I sat down to write a diatribe expounding the virtues of defoliation. As usual I got off the subject and never got back. However what follows has proven to very cathartic. Please forgive the self indulgence but rather than consign this to the folder of a thousand unpublished articles on my Mac I am hoping it will help someone who just might be losing their way as I have of late. 

What’s more stressful, having too much to do or not having enough? I always thought I was stressed out by being so busy, particularly over the last few years. Now, and I am thankful for this, I don’t really have enough to fill my days in the way I have for years past.

Everyone at KB is really busy and earning their keep but old Pott’s here is at a loose end. It’s not that I don’t have anything to do but, because I don’t have folk shouting down the phone or strafing me with caustic emails and because our Richard is doing such a sterling job getting orders out the door a lot of the day to day pressure is off me and to be honest I really can’t be arsed to do much since that pressure has lifted.

A creative person can never be bored and a working class lad like me cannot afford to loaf about too much but I guess any of us can fall foul of disinclination. I have never really had a lack of enthusiasm before. At least not since I was a teenager and my mum was trying to get me out of my nest in the morning to, as she though, go to school.

Kaizen Bonsai have been among the winners of the pandemic that has caused hardship to so many. YOUR support has been utterly amazing, thank you! Hopefully we have in return provided what ya’ll needed in a stress free and timely manner. It does appear however that our difficulties are beginning to increase thanks to, literally inconceivable, government interference and the utter chaos in international shipping, manufacturing and a whole host of situations that could close us down in pretty short order at any moment but, for now all is good and I suppose I have to be positive with regards to the future.

I am a resilient fellow, we’ll all be fine. If you follow my posts here you will be familiar with some of the more amusing hurdles I have cleared in the past. It’ll take more than a bunch of feckless public schoolboys and workshy upper class twits to trip us up. Having been so busy these last few years I have, sadly, been somewhat removed from what bought me here in the first place, BONSAI.

Over the last few weeks, since I have had time on my hands I have been spending more time in the garden with what is left of my nursery. I currently have over 800 fewer trees than at this time last year which is distinctly un-nerving. However all the BEST stuff is still here so don’t feel too sorry for me. It’s been very odd having time to even think about bonsai again. Nothing really went away but I am definitely re-connecting at some level. Having been distracted for so long my return has been accompanied by a new insight I never had before. A whole new understanding of the interaction of time and technique make me feel like I just took off sunglasses on a dark day.

For many years now I have, of necessity, bought and sold vast numbers of plants. Probably in excess of twenty thousand in the last twelve to fourteen years. I have sold the best trees I ever owned over and over again. Not much has stayed with me for the long term. In fact I only have one tree that goes back to my first or second year in bonsai. I spent well over 20 years perfecting that tree from the nebari up. I then sold it in a moment of hardship. The new owner totally trashed it in three years and so now it’s back and I hope to be able to restore it before I die. Otherwise everything is pretty recent.

I have spent more than twenty years teaching bonsai by dint of workshops. Many of those folk involved have become good friends. After a few years I began to realise those guys trees were looking good, often very good. At the same time mine kept leaving, all my hard work and vision was constantly going out the gate and I was left having to start over.

Fulfilment is defined as “satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s potential”. With an active imagination I can see well into the future. It makes no difference to me wether it’s bonsai material, a rusty old car, a derelict garden or a battered and abused motorbike. I can see clearly what it can be and having done enough projects in my life I know I can get there sooner or later if I apply myself.

I don’t suffer from envy, especially where bonsai is concerned. I have no interest in owning the ‘best’ bonsai. I also know there is not a finish line to cross, Dave Prescott taught me decades ago ‘it’s all about the work’. Bonsai is not a competition.

For me bonsai is about the fulfilment of something I see in my imagination. What I see becomes the inciting incident that puts the whole creative process in motion. After thirty years my expectations are high, I know what quality is. I am not prepared to settle for ‘smoke and mirrors’. I am past the intoxication of ‘wire wonders’. To achieve the sort of quality bonsai I expect of myself I anticipate a journey of ten years plus. Then, after that ten years has passed I will have a much deeper appreciation of quality and so the path will stretch out before me ad infinitum.

There’s a motorcycle t-shirt out there that states “It’s not what you buy, it’s what you build”. My fulfilment, and therefore motivation, comes from the challenge of how to create what I see in my head. Building something from nothing has been my motivation since I was a kid. The more unlikely my chances of success the greater my resolve to be successful. I have NEVER got any joy from just buying and owning something.

As an example, back in the eighties I bought a brand new motorcycle for August 1st registration day. I was proud as punch, a seventeen year old with a brand spanking new shiny big bike! By the end of the first week the shine had worn off and by the following August 1st I had traded that in for ANOTHER new bike TWICE. Three new bikes in one year.

After that I discovered something about myself. I find NO satisfaction in just buying something no matter how good. I sold my last brand new bike and bought a POS (piece of shit) Honda. A ragged to death old dirt bike held together by willpower and electrical tape and through hard work, imagination and bloody knuckles (I was skint by then) I turned it into something very special and I loved it for several years.

In the late 80s I bought a stunning sports car. This one had no floors. A foot of grass growing out of the seats and big holes at literally every single corner. To a man EVERY single person laughed in my face. The guys at work saw a picture and the derision was excoriating. My mum held her head in her hands and my dad was left speechless. What made it worse? It was a Datsun (240z). It ended up as a 250bhp 150mph V8 engined monster (this was around 1991) that won every competition I entered it into and featured in loads of national magazines. It’s still on the road today and looks just as beautiful as it did thirty years ago.

In writing the above it has become plain to me that for the last several years pretty much all of the bonsai I have been doing here has been commercial. In order to make a living and pay the bills I have been adding value wherever I can. Once any piece of raw material has it’s bones put in place and superfluous parts removed and a little carving complete it goes up in value. Again once that plant goes into something with the proportions of a bonsai pot the price goes up. It works too. Without exception every tree I work sells, often within minutes of going online. Looking back many were too cheap but who values their own work?

The trouble with the above is that I really never get much of a challenge, neither do I get any fulfilment. Nothing ever gets to develop, it just sells leaving me with a full pocket and an empty heart. It’s a bit like a world class snooker player spending his time in a local club playing the yokels. Sure it’ll pay but our man is going to lose his soul without the challenge of other players of his standard and above to apply healthy pressure. I am sure there are folk out there that can spend all day alone on the baize sinking 147 breaks. That’s never easy at any level but where is the challenge? Where is the soul, the passion, the reward and the fulfilment. A Michelin starred chef flipping burgers at McDonalds would be able to pay his bills but what a tragic thought.

As I already said, bonsai is not a competition. Anyone in this for public acceptance, to impress their peers, to win the ‘trophy’ or be the best just might ultimately become disillusioned, disappointed and not a little sad. I firmly believe the ONLY challenge in bonsai worth pursuing, once you know how it’s done, is to become the best that YOU can be. I am the only one that can tell if I have done my best work. What anyone else thinks is immaterial. I have to be honest, and a little critical with myself but hopefully come the day I will know.

You can pretty much go all the way these days by being a bit above average, there is absolutely no need to ‘be the best’ in order to get along in the world. It’s not hard to impress 98% of people and it’s only necessary to be better than most which is a long way from being the best. My old mate Blacky always said “ Bullshit baffles brains”. I have seen so many dog and pony shows over the decades it physically hurts. That’s why I don’t get involved any more, I consider a lot of what goes on to be fundamentally dishonest, well meaning perhaps but dishonest and at some level, misleading. Jesus said “If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” As far as bonsai goes I have, and do, see a lot of that.

I was watching some coverage of the snooker world championship recently. I believe it was Stephen Hendry discussing how few young folk of weight are coming into the game and what a threat that poses to the future. The reason? “Snooker is really hard”. He went on to explain just how hard and the commitment necessary to become THAT good. Along the way he said something to the effect that it takes two years just to know which end of the cue to use. I maintain many folk who have been doing bonsai for a couple of years still don’t know which end of a tree goes in the soil.

In bonsai many people refer to those of us who can put a green triangle on a bent stick as ‘gifted’. The definition of the word is …
a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.

The reason we like the idea of someone especially or extraordinarily talented, being gifted, is it creates a great excuse for our own callow efforts. It implies that one can never be as accomplished as an ‘expert’ because we were never given the GIFT. However for those of us that get referred to as gifted (yes it does happen, even to me) it’s a bit of a slap in the face and could be taken as a suggestion we didn’t work for our skill.

Of course there has to be a multitude of elements that need to come together in order for anyone to become successful. For example Bill Gates would not have been successful in the way he did had he been born five years earlier, or later or not had the family and geographical benefits he did. As an example of good fortune J.D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, William Vanderbilt, Andrew W. Mellon, Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others were all born within the same nine year period. In fact of the worlds 75 richest people of ALL time fourteen (19%) were born in America between 1831 and 1840. That meant they were the right age to benefit from the greatest transformation of human life in our entire history. Those born in 1840 missed the boat. We all need a bit of luck or good fortune if you will.

To do well we need opportunity, we can’t become a great snooker player without having access to a table. Bill Gates could never do his thing had he not been able to access the computer equipment he did, back when machines were the size of buildings and it cost an absolute fortune just to buy time on one. A bonsai guy can never become proficient without access to plants. However consider two of the most successful bonsai artists of recent times. One had access to his fathers commercial nursery and had soil in his veins from birth. Another lives in the foothills of the greatest collecting site on earth. That does not guarantee success but it’s an advantage very few of us enjoy. The opportunity has to be exploited and that takes effort and skill. The circumstance is a gift, a chance, a leg up or lucky if you will but, opportunity only ever turns up wearing overalls. Success requires work, It requires work EVERY single time without fail but it’s a little easier if you have luck on your side to provide a boost.

Many times I have mentioned the 10,000 hour rule expounded by Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic book Outliers. Basically nobody will ever become exceptional at anything before they have spent that amount of time developing and honing their skill. Sportsmen, musicians, programmers, engineers in fact every field of human endeavour features bold examples of this rule. That’s a lot of hours and typically means ten years of concerted hard work. Sadly not everyone enjoys the situation to make that possible. Anyone that becomes exceptional at anything will have circumstance that allows them to spend the time. On the other hand those folk also tend to show outstanding commitment to their task, often at the expense of all else.

My advice to beginners, in an ideal world, would be not to expect ANYTHING worthwhile to happen before your tenth anniversary. By then you WILL know which end goes in the soil. From that point on it’s possible to begin doing bonsai…..proper bonsai. There are NO short cuts and for those folk that have reached the status of the ‘gifted’ there is no hiding or pulling the wool over our eyes 😉 However, I do realise that’s going to be a hard sell to anyone flirting with the notion of getting involved with little trees. Sure a good level of knowledge can be reached in a few seasons of experience but that’s not what we are considering here.

Ten years is a long time, 10,000 hours represents a monumental effort but once complete it’s such an amazing position to be in, an incredible jumping off point. I am now beginning to get to grips with developing bonsai trees and now I get to keep what I work on I genuinely feel excited about the future and just how much further this can go. It’s the work that teaches us, we learn by doing, by repetition, over and over and over for a lifetime. In the end it’s the trees that teach us and mould us and allow us to become the artisan of our dreams. My hard work and commitment expended over the last thirty years is hopefully on the verge of coming to fruition. Maybe, just maybe I have finally earned that mythical gift. Only time and the trees will tell.

Here is the defoliation I was going to discuss in process. More on that later….


P.S Thanks for reading, this has helped me out a great deal!

I Got Off The Subject, this what the subject for today.