What makes a bonsai good?


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I saw this commercial recently and it made me think about one of my very early experiences in the world of Bonsai. Take a second and watch this video...(you really only need to watch the first 12 sec.) Then read on and you will understand why I titled this post.."What makes a bonsai good?"

Acura MDX Commercial

Not long after I started keeping bonsai, I discovered a Bonsai nursery in Pigeon Forge, TN. I don't remember the name of the nursery but it had obviously been there a long time. The proprietor greeted me, I think his name was Charles, and began to answer my many questions. As I walked awe struck through his trees, first experience at a real bonsai nursery for me, I eventually got around to the question, "What makes a bonsai good?" Instead of answering with a lot of hubbub about art or this and that...he thought for second and then said something to the effect of - A good bonsai is one you can have a picnic under! I thought the old bugger had lost it...

It probably took a year, or more, before I really understood the profound implications of his response. For me, his response referred to the idea that a "good" bonsai is one that allows the viewer to imagine it in a natural setting. Therefore, his picnic metaphor simply meant that in his mind he could imagine a given tree in a natural setting...thus meaning that you might possibly be able to spread the blanket and have a n imaginary picnic under the tree.

This notion has stayed with me ever since. I still find that the trees I like most are the ones that carry my mind into a temporary daydream. Not necessarily a picnic:) but often the adventure might be on a mountain cliff, a solitary tree in an open field, the edge of forest, or a towering old giant from the swamp...or countless other images locked away in my mind that come floating to the surface for a temporary excursion.

Does anyone else remember when they made this realization? or have had a similar experience?

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That is one way of putting it John. I say a tree must evoke passion or move me, but your words mean what I try to express. When a tree moves me I do indulge in trance like state and therefore perhaps a picnic is not out of the question. Majesty is another word I quite frequently use and to me the definition is = presence or seems alive. If it is just a tree that idly sits in a pot, then it is just that a tree in a pot, and no amount of artistry can change my views of it.

However, one that possesses presence will often lift you away into dreamland and the rest is only up to each individuals imagination. Recently I referenced Walter's Maple in such fashion, that if I was a bird I can see myself pitching a tent in his tree, because it was warm and inviting, a place one would nestle in, or pitch a blanket and have a picnic.

Then there are trees that evoke tension, drama. Although these trees have presence, they are not calm and peaceful, which is something that I favour in bonsai. The hustle and bustle of real life is tension and drama in itself, the shear pleasure of taking a trip and never leaving the bonsai bench, is not only a cheap but legal narcotic :) The peace and tranquility one enjoys while working on their trees is euphoric indeed. Pass the ham sandwich ;)
Well put Rick.

If we can remember a time when we were walking along a beach that had many stones lying about, occasionally a single stone would catch our attention, it would stand out from the others ands stop us in our tracks while we picked it up for closer examination. Be it the shape, color, texture, or whatever, it stood out from all the rest.

Maybe we remember walking through the woods, passing hundreds and thousands of trees....occassionaly one would draw our eye, standing out from all the others, and make us stop to examine it in detail. Maybe it was the shape, the bark, the movement, the deadwood, whatever it was it brought it above the others.

But let us now put that rock or that tree in with a large grouping of others that also had the same effect on us.... what happened? Now the single object is grouped with many others that also appealed to us, now we are judging these beauties against others and our perception changes. Too many blur the effect, blur the emotion, and deplete the whole.

Walter Pall once mentioned that he keeps a couple just "so so" trees on his benches because they make the others look better. In short, they act as a basis for comparison, with them the viewer all the better understands the quality of the rest, it puts us back in the woods or on the beach where the best can jump out and stop us again.

The recent AoB gallery is a good example, we could place any of those trees in a collection of lesser trees and they would all be stars, but together some shine and some act as a basis for comparison. No matter what quality of trees are grouped together, this will happen...but here is the subjective part.....each viewer will have a different opinion on all. Don't believe me? Just look at the results of any popular vote from any bonsai contest where the trees are all grouped together.

If we remove the trees from a group that act as a comparison and replace them, the focus would shift and other trees will take that spot, it would never end as each new addition would either move another to a basis for comparing point or become one itself.

What would happen to that bonsai in the commercial if put with ten other junipers from some of the best artists today? Would you lose the sense of picnic you had? Would the value diminish, would you choose another to rest under?

Okay, all that said to say this....it wasn't the juniper alone that evoked such feelings, it was the setting, the props, the environment shown, and it was the solitary tree that did so. In short, it was the presentation, not just the tree.

Thanks Will, and may I point out that your eloquent phraseology and comparisons used in describing this context, are similar to the application of the Golden Rule, when trees are assembled.

Of on a tangent, years ago I kept a sub-par individual on my staff for exactly the same reasons Walter mentioned, so that the rest of my staff looked good in comparison.;)
This is the beginnings of an opportunity to delve into a subject that is not only necessary but misunderstood. We hear terms like "Having a picnic", at the sea shore, on a rocky crag, and so on referred to in our contemplation of bonsai. What do these concepts have in common?

1.) First of all they are in reality abstract in that you are not really having a picnic at the sea shore or on a rocky crag, you are looking at a tree in a pot.

2.) Second; these images are dredged up from our imaginations and memories by an outside influence such as a bonsai, a smell, a sound or a piece of music.

I have found that there is one simple concept in the English language that fills this niche: Reverie, the process of abstract musings about or with something. In its simplest terms this is the one word in English that describes a good bonsai, it evokes a reverie of some sort even if it cannot be described as a picnic, sea shore or rocky crag. Good bonsai can do this, take you to the picnic etc. or it may only take you to a place where you can only contemplate your own existence. But a good bonsai should be able to at least inspire more than a second look that goes beyond a tree in a pot. If it does than it has stimulated a state of reverie with the viewer. Of course this can be true of the really bad trees but in general a reverie is a state of misuing not one of what the *&*%& is this all about!
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Yes of course transcendence works and is accurate, but I am trying to avoid delving into things that suggest Eastern Philosophies; just trying to keep it simple. The word transcendence invokes a reverie of its own, one of incense, Sitars, and mantras.
Thanks for the thoughtful replies gentleman.

Vance, I agree that reverie is perhaps a well chosen term for this experience.

Brent...I find that transcendence works for me as well.

Will, I am sure what you say is correct and actually the tree in the commercial does not do much for me. However, when I have the opportunity and the time to view trees in a contemplative fashion...I try not to let the presence of other trees interfere with the viewing of one. In the past, when at a show or a nice display of multiple trees, the first time I look I am like a kid in a candy store...I want to see everything and quickly. But later, after that rush is gone, I like to take in each tree and give an opportunity to make an impression on me...some do...some don't. Sometimes it is the synthesis of all of the components of a single display that create this reverie and sometimes it might just be the tree and pot. Either way, this experience is one of things that brings bonsai to a level of passion for me.
Great subject John, I find that Bonsai is to me is a wonderful escape in many ways.
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