What I’ve Learned from (Killing) Bonsai Trees

The hobby of growing bonsai trees teaches many lessonsFor the past few years, I’ve dabbled in growing bonsai. Well, I’m better at killing them than growing them so far. I have a soft heart for Walmart and Lowes clearance rack orphans, but they tend not to have the best survival chances.

Bonsai is a Japanese method of miniaturizing trees and shaping them into living sculptures. Most of the time, you want to make the trees look as natural as possible. I have a juniper that I shaped into a cascade–a shape you’d see growing on a cliff. It’s young and will take some time to grow. You use wires to shape the tree, but you can only shape it so much. If the tree has grown a certain way–say, with a bend–you can’t wire it straight.

Samurai and many others have practiced bonsai. Some bonsai trees have remained in families for centuries.

Bonsai trees aren’t anything special. If you plant a bonsai into the ground it will grow into a full tree. The bon, or pot, keeps the trees small. Just about any tree can be turned into a bonsai. In a class I’ve taken, the instructor mentioned how a student turned poison ivy into a bonsai tree. Of course, some shrubs and trees do better than others.

As with any hobby, bonsai can become expensive, but it’s just a matter how what you want to do. I keep my collection small. With my 50% kill rate, smaller works better.

I’ve learned a few lessons while trying not to kill my trees. Lessons that apply to more than just plants.

You Can’t Unbend What is Bent

Dying Juniper bonsai

You have to sculpt a bonsai as the tree suggests. You can’t bend an established trunk. Likewise you can’t unbend what has been bent. You can only shape a tree while its young. It’s much like life. Many times we have to accept reality as it is. I find this difficult; I want to help people improve themselves. Sometimes, as hard as this is for me to admit, people cannot be unbent. Of course, no one can change another person. But I get upset when people keep doing the same, well, stupid things and expecting a different result. If I do something stupid, I self-correct (at least, I attempt to when I see my stupid actions), but it appears many people do not for various reasons. They are bent trees.

This idea applies to events too. Life is bent, and we cannot unbend it. It can only accept it and encourage the bend to grow into something beautiful.

Bonsai Grow at Their Own Rate

People call me patient, but I know myself as otherwise. Life, however, demands patience. Bonsai trees grow at their own rate, and nothing I can do will change that. Bonsai is a hobby of patience, measured in years instead of hours or days. No matter what we do, somethings can’t be rushed or forced. Doing so will only kill what we are trying to achieve.

Anime blogs grow like bonsai–almost completely out of your control. You can optimize for Google, write interesting articles, and push social media, but the audience grows as it will. We often have this false feeling of control in what we do.

When you wire a bonsai, you guide it, but you can’t really control it. If you leave the wire on during the growing season, it will cut the trunk and prevent it from growing properly. Instead, you have to remove the wire, let the tree grow, and rewire it after the growing season ends. Search engine optimization, social media, and the like act like wires on a bonsai. Too much focus will stunt a blog or make it grow in ugly ways. Relationships work in much the same way. You can’t wire people beyond what they allow. You will only hold back their growth.

Over Watering Kills as Fast as Under Watering

Example of wiring a bonsai branch

Bonsai require balanced watering. Too much water will kill them as much as too little water will kill them. We can over-water and under-water relationships and even anime blogs. Relationships that don’t have breathing space, time to dry out a little, suffer as much as those with too much drying-time. People need space to be themselves, and some people, like me, crave solitude. Without this space, a relationship can suffer from root-rot, to stretch my metaphor well past breaking.

But too much space can kill a relationship too. The balance depends on the people involved. Some trees require more water than others. So too people require different levels of distance.

As for blogging, posting and fiddling too much with blogs can hurt them as much as rarely posting. A few years ago I tried a week of daily posts. The posts didn’t perform as well as my usual weekly posts. In fact, most of them got lost in the shuffle and never gained much traction on Google. Daily posting may work for some larger websites, but for smaller ones like JP a weekly schedule seems to be a good balance. Not to mention it would be impossible for me to write 365 articles every year. Even 52 can be a bit difficult. But that difficulty isn’t for lack of material. Rather, I only have so much energy and time to give.

Sometimes I dash off a ramble like this to give myself some space to rest from researched articles.

Living a Bonsai Life

Perhaps I’m in denial, but I don’t consider myself an otaku. I am, perhaps, a Japanophile but one that is balanced with an interest in all history (Except general American history. I find it boring for some reason. Give me the Roman Empire!). But Japan has shifted my view of life. For example, I try to apply the lessons I learned from killing bonsai trees to my life. Although I have to wonder if that’s such a good idea considering the lessons haven’t helped me, you know, keep my trees alive for much more than two years.

From wabi-sabi to just learning about the culture of the Edo period, Japan has opened my mind to an approach different from my American heritage. Of course, many of the lessons exist in American culture too. I’m just blind to them. But then, the study of any culture or hobby can yield the same insights. Painting and drawing teach life lessons (especially the lesson of patience). It’s just a matter of being open to them.