Hello, Old Friend

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Several of the articles that I have written over the past couple of years have talked about the development and history of a few of the trees in my collection. I have spoken about a lodgepole pine that I collected out of a ditch on the slopes of Mount Hood. I also talked about the development of a European Beech, first raised by Alan Taft. Then we paid a visit to Liberace, the Engelmann Spruce that my wife, Lisa, rescued from the sell bench, formerly owned by my grandfather. Lastly, we went back to the first public appearance of Ryan Neil, with his master, Mashiko Kimura and another lovely Engelmann. 

My goal in the telling of these tales was to show just how much trees can develop over a length of time. That your trees will get there, if you are patient. 

Most of the trees in my care were developed by myself, or other non-professionals. In fact, I can think of only one azalea and black pine as imports or developed by the Japanese community. The rest are pretty much home grown. Many of them had previous owner from the ranks of BSOP that have passed on. Folks like Tim Boyle, Edris Stryker, and Anne Spencer. That imbues them with some age, character, and history, even if they were not the most glamorous stock to start with. 

Early this spring I began to think about what to display at this year’s BSOP spring show. I had three trees that spent six months last year up at Pacific Bonsai Museum for their Natives exhibit. Since I like large trees, and those took a lot of effort to prepare for the show, these three trees were prime candidates. I put most of my bonsai energy into getting those ready last year, so I wanted to reap some of the benefits of that work for this year’s BSOP show. During the winter, I had touched up the cascading Douglas Fir (See the photo elsewhere in this newsletter). 

Now, the reason that I had worked on it was because it had lots of dead shoots on it. I made the mistake of wiring it in the winter, after it had shut down, and it was not able to repair the areas where needles were removed – or probably a bit of bark in the process. So when it began to grow in the spring, the shoots developed small swollen embolisms that cut off sap flow and the branchlets died. These were all one or two-year-old shoots. Nothing older died. So of course, I repeated this mistake again this year before I learned that timing was the culprit, not my technique. Actually, it was about mid-stream in the wiring – and one of Ryan’s streams, where I switched gears and did not remove any foliage, and just wired. So this year, so far, it is doing much better. I have to mention that this is a Douglas Fir anomaly. I know of no other tree that responds this way. Lesson: Wire Doug Firs in late spring before bud push, not in November. 

But I am digressing a bit. I just had to slip a little technique in there. The tree I really want to talk about is my sole Western Hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla. You have probably seen this tree in the forests and along roadways many times and never known it. It grows in mixed forests in the shadows of Douglas Firs, Western Red Cedar and Sitka Spruce. But from a distance, it looks like a Doug Fir. Just look at the top. If it is drooping over to one side, it’s a Western.

 I collected this tree many years ago in a forested road cut somewhere in the coast range, just a few miles from the ocean. This tree went back to the first National Show and the folks liked it so much they gave it an award. Back then, they wheeled the winners into the Saturday banquet on a cart, covered in a cloth. Dennis Vojtilla reaches over to me and says, Scott, that’s your pot peeking out under the cloth. At first, I thought, who else was using that kind of pot in the show? But it did turn out to be the hemlock. A very humbling experience. 

But that was sooooo long ago, in bonsai terms. I’ve gotten married to a beautiful wife, moved across town, built a new garden, and lived another ten years. Of course, this tree has accompanied me along in this journey, and I tell you, no other tree is so happy to just sit there, humble and consistent, like a Western. It’s like, no, no, I’ll be fine. Go play with your fancy black pines and your fancy maples. I’ll still be here. And it was. 

So, it was with great anticipation of reacquainting myself with the tree that I worked on it last spring, getting it ready for the Natives exhibit. In the intervening years, it had gotten gross wire scars from my neglect. So much so that I had to cut out whole branches. But I got it worked into a really nice form. I had described styling as wanting it too feel like the fresh rain was just dripping off of it. That work paid off as the tree came back from Seattle healthier than when it left. The back branch strengthened considerably. 

Fast forward to April of this year when I thought I would just touch it up for the BSOP show. I had already wired it last year, so no problem. As I began to work on it though, I noticed that every single branch had wire cutting in. We are talking wire that took days to put on now had to be reworked. I took the opportunity to really thin things out and take it back to just a pair of branches at any junction. I cut off whole branches at the trunk and many in the crowded crown area. See last month’s article on the spruce. 

The tree had grown way outside of its intended silhouette. I wired and pruned and was frustrated that I only got so far at a time. Late nights were the norm as I worked in the garage. Finally, I got it done and it looked beautiful. The best I could do, or maybe have ever done. Lee gave me one of the best comments during the show, which was that it looked so American, and lots of open space. But I tell you, that open space will be filled by the time Rendezvous rolls around. The tree is now sitting in a spot where I can see it really well and enjoy it. I began to think about how much joy it brings me to create something like this. And make no bones about it, this tree was created. It was not found. It did not do this on it’s own. But the illusion is that it did. 

The other day I was having lunch with my best friend Tom, who doesn’t do bonsai, but is a painter, so an artist in another respect. We talked about the fact that he might sell a painting hanging in his house if someone asks, for just a pittance. But he can always paint another one. A painting is frozen in time, a bonsai is not. What I can’t do is wind the clock back twenty-five years to when I began this tree and just make another. This tree and I, as well as others in my garden, have been on a long journey together. 

They are not my friends, and I do not talk to them. But I do see them almost everyday. I have cared for them so long, it is hard to imagine life without them. But then I look at the beauty that we have created together and the potential that lies ahead. I can only commit so much time to bonsai. It is still a hobby for me. Seeing the heights to which I can raise a tree, like in this hemlock, gives me impetus to do more. But I see that I need the courage to eliminate trees that still have potential in order to concentrate my efforts on the best of trees. 

As I related to my friend Tom, the funny thing is that as a tree gets better, it takes more time. More wire, more water, more fertilizer, a better pot, maybe. I can never put it on the wall and say, that looks nice, and walk away. It is working on a relationship in a way, just like we do with people. It must be cultivated and cared for. You can approach a tree as a block of marble, ready to be sculpted, or as a friend, to be cherished. The truth seems to lie somewhere in between. 

Over these many years, I am starting to realize the attachments that I have built with my trees. Not something to take lightly, nor to be cast off. More than that, I must be prepared to consider their futures, as most will very likely outlive myself, and thus begin a relationship with yet another bonsai artist. 

And as I start to go down this road, this way of thinking, I am realizing that now, personally, I am on the cusp of actually becoming a bonsai artist and creating something that brings emotion and response from the viewer. That is where I hope you see me going from here, checking out a new horizon, and taking a new path with a few of my good friends, the trees. 

Scott Elser