Bonsai Releaf
June 10, 2021 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Fascinating 22 minute video of a Transformation of a Japanese Larch Bonsai Tree by its keeper.
posted by dobbs (33 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Burying the lede on the Winter Soldier remake there.

I for one could watch Bucky Barnes carefully sculpt little trees for hours.
posted by fight or flight at 10:25 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]

That was fascinating. I must admit I was a little shocked at the level of manipulation. I had always kind of assumed the art of bonsai was mostly about judicious pruning, but then the Dremel came out!
posted by gwint at 10:42 AM on June 10 [12 favorites]

Number 1: The Larch
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:03 AM on June 10 [40 favorites]

I had always kind of assumed the art of bonsai was mostly about judicious pruning, but then the Dremel came out!

I was wondering about this as well. My sense is that there is a traditional art, that is mostly about judicious pruning and time, time, time, and a modern form that is about wrapping wires, using tools and treating the tree as a prop that can be altered to achieve the desired look.
I haven't studied this, but i am interested in discovering just how much of what we witnessed in this video is part of the long tradition.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:09 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

If you're able to watch the two episodes of Monty Don's Japanese Gardens, he provides more information about "artificial help" on full-size trees in Japanese gardens. For example, branches may have wooden supports placed under them, or they may be tied up with ropes until the trees resemble circus tents. These appear to be just part of the way traditional gardening us done, and the supports and extras are part of the aesthetic affect.
posted by Hypatia at 11:28 AM on June 10 [5 favorites]

That was good. I didn't expect to find it anywhere near so interesting. And I feel/felt bad about all the wireing and cutting (which is a teensy bit nuts.)

But in the end, it looked really good. The interlude at the end was pretty perfect, too. There's a name for that, in Japanese story-telling, for the life of me I can't remember it - but basically, its a brief pause in the middle of the story to reflect on... something else for a moment.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:46 AM on June 10

I had a couple of dwarf citrus get frostbitten this spring when coverings didn't sufficently protect them, and this has me looking at their dead sides and asymmetry in a different way.
posted by joeyh at 11:59 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]

IDK if it's PTSD from watching The Shining at a young age? but for some reason it creeps me out to see plants (hedges, trees, whatever) being "shaped" into human-pleasing forms. I cringed all through the video! But then in the end the tree itself didn't look like it had been tampered with by humans (ignoring the wires) - like, it wasn't shaped into a fucking giraffe or a jester's hat. Thank goodness.

I went to see some famous ornamental gardens back in India once, gave me several top notch nightmares. One memorable nightmare was that my (normally lovely and chirpy) grade-school math teacher was growing bonsai kittens in weirdly shaped jars in her basement. Is this just me? Does anyone else share my weird almost-phobia of sculpted flora.
posted by MiraK at 12:45 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]

Like others, I was surprised by how much work was done in the video. The end result is a tree that looks old and gnarled and is actually young and gnarled -- if it was for sale, it would almost seem like a form of counterfeiting. The pruning and even the wiring, okay, but the cutting and weathering of roots seemed somehow wrong to me. But I am entirely removed from the culture and practice of bonsai, so maybe what seems inauthentic to me is actually totally normal practice?
posted by jacquilynne at 12:51 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]

Not I, but I would absolutely be delighted by a kitten-shaped bonsai in a bottle.
posted by sagc at 12:51 PM on June 10

I feel/felt bad about all the wireing and cutting

Yes, that was kind of my reaction too: went in expecting a nice relaxing here's-someone-calmly-performing-their-hobby video, instead got 22 minutes of some dude torturing a tree.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:09 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]

A tree's physiology is so different. What an animal would experience as fatal maiming, they have evolved to respond to and survive. Sometimes it doesn't even really bother them. On the other hand, a lot of the things that seriously stress them aren't as obviously violent to their bodies from an animal's perspective.

I guess what I'm saying is, this does not strike me as that much worse than bonsai in general in terms of how much the tree is "tortured." It is just violent to the tree in a more visible way, one that resonates with us more as animals.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:18 PM on June 10 [9 favorites]

Maybe you all are remembering Bonsai Kitten.

Wow, there's a visceral sense memory I didn't realise I had.
posted by fight or flight at 1:44 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]

From the Bonsai Kitty Wikipedia article:
The furor over the site triggered by animal rights organizations has been offset by their continued statements that the site itself is a fake. They have been stating this since 2001.
This is so disappointing. Twenty years later, and this hoax is still stirring people up. And that's in the "information age", when people are ostensibly able to learn the truth easier.

It's like how there is always some zoonotic reservoir for viruses to persist in perpetuity, so you can never completely eradicate them. Memes are much more like viruses than we imagine.
posted by darkstar at 2:14 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]

This video is entirely to short for such a long process:/
beautiful and amazing.
posted by clavdivs at 2:14 PM on June 10

Also, I likewise had a bit of a cringe at the cutting of the tree bark to intentionally deaden part of the wood.

Pruning and wire shaping seems like it fits in a much more traditional, naturalistic approach. In contrast, intentionally stripping away bark to deaden part of the trunk seems much more transgressive and almost a violation of the spirit of natural cultivation.

Like others, I simply don't know the tradition and practice of bonsai, so I don't know if this is all part of the deal. But I confess that seeing this turned me off of the process, even though I acknowledge the artistry involved and that the end product did look like an aged tree.

It reminds me of those wabi sabi pottery bowls for sale. The ones in which the pottery was intentionally broken, so as to make an artistic repair. The artistry is inarguable. But the spirit of wabi sabi (in my mind) isn't in intentionally destroying something so that it can be repaired, and thereby imitate in its form the beauty of transience and imperfection.
posted by darkstar at 2:25 PM on June 10 [5 favorites]

Yes definitely my nightmare was inspired by the bonsai kitten hoax which was quite recent at the time, not just the horrors of topiary from the week of. As I talk about this I'm realizing why my math teacher showed up in my dream: the ornamental garden which had scarred me was laid out in geometric patterns. That teacher was my 4th grade math teacher who introduced the word geometry to me.

Metafilter, phew, what a place. Come for the bonsai trees, stay for the dream decoding.
posted by MiraK at 3:24 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]

Here's a calmer version of bonsai from the NC Arboretum.
posted by mightshould at 4:18 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]

The phrase that went through my mind while watching was "forger of antiquities". Which is a fascinating art in its own right...
posted by clawsoon at 5:54 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]

I have a pair of chinese privet I collected this spring (with permission!) that I hope to carve some dead wood on, assuming I can keep them alive long enough to get them properly established. Hopefully I can make something this nice someday.

Creating dead wood (jin) on bonsai is a very established technique. The thing you need to keep in mind is that a lot of bonsai is inspired by trees growing on mountains that were naturally stunted. These stunted trees were frequently collected (collected trees = yamadori) and to keep them small they were placed in small pots with their roots trimmed periodically.

Now suppose the nearest mountain has already had all the naturally dwarfed trees harvested. What are you going to do, not practice your art? Of course you're going to create some dead wood yourself. You have to trim the roots of these thing every so many years, there's nothing wrong with killing a branch. Most bonsai are "artificial" anyway. There's around 20 traditional formally proscribed styles and all of them are require planning, wiring pruning etc. to create and maintain. If you're calling jin unnatural you might want to stay away from bonsai entirely.

Note: my understanding (which might be wrong) is that at this point collecting naturally stunted trees has gotten unsustainable in Japan, due to over collecting.
posted by ockmockbock at 6:40 PM on June 10 [25 favorites]

Thank you for that perspective, ockmockbock. I didn't realize that artificially creating dead wood was part of the tradition of the art.

There's no doubt in my mind that it's "unnatural", at least in my view, because it's artificially killing part of the tree to make it look like something that it's not. But that's something I'm okay with holding in tension with the fact that this is part of the core of the art, which goes far beyond my personal aesthetic.

I appreciate the point, too, that collecting naturally stunted trees is unsustainable, so that this is the only way to achieve the ancient look. And as I say, the artistry and the look of the final product is undeniable.
posted by darkstar at 7:14 PM on June 10

It is kind of interesting that people would think of bonsai and Japanese gardens as things that are natural. The aesthetic is certainly kind of meta-natural, but the level of artificial management is much greater than any regular potted plant or garden. Japan is not a magical place where things just grow that way. It is a place where some people invest huge amounts of time and energy into these arts.
posted by snofoam at 8:47 PM on June 10 [12 favorites]

As a chaser, here's the incredible Peter Chan from Herons Bonsai doing kind of the opposite: taking an almost dead bonsai tree and reinvigorating it.
posted by ZaphodB at 10:03 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]

People who find this interesting, but want a different perspective, should also check out Nigel Saunders's youtube channel the Bonsai Zone. Unlike this guy, Nigel is pretty dedicated to using a clip-and-grow method of bonsai that relies mostly on strategic pruning and lots and lots of time, rather than on wiring and carving and whatnot. Many of his trees have been grown from seed. Here's a video where he talks specifically about his method.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:22 PM on June 10 [8 favorites]


In the garden, with the kid and the caterpillar. Kishōtenketsu
posted by From Bklyn at 11:14 PM on June 10

I went through a brief bonsai phase a few years ago (which resulted in no surviving trees) -- I probably don't have the patience to stick with it, but I do like watching other people's videos. This led me down a YouTube rabbithole which ended in a few more subscriptions, so thank you!

I may at some point give it another go, with one of the very vigorous and forgiving species, like ficus, and one of the techniques where you mostly do nothing except some pruning twice a year.
posted by confluency at 2:16 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

A tree's physiology is so different. What an animal would experience as fatal maiming, they have evolved to respond to and survive. Sometimes it doesn't even really bother them. On the other hand, a lot of the things that seriously stress them aren't as obviously violent to their bodies from an animal's perspective.

Thank you for articulating it this way, Kutsuwamushi! I had a reaction to the techniques in this video similar to many other folks in this thread, and I think this is the root of it. I'm projecting feelings onto the tree that it certainly doesn't have. And when I step back and think of it as a kind of sculpture created by harnessing and manipulating the natural capacities of the tree, my perspective shifts. I don't think it's something I will ever come to love, but I can recognize the beauty and skill.
posted by that's candlepin at 7:15 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Oh wow, Dr. Send, thank you for that Saunders link! Here I was thinking that maybe I just didn’t “get” the spirit of bonsai, when in fact there is a whole movement dedicated to more “natural” bonsai cultivation that rejects what they consider to be the more “artificial” means of shaping the trees.

From the video you linked, starting about 5:00, he quotes from one of his reference sources:
“Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, some 80 years ago, dwarf tree growers in the province of Guangdong advocated abandonment of the former, artificial method of shaping trees with wires, as this method was against nature. The growers introduced “clip and grow method”, which was inspired by the Chinese painting techniques.

In order to not change the natural appearance and qualities of the tree, the Lingnang School rejects the use of wires, weights, and artificial means of shaping the trees. Instead, it has developed a new approach to letting trees grow on their own and then radically pruning. Hence the name “Clip and Grow”.

…This method requires a great deal of patience, as growth periods between pruning may last as long as ten years.
Saunders also has an interesting and inspiring comment right after this:

“When I’m growing a bonsai tree, I’m not concerned with time. The important thing for me is to get the trees on their way to being a really good bonsai, not whether I can do it in my lifetime.”
posted by darkstar at 7:32 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

"Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities"
- Thomas Kinsella

I admire the work that goes into this, but I'm a big believer in chance in gardening - to me, putting a load of store bought chilli leftovers in pots and seeing what happens when they flower and cross over is more interesting than forcing nature to comply to your will.
posted by kersplunk at 4:11 PM on June 11

A couple of years ago a 400 year old bonsai tree was stolen, which so upset the owner that he publicly gave instructions for the thief on how to take care of it so it wouldn't die.

I mention this because apparently it was taken from a forest 100 years ago and "gradually shrunk down to its current one metre height through careful gardening". From the picture, it looks, to my inexpert eyes, to have been heavily manipulated--but I may just be showing my ignorance.
posted by eye of newt at 10:31 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I went down a whole bonsai rabbit hole on youtube last night.
posted by kathrynm at 8:46 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

This evokes the same feelings for me as the Foo the Flowerhorn fishtank videos someone put up here a little while back.
posted by deadbilly at 8:44 PM on June 12

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