Bravery and Beauty

Well, I did it.
For weeks it was first-present on my mind. It even drowned out my anxieties about Our Country, Our World…
For a wonder, for a mercy…
I’m proud of myself. Can’t believe I really did it.
Ok. Ok. Enough, Sylvia.
But listen. I was indeed courageous (some would read it as stupid, vain, foolish).
Actually, I was courageous, stupid, vain, foolish~
But I say give credit where credit is due.
Do you say that, too? I thought so. Thank you.
All right, you may ask, what on earth did I do to earn such kudos?
Repotted my mother’s 50-year-old bonsai ginkgo forest.
Oh. Just that?
But “that” was a very big deal.
Fifty years old these little trees are. But their bones are older…gingko biloba forbears date back to the Carboniferous period.
That makes my little forest (plus or minus) three hundred million years old.
Living fossils.
Now you know why I was nervous.
A deal of my nerves came from the fact that till now, I’ve never had more to do with bonsai trees than appreciate and water them. One gives water to a bonsai with a light hand and often I showered my mother’s exquisite works of art. Her bonsai-ery graced shelves all over her large West Los Angeles garden. Over the years Ma gave our family several of her incomparable bonsais and we were ever appreciative of the beauties on our deck. Fortunately the only  maintenance required was to water them…Ma insisted on doing the critical matters of repotting, pruning, feeding.
My mother first immersed herself in the art of bonsai in her late sixties. It was during an unhappy period. In her studio brilliant artist Gloria Stuart was painting, silk screening, pen-and-inking, water coloring, pasteling, enjoying success with her shows. But since she was six, she’d been on the stage or before a camera. She hadn’t had lines to memorize for years and she longed to return to acting. But my father was slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease and she could not leave him for more than a few hours. So she painted, silk screened, pen-and-inked…
Serendipity to the rescue.
One night at dinner at a friend’s my parents had known for years but never visited, Ma admired their host’s exquisite centerpiece. “That’s beautiful, Joe. Tell me about it.”
Joe said, “It’s one of my trees. I’ve been studying with a bonsai master, Frank Nagata, for years.”
The following Sunday Ma joined Joe at his class.
She plunged in, convinced no matter what pain she faced, she could go into the garden and be enfolded by tranquility, spirituality, beauty…walk past exquisite small trees glorious in and of themselves that were doubly comforting because she had metamorphosed them into art. Over the next decades my mother created hundreds of exquisite works–from delicate flowering quince to sculptural root-over-rock (the seedlings from the giant Chinese elm in her streetside garden) to a stately oak forest sprung from acorns pocketed at Fontainebleau.
When Frank Nagata retired, Ma was fortunate to study with legendary bonsai master, John Naka. Naka was beloved for his warmth, wisdom, charm, and because he encouraged students to make of their trees what they wished. Rules, tradition, weren’t as important as following their artistic instinct. Ideal for my independent mother.
What, you might ask, precisely is a bonsai?
The art of Bonsai came to Japan from China–there called Penjing–in the Tang Dynasty, around the seventh and eighth centuries.
Depending on where you live, perhaps you’ve never been fortunate enough to see a miniature living tree in bark and leaf. Perhaps you’ve seen a faux miniature tree in plastic–art in plastic proliferates. Specifically, a seedling, cutting, or small plant is transformed into a bonsai when it has been grown in a relatively shallow vessel (classically a pot of clay), and over the years its trunks and branches artfully pruned and perhaps shaped with wire to mimic its full-grown species or given a dramatic, often breathtaking shape. The shape of a bonsai arrangement–whether a single tree or forest–must be esthetically pleasing. And light and airy. I remember  being beguiled when Ma told me Naka said a bird must be able to fly through a bonsai’s branches.
Astonishing that under such restricted circumstances, trees can live for centuries…see the photograph of an 800 year-old Japanese Yew bonsai in Wikipedia*.
Frank Nagata and John Naka were co-founders of the California Bonsai Society. When the time came that Gloria Stuart received an invitation to join the prestigious group, she learned she was one of its first Anglo members–and the first woman.
And yes, the time finally did come, while still tending her little trees, Gloria Stuart again stood before a camera.
After her death at 100, I was so happy when an emissary from the Huntington Botanical Gardens came and chose two of her works for their Bonsai Collection–joining an elm forest she’d contributed years before. The rest of Ma’s trees were given to family, friends, and fellow members of her Baikoen Bonsai Club.
Me? I chose the regal forest of gingkos which I’d loved from its creation. But there was no way I could care for it.
Naturally I was thrilled at the prospect of having bonsai in my life again. When my husband Gene died in 2001, I lived pillar to post for nine years, sans bonsai. Then I met Bill and we married…wanted to travel while we still could.
Now when one commits to bringing a bonsai into one’s life, it’s like bringing a small child into the house…utterly defenseless…life and death in the balance. Trees-in-a-dish must be given Water Every Day. And should insects, critters, or some form of blight attack the plant, it would be critical to administer aid there and then. There was no one we could ask to take over the bonsai’s care when we were gone. (Our only candidate, a close friend who lived nearby said, “Bonsais? I kill them.”
Thus for nearly thirteen years Ma’s gingko forest was nurtured by Frank Goya, a student of Naka’s and my mother’s beloved last teacher. Then early in this year I knew Frank was approaching 100 and it was time to ease his load. I thought to ask Marianne Yamaguchi, second generation proprietor of a superb bonsai nursery, if she knew of someone who could keep the trees. Marianne knew my mother, knew the forest, said she would keep it. The bonsai community is so generous.
Then last August a family member called, said he’d be driving up for a visit…
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier note, Bill and I recently, reluctantly, decided we had to give up travel. I didn’t want Marianne Yamaguchi keeping our trees any longer than necessary. It struck me…ohmygosh it was, hooray…Bonsai Time. I asked and Geoff graciously agreed to schlep the forest to us.
Could not believe it.
So I bought a marble table, found the place for it in our back garden where we could easily see it, placed it where Uschi couldn’t knock it over and where it would receive the gentle Santa Cruz sunshine most of the day.
When Geoff arrived, he lugged the heavy pot through the garden door and Geoff, Bill, and I–I couldn’t not greet it!–all three placed it in the center of the marble table. I almost forgot to breathe. I’d wanted so long. I was thrilled. Terrified. Went off to pick Meyer lemons so Bill and Geoff wouldn’t see my tears.
With the bonsai, Marianne sent a bonsai primer and a jar of Osmocote, slow-release fertilizer pellets and a sticky note attached, “2 scoops November and March.” Gulp. I’d never fed a bonsai. I’d hoped to connect with a Marianne-recommended bonsai master in town but lost his name in my study… Put the Osmocote where I wouldn’t lose it. Still there.
Looked through the bonsai book which said gingko bonsais need repotting every year. In spring. Well, I realized to my chagrin that this was spring! It was Now! I read that some species can wait two or three years between repotting. But because these deciduous giants (they lose their leaves in autumn, form new ones in spring) are so vigorous–I mean they’ve managed to endure all these billions of years–they need extra TLC. Another test for repotting need: when I carefully carefully tipped the pot and lifted out the carpet of trees–the forest came in one conjoined group, not tree by tree–and inspected beneath, only three or four thin ivory-colored roots seemed to be tangled. Tangled roots are a symptom of Please Repot Me. I sighed with relief…for a mercy it wasn’t pot-bound.
The book mentioned a particular blend of soil was wanted–but it wasn’t soil. Something from Japan. I phoned the nurseries I knew around town, asked if they carried bonsai materials. Nope. (No one responded, “Where do you think you are?”)
Then I called Marianne’s, asked the person on the phone if they could please send me the appropriate dirt. The patient man suggested I check online for Eastern Leaf, they’d have what I needed.
If only I knew what I needed.
Internet to the rescue. How well I remember the days of the first half of my life when, should I want to learn how to repot a bonsai, I’d visit a bonsai nursery (if there was one) or go to the UCLA library (which there was nearby, thank goodness). Then came the machine that offers Most Everything You Need to Know at Your Fingertips. Here was an old lady in sleepy coastal Santa Cruz who needed to know how to repot her mother’s sacred 50-year-old gingko forest, for heavens’ sake…
I noodled around and after investigating several bonsai sites, I stopped in at Herons Bonsai in Felbridge, England. There I found Peter Chan, a slight man of certain years (stooped a bit, like me) trudging around youtube in tall gardener’s boots chatting amiably away to us as the camera followed him stopping to examine now this collection of little pine trees, now that newly acquired collection of blue Japanese pots. I found Mr. Chan had a video on “How to Repot a Bonsai,” and breathed a sigh of relief. Watched it, made notes. Watched it a second time. Once more. It was so informative…he was chatty but no nonsense. I began to relax, feel assured that I–the little trees–would be okay.
Back at Eastern Leaf I ordered the soil and duplicates of tools Peter Chan used repotting.
I certainly didn’t need a new pot–the oval unglazed chocolate brown pot was in perfect condition.
I paid a little extra to have the materials arrive within days–I was pressed for time as every day more and more dainty yellow leaves were popping out of branches (one must repot before the tree presents its new leaves). I was thrilled when they arrived in perfect shape. Marveled at the graceful shapes of all the Japanese tools…and I’d treated myself to a small Haws can, that’s the classic English watering can with a long stem, veddy handsome.
And the soil mix. Starts with Akadama. Akadama is from Japan, something to do with volcanic soil that’s baked and sifted. Comes in different sizes of grains. I wonder if my mother used it. The bonsai book says, “It holds water but has excellent drainage and contains ample air spaces.” I’d chosen to buy Eastern Leaf’s organic soil blend…Akadama mixed with I forget what. I bought three big sacks of it, optimistic that I’d be needing it for years.
I was poised on the brink of a vast rich profoundly spiritual, artistic, complicated endeavor over a thousand years old. I thought of those before me who stood beside their first bonsai pot and, like me, could not move.
For starters, one is dealing with an entity that breathes–along the way I’d read that a tree breathes through its roots.
Oh my lord, that got me. This new endeavor–some would call it hobby–wasn’t like bringing home a sewing machine, pattern, fabric, scissors, pins, thread, and setting up to whip up a fetching skirt (I’d done that, too.)
And so two weeks ago Sunday I kissed Bill at his perch on the sofa (my Philadelphian calls it couch) listening to Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, asked him to wish me luck, and went out to the garden to repot my mother’s forest.
I lugged the heavy pot over to the Japanese black steel picnic table I’ve had for years…was happy for the serendipity of a Japanese table…
I won’t slog through what I did. I did what I’d seen Peter Chan do. I gingerly lifted the thick cake of tree roots in soil and set it aside so I could attend to the dish. I bravely used my new Japanese steel pruning shears to trim off a few thin roots that seemed longer than others. I cut wire mesh in squares and laid them over the drainage holes so the potting mix wouldn’t flow through. I poured in what felt like the right amount of soil mix–about halfway to the top. I was feeling my way (we have a friend who makes us laugh because the motto of her life has always been, “I’m feeling my way”)… No harm in that.
Watered the new soil. Set the great cake of thin earthbound trees (I’ve never counted how many in the forest, too superstitious to do so) on top. Watered the cake. Gently pressed it down into the new soil. Took a chopstick and gently poked here and to settle the cake down into its new bed.
I didn’t really know what I was doing but it felt right, it seemed to go smoothly, I blew kisses to Peter Chan in England. Blew kisses to my mother.
I’ve no idea if I killed the trees. I’ll know soon enough.
For a week, watering it, kept a close eye on every square inch. The pot and its contents seemed to be fine. No brown patches.
Then last Saturday–a short week later–Bill and I (what a dear man, sharing this adventure with me) attended our much-anticipated first meeting of the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai meeting (kai is Japanese for “club, gathering.”) Enthusiasts just like me. Only knowledgeable.
I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to bring a bonsai to the meeting, but because I so needed advice, we decided to take it.
We were met with uncommon warmth and friendliness, urged to bring our forest in…a tall young man was dispatched to help Bill carry it. Inside the hall I was surprised to see more than a dozen bonsais on tables–it was clear monthly meetings serve as workshops for trees needing counsel. (The club also has a monthly workshop/demonstration, marvelous.)
When my mother’s forest was set down on a table–a tall piece, it was instantly visible all over the hall–I was surprised that a cluster of people gathered around and I heard murmurs of “Magnificent” and “Never saw a gingko forest like that…” A couple of times I gasped when I heard, “Masterpiece.”
I was home. From now on, the gingko forest would be safe.
Bill settled amiably with his thermos mug of coffee, I found where I could officially join the club, I did–family membership, so both Bill and I–and even Cameron, should he wish!–are members.
Swirling around the hall–there were probably fifty people, mostly men but a handful of women–I heard the words, “The show” many times. Turned out the club will give its annual bonsai exhibition next month and turns out there was no question that Ma’s gingko forest must be in it.
I murmured to the woman at the membership table that I was hoping to have help with my bonsai–and I quietly added, “It’s fifty years old, my mother made it, and I’d be grateful if the very best person…” Instantly the woman led me over to a largish sweet-faced man of certain years, she spoke to him telling what I needed–he was bent over his large gorgeous I would say cherry tree–pale rosy flowers–and he walked me right over to the forest. I introduced Gareth to Bill. Gareth nodded, reached for his pruning scissors and was poised to nip off something when I burst out, “Oh, thanks, but I really was hoping to learn how to do it myself!” He gave me a look, set down his pruning shears, and pointing at three very tall thin new branches, said, “I’d take the tips after the third bud down…”
I fair swooned.
“Uh, I repotted this a week ago, does it look alright?”
No kidding. Fine. Finest word I’ve ever heard.
Then our new friend took another tool from his pocket, one with a small blunt edge, and began poking along the rim of the pot, pushing the moss down into the pot.
“Is that to give more space for water?”
“It’s to clean up the edge–you don’t want moss growing over the edge of the pot.” Lordy. “Since it’s going to be in the show, clean up the pot…” Pointing to the narrow rim of the unglazed brown pot that had whitish splotches–I’d never noticed this…who can look at whitish splotches on the pot when you’ve got majestic trees to look at? “You can use olive oil but I think Pam does the best job. You know Pam?” I didn’t laugh and say, “Um, you don’t know I wrote The Birthday Cake Book and…well, I’m familiar with cake-pan spray–except I never have imagined its use on a bonsai pot…”
“Marvelous. Thanks. I’ll do it at once.”
Now the meeting was being called to order. Several notes about the show–I was agog that my very first time out as a bonsai enthusiast I would be in a show…but of course you dumb broad YOUR tree wasn’t going to be in a show, your MOTHER’s tree was…
What I haven’t yet said is what I’ve felt most deeply. That–I am a tad spooky about such things–I think of my mother’s hands holding these trees, arranging these trees, trimming these trees…my mother’s hands placing the fluffy moss on top of the roots for a woodland feeling. Don’t laugh when I say…I won’t say it. For me, this diminutive forest has far more meaningful dimension than living fossils and beauty.
Much more.
Of the quintessence of bonsai, John Naka said: “It must have philosophy, botany, artistry, human quality behind it to be a bonsai.”
Doing my best to preserve those qualities.
And honor the artist that created the bonsai…the little trees themselves…Mother Nature… God’s goodness.
I began these notes celebrating something apart from my mother’s triumph of a bonsai forest. I began celebrating my bravery. OK, chutzpah. But I made myself do something that needed doing, that at the pressing time only I could do–and so I did it. Bit the old bullet. I’m proud of that. Shows old age hasn’t gotten to me yet. Well, not altogether.
Because the little pearls of Osmocote are unesthetic, Gareth suggested for The Show I remove the ones remaining from November’s feeding. You’re not supposed to feed close to repotting (fertilizer might be too harsh on recovering roots). So this weekend, three weeks out, Gareth suggested I feed the trees a light dose of fish emulsion (rich thick dark stuff that smells to high heaven, is fabulous). That’ll be fun.
Go thou and do something brave! Something with beauty intertwined. If you must be brave in the face of fear, make it worth your while.
And, in case it got past you, should you be in need of an art form to pour heart and soul into–even if you haven’t a garden, there are little trees that can be grown as bonsais indoors. Remember how the art rescued my mother. Avail yourself of a resource she did not have, the Internet.
I’d love to hear when you, too, are brave ~

Blithered as I am, so much heaped on my plate, I’d forgotten that I wrote about the forest when it arrived. No need to read “Serendipity and Living Fossils in our Garden,” August 24, 2023, but you can see its glorious leaves.

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