The following article is an excerpt from Robert Steven’s new book, “Mission of Transformation.” We are very proud to offer our readers a glimpse into this wonderful follow up to Robert’s first book, “Vision of My Soul” and we sincerely hope that you enjoy it as much as we have. For advance orders of “Mission of Transformation” go to http://www.stonelantern.com
Even when a tree lost its crown, it never lost its majesty…
In nature, the transformation process is a survival strategy of plants used to overcome challenges such as fire, lightening, attacks by insects, or diseases, which may injure or damage some anatomical parts of a tree. As an effect of this response, the tree can change into new pose and will normally change into new form.
In bonsai, the artist manipulates the transformation process by employing the rules of plant physiology, morphology and environmental factors. The horticultural clues are re-created in integration with aesthetic principals in order to articulate the thematic message through the silent chronicle. The success of a good bonsai design depends on how the bonsai effectively communicates with the viewer in telling its history of life through the demonstration of aesthetic value added to it. If we succeed in doing so, it means we have fulfilled the three aspects of good bonsai: aesthetic beauty, horticultural clues and thematic messages.
Trees have a genetic propensity to overcome obstacles and conditional challenges. They can sense and respond to environmental events and changes, and they can integrate these separate responses to individual conditions into a general whole-tree reaction. This reaction, by all means, is the strategy for survival, growth, and regeneration.
Trees in nature are always going through three phases, pre-mature, mature and transformation. “Pre-mature” is the stage where the tree is considered as being immature or young. It is the stage where the tree has not yet obtained the anatomical balance in ideal proportions. “Mature” is the stage where a tree is considered as having all the anatomical features in proportional balance. It is the anatomical features that make a tree look mature and these features are the proportional ramification structure, not the condition of the foliation.
If damage occurs due to environmental and atmospheric factors such as fire, lightening, being attacked by insects, or diseases that may injure or damage some anatomical parts of a tree, the tree will set back to the pre-mature stage in terms of anatomical condition. If this happens, the tree will respond to overcome the problem for survival by setting a new anatomical balance. In this context, it will form a new physical structure for the foliation to obtain enough sunlight. This is what I refer as a transformation process (photo). Despite of the loss of some anatomical parts, normally the main changes are with the ramification and foliation, which may set into a new composition.
A young tree will display its genetic inheritance by perfectly showing a regular and easily illustrated architecture. Once the tree becomes mature and transforms to the post-mature stage, it may be very different and not resemble the expected prototype at all. This is because a tree never achieves its predestined form due to outside influences and because it must follow the rules of physiology, morphology and environmental factors in attempting to correct these influences.
In bonsai, our intention is to create a mature tree with balance in all anatomical aspects, not just partially. Therefore, when we are working to style collected material (yamadori), our task is to create a new anatomical balance through the transformation process. We must imagine that the material used to be a mature large tree with all the environmental conditions of such, and then we assume it was attacked by outside influences and set back to the pre-mature stage. Now we go to work on the transformation process to re-obtain a mature condition with balanced anatomical features, or to the post-mature stage.
In nature, the transformation process is a survival strategy used by plants to overcome challenges. The plant can change into a new pose and then it can change into a new form, but it does not always become more beautiful. It may take a very long time to reach a new beautiful balance because most of the new ramification is formed by rejuvenation. Normally the transforming tree will look rather chaotic, suffering, and full of defects, but in bonsai the transformation is to re-create a beautiful form of tree in miniature size. This is accomplished by exploring the existing anatomical features and character, while romanticizing the life journey of the tree with the use of refinement and improvisation to create a new harmony.
A transformed tree does not have to follow Leonardo’s theory, but in order to create a beautiful bonsai, we still need to train the ramification features so that they are not too far from it. This is so that the branches do not look like young rejuvenation, which do not depict a post-mature image.
The transformation process in bonsai is to work on the style and form of a tree, while using its basic character and setting it into a manner which convincingly gives horticultural clues, either in the morphological sense or the environmental. This should be done with good integration among all the elements and components, the trunk features, the branch configuration, the ramification structure, the foliation, and even the selection of the container. Some minor accentuation features may enhance the transformation message, such as broken branches, scars, or deadwood. The bonsai should not only look beautiful, but upon exploration, should tell by itself how and where it grew in nature, how the style was formed, and why the transformation took place.
The following photographs show an example of transforming a yamadori into bonsai.
This Premna was collected from the wild on a rocky coastline hill where it had been growing in very harsh conditions, which formed the physical features. Assuming this is a tree in nature which had been set back to its pre-mature stage, we will use it as a medium in which to create a bonsai that portrays an old tree in its post-mature stage after transformation.
Our objective is to explore the existing character into an artistic piece. In doing so, we may not simply use the existing pose as formed when it grew in nature, instead we may set a new pose that allows us to form an artistic composition, while still following the morphological rules of plant growth.
In this case, we need to find the new angle, the new position, in order to simulate a logical posture of the tree which gives horticultural clues that forms the so called ” style.” In design principals, this is the composition process. The trunk line and all the existing features are the available design elements and components to be used in the creation, this does not include ramification, which will need to be created in future steps to successfully design a good bonsai.
Bonsai should not only look beautiful, but upon exploration, should speak of how and where it grew in nature, how the style was formed, and why the transformation took place. This is one of the most difficult parts of bonsai design. We often see a bonsai with dramatic post-mature features, which obviously show results of transformation; but the details, especially the foliation condition, do not support the message. The overall impression is that such bonsai are rather artificial, more decorative, and less soul evoking, although they may very well look nice.
Transformation does not only happen on trees growing in nature, but it also happens to bonsai growing in containers. Due to the limited growing space, if not being properly cared for, a bonsai can lack nutrients, the root system can easily become injured while repotting or because of improper drainage, and diseases, pests, or other factors can attack the plant. Such conditions may cause damage to the tree, which can lead to partial death. If this happens, we need to re-style the bonsai and the new design may be very different from the initial form, this is also a transformation process.
The following is an example of transformation that happens in bonsai.
This picture of a Casuarina bonsai was taken 20 years ago. The basic trunk character was very interesting, but the branch configuration was obviously trained in a “textbook” manner. It had very formal styling that did not fit to the character of the tree and gave no horticultural clues as to how this “tree” was formed in nature. From the root shape and the slightly twisting features, it was clear that this tree was certainly not used to being in a formal upright posture. This tree was supposed to depict a post-mature condition, but the reformed canopies and crown shape did not portray such in the morphological sense. These reasons were why this bonsai looked rather artificial and unnatural, even though it might look nice.
Due to improper care of the deadwood, it was rotting out and only the live veins remained, some branches also consequently died, which set the bonsai back to the pre-mature stage. Therefore, this bonsai needed to be restyled to forma new composition of balance, set a new pose, and train a new ramification structure to fit the new trunk features through the transformation process. The initial “front” no longer fit the new shape, so another viewing angle needed to be found to use as the new “front”.
The initial back was found to be the best new viewing angle and this new “front” eventually portrayed a totally different illusion from the old design. New dimension and movement were set to create a new focal point. The new design is now more artistically beautiful and is more horticultural convincing in conveying the image of a post-mature old tree in nature.
Both humans and animals have anatomical features that are predictable, but the form of a tree is undetermined or unpredictable because of the meristem function, which may greatly vary the overall shape or form of a tree, even among the same species. In the transformation process the physiological factors, the meristem function of morphological factors, and the environmental aspects are working to form a new shape of the tree. It can also transform it into a new pose or style.
In bonsai, humans manipulate the transformation process, yet the tree still follows the rules mentioned above. In this process, we employ the morphological and environmental factors, yet we use more of the horticultural clues in order to articulate our message through the silent chronicle. The success of our design depends on how well the bonsai effectively communicates with the viewers in telling its history of life, in combination with the aesthetic value added to it. If we succeed in doing this, it means we have fulfilled the three aspects of good bonsai: aesthetic beauty, horticultural clue and thematic message.