No mater how technically good it is if it does not have soul then it will only ever be a tree in a pot. Nature has a way of creating something quite special, but of course it has millions of specimens on which to experiment. We can either try to directly imitate what we see, or even better to capture that ‘special something’, but of course to do this we have to understand what that something might be.
This is not an easy thing to describe in words. Pictures help. But for me, when I was learning the easiest way to work towards the ineffable was to start by looking for the flaws in a tree. Now this is a very negative thing to do but to this day it helps me when working on a tree.
It is also very helpful when considering options for a tree’s development when there is a major decision to be made determining the future of a tree such as the angle of repotting, the removal of a large low branch, that sort of thing. Visualise the tree in it new position and then try to find what elements might not ‘work’.
But what does ‘work’ mean in the context of a tree? This is where all the elements ‘work’ together in harmony to create an attractive, convincing image. Some obvious examples might be where a higher branch is stronger and thicker than a lower one. Thinking about this logically the lower branches will have had more time to grow and will be thicker and longer. The branches above will then have grown casting shade on the branches below, causing some bare branch wood to appear with the foliage further away from the stem in the available sunlight.
This is captured wonderfully in the soft cascade of foliage clouds flowing down the trunk of this Hinoki. Compare that with a wild Corsican Pine and you can see exactly the same shape (although bigger height:width ratio, but I will return to that as a subject at a later date)
However what is definitely not natural is all to often what we see in the nurseries. At first I was amazed when I visited Lodder Bonsai (the largest importer of mass produced trees in Europe. They supply the likes of IKEA and B&Q). Once the shock subsided it actually became something of a work of art in itself, the serried ranks of absolutely identical trees all with the same twist in the lower trunk, first branch at exactly the same height, and of course they were all in mass produced pots. The picture shows one bench, but there were many benches in this greenhouse, and there were many greenhouses…
It was at that moment that I realised working to a set of rules is not something that will give me any pleasure in bonsai, and so I now work with nature, not against it, and that is the essence of raw bonsai…