Article 81 – ‘Covert versus Overt’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this post we discuss the art of deception – what is real and what is not.

Introduction‘Deception is an act or statement which misleads or promotes a belief, concept, or idea that is not true.’ According to U.S. naval intelligence officer Barton Whaley deception is comprised of two parts, dissimulation covert, hiding what is real and simulation overt, showing the false. Deception is not a modern trait, it has been in existence for thousands of years in for example, religion, politics, finance, art and journalism; now the finger is pointing towards bonsai horticulture.

The art of bonsai – began in China in the 6th century known as Penjing, (also called penzai) it is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, plants, and landscapes in miniature. Diplomats and emissaries from Japan and Vietnam who visited China were amazed by what they saw and purchased many specimens subsequently returning home where most of their plants died, due to the lack of required horticulture knowledge. Why these diplomats and emissaries did not receive instruction on plant husbandry is unknown.

As a result during the same period Chinese Chan Buddhist monks visited Japan to teach in the monasteries, activities included introducing Leaders-of-the-day to the various arts of miniature landscapes as accomplishments befitting men of taste and learning. Hence the knowledge handed down was a closely guarded secret and remained thus – even the Chinese and Japanese immigrants to America in the mid 19th century brought their knowledge of miniature tree cultivation but, were reluctant to share their technical skills, their perception was that westerners were not permitted the extensive knowledge and instruction regarding horticulture development.

From what has been said here thus far, we note that the Penjing masters (Chan Buddhist monks) were the elite of society and their technical horticultural knowledge was not for the peasant class. Even the Japanese elite adopted this perspective – were they protective of the skills and technical knowledge or simply being tergiversate, from the Latin root word tergiversari’ meaning ‘to turn one’s back” or more figuratively ‘to be evasive’ hiding the truth.

In more modern times the 1960’s onwards if one wanted to gain the technical knowledge Japan was the destination and centre of learning and many students and citizens from various countries worldwide went to there to study in the nurseries; with many becoming apprentices. The Japanese bonsai masters soon realised that such knowledge was much desired and travelled to other continents, bringing the knowledge to those desiring to learn.

Is age important the general perception among many is that for a tree to become a bonsai it has to be ‘old’, which is a misnomer; admittedly there are bonsai that are old for example. Bonsai specimens from the seventeenth century do still exist and one of the oldest-known living bonsai trees thought to be at least 400 years old, is one of the national treasures of Japan housed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection. The tree a 5 needle pine Pinus pentaphylla v. Negishi known as ‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ was first trained as a bonsai in the year 1610 by the shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu a Hachi-No-Ki enthusiast.

‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ by shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu

Other bonsai that depict signs of age are ‘Yamadori’ – the definition of Yamadori in short is ‘collecting plants from the mountains’, the collected specimen is then carefully and skilfully trained into a work of art and is the most coveted type of Bonsai because of its unique characteristics. But, not all Yamadori are old some are as young as 20 years of age whilst others can be 5 times this and more.

As stated a tree does not have to be old to become a bonsai, a young tree if planted from a seed can in the right hands be skilfully turned into a bonsai in approximately 5 years thus giving the impression of age. (Although much depends on the species) Some of the best bonsai artists include Qingquan Zhao, Kunio Kobayashi, Ryan Neil, Peter Chan and Graham Potter whose demonstrations on design can be witnessed on their ‘youtube’ channels.

Covert or overt – the question is are we deceiving the populace in our attempts to change a tree’s structure from a mundane appearance into a work of art by the many methods that are often implemented; there are those whom would argue that we are, because we are taking it out of context and not leaving it in its natural state as nature intended. But in the wild, nature itself has created many tree specimens into various shapes and forms.

The first fictional work regarding bonsai The Tale of the Hollow Tree, by Utsubo Monogatari originating in the year 970 states “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

Thus came the perception that nature could only become beautiful if shaped according to human ideal; no doubt this topic will be debated further, but for the moment we will leave you with this thought: is bonsai horticulture covert or overt? Until next time, BW, Nik.

World’s oldest bonsai a 1000 y.o. FICUS at Crespi – Italy

Article 75 – ‘Design: a discussion’ Part 5

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this article we discuss the complexities of design, it’s meaning and message what the designer or artist is attempting to impart with their perspective and to attempt to make sense of it all in a rational manner.

Introduction Tanuki – is the Japanese word for Raccoon dog or Badger an animal known as the arch deceiver in Japanese folklore, meaning nothing is quite what it appears. The Tanuki technique is the marriage of a living tree affixed to an interesting piece of deadwood (often from an entirely different species) with the idea of creating a driftwood style composition, which is completely false.

This technique often known as ‘Phoenix Grafts’ (after the mythological Phoenix, which arose from its own ashes) is not currently accepted as part of the Japanese bonsai tradition and would not be displayed at a formal Japanese bonsai show. Nonetheless, many bonsai growers outside Japan consider Tanuki as an acceptable technique, because it reduces the amount of years to produce a deadwood bonsai specimen in the traditional way.

The combination of live and dead wood was usually restricted to coniferous varieties resulting in some surprising and effective displays, but now is a common practice with deciduous varieties. Yet combining live and dead wood is not that easy to accomplish if one wishes the outcome to have a natural appearance. There are two common approaches of how this technique can be achieved, (a) by surface fixation and (b) insertion method.

Surface fixation – the deadwood or host is cleaned, prepared long before hand to allow it to become weathered. The ‘live’ wood can be wrapped around the ‘dead’ wood and either screwed using stainless steel screws, brass nails, wire, raffia or plastic cable ties to make a permanent bond. But problems can arise using this method (a) infection from pathogens to the wounds made by the fixings, (b) ugly indentations in the ‘live’ wood made by wire, plastic and cable ties. Moreover, this method attaching ‘live’ wood to ‘dead’ wood takes some considerable time for the ‘live’ wood to conform to the contours of it’s new host.

Insertion method requires a more delicate approach as it involves the use of extremely sharp carving or power tools and one mishap can result in catastrophe. Once a ‘dead’ wood candidate has been selected, it needs to be treated to remove any decaying material and bacteria potentially harmful to the ‘live’ wood partner. The deadwood in the images shown below are roots from dead pines that were boiled for approximately 20 mins, allowed to dry and left to the elements for 2 years.

Tanuki deadwood

The left picture depicts the front and the right the rear in which you will notice a groove has been made via the use of a Dremel. The groove using the ‘keyhole’ method meaning wide enough to insert the ‘live’ material, but enlarged within to allow the plant room to expand and lock itself in place once inserted. Once both ‘dead’ and ‘live were aligned correctly wet raffia was used to secure the ‘live’ material in place that will eventually swell producing a rigid seam at the rear giving what can be deemed in all intents and purposes a natural entity although we know it is not. (Shown below)

Tanuki left = front right = back

A point of view – if we follow the guidelines of the Japanese masters the meaning of bonsai ‘bon’ – pot and ‘sai’ – tree is the marriage or coupling of the two components and nothing more. Thus we can argue that Bonkei (no ‘live’ material) Saikei (which has) and Hón Non Bó are not bonsai, they are landscape designs using figurines, rocks and structures. Moreover, Tanuki is not bonsai it is a combination of ‘live’ and ‘dead’ wood material often from different species, a fake composition set to deceive the viewer and many purists will concur with this viewpoint.

However, there will be arguments to the contrary some will contend that BonkeiSaikei, Tanuki and Hón Non Bó the latter modelled on the Chinese Penjing style are simply other art forms in the heady world of bonsai. (which is the umbrella term for miniature tree horticulture) If we had stuck to the purist points of view then would this ‘living art’ form have progressed in the way that it has.

If we think back to the first article in this discussion we note that many aspects in life, art, music, architecture and various other entities have radically changed through the eons. Is this the natural course of events of life’s rich tapestry that we are confronted with and should accept as we progress along the highway of a lifelong learning curve. The perception and/or concept of the artist/designer is what it is and we have the freedom to accept or reject what is presented.

This article on Tanuki is merely a discussion – ‘food for thought’ but, Tanuki is the arch deceiver in Japanese folklore meaning nothing is quite what it appears, thus the meaning of ‘covert’ and ‘overt’ comes into being; to be discussed at a later date. Meanwhile bonsai artist Peter Chan of Herons Bonsai gives a good explanation on Tanuki (link below) until next time, BW, Nik.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc18yBpcqIo&ab_channel=HeronsBonsai – 1:06 min.