Bonsai – Create some balance!

by Peter Bruyns

We live in a world that moves at a frenetic pace. The demands of family, work, friends and all the other commitments we get ourselves into vie for the very finite waking hours we have each day. We continuously hear friends and family complaining about how tired they are and, especially at this time if the year, how much they have need a rest.

Cell phones and electronic communication through emails, and social media bring these demands to us where ever we are and there is seldom an opportunity or place to get away from it all and just be quiet and restful to recharge our batteries.

While many look forward to the festive season for that annual leave break and a chance to rest, the reality is that it is often a time when the pace actually hots up. We attend and organise parties, go on extended shopping sprees in overcrowded stores, pack the family and drive long distances to go on a few days of summer holiday and then rush to get back to work and the kids started on a new school year. My own experience, and my observation of my family, friends and colleagues, is that we are often just as tired when we get back as when we went started the annual leave.

So with this frenetic lifestyle it is not at all surprising that many people are looking for quieter and more gentle pursuits to bring back some balance into their lives. Pursuits that they can engage in at any time, at home, with minimal effort and without significant capital outlay. And it is not at all surprising that more and more people are finding this in growing and keeping bonsai.

In early September the Cape Town City Council in conjunction with the local Bonsai community staged a very successful 9-day long Bonsai - Arbor Day event in the Company Gardens. Many trees were on display and over the weekends there were many demonstrations and workshops and experts assisted the public with repotting and designing their bonsais. Public participation was amazing and there was a constant crowd at the demonstrations and around the displays. Most of the clubs that participated have experienced a spurt in new member sign ups since September. This heightened interest in the public correlates with the heightened interest in the bonsai community and the last 12months have see two local club celebrating their 40th and 25th anniversaries with very well attended and successful events with visitors coming from all over the country. Durban recently hosted an international event with visitors from as far afield as the USA and Indonesia.

So what is the attraction of bonsai? And why is it experiencing this sudden popularity?

The art of Bonsai developed in China, and later Japan, many centuries ago. This is perhaps not surprising in that even all that time ago cities in these countries were heavily populated and first the royalty and later the common people sought to create havens of peace and tranquillity in their crowded cities and homes. Coming from religious and cultural back grounds that were closely linked to the natural environment it is not surprising that they attempted to recreate scenes from nature within their homes. As the art and craft progressed they developed "rules and techniques" that would result in trees in pots - i.e. bonsai - that captured the essence of a scene in nature. In this way they could, for example, display a leave-bare cherry tree during the cold winter and by adding a scroll painting of cherry blossoms or a short poem, evoke the anticipation of the spring and the joy of reawakening that comes with that. Alternatively a gnarled and twisted pine tree with a painting of a snow capped mountain might bring back to memory a favourite mountain scene.

Today bonsai growers experience a similar sense of peace and tranquillity in growing and viewing their trees. Initially this comes from the creative process. Most growers start with a "bush in a black bag" obtained from the local garden nursery. The three key features of the bonsai are the root structure - particularly that part where the trunk flares into the ground - the trunk and the branch structure with its foliage. How these are grown and trimmed will determine the impression the bonsai creates. The late John Naka, a great Japanese-American bonsai master who visited Cape Town many years ago, said that the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree. So the bonsai grower will trim and shape her tree to achieve a particular vision she has much as a gardener will trim and shape a hedge or topiary. A tall thin trunk with branches reaching upward gives the impression of a young vigorously growing tree while a short squat tree with drooping branches gives the impression of age and power. We can easily understand this if we think of the young pines - those that are left - in the plantations in Tokai and the ancient oaks in the Company Gardens or at Groot Constantia.

But creating a bonsai that might be less than 30cm tall and that still creates a visual impression that evokes memories of the 300year old ancient oaks at Groot Constantia takes a little more. There are a number of elements of design - not to mention the horticultural practice - that need to be applied. First and foremost one cannot simply copy, in miniature, the tree in nature. The overall design and detail needs to be simplified. Just as a great painter uses broad brush strokes of colour to represent sections of a landscape, so does the bonsaist simplify the design of the tree to its essential elements leaving the imagination of the viewer to fill in the details. She will also use other artistic tools to enhance the image. For example the use of asymmetry, or a sense of visual un-balance, can create a feeling of movement or dynamism in the tree. Think of the windswept trees around Sandvlei. They all lean over and have their foliage heavily to one side of the tree because of the strong South-Easter winds that blow in that area. Creating a tree in a pot that leans to one side and has all its branches moving in the same direction will immediately remind anyone who has seen the Sandvlei trees of them and the strong winds of that area. Even if that bonsai is grown in a wind free area and is being displayed indoors! The bonsaist uses these techniques to create what are really works of art that have a naturalness that mimics nature and that when viewed convey a sense of tranquillity - that sense of tranquillity and peace that we all seek in this hectic and frenetic world that we live in.

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect something similar is true for all my bonsai colleagues. There is nothing more peaceful and relaxing than to come home at the end of the day and spend an hour sitting on my patio working on my trees. As I trim and shape them I have the sounds of birds coming to roost in the trees in my garden and then as it gets later and the birds go quiet, the frogs in the small pond pick up the chorus. And all is quiet and peaceful, my inner soul is at rest, and then I pinch myself and realise that I live 300m away from one of the busiest commuter interchanges in the city! Bonsai does that for me!

If you would like to try your hand at this de-stressing hobby help is available from bonsai nurseries (at a price) and from the many bonsai clubs (free of charge) in Cape Town and around the country. The Cape Bonsai Kai is holding an exhibition of trees at Kirstenbosch from 16-18 December 2011.


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Random Bonsai Tip

When a tree has reversed taper or a narrowed 'waistline' above the nebari, you could do an airlayering just above the narrow section; or you could damage the cambium layer by either hammering gently with a mallet or by piercing the bark right into the cambium with a sharp object eg. scissors or an awl. You could also make deep incisions along the grain of the bark, where the healing process will cause scarring which would then thicken the trunk.