David Picture5 bonsai

Running with the Lunatic Fringe

It is the off-season for gardens when we say goodbye to this year’s growth and salvage what we can. We experience an annual garden bardo as we harvest the lessons from another turn around the sun, and make way for the emerging possibility of the coming year. We commit ourselves to being around. How is that going?

When Eileen asked me for an article, my first thought was to share some of the wild, quirky, odd, and eccentric plant-based characters I have been honored to meet in this lifetime. She and I have been playing with the idea of treating an overgrown pine tree in the front of the Center, pushing through its rock retaining wall, as a Bonsai specimen. Therefore, writing an article describing some of the subtleties of the Art of Bonsai through the artists that practice the art seemed appropriate. Is it best to write from our experience?

I must say that the subject of relative and absolute truth arose almost immediately. I have a propensity for wild, quirky, odd, and eccentric tendencies, which pale compared to some of the personalities that populate the plant-loving worldwide community. Compared to many people the plant world has brought my way, I feel normal. Me normal, isn’t it a scary possibility?

I’ve shared with you that I worked with a Crazy Wisdom Bonsai Nurseryman in Northern California, Los Altos, to be exact. At some point, he invited me to tag along on a visit he was making to a fellow character in Lodi, California, so we took a field trip.



To set some context, my nursery owner had a sense of possibility. He saw what plants could be. He would start with seeds, grow them for a year, select the best candidates for bonsai, the best candidates to move to the next size container, and the rest he would give away. The yearlings were culled similarly; the two-, three-, and five-year-olds were treated likewise. Later, trees were trained with rock weights to simulate weighting from snow load. Affecting this aging is a discipline known as Niwaki in Japan. We, the nursery workers, called this job security. He would take expeditionary forays to Japan and around the state of California. This story involves one of the in-state field trips.

I don’t remember his name, but I will call him Louis, a seedless red grape farmer in the rich alluvial soil in the Sierra side of the San Francisco Bay. I remember his grapes being exquisitely ripe, sweet, and most definitively Ratna. The sweetness of his crop spoke well of his artistry. Louis spent some time in Japan after the war. He learned the art of Bonsai flowers there. I believe he had to have been involved with some Crazy Wisdom Zen school based on how the story started unraveling.



Louis would begin by spending the winter days combing the canyons of the streams coming out of the Sierra Nevada for rocks he had learned to identify. The identification had to do with telltale veining on the rock exterior. He would find a rock and drag it home. He would take out his geologist’s hammer at home and shear the rock. If he were accurate, the sheared rock would reveal multi-armed veins that

suggested flower shapes. Really?



OK, now Louis had a rock with a subtle flower outline revealed in the face of the stone. Louis then plopped the rock into a large planting dish filled with soil, cut a cardboard tube customarily used to form concrete piling around the rock, and then filled the pipe with soil. The top of the rock was barely visible.  Uh-huh? The extent to which this root over rock effect can take is shown here.



One of the wonders of Japan is a flower called a spider mum. These multi-petaled wonders are often  found in florists’ buckets in the fall. Onto the barely visible rock, Louis would plant a spider mum,  with the roots draping the stone. Louis would scratch away some soil every week, cutting the cardboard

form as needed. He was creating exposed roots that were clinging to the rock. As the plant developed, two things happened. First, he wired the plant to drape and cascade toward the ground. Second, he controlled the number of flower buds and their locations. By doing so, Louis was able to force flowers that channeled their energy into fewer flowers, resulting in flowers the size of dinner plates.

Chrysanthemums are fall flowers. You probably just missed chrysanthemum season at the garden centers. They are multi-petaled composites like daisies. They have a lot of variety. There is serious mojo around the cultivar’s color, shape, and blooming season. Louis had his favorite strains.



About August, the cardboard was gone, and the rock was draped with exposed roots resembling the fabled Monterrey Cyprus. The hardened roots disappeared in the soil. The top of the exposed soil was covered with green moss, the kind you find growing in rock cracks. The cascade was budding, and the buds were spaced along the flowing cascade in strategic locations. All of this is done with a show of Bonsai fall flowers, a blend of Bonsai and Ikebana, in mind. Louis would load the plants into his van and cart them off to exhibitions held around the state. There, he would rub shoulders with people who may be even crazier than he was.



OK, we have a waterfall of foliage, covered with dinner plate-sized spidery chrysanthemums, whose  exposed roots cling to a hand-picked rock with a subtle flower shape revealed in its intricate veining. The entire plant is grown in the Bonsai style of capturing the moment, the exposed roots suggesting timelessness, the heaven and earth elements simply oozing, and the observer the human part. The sheer Drala of the composition was breathtaking and quite ordinary. It is pretty ‘ordinary’ that much of the subtlety can easily be overlooked. The piece then faded into post-bloom depression.



Louis was doing this for the love of a lineage. There certainly wasn’t a financial reward involved. He loved doing it. He loved surprising his peers. He didn’t make a big deal or apologize for his forthrightness. He expressed some latent Fourth Moment that revealed itself in the external veining on rocks that had been ground out of the granitic Sierra Nevada and tumbled into carriable size through annual snow melts over eons of time. He loved to see the surprise in this flower show community when the chrysanthemums came into town.

The plant-lover kingdom is filled with these people. Louis is almost a middle-of-the-road example of how these people express their passion. I tried to find Louis again and failed. I did find that the community was still active. My relative sanity remains intact.


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