It’s Time To Relax a Little

Bonsai takes time and lots of it.

A great deal of water has passed under the bridge of life since I purchased my first bonsai, a serissa, to stand on the side of my little koi pond. On occasions I ruminate over all that time passed, about thirty five years I guess. The trees that came and went, the stupid ideas I grew out of, the bonsai I made, the trees I killed, the people I have met, journeys undertaken, the friends I made and some I have sadly lost. I have reached an age where I have more to look back upon than I have going forward. I have aged parents, grand-babies, everything is paid for and so I guess life is good so long as I focus on the positives which is hard for me.

I got a slow start in life. I remember my school teachers telling my parents ‘Graham is sharp as a whip but he just will not apply himself‘. Every school report noted ‘Can do better!’Must try harder‘ or some such. I unofficially left school at 15, I figured out how to register my attendance then bunk off for the remainder of the day. Nobody noticed I was missing. I just turned up for woodwork and test days, the rest of the time I was AWOL. Nobody at school, except my woodwork teacher, managed to get through to me exactly what i was doing there. I just could not see the point.

When I officially left school at 16 I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. I didn’t know how to get a job or even what jobs there were to do. I did a bit of part time (floor) cleaning at a store and spent my time (more than three years) applying to be a postie because it looked like an easy job to me. On my own, walking the streets, poking mail into doors, how hard can that be? They never even wrote me back….or maybe the letter got lost 😉

So, age 17 I spent my last £150 savings and put it into a part share of an old printing press. I spent a year learning to work the beast and the rest is history, I spent 21 years full time in the printing trade. Eventually that got in the way of my bonsai and so the stark choice was to stay put in a cushty job with decent pay and good security or launch myself into thin air. Against all advice and with every nerve screaming at me to stop I walked out of my job into nothing. Long story short, thanks to all the lovely people in the bonsai community I did not loose everything, we didn’t starve, we’re still here. Thank you all so much, my little family is eternally grateful.

Don’t…….DON’T, for a moment think it was easy. At times the pressure and stress was so great I thought I was going to have a stroke or something and I know about that having been hospitalised for life threatening problems related to work stress. At times I have been close to running my bike into a tree. Just living in GB today, trying to make a living makes me feel that way. But now I am older I find myself focusing more on what’s right than what’s wrong.

Sure there is a lot wrong in society today and as we get older that seems much more threatening than when we were younger but, on the other hand there’s a lot to be thankful for. My glass may well have been half empty for most of my time here but at least it wasn’t empty right?

I have written many times about the value of spending quiet time with our trees. Back in the day I would often be found out in my garden at 2am. Over the past few years I got out of that habit because basically all I was doing was stacking up trees to sell, over 1500 trees were going through my hands annually and everything was for sale. Eventually I just lost my way in it all. Today, thankfully, things have changed for the better. I now no longer sell trees, or at least not many and thanks to the efforts of my close friends, not least of all Kevin W I am back doing bonsai and rediscovering what I lost.

These days I can be found out in my garden at first light, expresso in one hand and a small cigar in the other just looking, listening and feeling. The peace and quiet can be magical, nature is so expressive and engrossing if we can shut up long enough to hear. I’m sure this is news to no one but the things I am seeing and hearing are simply amazing. I have been insanely busy 24/7 for so many years but now I begin to realise a great deal of that pressure was self inflicted. Don’t worry, i’m not about to do something daft like take a vacation, after all everything I want in the world is right here at home but I do see a chance to stop and smell the roses.

Bonsai Garden

Early mornings at first light can be magical!

This very (cold) morning I was outside at 5am accoutrement in hand and noticed this monster elm. I bought this in Southern Italy back in 2018. Back then it was in a massive tub nearly four feet wide. The previous owner had roughed it out and it arrived in my garden as can be seen in the image below.

Thankfully I never offered it for sale. Since then all I did was sort out the roots and pot it. Each summer I run over it with scissors a couple of times. My intention being to create enough material to justify a winter styling session. Largely I just ignore the old thing but maybe that’s not so bad right?

Field elm bonsai.

Field elm. April 2024.

Field elm bonsai material.

As it arrived from Italy in late 2018.

My regular readers will be aware I have been gathering up a lot of very old British bonsai over the last year or so. Doing so has significantly changed my mind about a great deal of the ‘bonsai’ I was doing. Having so many trees that have been bonsai for many decades, many of which were created in ways different to those we take for granted today has left me questioning a lot of the things we “do“.

I have a very exacting standard and a high bar for what I personally consider to be ‘bonsai’. However, recently I have begun to realise the magic we seek is something that comes from a mixture of nature and time rather than just our skill, we need both on our side. For many years I have been of the opinion that a lot of bonsai we do should in fact not be ‘done‘ at all. I’m now beginning to realise we have to find the balance between making bonsai and letting ‘bonsai’ happen. This elm is a great illustration of that principle. Very often trees that are just left alone with the minimum of interference can develop into very special bonsai trees.

In the early days I was led to believe we could ‘age‘ a tree but that’s utter bollocks. Time ages a tree and on occasions something very special and unexpected can turn up seemingly by magic.

Going back to my more recent posts here, our particular lack of bonsai heritage and old British bonsai trees can’t help. For a start finding an old tree that’s been left to the passage of time is hard, most are either beyond help or deceased. The big issue is achieving the balance between doing enough to keep a tree happy and healthy but not doing so much that we spoil the enchantment passing time has left. Time can give bonsai a cloak of magic that we simply cannot make but we sure as hell can wreck.

This big old elm is very far from what I had intended to do and it’s far from being bonsai but I thought it was a good example of what can happen with the minimal amount of interference from me. It appears we often put too much pressure on ourselves for a multitude of reasons. Pressure can be a good thing but just as easily it can be destructive. I have put immense pressure on myself, my family and my bonsai for far too long to the detriment of all. Time to live life at a trees pace not our own, after all a decade to a tree is nothing.

Sadly that seems to be the story of our time and we are all the worse for it. Do more, get more, be more, go further, take it to the next level etc’ be dammed! I can’t believe I am saying this but perhaps it’s time to relax a little, take the pressure off and give our trees a break. You never know they just might teach us all something valuable right?