Before Michael Hagedorn completed his apprenticeship – before, even, he left for Japan, I was excited for his return. Hagedorn came to bonsai as a talented artist. I believed, upon hearing that he would apprentice with Shinji Suzuki in Obuse, Japan, that several years of formal bonsai study would provide him with the experience, ability, and perspective to do great things in bonsai upon his return. And I knew we’d hear great stories.
A wonderful selection of these stories form the core around which Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk, is formed. Post-Dated shares the raw experience of apprentice life in Japan through the filter of a one trying to make sense of his experience after the fact. And what an experience. Hagedorn apprenticed for almost three years with Suzuki – an impressive accomplishment considering the constant vigilance required to avoid trouble:
Being an apprentice is not unlike being a herd animal on the Serengeti – like a wildebeest – and you must do what the others are doing for self-preservation. If your wildebeest herd is running, you run. If they swerve right, you don’t go left. If you wander off on your own, you are likely to get eaten by the lions. (104)
This applied, even, to the air Hagedorn breathed. Watching him wrangle a monster tree from its pot, Suzuki admonished, “Don’t pant while you work; you can’t do that at clients’ houses” (28). Fortunately for Hagedorn, not all of Suzuki’s instructions lacked humor. Later that same evening, Suzuki sent Hagedorn and fellow apprentice Tachi into the night with the commandment: “Don’t eat just meat! Eat vegetables too” – words that triggered paroxysms of laughter in the apprentices (29).
The first time through Post-Dated I read quickly, eager to finish each anecdote, to absorb each insight. I especially enjoyed Part I as it’s filled with stories that paint Hagedorn’s struggle and success, his consternation and his joy.
The second time through it was Part II that stood out. I found myself thinking, between chapters, about Hagedorn’s images, experiences and ideas – ideas that continue to churn in the back of my mind. These are some of the best words yet written on bonsai.
A close reading reveals a lot about the practice of bonsai. Not the how-to information that helps one avoid crossing wires, but the more important lessons that inform good technique. Specifically, I learned more about what it means to truly care for bonsai. At one point Hagedorn chides himself for making, “the worst mistake of all, lack of affection” (66). He continues:
Arranging the shoots on the spruce should have resembled the feathering of hair by a barber, so that each tip gets its own bit of light. If shoots are of grossly uneven length, and are cutting off the light to the buds beneath, the physiological energy of the tree will decline. The future of the tree will be one where shoots die from lack of sun. To Mr. Suzuki, understanding this problem – and knowing how to prevent it and taking the time to do so – amounts to affection. (66)
Part II reveals Hagedorn’s great attention to his subject. Describing our relationship to bonsai he notes:
We keep orchids because this is how we wish the world to be; we keep bonsai because they are like our grandparents, grounded and prophetic: the future behind us. (204)
The same can be said of Post-Dated – an encapsulation of past bonsai experience that drives us to pursue bonsai with quality and affection.
The book itself if beautiful. Co-designed by Hagedorn, Jennifer Omner (cover and interior) and Kurt Simonson (cover), Post-Dated received a PubWest Design Award earlier this year. The smart layout makes the book a pleasure to read and Hagedorn’s crisp black and white photos punctuate the text and set the mood.
Reading Post-Dated makes me want to study bonsai in Japan despite the obvious challenges. If you get the chance – and are up for the challenge – I hope you will jump at the opportunity. If you are able to visit, do so – the trees are breathtaking. And if any of the above strikes a chord, read Post-Dated – you’ll be glad you did.
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