Bonsai Suishoen & Matsusue-Sensei // Understanding the Art // Understanding the Skill // Making a Bonsai // Maintaining Bonsai // Amazing Hospitality!
I knew very little about bonsai 盆栽 before this week. Although I have previously read about it (and even tried to make one when I was a student at Threave), I’d mostly forgotten anything I might have known; so it was with a blank brain that I arrived at Matsusue-sensei’s nursery on Wednesday. We spent four brilliant days working with him and I now feel like I understand a little of the immense skill, precision and patience it takes to make and maintain bonsai.
I have previously heard people say that bonsai is weird or pointless or ‘cruel’; I’ve heard people say: “why would you want to torture* a tree to keep it tiny when you could just go and look at real ones?” My short response to that attitude is: you’re an idiot! I think the best way to think about bonsai is in the context of Fine Art; after all, no one says, “what’s the point of painting a picture of a bowl of fruit when you could just look at a real one?”, or: “Michelangelo, why’ve you spent all that time carving that rock into a human figure when you could just look at that bloke called Dave over there?” In fact, it is in the nature of humans to make ‘copies’ of things that they consider important, valuable and worthy of admiration. Bonsai are devotional icons of nature; pieces of art, but alive.
So, the philosophy of bonsai is based on the veneration of nature and the desire to display the incredible ways that trees grow in the wild. A bonsai is only successful if it convincingly demonstrates something that really happens in nature, and a bonsai master will spend years studying the way trees grow in the wild. The twisted and contorted shapes that you may have seen mimic the way that trees in the mountains grow, still managing to stay alive under the fierce pressure of wind, snow and very little nutrient. Apart from demonstrating the strength and fortitude of nature, there is a link with Buddhist philosophy concerning life and renewal here- although I don’t know much about that.
Matsusue-sensei’s bonsai nursery is a family business in its third generation: his grandfather started making bonsai as a hobby, his son turned it into a professional business and Matsusue-sensei took it over after training for four years with a master near Nagoya. He’s been making and caring for bonsai for 20 years, and handles about 1,000 trees a year, so he’s pretty experienced! Apart from making and selling bonsai, he also cares for other people’s bonsai- either ones that are kept at his nursery or that he works on as and when required. His ethos is really open and friendly and he is really welcoming: it was great to see many of his customers coming in to work on their bonsai at his nursery or ask for advice, or even just to help him out when he was busy. Obviously there was no way that we could pick up any real skill in four days, but he gave us a fantastic overview of his work and what is required to make bonsai.
I was surprised to find out that many bonsai started their lives as trees in the mountain, and were collected by bonsai-hunters when they were already ancient. This is no longer legal and new bonsai have to be made from nursery-grown trees, but we saw many trees that had been collected 30 or more years ago that were actually over 200 years old. It’s very humbling to care for a tree which was germinating in the mountains in the Edo Period! We were allowed to create our own bonsai from red pines which had been collected from the mountain some time ago but are actually 120 years old! First, of course, sensei demonstrated to us. It was amazing to watch him work, turning what really just looked like just a small, crap tree into a majestic piece of nature. I felt that his work revealed the age and history of the tree and the result visibly demonstrates the life of the mountain trees. And yet again, I had the experience of seeing a small bit movement making all the difference to the appearance and power of the piece. Unfortunately, like ikebana, bonsai does not photograph well (it’s the depth thing again) but at least you can see the difference…
When making a bonsai, you have to consider the following:
- Which is the front?
- Where is the wind blowing? How strong is it? Conventionally it blows across the front to a certain degree, not totally front to back or vice versa
- What is the growing environment you are trying to express?
- Which stems will you remove and which will you wire? (Stems that are very long without branching are not so good because they can become weak)
- Be mindful of balance and natural form
I was really nervous about making my bonsai: after all, you can’t put it back once you’ve cut it off! First we examined our bonsai, came up with our concept for it and drew a sketch. I showed my (terrible) drawing to sensei and where I thought the front should be, how I wanted the branches to bend and so on- and then I did it. It was really fun. I really enjoyed the wiring (probably because I’m a control freak) and it’s amazing how much you can bend the branches without damage if you use the correct technique and tools.
The wiring will be in place for a year and then who knows… One day, someone might buy my bonsai!
As well as making a bonsai, we also learnt some of the skills required to maintain bonsai. Apart from watering, feeding and pest/disease management (which didn’t seem to be much of a problem), the main maintenance tasks are:
- Repotting every 1-3 years depending on species of plant
- Bud pinching out and leaf reduction
- Cleaning the jin and treating it with a preservative lime sulphur chemical 石灰硫黄合剤
- Pruning and rewiring (every 2 or 3 years depending on plant)
Repotting a bonsai is quite different to normal repotting: you have to remove almost all of the roots but the plants cope with it fine. Whilst we were working with Matsusue-sensei, he had a visit from a local club who came for a bonsai repotting class, which was great because we got to see many different species and sizes of tree being repotted. We also got to witness the repotting of an enormous black pine that belongs to one of the customers. We also did some leaf pruning, cleaned some bonsai, and re-treated the ‘jin’ (the dead part of the trunk which doesn’t have any bark). The first bonsai we cleaned was 800 years old! Luckily Matsusue-sensei didn’t tell us this until afterwards, otherwise there is no way I would have gone near it with a pressure washer
Finally, I have to mention that apart from the thrill of working with these amazing plants, we also had a great week because of the incredible hospitality of Matsusue-sensei and his family. I have never been looked after so kindly, or been given so many sweets, cups of tea and delicious food! The way that Matsusue-sensei runs his business is really inspirational, and I think is quite unlike other bonsai masters who may be quite proud and stiff: he is welcoming and generous with his time, and happy to teach all of his customers and have them around all the time. He says that bonsai is about communication and community as well as nature, so he prioritises using it is a way to bringing people together. Which is how all horticulture should be. So, to finish, here’s a little collection of some of the lovely food I’ve eaten this week… 🙂
*Trees don’t have a central nervous system or a brain. Just wanted to point that out for RM… 😉