I was in the Washington DC area earlier this week. Luckily, I had a free morning on the day before the mafiosi closed the federal government, so I was able to visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum.
Bonsai is an interesting art form, a complicated intertwining of human desires and plant physiology. The trees seem both ensnared and exulted. The trees’ caretakers both control the trees and are their servants. Bonsai and Penjing honor natural landscapes and tree growth forms, yet do so in an entirely human context, providing an interesting metaphor for people’s relationships with the broader community of life.
One of the most striking trees is the Yamaki pine, a tree that first entered cultivation in 1625. It was collected from the wild on Miyajima, the “Shrine Island” in Hiroshima Bay, in the southern part of Japan. The tree is a Japanese white pine, Pinus parviflora, a species closely related to the American white pine, Pinus strobus.
The tree outlived the Edo period into which it was born. Worldwide, the human population has increased nearly fifteenfold during the tree’s life. During this time we’ve discovered all kinds of Earth-shaking technologies.
One of these innovations resulted in the atomic bomb, dropped by the U.S. just two miles from the tree’s home in Hiroshima. Thanks to the fortuitous placement of a nearby wall, the tree survived. Decades later the Yamaki family, tenders of the tree for the last five human generations, gave the tree to the country that had bombed their homeland. We cannot presume to understand all the layers of personal meaning in the Yamaki’s gift of this ancient tree. But against the backdrop of what happened at Hiroshima, their actions evince a love of peace and a depth of generosity that are staggering and inspiring.
A few miles down the road from the bonsai, we have the other end of the spectrum of human maturity: bullying and whining from those in power, and a vortex of anger and recrimination swirling out from this epicenter of malign human relationships. If victims of nuclear warfare can extend the hand of friendship, then so too can the rest of us. Among the many messages I hear in this tree, a question: Can I rise above the corrosive emotions and thoughts that well up within? As I drove past the Capitol building, the answer was: Not yet, unfortunately.
For more information about the tree’s story, see the National Bonsai Foundation’s overview.