I know people like to say that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” but people like to say all sorts of things and you can’t believe most of it. Even so, last time I raked the yard I filled a garbage bag with pine needles, not hundred dollar bills. Oh, pity me! Who put pine trees in my yard! What happened to my hundred-dollar-bill tree? I knew it wouldn’t live in this zone!
Anyway, I’ve made most of my living, for most of my life, working with trees. I’ve planted them, I’ve transplanted them, I’ve cut them down, I’ve measured and tallied them, I’ve counted their rings, I’ve marked them to stay or go. And best of all, I’ve made bonsai out of them.
I know a lot of people who can walk by a tree like it’s a brick wall and not even really notice it’s there. And every tree is the same brick wall. They find trees as interesting as a bag of someone else’s socks and unless you can tell them some fascinating fact like, “This is the tree that George of the Jungle hit,” they won’t even see it.
But not me; I’ve spent a good part of the waking hours of my life looking at trees, studying them, getting to know them. And it hasn’t been merely an airy spiritual quest either, I did it for the money because that’s how I make my living. Even so, working or not, wherever I go, the first thing I notice is the trees. My eyes are open to trees and bonsai, among other things, has helped to open them.
One of the most satisfying things in life, or art, is sharing it with another being. Beauty wants to be known and appreciated. The wandering Chinese poet Han Shan scratched verses on cliffs in his mountain wilderness, but he did not write them there for the wind. He wrote them for his fellow wandering hermits and must have gotten some satisfaction in just the thought that they were read and appreciated by others, even if he did not know who those others would be.
I mention this because, for me, selling bonsai is a way of sharing some of the beauty that nature provides us with, and I get satisfaction not just from making a few dollars doing so, but even more by making something available to a select group of people that they really appreciate. Like I said, I know a lot of people who can walk right by a tree, even a really cool bonsai tree, and not really see it. But not everyone is that way. And I get kind of a thrill when someone looks at a contorted old pine I collected and says, “Wow!” It makes me feel like maybe the effort is worth it.
I need to make money to justify the time, effort and expense I put into bonsai. But it’s the “Wow” that keeps me going. Because it’s a shared “Wow,” and when someone says it, I feel it too, and it rekindles my own feeling of love and awe for an ancient, tiny tree.
And this sometimes makes bonsai a very weird business. Because, if it’s a good tree, a tree worthy of a “Wow!” I feel some regret in selling it. Selling it is good, it is the obvious reason that the tree has a price tag on it; but still, I often feel a twinge of loss when I sell a nice tree. It’s like watching a child grow up and move away.
And, OK, they had better grow up and move away! That’s the best thing. And I have more than enough trees to keep me busy more hours than I could possibly work. I don’t need to keep them all to myself. I couldn’t possibly give half of them the care and time they deserve. Selling them to someone who will appreciate them is good.
Even so, I often feel a bit of sadness seeing a good one go away.
What I planned to write about when I started this, which I haven’t got to yet, is the Midwest Bonsai Show at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. I’ve been a vendor there four times now, and I have to say, I really love the place and the show.
Chicago traffic is slightly different from the traffic in the Black Hills and that is probably the hardest thing for me to adjust to. At home a traffic jam on the way to work means there are six cows standing in the road. Gridlock means a tree fell across the road. A honk on the horn will take care of one and a chainsaw will take care of the other.
In Chicago a traffic jam means it will take you 3 hours to go 20 miles and honking on the horn will do you no good at all. A chainsaw will get you arrested or possibly shot. You have to have a deeply innate sense of patience, which years of hard meditation have not yet brought me to, to deal with this situation. I admit I have sometimes used improper and vulgar vocabulary, that I in no way approve of, as well as slammed my head in frustration against the steering wheel, while driving (parking?) through Chicago.
But once I get to the Botanic Gardens and get everything unloaded, all is well. The gardens are really magnificent, like all the beauty of nature brought to the foreground with none of the awesome chilling savagery that can make the universe seem so random and inhospitable.
I’ve worked in the woods for nearly 30 years. The beauty and grace of the natural world are undeniable. But after awhile the coldness and chaos are undeniable too. A garden is where nature and civilization merge and the fruits of beauty can be picked by any seeing eye. The Chicago Botanic Gardens is one of the very best I’ve been to.
There is one lane you can walk down, bordered by linden trees, at exact intervals, with their tops cut into rectangles. It is walled off from the rest of the gardens and has large, round granite balls sitting on gravel along the walkway.
It is completely artificial and you would never find something like that in nature. Yet it has a somber, stately atmosphere, identical to a stand of dark pine trees growing silently on a mountainside. When I walk down that alley I often feel like I am in such a stand of mountain pines. And when I am in a stand of silent pines, I often am reminded of the linden trees at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.