By Michael Hagedorn
Galileo had more in common with witches than you’d think. He narrowly avoided being tortured and executed by denying thinking thoughts that he really shouldn’t have been thinking in the 17th century, such as the earth revolving around the sun. Those early heretical scientists were a brave lot.
I’ve known a few scientists, my father was one. He was always challenging me when as a kid I got too settled on a nice safe idea, and so I was always in the process of changing my opinion, and unlearning. And it doesn’t seem like I’ve ever stopped as Bonsai Heresy: 56 Myths Exposed Using Science and Tradition is about unlearning what I’d learned about bonsai.
I’d been growing bonsai since I was 15—now almost 40 years—but it wasn’t until studying with Mr. Boon Manakitivipart in his Bonsai Intensive program, and later apprenticing in Japan under Mr. Shinji Suzuki, that I realized how much of what I’d learned about bonsai was deeply suspect. While apprenticing with Mr. Suzuki in the early 2000’s the idea of a book exploring our collective bonsai myths took root.
Michael Hagedorn and Boon in Boon’s workshop, early 2000s
There are two parts to Heresy. Part I is technical, and asks the broad question what is optimal in bonsai care by looking at tradition and science and trying to tease these apart from wishful thinking. Part II looks at divesting ourselves from rigid aesthetic guidelines by understanding the intentions behind these rules.
I enjoyed writing Heresy, as it helped solve mysteries I’d long pondered myself. Reading primary research papers unearthed curious stories, some of which are likely new to the community. One is the backstory on vitamin B1 as a growth enhancer and how a mistaken notion in a lab unexpectedly launched a horticultural craze dating back to the 1930’s. And Jonas helped me dig up the origin story of decandling black pines, discovering that it was a much older technique than we thought.
There are a lot of stories in this book. And when writing a book that relies on narrative you have to tell it all, even the embarrassing ones, so many of the ‘don’t do this’ anecdotes are directly from missteps at the Crataegus Bonsai garden.
Michael working on a Western juniper for Bonsai Focus in 2009
I lucked out working with animator Sergio Cuan, who set the tone with funny, brightly colored, ironic illustrations. In our heretical huddle we’d decided these would be the opposite of wabi-sabi (there’s even a bikini on a bonsai pot, try to find that one). He’s a mad genius and it was a lot of fun watching him bring this book to life.
Bonsai Heresy, while offbeat, is an educational book. In the coming months I will be using my blog to expand on chapters from the book, seeking to investigate remaining questions.
Many thanks to my old friend Jonas for agreeing to a blog swap about our new books. We were the only two students in Boon’s very first Bonsai Intensive, an eon ago, and I’ve enjoyed staying in touch and comparing thoughts about bonsai ever since.
Michael Hagedorn flanked by Gary Wood and Jonas in Boon’s workshop, about an eon ago
Jonas wrote a terrific bonsai book that I highly recommend, also published this year. I agree with Jonas’ comment in the book’s introduction, ’It’s the book I wish I had when I started’. Here’s his post about The Little Book of Bonsai on my blog, crataegus.com.
To learn more about Bonsai Heresy or to order a copy, visit Stone Lantern.
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