Man With a Plant

When my am­a­teur at­tempts at grow­ing bon­sai weren’t work­ing, I con­sulted a Youtube star

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Har­ley Rus­tad

When my am­a­teur at­tempts at bon­sai weren’t work­ing, I con­sulted a Youtube star

Nigel Saun­ders stands in the mid­dle of a jun­gle. Around him grow an­cient-look­ing trees with gnarled trunks, dense canopies, and lichen- cov­ered branches. One rises out of a rock tem­ple, its roots hug­ging the crum­bling grey stones. But Saun­ders isn’t look­ing up at the trees; he’s look­ing down. Saun­ders is prac­tis­ing bon­sai, the art of cul­ti­vat­ing minia­ture trees in pots. He grabs a spray bot­tle and goes around his sun­room to give each bon­sai a del­i­cate mist of wa­ter. “This is my Fi­cus mi­cro­carpa,” he says, kneel­ing down to spray one that’s sit­ting on a wooden ta­ble. “Check out its aerial roots.” I squat be­side him. The tree, maybe a foot-and-a-half tall, has dark­green leaves the shape of spear­heads. Roots dan­gle from its branches, poised to plant them­selves in the moist soil of its oval pot. It was Saun­ders’s first bon­sai, the one that sparked his pas­sion twen­tysix years ago. He has been car­ing for it ever since it was a two-inch sprout that he no­ticed peek­ing out from un­der a poin­set­tia that his of­fice had re­ceived one Christ­mas. “I thought the tree de­served its own pot,” he says. His Fi­cus mi­cro­carpa, also known as a Chi­nese banyan, is part of a care­fully cu­rated col­lec­tion that has ex­panded to around 180 bon­sai. Saun­ders is grow­ing a clus­ter of western red cedars, na­tive to Canada’s rainy West Coast, and kapok trees, com­monly found in equa­to­rial forests. He has an ap­ple tree that un­furls white blos­soms ev­ery spring and a spiky pine from the Aus­trian moun­tains. Conifer and trop­i­cal, ev­er­green and de­cid­u­ous, fruit­ing and flow­er­ing, Saun­ders has thriv­ing trees from around the world leaf to leaf and nee­dle to nee­dle in his sub­ur­ban so­lar­ium. Saun­ders shuf­fles around the cramped room while of­fer­ing the Latin names for each of his plants and punc­tu­at­ing brief de­scrip­tions with spritzes from his bot­tle. He mists a ra­di­a­tor-style

space heater at the base of one wall, caus­ing steam to fill the room and the hu­mid­ity to spike like a sauna. “And here’s my fa­mous le­mon tree,” he tells me, beam­ing with pride. Saun­ders points to a spindly trunk with glossy, emer­ald leaves. It has 1.5 mil­lion views on Youtube. He may grow lit­tle trees, but Saun­ders is no typ­i­cal bon­sai prac­ti­tioner. The art, best known for metic­u­lously shaped spec­i­mens kept in pris­tine botan­i­cal gar­dens, seems a far cry from the scene in Saun­ders’s crowded so­lar­ium, its walls cov­ered in a re­flec­tive ma­te­rial that looks like re­pur­posed space blan­kets. His out­door gar­den and green­house are not much bet­ter, fea­tur­ing trees in bro­ken pots sit­ting on makeshift ply­wood work benches. Saun­ders is, none­the­less, an ex­pert of the craft. He is also cre­ator and host of one of the most pop­u­lar bon­sai Youtube chan­nels in the world, which he uses to bring this high art to the mod­ern masses. For four years, Saun­ders had been my bon­sai mas­ter, de­spite us never hav­ing met. I stud­ied his video tu­to­ri­als on plant­ing and pot­ting and prun­ing and cre­ated a bon­sai of my own. But I couldn’t help but think that I was fail­ing: my tree looked noth­ing like the in­tri­cately and el­e­gantly styled ver­sions that were be­fore me. I had tried to bring the na­ture that I loved in­doors, to cap­ture a sliver of the wild and make it my own. In­stead of a quiet and con­tem­pla­tive pas­time, how­ever, I found my­self tum­bling into a minia­ture world packed with anx­i­ety and stress.

Bon­sai is not a species of tree but a form al­most any tree can be forced to take. The word (pro­nounced Bone-sigh) is a Ja­panese pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the Chi­nese word pen­sai, which means a plant in a con­tainer. Af­ter orig­i­nat­ing in China more than 1,000 years ago, bon­sai was re­port­edly brought by Bud­dhist monks to Ja­pan, where it be­came pop­u­lar with the coun­try’s elites. “A tree that is left grow­ing in its nat­u­ral state is a crude thing,” reads the tenth-cen­tury story Ut­subo mono­gatari ( The Tale of the Hol­low Tree), the old­est full piece of fic­tion from Ja­pan. “It is only when it is kept close to hu­man be­ings who fash­ion it with lov­ing care that its shape and style ac­quire the abil­ity to move one.” Those shapes in­clude for­mal and in­for­mal upright, slant, windswept, and mul­ti­trunk. Some trees are in­tended to ap­pear as for­est groves and oth­ers to cas­cade be­low the level of the pot, as if dan­gling off a cliff. Some even flower or fruit with mar­ble-size or­anges or pomegranates droop­ing from minia­ture branches. To be close to a bon­sai is to glimpse the minu­tiae of na­ture. I grew up on an is­land in ru­ral Bri­tish Columbia sur­rounded by im­pos­ing na­ture — big moun­tains, big ocean, big trees. Not long af­ter I learned to run, I was col­lect­ing bees and frogs and grasshop­pers and drop­ping them into glass jars with leaves and moss in an at­tempt to recre­ate the grandeur around me.

To grow a bon­sai — a tree that I could hold in my hand — be­came the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of this fas­ci­na­tion. But, as a hobby and an art, it felt in­ac­ces­si­ble. The ex­am­ples I saw ap­peared in­con­ceiv­able, grown with styling and car­ing tech­niques that ap­peared fas­tid­i­ous and in­flex­i­ble — as if I needed decades of study be­fore ever touch­ing a tree. I stuck with house­plants. It wasn’t un­til the sum­mer of 2014 that I de­cided it was time to give bon­sai a go, sprin­kling 100 speck-like tree seeds into a yo­ghurt con­tainer filled with soil. I dili­gently wa­tered as per the in­struc­tions on the back of the packet, and ev­ery morn­ing for weeks, I checked for life. Then one morn­ing: green. Dozens of twin-leafed sprouts had erupted from the loam overnight. They were Fi­cus re­li­giosa, iden­ti­fi­able by their bright green pro­toleaves the shape of tiny hearts. Just af­ter life ar­rived, so too did death. One by one, the sprouts turned brown and curled. Amid the rot, how­ever, one thrived, seem­ingly buoyed by the nu­tri­ents of the fallen. When it was two inches tall with a cou­ple of pairs of leaves, I care­fully dug my fin­gers into the dirt and trans­planted the frag­ile seedling to a new ter­ra­cotta pot. Around 500 bce, Sid­dhartha Gau­tama at­tained en­light­en­ment af­ter sit­ting un­der a Fi­cus re­li­giosa, be­com­ing the Bud­dha. The tree was un­doubt­edly tall and wide and leafy, like the mil­lions of its kind that grow across South Asia, where they are known as bodhi trees. The tree that sprouted so op­ti­misti­cally in the sunny bay win­dow of my Toronto apart­ment prob­a­bly had sim­i­lar plans for great­ness. I had an­other idea. The masters of bon­sai — part artist, part gar­dener — twist, bind, break, bend, and ma­nip­u­late some of Earth’s grand­est nat­u­ral cre­ations to their will. In the wild, a coast red­wood can grow as tall as a thirty-five-storey sky­scraper; a sin­gle banyan tree, with its mul­ti­ple root sys­tems, can cover a cou­ple of hectares. But as bon­sai, these trees are never al­lowed to achieve their po­ten­tial. They are liv­ing ex­am­ples of the hu­man de­sire to con­quer na­ture; we are forc­ing a tree to grow on a win­dowsill in a pot the size of a ce­real bowl. Bon­sai are hubris writ minia­ture. A bon­sai “has two ages,” writes Horst Daute in The MacMil­lan Book of Bon­sai, “its own phys­i­cal age and that of the tree it seeks to rep­re­sent.” Achiev­ing this il­lu­sion in­volves near-im­per­cep­ti­ble tech­niques in ma­nip­u­la­tion. For bon­sai that are grown out­side of their nat­u­ral habi­tats, sea­sons and weather pat­terns are of­ten recre­ated ar­ti­fi­cially: spray­ing the trees with wa­ter to sim­u­late rain, green­hous­ing them to recre­ate the trop­ics, or forc­ing them to be­lieve it is au­tumn by prun­ing

I wor­ried that I’d per­formed the car­di­nal sin of grow­ing bon­sai: I had let my tiny tree get too big.

off all their leaves. The re­sult is that bon­sai aren’t just lit­tle trees, they’re lit­tle trees that think they’re big trees. The il­lu­sion of time is what makes a bon­sai si­mul­ta­ne­ously real and fraud­u­lent. A tree that is thirty years old may be shaped to ap­pear as if it is 300. One dras­tic tech­nique in­volves in­ten­tion­ally killing por­tions of a trunk by scrap­ing away bark to fab­ri­cate dead wood and the ap­pear­ance of great age. An­other is shrink­ing the size of a bon­sai’s leaves to en­sure that all of the tree’s el­e­ments are in pro­por­tion. By prun­ing a tree at the height of its fre­netic sum­mer growth, the tree is forced to use up what­ever stored en­ergy re­mains in its roots to re­grow, and as a re­sult, is only able to pro­duce smaller and smaller leaves each time the process is re­peated. Some trees do grow old and are passed down through gen­er­a­tions of care­tak­ers who gov­ern their growth for cen­turies. Bon­sai is, af­ter all, a hobby that never ends. One of the most sto­ried spec­i­mens is a nearly 400-yearold white pine in the Na­tional Ar­bore­tum in Wash­ing­ton, DC, that sur­vived the atomic bomb­ing of Hiroshima. Oth­ers are cen­turies older and have fetched more than a mil­lion dol­lars. My Fi­cus re­li­giosa had a long way to go. My tree halted its growth when the tem­per­a­ture dropped dur­ing its first au­tumn and en­tered a con­cern­ing sta­sis when I didn’t know if it was alive or dead. Bon­sai is a chal­leng­ing hobby for a novice. When you pick up a paint­brush and dab­ble in wa­ter­colours, noth­ing, typ­i­cally, is go­ing to die. I ob­ses­sively checked my tree’s health ev­ery morn­ing, like some ar­bo­real he­li­copter par­ent, and fret­ted over all the ways it could fail — from not enough sun to too much sun, in­va­sive pests to nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. Af­ter all, a flood would man­i­fest for my bon­sai not as ariver breach­ing its banks but as me ac­ci­den­tally over­wa­ter­ing it one day. Come sum­mer, new leaves be­gan un­furl­ing ev­ery week, push­ing the tree higher and higher, like a beanstalk. But the key il­lu­sion of pro­por­tion­al­ity was nowhere to be found. It had a trunk as skinny as a pen­cil and leaves big­ger than play­ing cards. I turned to the books of John Yoshio Naka, the bon­sai mas­ter who founded the Cal­i­for­nia Bon­sai Club in 1950 and who is of­ten cred­ited with bring­ing the art to the United States. His two tomes, Bon­sai Tech­niques I and II, are con­sid­ered scrip­ture by purists who fawn over the im­pres­sive line draw­ings of styles, pho­to­graphs of elab­o­rate trees, and how-to guides on care and cul­ti­va­tion. But the texts, which in­clude com­pli­cated de­scrip­tions, such as the “Golden sec­tion of divi­sion,” a method for a per­fectly pro­por­tioned bon­sai, can be hard to fol­low for a new­comer. Read­ing these books felt as if I wanted to build a tool shed and was look­ing for in­struc­tions by leaf­ing through a de­sign book by Frank Lloyd Wright. I closed Naka’s books, opened my lap­top, and googled, “Fi­cus re­li­giosa prun­ing tips.” I clicked on a video tu­to­rial. “Hi there,” a friendly voice said. “Nigel Saun­ders, for KW Bon­sai. To­day we’re gonna tackle this Fi­cus re­li­giosa.” Kneel­ing in the dap­pled shade of a back­yard was an unas­sum­ing, mid­dle-aged man. On a ta­ble be­hind him sat a yel­low bot­tle of Mir­a­cle-gro and the bon­sai of my dreams. The lit­tle tree had a healthy canopy of heartshaped leaves, which I in­stantly rec­og­nized, and a trunk as thick as a sausage. Over the next forty min­utes, Saun­ders walked me through choos­ing the “front” of the tree (the side you want to show); he demon­strated how to re­move the tree from its pot, trim the roots, and re­plant it; and he con­fi­dently guided me through prun­ing leaves. The video was an am­a­teur pro­duc­tion, but that drew me in. In one mo­ment, he picked up his cam­era and zoomed in on the tree, its branches and leaves go­ing out of fo­cus; in an­other, a white chicken ca­su­ally walked through the shot. There was no script or clever ef­fects, and there was no for­mal Ja­panese ter­mi­nol­ogy (un­like some other pros, he didn’t call his tree’s root base nebari with­out ex­pla­na­tion; he sim­ply called it “the root base”). Saun­ders pre­sented bon­sai not as a lofty, in­ac­ces­si­ble art form; it was just a man and his tree. The Fi­cus re­li­giosa video was one of the first that Saun­ders up­loaded to his Youtube chan­nel, which he launched in 2014. (“KW” stands for Kitch­ener– Water­loo, a re­gion that’s a cou­ple hours’ drive west of Toronto.) His chan­nel is or­ga­nized into dozens of playlists con­tain­ing nu­mer­ous videos for each tree, al­low­ing fol­low­ers to track their progress over years. And his ca­sual ap­proach to bon­sai has been pop­u­lar, gain­ing him more than 87,000 sub­scribers and over 13 mil­lion views. There are other bon­sai Youtu­bers, in­clud­ing Ten­nessee na­tive Bjorn Bjorholm, who was once called “the Brad Pitt of Bon­sai” by Ar­chi­tec­tural Digest, prob­a­bly thanks to his wavy blond hair and an­gu­lar jaw. But Bjorholm, who trained for six years un­der a bon­sai mas­ter in Osaka, Ja­pan, has a teach­ing style that felt far above me. “When de­sign­ing a conif­er­ous bon­sai,” Bjorholm says in one clip, “there is a gen­eral process uti­lized to de­ter­mine the tree’s front, an­gle, branch place­ment, line, flow, and di­rec­tion­al­ity. This process is largely in­flu­enced by value judg­ments re­gard­ing com­pos­ite de­sign, and those value judg­ments are them­selves in­flu­enced by the larger cul­tural con­text in which con­tem­po­rary bon­sai art ex­ists in Ja­pan.” I turned off the video. Saun­ders’s pas­sion­ate one-man-with-ahandy-cam per­for­mance, in com­par­i­son, feels like watch­ing a high-school science teacher who can’t hide his ela­tion with elec­tron trans­fer. His videos are even stud­ded with un­in­ten­tional Tao-es­que proverbs, in­clud­ing “I can al­ways grow a branch thicker, but you can’t make them thin­ner.” For four years, I doted over my bon­sai’s health, cautiously fol­low­ing Saun­ders’s reg­u­lar Fi­cus re­li­giosa up­dates,

un­til my tree de­vel­oped a full canopy. At first, ev­ery new leaf was a badge of hon­our, but soon, they rep­re­sented a prob­lem: Saun­ders’s trees were stout and pro­por­tional — they looked real. Mine, mean­while, was spindly and, at nearly two feet from root base to tip, looked noth­ing close to nat­u­ral. I wor­ried that I’d per­formed the car­di­nal sin of grow­ing bon­sai: I had let my tiny tree get too big. Par­a­lyzed by fear that I would kill my bon­sai — too wor­ried to re­pot it or ag­gres­sively prune it — I re­al­ized that I needed help. So I picked up my tree, hailed a cab, and headed to the train sta­tion. It was time to meet my bon­sai mas­ter.

On a breezy spring day, Saun­ders pushes open a gate at the side of his house and leads me into his so­lar­ium, where he keeps his trop­i­cal bon­sai through the win­ter. With his frizzy grey hair and glasses, plus an out­fit of khaki cargo shorts, a red fleece, and Crocs san­dals, the fifty-six-year-old looks like some kind of mod­ern wizard who traded his wand for a spade. Saun­ders’s affin­ity for the minia­ture started when he was a kid and would spend hours on end con­struct­ing and paint­ing model air­planes. “When a plas­tic or wooden model is com­pleted,” he says, “there’s no more work to do to it. Bon­sai trees are never fin­ished — in­stead of col­lect­ing dust like a plas­tic model, they keep get­ting bet­ter as they get older.” He con­tin­ued this fas­ci­na­tion into adult­hood, work­ing at GM de­sign­ing mod­els of lo­co­mo­tives and, later, at Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics, pro­duc­ing an eight-wheeled ar­moured Stryker ve­hi­cle that the US mil­i­tary sent to Iraq. He quit that job af­ter see­ing his work be­ing used in a the­atre of war and started a home-based com­puter-graph­ics com­pany. His clients have in­cluded the Ha­mad In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Doha and sets for the Cal­gary Stam­pede.

Bon­sai, mean­while, com­bined his skills at re­al­iz­ing scenes in minia­ture with his love of the out­doors. He never stud­ied un­der a bon­sai mas­ter (five years of ap­pren­tic­ing is re­quired to be in­ducted into Ja­pan’s ex­clu­sive Nip­pon Bon­sai As­so­ci­a­tion); Saun­ders sim­ply planted, pruned, and grew. “I wouldn’t con­sider my­self a pro­fes­sional bon­sai artist or any­thing but a pro­fes­sional Youtu­ber now,” he says. Af­ter mon­e­tiz­ing his chan­nel and re­brand­ing as the Bon­sai Zone, he now earns around $1,200 ev­ery month from his videos — enough, with his sav­ings, to re­tire. Saun­ders spends up to four hours ev­ery day re­spond­ing to emails and com­ments from some of his thou­sands of fol­low­ers. His life is now filled with bon­sai. “Some peo­ple look at porn on the in­ter­net,” he says. “I look at trees.” Bon­sai are of­ten supranat­u­ral rep­re­sen­ta­tions of trees: ex­ag­ger­ated, near fan­tas­ti­cal in form, and un­nat­u­rally dra­matic in shape. To achieve these iconic forms, tra­di­tional artists bend branches and se­cure them in place with wire. Saun­ders, how­ever, prefers a tech­nique called “clip and grow” — where a tree is pruned, left for half a year to re­bound fully, and then tamed once again. He ar­gues that to force a tree into a styl­ized bon­sai that looks car­toon­ish or oth­er­worldly — “what you think the tree should look like, not what the tree thinks it should look like” — is to miss the most pow­er­ful op­por­tu­nity of the art: to trans­port some­one out of their bub­ble and into a pint-sized sim­u­lacrum of the wild. Bon­sai has long been an ex­clu­sive club for the knowl­edge­able and pro­fi­cient, and not every­one re­acts warmly to Saun­ders’s tech­niques. “Saun­ders [ sic] videos are so mis­in­for­ma­tive both some­what hor­ti­cul­tur­ally and very much in tech­nique that they’re dan­ger­ous to the prac­tice of bon­sai,” wrote one com­menter on­line. An­other called him the “Bob Ross of Bon­sai,” re­fer­ring to the host of The Joy of Paint­ing, an art pro­gram from the 1980s that was geared to­ward am­a­teurs. Oth­ers have called his trees “garbage” and “ugly and of in­fe­rior qual­ity.” The com­ments are not ex­actly the most vit­ri­olic trolling on the in­ter­net, but when Saun­ders lists off the in­sults that have been di­rected to­ward him — peo­ple call­ing him a “tree tor­turer” or pro­claim­ing that one of his bon­sai is just “a stick in a pot” — he seems to have taken them to heart. This level of at­ten­tion is also why Saun­ders prefers to keep the town where he lives pri­vate, out of con­cern for his more valu­able bon­sai. It’s a le­git­i­mate fear: through the spring of 2015, seventy-oneyear-old Tak Ya­maura, a bon­sai mas­ter who sold trees out of his nurs­ery in sub­ur­ban Van­cou­ver, was the tar­get of a string of bur­glar­ies. On six oc­ca­sions within one month, thieves broke into his com­pound and col­lec­tively made off with about $65,000 worth of Ya­maura’s most prized trees.

There is a point in art when the artist gets to step back and gaze upon their fin­ished work. This mo­ment does not ex­ist in bon­sai.

As I fol­low Saun­ders into his back­yard, I rec­og­nize the maple un­der which he filmed the first Fi­cus re­li­giosa video. Saun­ders places my tree in his makeshift out­door film­ing stu­dio — a wood work­bench be­hind which he hung a black piece of fab­ric — and steps back. I watch his smile, feel­ing like I just handed in a school project and can tell I’m about to get a “good ef­fort” at best. “It’s not bad,” he says. He talks about “po­ten­tial.” “It’s from a seed, that’s in­cred­i­ble,” he says, and I beam from the com­pli­ment. Many bud­ding bon­sai grow­ers might as­sume that grow­ing a lit­tle tree is no dif­fer­ent than tak­ing care of a hardy suc­cu­lent. And clever shop own­ers lead peo­ple astray, hawk­ing six-inch-tall ju­niper bon­sai as per­fectly adept at liv­ing in ur­ban apart­ments with min­i­mal care. But it’s a lie: while trop­i­cal trees, in­clud­ing my Fi­cus re­li­giosa, can be happy on a sunny win­dowsill in­doors, conifers — in­clud­ing cedars, pines, and ju­nipers — are more re­liant on nat­u­ral fluc­tu­a­tions of tem­per­a­ture, sun­light, mois­ture, and hu­mid­ity. Saun­ders says that he wants his videos to show all the steps in grow­ing bon­sai — which trees to se­lect and how to care for them. “It’s the same amount of work as tak­ing care of a cat or a dog,” Saun­ders says. “You don’t go on vacation with­out leav­ing wa­ter for your cat.” Then the bon­sai mas­ter steps for­ward. My tree is in­deed big, Saun­ders says, which is fine if I have space. Some bon­sai, known as im­pe­rial bon­sai, are, in fact, large. A 1,000-year-old tree at the Omiya Bon­sai Art Mu­seum in Ja­pan is more than five feet tall — though that height’s not ex­actly prac­ti­cal in my 350-square­foot apart­ment. Kneel­ing at his work­bench, Saun­ders con­firms that the is­sue with my tree is that it is com­pletely out of pro­por­tion. He squints through his glasses, his eyes scan­ning up and down. “There is the op­por­tu­nity here to start it over,” he says, chuck­ling. “If you want.” The im­por­tance in any bon­sai, he tells me, is roots, trunk, and branches, in that or­der. Peo­ple may fo­cus on the canopy of leaves or the styl­ized branches, but Saun­ders says the most im­por­tant fea­ture is ac­tu­ally un­der­ground. I re­al­ize what I have to do. Saun­ders hands me a pair of “by­pass pruners,” named as if they were tools for open-heart surgery. My hand trem­bles with worry that this won’t be a new be­gin­ning but a tragic con­clu­sion. You have to be brave in bon­sai, Saun­ders says. He re­cites a bon­sai mantra, of­ten at­trib­uted to John Yoshio Naka: “Me chicken. You chicken. No bon­sai.” I take the pruners and, in one snip, de­cap­i­tate my tree. I nearly yell, “Tim­ber!” as the leafy crown I’d spent four years grow­ing falls away from its trunk. “Done! It’s bleed­ing,” Saun­ders says with a laugh, not­ing the milky liq­uid ooz­ing from the cut. He quickly gets to work, shak­ing my tree out of its pot, wash­ing it of its soil, and splay­ing its roots out on the ta­ble. I feel oddly ex­posed. Af­ter an hour, my tree is pruned, its roots trimmed, and it’s been re­planted back in its pot. My beloved tree now re­sem­bles a sad, foot-tall stump.

p. 36

Nigel Saun­ders cares for around 180 bon­sai from his home in On­tario.

Left Saun­ders, un­like bon­sai purists, some­times crafts minia­ture scenes with plas­tic toys along­side his trees.

top Saun­ders’s first bon­sai, a twen­tysix-year-old Fi­cus mi­cro­carpa.

bot­tom The Bon­sai Zone Youtube chan­nel has re­ceived more than 13 mil­lion views.

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