BONSAI FANS ARE so enthusiastic that I find myself forgetting they’re working on projects requiring decades to fully realize, one tiny cut at a time.
I take a seat with 100 or so others for a presentation and slideshow about using deciduous trees to practice a distinguished art more typically done with evergreens. The club brings speakers in from all over the world to discuss the art of gently training miniature trees to grow in particularly pleasing ways.
If you’re wondering, “How consuming could trimming a few little trees get?” the answer is: very.
The audience listens to the night’s presentation with good humor and great interest, asking lots of questions. When the presenter, Andrew Robson, shows images of more avant-garde artists’ tree manipulations, murmurs ripple through the crowd. One man near me responds aloud a couple of times with a simple yet forceful “No. No.”
“Horticulture is horticulture, but when you get into the artistic aspects, everyone has a different opinion,” longtime member and former club president Josef Leibfried tells me later.
Much of the terminology Robson tosses out goes right over my head: “reverse taper,” “Shohin,” “petiole.” Clearly, bonsai is about far more than just pruning a tree. There’s a whole lot to learn.
Club members like to demonstrate their accumulated knowledge, but they don’t want to intimidate anyone with it. For those just dipping a clipper into the art form, the group offers new-member workshops. And even the more advanced hands-on workshops offer a few spots to folks who just want to come, observe and learn from what others are doing.
Part of bonsai’s appeal, members tell me, is that it is such a long-term commitment. Small efforts add up over years into a magnificent end product that represents all the work that went into it, as well as beauty and nature in general.
Howard Miller started working on bonsai in 1995, taking after his father. He still has that first tree. “It’s meditative to just spend time and think about the tree and what you want it to be like,” he says. “It’s also nature — like in your backyard, but in miniature.”
This club has been going on since the 1970s, about the time bonsai truly took root in the United States, and more than 1,500 years after bonsai originated in Asia. Beyond attending meetings, members host social gatherings and sometimes travel together to see bonsai in other parts of the region and the world.
Grant Rauzi’s 30-year-old daughter joined the club as a gift to him, so she can care for his trees long after he’s gone. After all, bonsai plants can live a century or more.
The combination of individual creativity and traditional rules is a bit hard for me to grasp as a newbie. But for Rauzi, it’s a big part of the appeal. “It gives you a chance for self-expression but you’re also following a tradition,” he says. “ Every stage of life has a valid form. It’s just like that with trees.”