“Change is the law of life.” ― John F. Kennedy
When I first became interested in bonsai a couple of decades ago, one of the things that was impressed upon every new bonsaiist was the concept of delayed gratification. Many of the trees we admired most were 20, 30 even 40 years old, grown from seed, styled by one owner, and lacking in any significant scars or cuts that were not specifically intended to be part of the design, such as jin, shari or carved features. This tree, for example, clearly spent many years in development:
Conceptually, trunk chops were acceptable - in fact, I first learned how to do a trunk chop from John Naka's Bonsai Techniques - but they weren't as prevalent as today. I recall a demonstration I observed in the early 1990s in which the presentation of a trunk chop to build a broom style elm or maple was prefaced with the caution that this technique "isn't for the faint of heart."
Today, the concept of the "instant bonsai" or "almost instant bonsai" is widely accepted and aggressively pursued, whereas I recall it being almost taboo two decades ago. I don't know when this change happened, and I don't know whether it was gradual or rapid, but it is profound.
Some stuff I see often today that I almost never saw in the 1990s:
- People collecting nursery stock or wild material and immediately chopping it down to a leafless stump
- Mad competition for finished trees at auctions
- The feverish pursuit of "pre-bonsai" material with the intention of showing the tree after just one styling and no interim growing seasons
I thought that perhaps this might be a local thing, but with YouTube and Internet forums, it's now easy to see what others are doing across the U.S. and across the world. I regularly read about what people are doing today in Australia, the U.K., Italy, the Philippines and Japan, among other places. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.
I recall the old bonsai masters telling me that to develop a nice thick trunk with good taper, you needed to have the patience to wait 15 to 20 years. Once you had a good trunk and basic style, you spent five or ten years developing just the right apex. You didn't need to start with great or expensive material. Seedlings or even seeds were sufficient to start a great bonsai, but you started down that path like the proverbial journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step. Now, people want to start the journey of a thousand miles by hitting an onramp at mile 700, or 900, or 999. Even the older guys are showing me how to take a 14' tall tree and chop it down to 8" to build that 20-year-old looking tree in three to five years. It'll have a massive scar, of course, but you can build around it to hide it, or you can make that the definitive "back" of the tree.
I'm not at all certain that this is a bad thing. It's just different. I see both benefits and drawbacks. The biggest benefit is that it often works. I think that any technique that builds a healthy and attractive tree is good. Moreover, I think it's cool that I can rejoin the hobby and have something worth showing in a couple of years, and that I won't have to wait until I'm dying of old age to have trees that I can feel proud of.
Granted, I don't like all of it. For example, this video by the Bonsai Hunters made me scratch my head a bit and wonder why someone would think it's a good idea to butcher a redwood like that (though I don't mind doing something similar to a boxwood). It can't possibly be developing into anything attractive, can it? And good grief, look at this horrible thing that a self-proclaimed bonsai expert demonstrated in a YouTube video:
Okay, that's actually an unfair example. This isn't just a bad trunk chop, it is a bad trunk chop with "jin" that makes it look like a phallus. A bonsai should not look like a phallus and most people understand that. But the popularity of the trunk chop does actually lead some people to think that this is a good idea. And those people make videos and get other people to think it's a good idea, too.
On the other hand, the fact that people are trying different styles, using different techniques and using different species rather than mostly just the old Japanese ways and Japanese species is interesting to me. The fact that some very talented artists are in their 20s, or have been in bonsai for ten years or less is interesting to me. It not only increases the innovation and artistry of bonsai, it gives me hope for my own development in this art.
The thing I like least about this change, however, is the attitude that many instructors (mine not among them) have developed about their students' raw materials. I heard of one teacher who insists that the students spend a minimum of $3,000 a year on raw material. I read an article in a bonsai magazine in which someone scolded people who take lessons without buying expensive material, using words like "I'm sorry if you think this sounds harsh" and then mocking the students who want to spend their first year working on one gallon nursery stock, as if they are insulting their instructor for having the audacity to want to learn how to build a tree from scratch.
Whatever happened to starting with very raw stock and working on techniques to build that stock over the course of many years? It's not for everyone, I know, but it should not be "not for anyone." I, for one, want my learning to include everything from how to do a trunk chop to how to take a pencil trunk and grow it into a nice tree in 20 years. I wonder if the latter concept will be something that people laugh at ten years from now. I hope not.