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.
What a tree and what a story! If you have a minute, you’d enjoy a link I posted on facebook very recently about some trees dating back thousands of years, one of which is still bearing olives! It was originally posted on Mother Nature Network, or you can easily find it on my environmental page (My Eco-centric Life) as I have far fewer posts. I think trees are one of nature’s finest art forms. :)
Thank you! The link is amazing — these trees are unimaginably old.
I didn’t intend to comment anonymously. Glad you were able to find the post about the trees. I thought they were pretty incredible. Always enjoy your posts!!
How deeply lovely!
How deeply silent!
How deeply reverent!
An impressive tree, cared for by people who have a lot to teach us.
Simply beautiful words and emotions. Thank you.
Thank you, Joe.
Thank you for that history and those thoughts.
Thank you, Kat.
I had the great fortune to hear you speak last Sunday at Adkins Arboretum. Your lecture gave me much to ponder as I walked through Arboretum. As always, thank you for your beautiful words.
Thank you. Adkins is a great place and I was thrilled to be able to speak there. I’m very happy to hear that my talk stirred some thoughts.
Bonsai gains beauty over time. Without time, and commitment and patient tending, it is nothing. If those in power would take the long view, rather then risk stability and any chance of harmony, we would all gain. Thanks for the story. Lovely.
Thank you, Pam. The long view is indeed important.
(In answering this I inadvertently pressed “delete”; I hope I have now restored the comment…!)
Thank you for a fine addition to an exceptional Sunday. It is Fall in the desert. Not over
90 degrees for several days. Tried to go birdwatching on the Verde River….in one of our nearby National Forests. It was closed. It is so wrong to have anyone or anything close a forest. We need another Woodie Guthrie. You surely have Wendell Berry’s new book, “This Day Collected and New Sabbath poems”. Thanks again for introducing him to me. Minyon Bond
Thank you. I hope you’re enjoying the respite from the heat! I have not yet had the pleasure of reading Berry’s latest: a treat for the future (the near future I hope).
Here’s to hope for a reopening of our minds and hearts, as well as the government.
Great essay… I wish Congress would hear it; this should be read into their record! Thank you.
Thank you! The day that congress can take time away from “epic battles” and other wars, and make time for ancient trees will be a great day indeed.
Do Japanese White Pines live so long in the wild? 400+ years seems long, even for a healthy tree. Perhaps the bonsai extends life span?
Yes, bonsai trees can indeed outlive their wild cousins, perhaps because of the diligence of their “keepers” and perhaps also because wind and ice storms and lightning (killers of old wild trees) are less of a problem. I do not know the longevity of this species in the wild, but I’d love to find out.
That’s a wonderful story, made all the more poignant by its appearance in my inbox just hours after I heard Bill Moyers read a poem by Wendell Berry about hope. At the end of the poem Berry issues a kind of Golden Rule of place, urging readers to show care “Toward other people, other creatures, in other places / As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.” We did not care for that place near Hiroshima Bay; we broke the rule. But the people who did care for it brought their precious, vibrant tree here, to our place, in some extraordinary spirit of hope and human kindness. In his poem Berry also begs us to “Speak to your fellow humans as your place / Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.” Would that our leaders down the road could hear what the Yamaki pine is whispering nearby.
Thanks for another uplifting piece.
My thanks to you for this thoughtful comment. Berry’s words are important (and hard to heed).
This makes me a bit abashed for being so proud of my thirty-year-old Japanese maple bonsais. But I treasure them, and so, I hope, will my daughter and son. It takes a tremendous amount of love and diligence to keep trees watered, trimmed, repotted and happy for 30 years, much less for three centuries. Holy cow. Thank you for this post. It’s beautiful.
Thank you — I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post. Your bonsais sound fabulous and thirty years of love and care is an impressive achievement. Maybe these same plants will grace someone’s home in three hundred years’ time? Year by year, we open possibilities for the future…
If ever you’re in DC I recommend a visit to the collections. Very impressive and interesting.
With many thanks,
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