The Art of Bonsai

IMG_3838When it comes to growing things, I’ve never had much of a green thumb.

I admire friends who can keep a plant a live, even more those who can coax it to flourish. One of my uncles worked in a greenhouse. As a child I loved to walk the rows with him, feeling the cool mist on my face as leaves tickled my fingertips. Unfortunately, the plants Uncle Tom gave me rarely lived past a few days at my house. Too much water, not enough water, the wrong direction of sunlight: the list of death causes goes on and on.

But while as an adult I’ve come to terms with my plant-parenting challenges, I’ve also come to recognize a beautiful metaphor between the way living organisms grow and the way human creativity flourishes.

I was reminded of that connection this past weekend at the Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a local steampunk group, where the monthly theme was Bonsai Making. Given my past record with plants, it’s probably surprising that I signed up for this workshop. Maybe it’s just proof of how much I like steampunk. Slap “Victorian” on anything, and you can get me there!

Seriously, though, bonsai enjoyed great popularity during the Victorian Age. In our own times of instantaneous change, it’s easy to forget that our 19th century ancestors lived in a time of transformation not unlike our own. One of the many results was increased contact with the “exotic” Far East and not a few corresponding “Eastern fads,” including bonsai, that gripped the leisure classes.

Apparently they’ve gripped steampunks, too, because many of us crowded into the Gravity Marketing coffeeshop to try our hand. The workshop was led by longtime student of bonsai (and eminently capable steampunk craftsman) Carl Klinger. Upon our arrival, Klinger presented each of us with a small ficus in a pot, a smaller bonsai pot for replanting, some mesh and wire, and a special potting soil heavily mixed with sand.

From there, he directed us to do a series of things that seemed more like plant murder than transformation. First we pulled the plants out of their pots and hacked the tightly-bound root ball until the soil fell out and the roots hung loose. Then, with a pair of shears, Klinger helped us cut the longest roots right off! For many horticulturalists this might seem unthinkable, but Klinger explaind that if left to grow, the long roots would actually strangle the plant inside its bonsai pot.

For the next hour thereafter, we replanted our shortened rootballs in the specially-prepared bonsai soil. We also examined the shape of our ficus and decided on a possible vision for the style of the finished tree. This is where things got really interesting—because, based on our direction, Klinger then had us snap off all the extraneous leaves and wind wire around the branches to bend them into that desired shape.

Over the next year, he told us, the tree will begin to produce smaller leaves spaced more closely together. After three months, the wires may be removed, and the tree will continue thicken and age within its prescribed course. In a few years, it will look like a tiny, ancient version of a life size tree—if we care for it properly, of course.

All this led me to wonder: is this process comfortable for the tree? Surely not. But the results of all this time and effort will be magnificent . . . making the discomfort worthwhile in the end.


Going back to the earlier analogy, I’ve noticed that creativity—like a bonsai tree—can be trained into certain directions. All of us admire artists whose creativity has been bent and shaped over the course of a lifetime, producing magnificent works of art. Yet often, in our own craft, we chafe at the constraints that made that art possible.

Bending creativity toward a purpose is never painless, and the process takes years. These “bonsai artists” themselves were not the product of one day or even one year of effort. It was the trimming, the training, even the constraints of their circumstances that produced their greatest work in the end.

One week after the workshop, my bonsai is still alive and well. (Uncle Tom, wherever you are right now, I hope you’re proud!) And I hope with care that I will watch its beauty take shape over many years, as the wire does its radical and transformative work.

In the mean time, I’d better take care that I’m shaping my creativity too—embracing my constraints as a path to more distinctive art.

This is my art of bonsai. What is yours?


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