The Art of Killing Trees by Vance Wood

The Art of Killing Trees
by Vance Wood, Four Seasons Bonsai Club of Michigan

Anyone who has trees, specifically bonsai trees, is aware of the quasi-personal relationship you develop with them. Bonsai are different than other cultivated plants in that cultivated plants, indoor and outdoor, are generally cared for only with the plant’s health in mind. The grower is concerned, mostly, with keeping it alive, healthy, blooming, and only nominally with its shape.

Not so with bonsai. Although in bonsai the grower is concerned about the health and well being of the tree, the grower can be driven by, if not obsessed with, the shape as well. In fact, it is the shape that defines bonsai as a work of art. The challenge is to get to that point, defined as art, and have a healthy and vigorous tree at the same time. Once arriving there, the challenge is to keep the tree beautiful; an ongoing, never ending active participation in every aspect of growth.

Consequently the growers of bonsai tend to be a little more concerned about their plants than someone who might own an African Violet would be. There is, after all, a sizable investment in time, perhaps years, and effort put into each one of them. The death of a bonsai may mean that the end result of years of work has been to provide fuel for the fire. And of course on some level there is the loss of a friend. In my opinion it is not possible for someone with the artistic sensitivity to work on a tree for, perhaps twenty years, and in loosing it feel, “Oh well, it was just a tree.”

On the other end of the spectrum there are those that seem to justify their callus approach to bonsai as a process of killing trees, some sort of sacrament necessary to learning bonsai. Understanding that a pot is an un-natural environment for a tree to live in, the death of a tree is not a hard goal to achieve. The idea in bonsai is not to go there.

Those of us who find ourselves in the role of teachers would rather be involved in the artistic aspects of bonsai, being bored with the mundane things like water and soil. But we forget the elementary aspects of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. If the bonsai grower does not understand these essentials or possess the knowledge to apply them, then they will never make a bonsai that lives or purchase a bonsai that doesn’t die. Because of our “want it now” philosophy, many of the bonsai purchased perish because of lack of knowledge. The same can be said of those trees we attempt to make into bonsai ourselves. Good intentions are not always enough.

Because the process of learning bonsai is different in the West than it is in Japan, where it may be a family business or through an apprentice arrangement, we in the West tend to learn bonsai by doing bonsai, wether we know what we are doing or not. The Consequence is the killing of trees. Most enthusiasts in the West are not willing to take the three years to learn about soil, exposure to the elements, how to water and the basics of pruning limbs and roots. We jump right in the middle of a complex subject and try to do it all; all at once.

We manage to kill trees either through ignorance or neglect, but not because we enjoy it. To kill a tree is to fail and no one enjoys failures, especially their own. However; if we can’t profit from someone else’s failure, we are doomed to learn through our own. Hopefully we take the time, at some point, to determine the cause of failure and not to repeat the process.

Lastly there is the cutting edge of bonsai where advancements in the art and technique take place. This can cause the demise of a tree or two. When one considers that the greatest innovator in the art today, Masahiko Kimura, spent eleven years in apprenticeship before he set out on his own. And in reading things written about him, it becomes obvious that everything he does is examined under a microscope by an army of critics looking for a reason to condemn his work. It is safe to assume that his failure rate is very low. If it were not so, I am certain we would have heard innuendos concerning how many trees he kills in order to accomplish one of his amazing projects. The only reason he can do what he does is because he has a complete mastery; knowledge and technique, of what it takes to keep a tree alive.

Of course the master is concerned with art, he has to be, because bonsai is ultimately an art. Bonsai at this level is like architecture. What good is an architect as an artist, when his beautiful designs are not structurally sound enough to stand under their own weight? The answer is obvious; he is incompetent. The same is true of bonsai. What good is a bonsai artist if his completed work does not survive?

Someone who works on the level of Kimura cannot afford one failure, let alone many. So it follows that for him to proceed with his art in boldness, he must, of necessity, be totally confident in his ability to keep a tree alive. Without that confidence it would be impossible for him to accomplish the things he dares to do. Is there some sort of magic in what he does? He is after all called the magician. Is there a trick or some incantations in his work? If anything, it is that he has taken the time to do what many will not: That is to understand Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, and how a tree grows. There is nothing mystical, metaphysical or magical about Kimura, he is a total master of horticulture. His artistry tends to make us forget that point.