Wednesday, August 29, 2012

First Bonsai

by Michael Rusnak
I know it sounds cliche, but kind of like your first love, there is something about your first bonsai.  Something close and something you just never forget.  I don't mean one of the cut-flower-like junipers that so many of us purchased somewhere only to find it was dead in short order--or when you bought it.  I mean that first tree that you worked with and kept alive.

Carlton's boxwood
At the August ACBS meeting, while I was going around taking some photos of members' trees, I really admired the small  Kingsville boxwood that Carlton was tweaking.  For a small scale tree, it had an sturdy trunk. Plus its tight umbrella-shaped foliage crown--bright green and healthy-- off-set to the left, giving it a semi-cascade appearance. Anyway, the thing just looked great.  At some point in the discussion, Carlton added --"This was my first tree."  When he said that it stopped me.  I could tell from his expression that he had a genuine reverence for the tree and that it held a special place in his collection.  After all, it's the first one he kept alive, learned to re-pot, shape and prune.

Over the years most of of our members' trees seem to have some kind of story behind them-- and I suppose this sort of history is part of the appeal of the art of bonsai. This boxwood used to be in my sister's yard, and this yew was pulled out of a road ditch when my son was small, and so forth.

After the meeting, I was thinking that I still have my first tree, and I that haven't  really worked on it much over the last several seasons.  It was a nursery stock juniper that I tried to train for four or five seasons.  It was not just my first tree but one I kept alive. Unlike Carlton's boxwood, this one has just been sort of let go.  It's sitting in an area with several other junipers in nursery containers that I've been letting grow wild to thicken their trunks.

Anyway, when I got home I took it out and took a look at it. This exceptionally dry summer has beaten up the tree, and it was a mess with lots of weeds in the pot. I spent a few minutes just cleaning it up, getting rid of the weeds and dead leaves and stuff in the pot.  I then got out the clippers and cut away all of the dead sections, and proceeded to pinch back the foliage.  I decided that it wasn't that bad after I cleaned it up a bit. I left a few shoots that had extended near the top, thinking that if I fed it heavy now and early next season, I might be able to coax it into throwing up a strong shoot. This plan might make it's trunk continue over and upward a bit adding another level, like a tall literati that is often made from a staked juniper--see sketch.

While I was cleaning up the juniper, it occurred to me how many things I had learned or began to learn with this tree.  It was my first successful attempt at re-potting, and the first time I really tried to do a little wiring.  One thing I absolutely remember about this tree is that it was a sort of low sideways growing shrub.  I recall that it put out a real strong shoot, and I wired it upward so it would grow more into an informal upright tree.  I was surprised how it kept extending throughout that first season.

Here's something else I actually forgot about until now--a fat green caterpillar sort of taught me how to pinch the tree.  I remember coming out one day and looking at it, I noticed one small branch section was sort of mowed, mowed right down to little green nubs.  I looked closely, saw the caterpillar, sort of a tomato worm-like creature that I immediately cut in half with my clippers.  I was mad about the damage. A few weeks later, though, when new bright green shoots appeared expanding sideways, upward and elsewhere lush and thick all over from the nubs, I couldn't believe it. the branch looked better than anything I had tried to pinch out.  I felt bad about my rash act of cutting up the caterpillar.  He had nailed it. I understood better what people were talking about when they said pinch it way back.  So in a sense he showed me how to prune.

Much neglected
Anyway, I now felt ashamed that I hadn't paid much attention to this juniper, this special tree. In the same growing area, I spotted my first pine.  It was also overgrown and in need of some work. It was a black pine that I bought as nursery stock about that same summer I killed the caterpillar.  Back then, I was learning all from books, and you saw black pine in all or the the books on bonsai. The black pine was also the first tree that I thought to take a picture of before I began working on it.  That's my son in the picture--he's 27 now and an attorney working in D.C.  So that's how long it's been. And he, along with the tree, sort of mark the passage of time.

Although it's late now in the season, I gave the tree a little work, .  But thinned out, it's structure and what I was trying to do with it shows. I need to come back next weekend to do some wiring, especially in the upper section of the tree.

Thinning will add buds next year 
Black pine 1995
As with the juniper, working on the pine, I recalled it was the first time I really did some drastic pruning to begin a project.  I mean it took some time for me to work up the courage to saw off the top three feet of the tree when I started all those years ago.  It just seemed so crazy.  I also had to cut off a lot of root to fit it into a training pot. This was also the first go at stuff like pinching back foliage candles, and working to pull down and develop some branches. Looking at the cleaned up tree after part of an afternoon, I think if some small buds pop out next season, it should look presentable again about June.

So at the very least, our trees have an influence over us. But there is more. Carlton's understated remark --that it was my first tree was remarkable in a way.  It reminded me of how attached we are to them.  I thought of the little Japanese folk tale I read somewhere about a samurai who was out of fire wood on a cold night, and in order to make a fire for a guest, had to burn his beloved bonsai.  He did this without a word to his guest, keeping his emotions, his attachment to the trees to himself. Somehow, the folk tale seems more powerful in what he gave up.

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