Being Bonsai

“Oh no you didn’t!
You spray-painted it green?”

Aside from blurting out the insidious crime, I was speechless inspecting the dried—and beyond hope—bonsai.

Being a keeper of a bonsai myself, knowing the daily-weekly-monthly-yearly care that goes into maintaining one, I was shocked at how my father-in-law had let his best-friend’s well-aged bonsai die under his care. Several weeks of neglect and forgetfulness brought the plant to a dry crisp. It was only upon the vacationing-friend’s return that my father-in-law discovered the fate of what was once a beautifully mastered bonsai. As a resourceful “Tim the Toolman Taylor” type of guy, he did what any accident-prone handyman would do, he bought a can of Evergreen spray-paint to artificially bring the tree back to life. And from a distance we had all been fooled…

I’m not sure how that story ended, how apologies were said and accepted. All I know is that the tree is dead, and my father-in-law and his life-long buddy are still good friends.

So, a sloppy segue into what I’m want to tell you that semi-relates to the story is three truths:

1) always stay in the care of the Bonsai Master ,
2) no two bonsai are alike, and
3) being a bonsai ain’t easy.

I’m a bonsai. And if you feel that any part of you is “outside” the proverbial box of what the world says we should be in—then you too are a wonderful bonsai. The truth is that all bonsai are born relatively the same. Trees. Or cuttings from trees. There are Cypress, Maple, Olive, Elm, Cherry, Juniper, etc… All trees, plain and simple. And left unattended, a tree becomes…a tree. In this world exists forests and a multitude of the same trees. How boring is that?

(are we still talking about trees or people? the answer is yes)

It’s the added component of a Master’s hands that turn a tree into a bonsai, resulting in ordinary to extraordinary. What happens in those hands can be so painful and scary—that it would cause most trees to go running (if trees could run) in the opposite direction.

If you don’t know anything about bonsai (or missed the movie Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi’s skilled care and attention to his beloved miniature trees) then let me tell you what goes into becoming a bonsai.

First is the selection of live material. This is where a plain ol’ tree or cutting is carefully hand-selected—chosen—by the Master. It is potted into a special place where it can be cared for and worked. Often during the first several years of growth, off shoots are painfully cut away. The tree is pruned down to its core. What looks like new fruitful growth is removed because the Master knows what shape the tree should be, and that young fruit only slows the process of core strength.

During those first couple years, much attention is given to roots and soil. Watering is plentiful and special fertilizer is applied. The tree is growing exponentially. But the most painful process to becoming a bonsai is yet to come. The training.

It’s not often that one gets to see a true (plant) bonsai in training. It’s done in seclusion, because it looks frightening, and isn’t pretty. Copper wire is wrapped around the trunk and branches. With the tree wrapped in wire, the Master applies daily pressure and gentle force, bending the wire— allowing the tree to slowly take-on the shape within the Master’s plan. Too much force and the tree will break; too little force and the tree will never take on the proper shape as it resists succumbing to what feels like an unnatural bend. Sometimes trees are stubborn in becoming bonsai, but the Master knows which trees to keep training. This is when extra pressure is needed as small weights or stones are tied onto the end of branches. These expertly placed weights eventually produce the most beautiful and graceful arcs and bends. Not all trees continue moving onward to becoming a bonsai during the process of being wrapped and weighted down. It’s frightening. It’s unappealing. And during the training, it feels like a life-time. It feels impossible. But it’s not. It only FEELS impossible DURING the training.

I’ve met several real bonsai-people in my life. People that I’m certain have been chosen by the Master. They are unique and unlike others. They don’t define themselves by forests of the world, rather they are intently focused on the Master’s plan. They stand out and are different. People notice them. Yet, watching their process and training has been painful. Frightening. I often wonder if all my trials are simply temporary wire and weights. Maybe more of us are in training than we think. Too many of us are weighed down, pruned bare, and we’re pretty sure we won’t survive whatever is going on. Yet could it be that if we just hold on a bit more, bend where we need to bend, that one day we too will be a beautiful amazing bonsai? We will be like no other, created by our Master.

Once a bonsai is trained, the Master allows fruit to come forth. New growth is always watched, and pruning still occurs when necessary. The strongest of bonsai are put out into the open elements, increasing strength as it faces wind, rain, snow, and sun. Now and then repotting happens, while it initially shocks the bonsai, it recovers quickly with extra watering and care.  

Oh and that watering…? Well it’s the MOST IMPORTANT part of a bonsai’s life. Read any book on bonsai care and it will instruct on the special needs of bonsai and water. They must be copiously watered —some requiring several waterings throughout the day. Daily Living Water is key. Especially during windy, turbulent times. And if a bonsai leaves it’s Master’s hands, and seeks nourishment and care from another—then bonsai beware! Because you just might forget about being watered, and eventually dry-up and die. There is no amount of Evergreen spray-paint that can bring you back to life. So:

1) always stay in the care of the Bonsai Master ,
2) no two bonsai are alike (relish exactly who you are and how you were created), and
3) being a bonsai ain’t easy.

Copyright © 2009- 2011 Sherry Meneley . All Rights Reserved . . . soiled wings

3 thoughts on “Being Bonsai

  1. Wow! This is great, Sherry. I was unaware of that meticulous process. Or maybe I forgot what I learned so long ago from Mr. Miyagi.

    Good analogy. I especially like this line: “And if you feel that any part of you is ‘outside’ the proverbial box of what the world says we should be in—then you too are a wonderful bonsai.” That’s nice to know. I would add “not just what the world says, but also the box of what the church says I should be.” That has been the most constricting box for me – or the one that seems to demand me to conform. Ugh.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Thanks Kaye – I could have gone on-and-on about bonsai care and even more things that sound strange – yet really fit the analogy (like binding the bonsai roots to a rock). Anyhooo, glad you like it – and yes that “outside the box” for me meant not conforming to fundamental thinking / stuck churches.

  2. Hello Sherry, another excellent post!!

    Oh, who would the master be if is wasn’t for the little tree? What jumps into my head after reading this post is how the Master and the tree become one and depend on one another. They become one with one another, not through the idea of what the tree should be or what it means to be a Master, but through the daily routine of nurturing one another. No different than how a married couple becomes one.

    From my perspective, what seems like punishing training that is intended to make the tree into something of its own, is better considered to be an education to play a role as part of a greater whole. (Didn’t we all think that school was torture at one time?)


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