Deadwood in the Landscape

The bonsai artist’s search for inspiration can lead down many different avenues, but one little-trodden path may just begin in your own back yard. There can be no denying the evocative power of mountain trees clinging triumphantly to life in rugged hostile environments but, for those of us living in the lowland landscape or in amongst the bustle of modern suburbia inspiration need not be in short supply.

Trees growing in the natural landscape show great resilience to a plethora of destructive elements. It’s inevitable that at some time a tree will suffer damage. Whether that damage is caused by a rock fall, avalanche, lightning strike or wind damage matters little, but these elements do have a hint of romance about them. For now though, I would like to focus on trees growing in the lowland landscape where damage is more likely to be inflicted upon a tree by a man in a hard hat wielding a chainsaw, or a car wreck.

In a mountain setting we find species that are well suited to the environment such as spruce and pine. Because of the nature of their wood, damaged areas are resilient to the elements and often produce the bleached, silver-white, shattered skeletal remains so highly valued in bonsai circles. We must make a differentiation between this type of deadwood, and that found in lowland situations where the climate is mild and often damp; species found in this environment tend to be deciduous, or have wood largely lacking in the resin content of many mountain-dwelling conifers.

Over the last few years I have been very deeply influenced by the landscape here in the east of England. There are no mountains here, but we have a wealth of ancient trees all around. Within an hour’s drive I can see 500-year old hawthorns, 1200-year old oaks, and yew trees from antiquity. We have areas of chestnut, lime and hornbeam coppice that served iron age settlers. Our country estates bear the influence of great and wealthy men who planted grand avenues of majestic beech, poplar, sequoia and cedar, hundreds of years ago. Those same estates often provide sheltered homes to very old, gnarly orchards surrounded by hedges that were laid generations ago. My own garden is home to an old apple tree that has stood through two world wars. Old trees are all around us quietly waiting to be discovered.

The whole purpose of any tree is to procreate. The longer a tree can survive the more successful it will be. According to Ted Green – tree conservation officer at Windsor Great Park, U.K – there is some evidence to suggest that species like oak, beech and chestnut have survival tactics that may seem a little untenable in the light of conventional theory. During the great gales of 1987 Windsor Great Park lost many majestic trees that were simply thrown down by the tempest. However, Ted noticed that not one single old hollow tree was lost, only maiden trees in the full glory of their youth. The grizzly old gentlemen of the park had lost a few big branches and some had split, but every single one remained upright with it’s roots firmly in the ground, ready to re-grow new branches and continue the cycle of procreation.

Once a tree suffers damage the wound quickly begins to decay. Evidence suggests that some trees take advantage of their local eco-system by allowing bacteria, fungi and insects to devour their inert heartwood thus, eventually, rendering the tree hollow and less susceptible to mortal damage. We tend to think of old, damaged and hollow trees as being in decline. Perhaps we should look a little closer? Just as we begin to show signs of age so do trees. A fellow that is losing his hair doesn’t have a decaying head, nor does he deserve to be composted!
In providing the pictures that illustrate this article I have tried to show how a wild tree responds to a situation that often occurs in bonsai; for instance, where we reduce the height of a larger tree, remove a superfluous trunk or cut away a large branch. The wild trees response to damage seems to be a restricted one, limited to a small amount of callusing in order to strengthen the broken edge of sound timber, whilst waiting for the old and now dead wood to degrade and fall away. In a damp lowland environment deadwood remains for a relatively short time before it decays back into the ground.

For the bonsai artist the significant factor is to consider, not how trees are damaged, but how they respond to damage over a period of time. Removing a large branch or shortening the trunk of bonsai material is no different to a tree losing the same in nature. The usual process in bonsai is to trim the wound carefully to encourage healing in order to hide the cut. In nature this rarely happens, only small areas of wound ever heal completely and most end up as hollows. We should be students of nature, so… if something is happening to trees in the landscape it ought to be reflected in our bonsai.

In my early years of involvement with bonsai I read that deadwood had no place around deciduous trees. This troubled me for obvious reasons. One mistaken thought is that a tree “infected” with rot will eventually fall apart and die. Firstly, as we now know rot, or decay, is not an infection but an integral part of the aging of trees. Some trees appear to share symbiotic relationships with fungi that devour their heartwood. Therein lies a fundamental difference between us and trees. A tree has a remarkable ability to compartmentalise it’s internal structure, and can jettison badly damaged or unproductive parts of itself without risk to it’s healthy parts.

So, an old broken down hollow tree can be as healthy and productive in it’s senescence as it can in the strength of youth. We should treat these venerable old warriors with the greatest of reverence as they stand silent, still and resilient, entirely at one with the world in which they exist and of which they are such an harmonious part.
Take time to find old trees then, as they flush into new spring growth or settle into winter slumber, sit quietly with them for a while and contemplate where you will be in a thousand years.

Graham Potter
© 2005.