Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees – The Life and Works of Dan Robinson – Bonsai Pioneer
For a long time now most of the books about bonsai are, for all intents and purposes, the same. They usually start by telling you what bonsai is, the history of bonsai, how to plant seeds, and basic styling, and provide some pictures of fairly good looking bonsai. Honestly, I have come to expect this sort of format from every bonsai book I pick up, and I am rarely surprised.
Before reading Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees: The Life and Works of Dan Robinson – Bonsai Pioneer, I knew very little about Dan Robinson. I had read an interview about him and had seen pictures of some of his trees, but I didn’t really appreciate his raw, unscholarly approach to the art of bonsai. This book is a tribute to Robinson’s life as well as his bonsai. It is written as a narrative by people who must have been very close to him. As I read it, I felt I was getting to know Dan’s personality.
What makes Dan’s bonsai so different? Basically, Dan is not practicing orthodox, mainstream bonsai, the traditional, classical style that dominated bonsai in America. Instead, he creates trees in the “naturalistic” style.
Dan’s Pioneering vision astonished the bonsai world, emphasizing a naturalistic, ruggedly realistic American at a time when only the abstract styling of the Japanese tradition was desired or considered correct.
The book is divided into three main sections, the first of which titled The Roots. This section is a sort of biography. It covers Dan’s humble beginnings as a child collecting unusual plants, his later studies in Forestry, his landscaping and military career, his first exposure to bonsai, his career as a bonsai demonstrator, and finally the creation his seven acre public bonsai gardens in 1995. Named Elandan, these gardens consist of over 250 bonsai.
…how does a man with no art training, and no formal bonsai training, become the Picasso of Bonsai?
When reading The Roots, I learned of Dan’s explosion on the bonsai scene and how he threw all of the preconceived notions and rules of bonsai out the window. As far as I know, Dan was the first artist to style trees in a way that was not abstract and in line with the Japanese standards of the time. Yet he styled them in a way that would make you think that man had no hand in the formation of the tree; in a sense, perfectly imperfect.
People talked about this guy who was, in some respects, a wild man with a chain saw who just cut up trees. He was a revolutionary in a lot of things he did…was a free thinker…mostly because of the fact that he spent an awful lot of time in the wild studying trees.
The second section, The Main Trunk, contains four fantastic stories of Dan’s adventures collecting trees in the wild and of how he passionately went about styling them.
…Dan has a way of styling them [(his trees)] that retains that kind of fresh, wild look.
The most important thing to know about deadwood is that nothing else matters.
Foliage, Flowers and Fruits is a gallery of fifty of Dan’s best and most important trees and is truly inspiring.
Some might shy away from buying a book for $50 but the quality of the writing and exquisite photographs, along with the fascinating subject matter (Robinson himself), make this book something truly special. I would recommend this book for anyone that would like to “get inside” the head of a bonsai genius, and to see what can be accomplished when passion runs your life.
Anyone interested in ordering the book may do so – and get a copy signed by Dan Robinson, Will Hiltz and Victrinia Ridgeway – through the Elandan Gardens web site.
Disclosure: I agreed to write this review and received the book free of charge. I will always tell you the truth about anything I review, free or not.