Listen to the tree

Banner art by Utagawa Hiroshige

For this next post, I thought I would resist drowning you all with any further waterlogging related info, and instead take in a metaphorical breath of fresh air with some unrelated root and tree topics. Let's all put on our best berets and art-critiquing-faces as we take a peek at the creative endeavors of both the Root Lab volunteers and ancient to modern Asian civilizations. First up, we have some epoxied pieces of fine art that provide informative 3D glimpses of fine roots, followed by an historical account of the art of bonsai.

Root epoxies 

Over the last couple of weeks, our Root Lab volunteers have been staying busy during the quiet and cold winter season by epoxying fine root samples. Epoxy resin is commonly used to encase specimens of plants, animals, minerals, and more. Thanks to the patient and creative work of Jen, Larry, and Don, we have a diverse catalog of fine roots to share.

From start to finish: Don and Larry can be seen here, first cleaning the roots and then placing them in the epoxy moulds. 

Not only are these branching beauties fun to look at, they also show us important morphological and functional differences between the fine roots of different species. Researchers often study root traits such as root diameter, specific root length, root architecture, and the relationship between root tissue density and mycorrhizal fungi colonization. Tune in to the next blog post to learn more about the above. In the meantime, see if you can spot some of the species' variation below.

The history of bonsai  

Chinese origins 

From the earliest complex human societies in China, nature has shaped Eastern culture like water slowly carving rivers in the terrestrial terrain. One of the oldest examples of this shaping is the practice of mimicking natural landscapes by miniaturizing trees and other potted plants. Archeologists continue to debate the exact initiation of these customs, but some suggest it became a cultural norm as far back as 4,000 years ago. More conservative estimations date the preembryonic stages of bonsai closer to the 1st century C.E., as a ritual carried out by Daoist mystics. Whatever the pre-calendar calendar year, the distillation of the ineffable beauty and vastness of natural sites into miniature forms was ritualized as an act of appreciating the energy and forces that sculpt the world around us. As an added bonus, these mini shrines could be brought into the home, garden, and other sacred spaces for people to maintain their connection to nature, regardless of any physical separation that became increasingly apparent as societies continued to develop. 

As goes the story of all developing nations, immigration and outside cultural influences eventually clash or meld with preexisting ways of life. The introduction of Indian Buddhism in the 2nd century C.E., and the later sect of Chán Buddhism that would result from Indian and early Chinese philosophies blending together, just so happened to perfectly compliment traditional indigenous practices. Harmony with nature, a core Daoist teaching, paired nicely with the meditative practices of Buddhism and both religions also had their own traditions of potting plants and miniaturizing landscapes. By the time we see written documentation of primitive forms of bonsai during the Tang dynasty in 700 C.E., the art was far from the beginner's level that you'll find in your local Home Depot today. More evidence of the advanced craft was found in Prince Zhang Huai's tomb mural in 706 C.E., which showed miniaturized fruit trees planted in trays with pebble soil mixtures.

This tray-based landscape design, then called penzai, would continue to develop in China and split off into different categories. Another translation, penjing, meaning 'potted landscape/scenery,' is the term you'll find widely used today. This includes tree penjing, shumu, that implements the tools of wiring and pruning to shape trees, landscape penjing, shanshui, which carefully places rocks and water to recreate natural scenery, and shuian penjing which combines the elements of the first two in addition to other small figurines for finer detail of the landscape. Penjing continued to evolve and disperse throughout Asia, eventually hitching a ride on Chán Buddhism across the East Sea to Japan. 

An ikadabuki raft style penjing landscape by Matyie Che followed by a map showing the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.

Japan's cultivation

Around the 6th century, as the first Buddhist students were returning to mainland Japan with miniaturized tree souvenirs in tow, specific clans and noble classes were adopting Buddhist thought and rituals throughout the islands. The Soga clan, consisting mostly of Korean immigrants, were influential in the initial acceptance and adoption of these principles. Buddhism would receive official government support as a state religion in 587 C.E.. As I mentioned previously, external influences sometimes clash with a nation's preexisting culture, and Buddhism wasn't entirely embraced by all of Japan's citizens. The widely practiced indigenous religion, Shinto, had rooted itself in Japanese culture since 300 B.C.E., and it wasn't necessarily clear how these two philosophies would coexist moving forward.

After a series of minor battles, Buddhism and the Sogas came out on top. As Buddhism became more widely practiced, the middle and lower societal classes of Japan were gently encouraged to accept the status-quo. Many Shinto beliefs were assimilated into the Chán school of Buddhism, resulting in Japanese Zen Buddhism. Shinto, with its emphasis on the intrinsic energy and power in nature and all living beings (that intrinsic energy being kami), complimented the meditative and introspective philosophies of Buddhism. These principles would soon be reflected in the arts of the time. 

The first Japanese literary references to miniaturized trees can be found around the year 1000 C.E., and 300 years later, scroll artists began illustrating dwarfed trees in tray landscapes as accessory elements and main subjects of their work. The oldest of the latter can be admired in Kasuga-gongen-genki, a masterpiece consisting of 20 painted scrolls, detailing the miracles carried out by Buddhist and Shinto deities of the Kasuga shrine and temple located in the Nara prefecture of Japan. The beauty in austerity was a continuous thread weaving together this era's religion, philosophy, and art. What better way to exemplify this notion than to engage in a relationship with a living tree by meticulously shaping and training its form as it responds with an inherent drive to grow?

The Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji Restoration that followed also led to important developments within the practice, popularization, and cultural significant of bonsai. The political stability of the Edo period allowed for a lively art scene. Potted trees, along with many other nature-inspired art forms (woodblock prints, scrolls, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, and screen paintings), quickly grew in popularity within urban centers like beds of moss enveloping a lusterless stump. By the time Emperor Meiji came around and dissolved Japan's feudal system, restoring imperialism and initiating the movement of the country towards its modern era, bonsai was a main focus of many Japanese nurseries located in cities such as Kyoto and Osaka. As Japan opened itself up to trade and foreign travel, bonsai were shipped to Europe and North America. Meanwhile, accounts from travelers such as Marie Stopes and Robert Fortune provided insight into Japanese aesthetic and the miniaturized trees that could be found in most wealthy households and businesses. This led to international interest, which spurred bonsai-related publications and exhibitions in cities world-wide.  

This Buddhist statue in Japan was built in 609 C.E. and depicts the Great Buddha of Asuka-dera. The following image shows one of the 20 scrolls that comprise the Kasuga-gongen-genki. In the left section of the painting you can see bonsai and saikei propped up on work benches. 

Migration to the West

Earlier we covered the Chinese art of penjing and you may be wondering why the western migration of miniaturized trees was rooted, instead, in Japanese culture. Was there no influence from China, Vietnam, or other East Asian countries that have their own history of potted landscapes? The answer to this question is complex and undoubtedly related to many of the rifts that exist between East- and Western cultures. To provide somewhat of a simplified explanation, it has a lot to do with the different barriers to assimilation that U.S. Japanese and Chinese immigrants experienced in the mid to late 1800's. 

The California gold rush in the 1850's, and the need for laborers in the newly admitted Hawaiian state, resulted in a high flux of Chinese and Japanese immigrants over the course of a couple decades. The first generation of Chinese immigrants in California consisted of mainly young males who were treated poorly both by the communities that surrounded them and the mining industry in which they were employed. Assimilation was not easy for this demographic, and issues were only exacerbated by the 1883 Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the U.S. government. Over the next 60 years, the Chinese population would dwindle until the 1942 Magnuson Act repealed the immigration ban. During the years of the Exclusion, Chinese-Americans established Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, but due to racial biases, Chinese culture wouldn't be appreciated by the general population until much later. 

Much like the highly prized bonsai that made their way to the Hawaiian islands during the late 1800's, the Japanese-American immigration story is one that begins with embracement. From 1850-1900, the Japanese population in Hawaii sky-rocketed as the islands were in need of a skilled workforce. At the turn of the century, many Issei (a term meaning 'first generation') immigrated to the contiguous states and became farmers. Japanese-Americans would soon have a strong influence in the horticultural field, especially around the West Coast. Ornamental nurseries were established, and the art of bonsai began percolating through American culture. 

These circumstances differed from the Chinese-American experience described above for a number of reasons. First off, and perhaps most importantly, it seems that Issei were more respected and accepted by their fellow American citizens, but this is something I can only infer from historical accounts, and I'm sure the dynamics were much more nuanced than what can be gleaned from wikipedia. Also, most of these men were trained in traditional arts and crafts, and it was easier for them to practice and eventually spread important traditions surrounding art, food, and general ways of life. Furthermore, many of them were able to return to Japan, marry, and bring their families back to the states. All of the above aided in the establishment of Japanese-American communities and the embracement of their traditions into Western culture.

Hopefully we all have a clear understanding of why and how bonsai was transferred to us in the West via Japan rather than any other East Asian influence, otherwise my attempts at impersonating a virtual middle-school history teacher were unsuccessful. I don't know if you caught my foreshadowing up there, but Japanese-Americans would come to face their own discriminatory treatment, as the U.S. halted immigration in 1924 and later established war relocation centers in 1942, forcing over 120,000 Japanese-American citizens and immigrants to abandon their homes, businesses, and bonsai. We will return to this later, as it is an important historical period that shaped the lives of many, as well as the legacy of bonsai.

43-year-old juniper presented in a cascade style at the Hawaii Bonsai Culture Center.

Statue of Japanese sugarcane workers in Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens, Maui, Hawaii.

88-year-old crepe myrtle in an informal upright style at the Hawaii Bonsai Culture Center.

Beginning in the 1890's, high quantities of miniaturized trees were being exported from Japan to the U.S. and Europe. During the next 30-year period, exotic plant species were crossing continental borders in frequencies that would never again be matched. This was a time before plant importation and quarantine laws, so there was less worry surrounding the spread of infectious plant diseases, and more worry about having a diverse selection of non-natives at your local nursery. The term bonsai was not used in English-language catalogs. Instead, Japanese nurseries would refer to miniaturized potted trees as trained, dwarfed, hachinoki (Japanese term for 'potted tree'), or naninized (Latin term for 'small'). The Hinoki cypress, or Chabo-hiba (Chamaecyparis obtusa), was the most popular specimen bought by European and American customers during this three-decade span. It was stylized into a distinct pom-pom shape, similar to what most people would visualize when hearing the word 'bonsai.' This species and style wasn't very popular in Japan, but it was easy to grow, inexpensive, and large, and therefore appealing to us fast-paced Westerners. 

Just to re-emphasize, and probably over-romanticize, this marvelous time in horticultural history, the late 1800's not only saw the influx of new bonsai species, but also millions of other unfamiliar Japanese species and bulbs. This led to the establishment of gardens in parks, public spaces, and home landscapes. The first ever Japanese garden built and exhibited in the states took place during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. This was most likely also the historical debut of bonsai in the states. Two years later, Europeans at the Paris International Exhibition had their first encounters with bonsai at exhibits run by visiting Japanese nursery owners and artists. The first public presentation about bonsai and tree care was said to take place in Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition in August of 1893. During this presentation, a Japanese nurseryman named Henry Izawa described the process of producing miniaturized trees and gardens. Slowly but surely, these public displays were planting seeds of interest and wonder in Westerner's hearts.

According to Charles Long's An Informal History of Bonsai, which served as an extremely informative source material for this post, there were multiple types of publications that initiated the establishment of bonsai in North America. These include nursery catalogs produced by Japanese nurseries for an English market, bonsai articles in English and French magazines, English books published in Japan for both foreigners working in Japan and for those focusing on how to grow the trade outside of country boundaries, and finally, books published in English in the U.S. and Europe. Prior to these accessible reads, there was a prolific boom of Japanese bonsai material that covered tree care practices as well as stylistic choices and the philosophy behind the art. Japanese-American's such as Bungo Miyazawa, Iwao Yoshimura, and Sawada Ushimaro all published popular books in the early 1900's, and Norio Kobayashi began publishing the innovative Bonsai Magazine in 1931. However, these works were inaccessible to English speaking audiences, and if you were a Westerner taking up bonsai prior to WWII, you were most likely learning by trial and error. 

A nearly 300-year-old Hinoki cypress at the Arnold Arboretum. Check out the link for some interesting info on this specimen. Above you can also see some retro bonsai magz from the 70's. I was unable to find any of the original Kobayashi publishings from the 30's, but many of his books are still available online.

As we all know from the FX show The Americans, or Showtime's Homeland, spies are a SERIOUS THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY AND THEY MUST BE STOPPED. Just like our modern television networks, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt really cared about spies, and stopping them. Preventing espionage, in addition to worries over economic competition and the deep-rooted racism towards Asian groups in the western states, was a main justification for the Executive Order 9066. In 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR signed this policy, which circumvented any constitutional questionability by allowing the U.S. Army to set up military zones in locations that just so happened to be populated by Japanese communities. As a result, the first generation Issei described earlier, as well as second-generation Nisei who had citizenship by birthright, were forcibly removed from their homes within a 48-hour notice. Individuals and families were then relocated to one of ten internment camps further inland, where they would spend the next three or more years until the end of WWII.

My intention behind rehashing our country's history is not to condemn our past behavior, but rather to celebrate the resiliency of the Japanese population by discussing how they continued to connect and express themselves through the art of bonsai as they endured inhumane treatment. For FDR and many of our U.S. officials and citizens who could not find it within themselves to accept those who were culturally unfamiliar, their own fear of what they didn't understand led to destructive thoughts and actions. This is a pattern we see time and time again. Unfortunately, if you are human, you are liable to make the same mistakes in the name of what you feel is "good," or simply in following the status quo. Let's challenge ourselves to look for the space to be open-minded, compassionate, and curious people, even when our first instinct may be self-preservation.

Back to Order 9066 and what life looked like for the Japanese-American citizens and immigrants living in the internment camps during the 1940's. Living conditions were poor and cramped in the camps, without any trace of comfort from the familiarity of prisoners' past lives. To prove their loyalty to the U.S., many Japanese-Americans left behind traditional Japanese items, and whatever they did bring was limited by what they could carry. For professional nurserymen, this meant prioritizing trees over clothes and furniture. Skilled practice and tending to bonsai continued in the camps, as did many other traditional arts and crafts. 

We can look at the lives of Frank Nagata and Morihei Furuya who trained under their teacher Sam Tameichi Doi at Camp Amache in Granada, Colorado, for an example of this continuation of traditional art and culture. All of these men influenced the bonsai scene in the western states prior to their relocation, and much of their collections had to be abandoned. Similar to how any logical parent would react to all of their children hanging off of a cliff, you save your favorites. Before you are offended by that comparison, I would like to defend myself and state that I think that is an apt comparison, long-time bonsai practitioners care deeply about their trees! Anyway, those lucky plants that made the cut, as well as whatever dwarfable trees were found on site, became the new locus of attention for Nagata, Furuya, and Doi. Just like their trees who miraculously survived the cold and bitter winters and the hot, dry, Colorado summers - these men endured the tribulations at Amache, only to grow in complexity in both their artistic skill and human spirit.

After WWII ended, bonsai and those practicing it had to reacclimate to a changed world. Property and possessions weren't returned. Businesses were lost. Between $2 to $5 billion worth of assets were lost. Individuals and families had to start from the ground up. Doi's students Frank Nagata and Morihei Furuya would do just that by joining three others in the founding of the Southern California Bonsai Society. This club would go on to popularize bonsai in the western states, building a large community that later transitioned to the California Bonsai Society. 

A glimpse of life inside the camps. These pictures show a drone's-eye-view of camp Amache, children outside of their one-room school house, and the cramped living quarters that families had to endure. Head over the the Digital Public Library of America to see more pictures. You'll only find a few images inside the camps because photography wasn't permitted.

When considering individuals who's life work focused on spreading the art of bonsai to all those who were interested, beyond the stark boundaries that a language gap is prone to construct, teachers Haruo Kaneshiro, John Naka, and Yuji Yoshimura deserve recognition. Kaneshiro established a new inclusive branch of the Hawaii Bonsai Association in order to allow admittance to all, leading the world in the category of tropical bonsai. Naka and Yuji's catalogs and contributions each call for their own blog posts, but I will do my best to summarize their work here.

Raised in Japan and inspired by his grandfather and a love of nature, John Naka would later move to the U.S. and become the most renowned bonsai teacher in the Western scene. Rising in popularity due to his attractive teaching style, supplemented with proverbs and drawings/paintings that would help guide his students, Naka began to tour different states in the 1960's. His books Bonsai Techniques I (1973) and Bonsai Techniques II (1982) are staples in the bonsai community and have been translated in Spanish, German, French, and Italian. He's received various prestigious awards from Japan and the U.S., and continued to pursue his creative endeavors late into his 80's. 

Yuji Yoshimura influenced the expansion of bonsai from over seas after a childhood of exposure to plants and bonsai and a degree from the Tokyo Horticultural school. After establishing his bonsai nursery in 1948, he began teaching classes and would go on to instruct over 600 students in the decade that followed. Being one of the founders of the Nippon Young Men's Bonsai Association (NBA), he played a large role in encouraging Western bonsai practitioners to visit Japan for training. Yoshimura, as well as Naka, also encouraged bonsai masters from the NBA to travel West to give lessons. This constant transference of both practical skill, tree care techniques, and creative styling, between the East and West was a key component in the proliferation of bonsai. 

Two great examples of Yoshimura's collaborative approach and encouragement of others in the field include his work with Alfred Koehn and Giocanni Halford. Koehn was a writer and artist who helped to educate English-speaking students attending Yoshimura's classes in his Tokyo nursery. Halford was also a writer, who would later assist Yoshimura in writing The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes in 1957. This would become the standard training manual for those practicing bonsai in the West. I don't know if it reached the record sales of literary masterpieces like Twilight or one of the 37 Harry Potter books, but it was considered the "bonsai bible," so that has to account for something. 

Although we are nearing the end of this historical stroll down hachinoki lane, the art and practice of bonsai is far from over. Thanks to the efforts of those mentioned above, and many others who I couldn't afford to squeeze in due to the fact that my readers surely have other important things to attend to (like their bonsai trees, or reading my other posts, or watching The Last of Us to prepare for a fungi induced pandemic), bonsai was firmly established in the West by the 1960's. In 1967, the  American Bonsai Society was formed, and continues to be a great resource for state clubs, instructors, classes, and other learning opportunities.

Haruo Kaneshiro sizing-up a bonsai forest. Look here for some more background on his life. 

John Naka in a wonderful hat. If you're looking for a place to see some of his more famous trees, as well as their stories, check out this pdf.

Yuji Yoshimura teaching his first bonsai class in 1952. Look here for more of his biography.

Women in bonsai

While reading the above chronicles of bonsai, you may have noticed the lack of representation of woman. This phenomena is not only observed in the world of miniaturized trees, but in most art forms, as women artists are both paid less for their work and granted less awards than their male counterparts. Maybe they just need to cut off an ear to be taken seriously. Anyway, I want to take a moment to acknowledge some talented bonsai professionals that weren't covered in the above bonsai briefing: Kathy Shaner, Marija Hajdic, Pauline Muth, Amy Liang, and Chicako Yamamoto. I have linked their websites and/or bonsai club profiles which provides a brief description of their work and accolades. Also, check out this blog post by Samantha Holm if you are interested in seeing some data on women in the arts and in bonsai. It's a great read!

Appreciating the art and the living medium

In researching the history of bonsai, and watching a not-obsessive-at-all-completely-normal amount of bonsai youtube videos, ideas regarding the difference between East- and Western thought slowly began to bloom in the bright and highly sophisticated corners of my mind. Hopefully we know each other well enough by now that you sense my facetiousness, I have absolutely no merit to be dolling out my opinions on subjects like art theory and philosophy, but I'm going to do it anyway because I am the ultimate authority here! 

This comparative discussion written by Jeff Humphries describes the stark difference in a much more elegant manner than I ever could, but for those of you who don't feel like reading 25 pages of dense cultural criticism, the author focused heavily on the Westerner's relationship with nature. Humphries argues that because we see ourselves as separate from the forests, the trees, and most all living and non-living elements with which we share this Planet, our foundational understanding of our own existence is distorted. This is reflected in our art, our relationships with other animals, and even our approaches to conservation and environmentalism. This sentiment is echoed here by the previously mentioned Charles Long, "It is difficult to define the appeal of these demanding tree forms. Perhaps the one common denominator which explains the lure of bonsai is their expressiveness of freedom. As man sees himself crowded by burgeoning populations and a rapidly narrowing ratio of square footage per person, the bonsai becomes symbolic, as it did in another context for the Buddhists, of a long-abandoned, far distant better time when man was a natural phenomenon in and not above nature."