Just So


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Port Orchard, WA
I work a half day on Fridays, and came home yesterday with a number of hours of daylight left to spend in the yard. It was one of those cold, invigorating days here - moist air heavy with the fragrance of living and rotting things, overcast skies, but without wind or rain, the temperature bracing but not cold enough to harm the trees. These are the kind of days here that always make me think to myself that if I were a tree, I would want to live here.

For a couple of hours I worked on my project of expanding and organizing my vegetable gardens again this year, spurred by the news of growing food shortages and uncertainties, and by my love of such gardening. This year, as with the previous year, I’m focusing on heirloom dry beans that grow well in our short seasons here, and potatoes. A diet of beans and grains alone will provide complete protein, store well, and will keep people alive indefinitely. But grains won’t grow well here. Potatoes, however, grow amazingly well and store well, and while they don’t provide as good a mix of amino acids to compliment those in beans, like grains do, they are great foods and work well enough. With lots of stored food as back up, some chickens, and my wife’s propensity for trapping/hunting/fishing/collecting critters, the gardening should feed us well and provide items for barter if it ever comes to that. And, if it never comes to that, it’ll still be great eating, and lots of satisfying fun.

So, after a few hours of that, I was walking among the bonsai and pre-bonsai scattered around the yard, just checking them, seeing it anything called out to me to be worked on. On the northern part of the property, in a little nook hemmed in by Douglas firs, Broad-Leaf maples and Red alders, is where I keep most of my collected trees in various stages of transition to bonsai. Mostly they sit on the ground for a few years in the black plastic bags I collect them in, but a few have graduated to oversized grow pots.

An Alaskan Yellow cedar there caught my eye yesterday. I collected it with Dan Robinson and George Heffelfinger in an alpine bog on Vancouver Island three seasons ago while I was writing and photographing one of the chapters for the book up there with them. Part of the foliage died shortly after collecting, but after one year it looked healthy enough to transfer into a grow pot. It has done well since then, healthy, but I haven’t felt compelled to work on it more - until yesterday.

I went and got my little carrying tray, containing my primary everyday tools and wire, spread a small piece of plastic on the ground, and sat down with the tree. I had no great plans for it yesterday, I just wanted to look at its possibilities and clean it up a bit. I trimmed off some overly long dead branches, but left for another day one primary, foliage-bearing branch that I had originally thought to shorten. Instead I quickly fell into an activity I always love - stripping and scraping bark and expendable softwood from areas destined for deadwood features.

At such times, I am strangely uninterested in where I’m going with the tree, or what I or others will think of the area I’m working on, which is often so small and hidden no one will ever again pay it the attention I do in that moment: a moment entirely free of desired outcomes beyond the small task of cleaning this little bit of bark from this little knotted area here so as to better appreciate the pleasure of its gnarly form at this point in time.

I could easily use power tools for this - a light touch with the die grinder, or some Dremmel work - but I always just sit there for hours instead, often repeatedly at intervals over a protracted period of months, just slowly and patiently whittling away at it with a pair of the “bonsai knives” - right- and left-handed - that Dan Robinson designed years ago. These simple but spectacular tools, with just the right design for all manner of bonsai tasks, are always a joy to use.

The pleasure of those knives in my hand yesterday, the efficient way they cut, scraped and coaxed the bark and wood off the dead areas is hard to describe. That pleasure mixed with other sensations - the tactile feel of the deadwood and bark, the subtle sounds of the work slowly progressing, the gorgeous odors of the wood being exposed, the visual beauty and myriad details of the bark and wood and foliage, the moist air against my face, my dog occasionally nuzzling against me for attention. All these blended together to create a very serene state, free of discursive thought. It went on for hours. Timeless. Spacious. Untroubled. Exquisitely, peacefully aware.

This sort of state comes easily to me when working on bonsai. I naturally slip into it during such carving work, but also to an extent with many other aspects like wiring, or pruning, or simply watering or looking at or even repotting a tree.

For thirty years I have practiced and studied Eastern religions and a great deal of other esoteric lore, so I am no stranger to the such states, nor their terminology. However, I have no interest in a philosophical or theological discussion about such things here (though folks are free to discuss it if they want, of course). But I do wonder the following: although people can have these states in many settings and activities in life, is this state a significant part of the attraction of bonsai for anyone else among you the way it is for me?
Yes, you are not alone in the zone.
Beautiful composition Will!

From my earliest memories of childhood, I would explore the trees walking alone or with a few friends, sometimes my grandfather. But the most cherished memories are me feeling absorbed by, at one with the trees. We had a river on our property and the river bottom was thickly forested. I had trails that may not have even been visible to a casual glance but I knew every tree almost by name.

Walking among them, smelling those smells that you describe, hearing the leaves crunching on the ground or rustling when green. Yes time stops in that zone.

It is this feeling that I longed for when I first began bonsai. It is what I still feel when I am with my trees. Not just developing the trees, (because I am not brilliant in this regard) but growing with the trees as I learn to "do the right thing at the right time" both for them and for me.

Thanks Will for the reminder why I do this.
Hmmm.is this the thrill of knives unblocking a chakra and enabling the kundalini energy to rise in true hippy fashion?
"Not alone in the zone" - I like that, Mark. :D

Glad you appreciated what I wrote, Clyde. Sometimes it helps to remember why we do this. Where was that property with the river where you grew up? Just trying to picture the kind of trees and landscape you grew up with. My mind told me a ranch in West Texas when you said that, but I could certainly be very far off.

I remember Dan asking me, soon after we first met, how I got interested in trees: not bonsai, trees. I told him about my own lifetime of experiences with them, and he said, "I knew it. I knew you were a Tree Guy, like me." He's often said that while others think of him as a "bonsai artist" or a "landscape architect", he always just thinks of himself as a "Tree Guy". Sounds like you're a "Tree Guy" too. I think most or many of us in bonsai are. For me it certainly adds a special dimension to the hobby.
Will I am most definitely a "tree guy". That place I grew up was in South Central Colorado. In and around a tiny town at about 7000 ft called Gardner. Along the river there was some type of willow, cotton woods, Russian Olives, and Silver Maples.

I would often ride my horses or take my motorcycle (yes kids drive on the roads there) and go up into the hills. There were Ponderosa, RMJ and piñon everywhere. I think I mentioned before that we had lived also lived on a ranch of several thousand acres. This was all Pondy, and very twisty RMJ and piñon I would just wander the hills for hours and hours.

Once I even came upon a great horned owl just hanging out in one of the trees.

As I lived within a half hour of the Sangre De Cristos I spent much time there as well. Pondy, Aspen, Fir, Spruce, Lodge Pole, and of course much higher bristle-cone. I still remember the first time I saw one up close, you could nearly feel the struggle and story that the trunk, branches and needles told. I remember being amazed that it was alive.

My Grandfather that I mentioned was also a tree person. He was always digging trees and transplanting them. He was amazing.
When we moved from Colorado to Phoenix part of me died. The "mountains" did not have trees, they had cacti. It was about this time I stumbled upon the IBC, I guess about 1999-2000 or so. I have been trying to learn this art ever since. I do it because it has brought that part of my heart back to life.
I dunno,your real tree people have four opposable thumbs.

Some seers of old recognised each Chakra as a mythological city.

Of course some Yogi are sex obsessed charlatans.
Will, what you describe seems like a more intense version of a state of mind I sometimes find myself in when working on or just enjoying my trees. Very peaceful and serene, yet certainly no sense of drifting or aimlessness. Definitely something I appreciate.

As for a spiritual or metaphysical comment, I don't have any at this point.

(Klytus, I hate to say it, but sometimes you seem to be desperate for attention.)
Thanks for answering that for me, Clyde. What a marvelous place to grow up. No wonder you've got this sort of thing in your blood. We'll have to go collecting together sometime.
I wonder why did you feel compelled to do that? Was it curiousity?
Just curious...

Not to be cutesy or cryptic, Attila, but I didn't "feel" compelled to do that - I was compelled to do it. I've never had any more choice in the matter than I have had in whether to breathe or not. But even if I had chosen it, rather than it choosing me, I would never have wanted to change a thing.

Curiously, the concept of curiosity is far removed from the equation.

It's a long story.
Not to be cutesy or cryptic, Attila, but I didn't "feel" compelled to do that - I was compelled to do it. I've never had any more choice in the matter than I have had in whether to breathe or not. But even if I had chosen it, rather than it choosing me, I would never have wanted to change a thing.

Curiously, the concept of curiosity is far removed from the equation.

It's a long story.

I am just having fun with words here, but if you "were" compelled, than you also must have felt compelled, otherwise you would't have been aware of it. :)
The reason I was curious, is that there was a long time in my life when I was seriously "into" similar things. But in perspective, that was just another "experience", with many others, that shaped me into what I am today. It did not take over my life, at any point. I was too well centered in my own individuality, to follow anybody else's "-ism" or "-ology".
Without implying in any way that I know your thoughts on this, I've found that the beautiful state of mind that you described in your opening post, is just part of being human, and doesn't have to come from the teachings of a wise man from far-away lands. My 5 year-old son was a better teacher, if I have occasionally forgotten how to do it. He is not afraid to engage in an activity that he really loves, and then just gets lost in it. And this is what bonsai does to me, when I am alone with my trees.

...and then, there is the rude awakening, when I try to share with others:
Person: "So, how much for that banzai?....is it from China? What part of China?"
Me: "It's from Downtown. Downtown, China."
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"Feel" has become a rather sloppy word in our language. Let me just expand on the analogy with breathing - I've never "felt" compelled to breathe, but I am compelled to breathe.

My involvement with the things we talk of was never something I've been "into" in the sense of a passing fad, nor a fascinating hobby, nor a phase I went through. Nor did it amount to one of many "experiences" that have made me into who I am, unless you would rank being born or dying as such an "experience".

In my initial post I pointed out that the state I was in while working on the tree was one that many people experience in a variety of activities and settings, and that I am familiar with the names it is given in various religious and metaphysical systems that map out and catalogue states of awareness. I am familiar with that because of thirty years involvement in such things, but that is not to say that those experiential states have any sort of fundamental importance within those systems - just that they catalogue them and give them names. I pointed that out only to make clear that I was not all that interested in discussing the experience along those lines, and had, instead, posted about it just to find out if it was a common reason people were attracted to this hobby.
.... instead, posted about it just to find out if it was a common reason people were attracted to this hobby.

In my case, the reason I was attracted to this hobby is very different from the way I feel about this hobby now. All these wonderful states of mind that I may experience during a weekend morning, when I am working with my trees, were not present for a long time after I started my journey with bonsai. At the beginning, there was bewilderment, incredulity, admiration, awe, curiousity, and such. Then frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness started to creep into the wonderful original mix. There was the fear of braking "the rules". There was a myriad questions about "what to do next", "should the next branch point towards the side, or the back", "what would people think about the slight reverse taper on the first branch", and many more, similar dilemmas. It was painful sometimes, exasperating. I had so many questions, and rarely somebody who could answer them.

Then there was the phase when I felt that I learned everything, and I could endlessly argue with people about anything in bonsai. In this phase, it was all about how other people see me and my trees. I had the urge to impress others. This was an important driving force.

Only much later did things settle down and morphed into the pleasantly exciting and effortless state of mind that I experience today. Of course, those original perceptions still linger to a small extent, but they are only a distant memory.
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Hi Will,
Like you and many others (I’m sure) we all get to that point at times, a Zen like state perhaps with various intensities based on our individual personality traits?
I’ve talked to friends that are artists and they get into that zone as well, where time seems to stand still while you are engrossed in the actions of self exploration through an artistic pursuit. I also dabble in driftwood carving and often whittle away for hours letting the piece guide my hands and have found that this also happens to me with many of tasks we apply to our trees…..or working on the perennial beds or other gardens.
Like you I’m a gardening guy…… who is lucky enough to be a tree guy for a living.
Cheers Graham
I've experienced this state when I used to paint with watercolors. My wife worked at nights at the time, so after I had put the kids to bed I would paint, and before I knew it, a couple of hours would have gone by.
I'm a woodworker by trade, and I can lose all track of time on some shop projects, but I'm just not good enough at carving deadwood where I could lose myself in it. Hopefully as I do it more it and stop second guessing everything, it will become as enjoyable as the rest of the Bonsai related projects. While a lot of people seem to dislike wiring, for me it gives me great pleasure and I can lose myself it very easily. Taking it off is one of my least favorite parts of Bonsai, but I love to put it on.

I grew up in the Northeast, and while I have been to the high country out west and have seen and can appreciate the worn and twisted trees, what brought be into Bonsai were the maples and beech (and others) that looked like the ones I grew up with.
I too have always been a tree/nature guy. My 4th grade teacher informed my mother that I had to read other books besides ones about nature and it was around the same time that I told my mother that I felt closer to God out in the woods then a church and didn't think I needed to go to church anymore.
It didn't work at the time, but I still feel that way and if I ever feel like I need to have a talk with the "Big Guy" I get outside.
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