of the two romemary trees, my hands smell of the herb. It’s that close familiarity that allows me to make decisions about pruning & wiring branches to give a tree a particular shape. My aesthetic is fairly naturalistic. There is in fact a style of bonsai called “informal upright” that strives for a “natural” shape. I do have one tree I’m shaping into a variation of the “literati” style, though. It’s a little Picea abies. I’m a poet, after all — I need one tree in this poetic style. (Beautiful photos of the various styles here.)