Bay Island Bonsai maintains a tradition of putting its newest members in the spotlight. Since the organization got its start back in 1998, new members have been subjected to the bonsai “stand exercise.” A group of stands are placed on a table and new members are given the instruction to “arrange them from least formal to most formal.” No other explanation is given.
At a recent meeting, one of our new members included John Thompson, one of the more talented and experienced bonsai artists among us. Here he gets “help” from Jeff and Peter.
John, Jeff and Peter arrange stands
The exercise usually brings up two questions: 1) What makes one stand more formal than another; and 2) What’s the point of the exercise?
Having watched the exercise unfold for over ten years, it’s clear that most people can supply a pretty good definition of what passes for “formal” without formal bonsai training. Flat bamboo “stands” commonly used for accent plants are usually found to be less formal than taller rectangular stands. Slabs are usually found to be less formal than natural root stands.
Rigid, concrete guidelines can be hard to come by. In general, straight lines are more formal than curved; tall – to a point – is more formal than short; and dark colors are more formal than light. How do tall stands with strong curves and dark colors compare with short, powerful stands with ornate detail? That’s where things get interesting.
Both stands are dark and make use of curves – which is more “formal”?
Where does the tall, octagonal stand with intricate details and strong lines fit in?
After getting a feel for gauging formality, one commonly asks why it matters. The answer I’ve held onto the longest begins with an extreme case.
In formal or semi-formal bonsai displays – for these purposes, bonsai displays with trees, stands and accent plants – the stands used can have a big effect on the display’s esthetic. Imagine placing a Japanese black pine with a thick trunk on a ceramic disc next to a tall stand with heavy legs supporting a delicate accent plant. Such an arrangement could put a lot of focus on the accent while downplaying the pine. If the goal is to engage viewers with the pine, one needs to select a stand appropriate to the purpose. This is one reason why I like this exercise – it helps us create the effects we are looking for when we assemble a display.
It also causes us to look at stands closely. The best are beautiful objects on their own. For being quite simple, the sweeping curves on the stand below create a lively, almost playful effect for such a strong and squat stand.
Great curved legs
The stand below is an interesting contrast – it is short and strong with powerful legs that quickly taper to delicate feet. It’s hard to find a good tree for this stand, but well worth the challenge.
Such tiny feet!
The stands below share several characteristics. They are taller than they are wide and they fit in the general square/round category. In other words, these stands serve well for trees with square, round, or other pots that aren’t rectangular. Which is more formal? I’d vote the stand on the left. It’s taller, darker, heavier – it appears sturdy – and predominantly features straight lines.
More formal and less formal bonsai stands
Good root stands are a pleasure. They’re super for cascade and semi-cascade bonsai in bonsai exhibits, and good for all sorts of things around the house the rest of the year.
Bay Island Bonsai’s 11th annual exhibit is scheduled for January 16-17, 2010. It will be held in a new location – the Alameda County Fairgrounds – in Pleasanton, CA. In preparation for the event, I began selecting trees to display in January. In July, I put together a few trial displays to get a sense of how I might display the trees I planned to exhibit. I realized, at the time, that I had a bit of work cut out before the exhibit.
Planning, it turns out, only gets you so far in bonsai. The final decisions about what will or won’t be shown depend, in large part, on how good the trees look at exhibit time. This is why many of the great shows, like Kokufu, are juried a matter of weeks before the actual event. For the most part we have a good idea of what trees will make it into our exhibit well ahead of time, but there are always surprises as the event draws near.
I’m now considering showing up to four trees this year: a maple, a juniper, and two pines. I can’t yet say which will make the cut. Beginning tomorrow, I’ll be working on each in an attempt to get them show ready. This will entail a bit of wiring, plucking, cutback and repotting.
I’ve shown the trident maple above on a couple of occasions, most recently in 2005, but the other three trees have yet to be shown. As deciduous trees aren’t typically shown with wire, preparing the maple will include the usual cutback, cleanup and repotting, but it won’t, thankfully, include wiring.
Pines, on the other hand, can show well with wire. How to know when to wire and when to pass? That’s a good question that can make for wonderful debate when the tree in question is ancient and shows loads of character. When the tree is young, like the the 15 year-old specimen below, it’s harder to get away with sloppy branch placement. I’ll start by pulling extraneous needles and then see what else is needed. With or without additional wire, the tree will benefit greatly from a more appropriate pot.
Japanese black pine
A fellow BIB member and I split a juniper several years ago and I ended up with the half pictured below. Another way of putting it: the owner of the other half of the tree realized that his half would be better off without the bit you see below. It’s been a fun project.
The corkbark pine below previously belonged to the late Mas Imazumi – a very prominent and much missed teacher who popularized bonsai around the U.S. for decades. I’ve been returning the tree to its former vigor over the past few years and was happy to see that it filled in well this summer. I don’t know if I can get it ready for show this time around, but I expect it won’t be too much longer if it doesn’t go in this year.
Japanese black pine – corkbark
For years, I’ve been particularly opinionated about which trees belong in BIB’s exhibit and which trees don’t. Despite Boon’s encouragements, a number of us have repeatedly turned down requests to show our trees for fear that they just aren’t ready. After years of maintaining a hard line on the topic, I’m beginning to soften a bit. Not about what makes for quality trees, but about which trees are ready for exhibit. In a “perfect” world, with benches overflowing with outstanding trees, yes, I’d be happy to uphold rigorous standards. But in our world, a world rife with opportunities to improve our trees, I’m warming to Boon’s mantra of, “Show it one way this year – we’ll improve it and show it another way next time.” At least, that’s what I’m telling myself about this year’s candidates.
It’s shown, below, with a colorful pyracantha – a great variety to exhibit this time of year. If all goes well, the berries will last through our upcoming exhibit in mid-January.
Display as set up
While our display supplies are limited at monthly meetings, they are usually enough to offer an idea of what items need addressing before the exhibit. The stand for the juniper, members noted, is a bit ornate for the tree. The stand for the pyracantha is clearly too small.
These details are easily addressed. More important, however, is the relationship between the two trees. Although the trees are displayed at different heights, their individual heights are quite similar. Typically three-point displays are more effective when there is a greater size difference between the trees. The pine below, while a bit large for a medium display at 21″, is a better overall fit.
If the goal is to highlight the juniper, a new second tree will be needed. Ideally, it will be either smaller than the juniper or taller and thinner. Once the second tree is determined, appropriate stands and accents can be selected.
No display has gone unscrutinized at BIB meetings. I see this as a good thing. Through this exercise we can learn how to make good displays great. And that, in itself, is a pretty good thing.
By far the best Bay Island Bonsai field trip of the year was our visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California’s White Mountain range. The slow-growing Bristlecone Pines are a marvel – and this is the best place to see them. Along the Methuselah Trail alone, 11 of the 19 known 4,000+ year-old specimens continue to grow, including some of the very oldest (see Anne Johnson’s The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, 1999).
Really old Bristlecone Pine grove.
A combination of factors lead to such long lives, many of which are attributable to the locale. The growing season is short at 10,000 feet – two months give or take – and the weather is harsh. Summers are warm and dry. Overnight freezes mark spring and fall; winter is bitter cold. And unlike the Sierra Nevada range to the west, the White Mountains get relatively little precipitation, 80% of which comes in the form of snow.
It turns out that this is exactly what helps the Bristlecone live as long as they do. While these conditions make it hard for Bristlecone’s to thrive, they make it even harder on any pests or fungus that might give the trees trouble in more hospitable climes. Bristlecone growing in better soil with more precipitation grow larger and more quickly but die much younger.
Walking past a large Bristlecone
Many of the older Bristlecone sport dead roots that sit on top of the ground. This is due to erosion. The soil here typically washes down the mountains at a rate of about 1 foot per millenium. Gauging the original soil line is a good way begin estimating the age of a tree. When over a foot of roots are exposed, the tree is likely over 1,000 years old.
Erosion at the base of a Bristlecone
The Methuselah Trail itself cuts right through the most fascinating groves. Visitors are warned not to veer from the trail to protect the trees. As the soil is mostly loose rock and dust, wandering about can hasten erosion. Fortunately for visitors, there’s plenty to see at almost every turn.
Trompe l’oeil – the tree is big, but not that big. The photographer is shooting a subject behind the pine in the foreground.
Most of the oldest trees grow in a swath of particularly dolomitic soil, identified by the white band in the photo below. This is the Methuselah Grove. In it is the Methuselah tree, a 4,841 year-old specimen, and the world’s oldest known tree.
The trees in the Methuselah Grove are smaller than the surrounding trees. Most are odd arrangements of deadwood with occasional younger shoots indicating that a tree is still alive. Several have fallen as erosion claimed the ground beneath the roots yet continue to grow upwards. The tree in the photo below is typical of the area. It is likely between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
Very old Bristlecone
The Methuselah tree itself is unmarked to prevent unwanted attention. Curiosity rankles many visitors to the area, and the tree’s exact location is the subject of many questions put to on-duty rangers.
Awesome roots in the Methuselah Grove
After spending a day in the area I became very comfortable with the Methuselah tree’s secret. It’s neat to know how old the trees really are – and fascinating to know down to the year, thanks to dendrochronologists – but a tree’s exact age isn’t apparent to the human eye, and in the big picture, it actually counts for very little. I took as much time as possible to simply study the trees, to see how they grow, to follow the curves of their deadwood and to appreciate their unique characters. I think this is why the area has such appeal to bonsai folk – it’s an outstanding place to see age, character and beauty in nature.
A small Bristlecone
Of course, seeing smaller Bristlecone that exhibited characteristics sought after in bonsai brought big smiles to our faces. Some trees, like the one pictured above and below, received a lot of attention from our group as they were very understandable through our bonsai-tinted lenses.
Same tree from the side
This was my second trip to see the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. I think next time I’d like to spend more time in the area and explore the Patriarch Grove, home to the world’s largest Bristlecone Pine. Like a large bonsai exhibit – think Kokufu – it’s both wonderful and a lot to take in for one day.
Formal upright Bristlecone with hollowed-out trunk.
Our day ended with rain. It made the view more striking and it brought out the unique desert aroma of sage and sand. Driving down from the mountain we appreciated dramatic rays of light striking the Owens Valley below. The trees above, I am sure, were appreciating the fresh water.