“If a man is alone, working on his Bonsai, and he speaks, and there is no woman to hear him…
Is he still wrong ?”


No matter what anyone says, I am not a good gardener. If something lives under my watchful care, it is due to the natural resilience of the plant and not my knowledgeable nurturing. My method has always been one of benign neglect. Oh, I would transplant them, feed them, and prune their unruly growth from time to time, but to say I was keeping them alive would be too generous. I have allowed them to live without directly killing them.

But I love Bonsai as examples of what they are…stunted plants shaped for a table rather than a hillside. They are delicate, and when left to their own devices quickly revert to the growth habits the maker designed for them…as trees.

In my eagerness to propel myself into the sophomore status of tree stunter, I followed the methods of the Japanese masters: I bought, or was given plants that were partially developed, and watered them. Little by little, I began to gain confidence and twice ventured to capture a wild tree and bring it into my garden as a collector.

The first was on a trek through the Sierra. I had been wandering the granite rock face of a mountain ridge along the tree line, that point at which the conditions for growth become inhospitable. In the Sierra of California, this usually occurs around eleven thousand feet, and lower if the wind, sun and snow are particularly harsh. Nestled among the enormous boulders scattered on the mountaintop, I chanced upon a single tree…no more than two feet in diameter and half as tall. It had been clinging to the rock face for decades, squat and low on the leeward side of a cliff. It was beautiful and perfect, with a thick trunk that twisted and turned to the constant wind that rushed up the valley. I had found, to my delight, a lone and tiny sentinel, a Sequoia that may have been older than I was.

Carefully, I dug it out of its’ perch and pried the gnarled roots off of the glittering granite. I placed the root ball in a plastic bag with native soil around it and watered it lightly to sustain it both through the long ride back to the city and to sooth the shock it must surely have felt.

Like Bonsai masters of old, I brought it into my garden and lovingly placed it into a beautiful blue-glazed ceramic pot befitting it’s hoary splendor. Deep pots are referred to as Hachi-No-Ki, less of a “platter” and more of a bowl…a generous and elegant home. I was ecstatic. It instantly attained top tree status and made every other plant seem insignificant…until it began to die. For three weeks, I struggled to keep it alive; doing all the wrong things to it: watering it when it was accustomed to drought; feeding it when it hadn’t had significant nutrients in years, and replacing its’ natural arid environment with the cool coastal fog of San Francisco…and it didn’t seem to like Led Zeppelin much either.

I watched in despair as leaf by leaf, and branch by branch this magnificent plant withered and dried to a twisted piece of kindling. The noble little tree had survived the most inhospitable conditions for longer than I cared to speculate, and in under a month, I had coddled it to death.

On another trip back from Yosemite, I was accompanied by my young wife and year-old son, who for the first time in his little life, decided to cry non-stop for hours…this unnerved his mother (who was already angry at me for some unrelated faux pas), and my ears were ringing with the cacophony of hell. Pulling off the highway in a turn out, I parked the truck and left them both for their own safety and walked about twenty yards away to listen to the wind blow through the canyon. After I turned to go back for another dose of stereo screaming, I found a  tiny oak tree directly by the side of my foot and marveled at its’ sweet smallness and beautifully shaped oak leaves. I dug it up with my hands and cradled it as I walked back to the truck, admiring the robust oily green of the leaves, and noticing how they appeared in neat clusters of three…


In one motion, I dropped the plant and lifted my hands to heaven…

For those fortunate enough to have never encountered poison oak, it is widely regarded (by me) to be the eighth plague. A seemingly innocuous groundcover of a pleasant enough green, sporting autumn colors of rust and crimson, with all the shades of yellow to brown as it wastes away. It blends into the forest floor, disguised as a pedestrian, until you brush it with your hand (easy to do), walk barefoot through it (a little harder, but when you are being Huckleberry, there’s no choice), roll naked in it (I swear to God, it wasn’t my idea), or stupidly uproot it, fondle it, and then transfer the oil from the leaves to your face and neck, while wiping sweat away (Oh, yes…it is hellish hot in the high Sierra on a summer day)….

Then, moment by moment, poison oak, makes you very, very sorry…and you will never forget her.

We had no fluid other than milk for the baby, so I drove another two hours before finding a gas station where I could wash off the residue from the leaves.

In two days my hands, arms, and face were covered in blisters …blisters that itched like a hundred devils had taken up residence under my skin, each with a tiny pitchfork which they would drag day and night in maddening sores that would spread if they were scratched. It inevitably finds its’ way to the most curious places.

The mountains had punished my impatient transgression.

I never again removed a leaf, flower, stone or twig from the wild. The forest, mountains and streams are forever safe from the marauding hands of Yosemite Sam.

Thank you, Makoto Hagiwara, for creating the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco…

and for inventing the fortune cookie.

~ by theoxherd on January 26, 2013.

One Response to “Hachi-no-ki”

  1. I’m sorry for your loss and I’m sorry for your blisters. Are they gone now? I can still see traces of my blisters from months ago, suffered the same way. Are you still the bonzai guru?

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