What You See Depends On What You See: Perspective from a Bonsai Tree
This blog is about challenging conventional thinking in/on photography and life by trying to highlight new paradigms from which to see the world. – Mind over camera. Think:
Today I had a sudden and slightly intense flashback. While eating my lunch I remembered a conversation I overheard while looking at a Bonsai Tree exhibit in 2007 at the amazing local Como Park Conservatory. A young couple was discussing the merits/values of bonsai trees.
The young women wasn’t very interested in or impressed with the bonsai trees on display and was making a case for why they were not interesting, beautiful, worth taking care of, or even worth looking at. While the young man was trying to argue ineffectively with his mate that there was something more to bonsai trees than what she was seeing. In the end, neither one of them would make very good lawyers, but her argument was something along the lines of, “There are more important things to do than take care of tiny trees, and they don’t even look that cool because they don’t have flowers….. and flowers grow fast and are easier to grow.” While his argument was something along the lines of, “Yeah, but they’re really old and being old is important…” Even though he couldn’t really explain why.
It wasn’t an earth shattering discussion, just one of those things you overhear and chuckle at while visiting a public space.
My only other experience with a bonsai tree was in high school when my best friend got one as a present for a birthday or Christmas one year. We were both huge martial arts fans. Both the films and in real life via a few years of kicking each other in the head at a Tae Kwon Do studio. We got very good at kicking each others asses and I still maintain I’ve seen more martial arts movies than anyone I’ve ever met. But, I digress…. My friend was fairly serious about taking care of his bonsai, which if I remember correctly was already nine-years-old when he acquired it. The little tree required water daily in the form of mist from a spray bottle and was very temperature sensitive, which is kind of hard to control in Minnesota where you could experience an outdoor temperature swing of 50 degrees or more in a single day. But, even in our punk high-school karate-kid phase my best bro managed to keep his bonsai alive and well for over 3 years.
But, at somewhere around age 11 my friends’ tree died. And it didn’t die of a crazy natural disaster or from a flock of killer locus. My friend basically just stopped caring about it… or watering it… and well, it died. Looking back now, I couldn’t tell you exactly when that was and it wasn’t a big deal at the time to either of us. There was no sleep lost over the dead 11-year-old bonsai tree.
That being said, somehow today while in mid-bit of a turkey sandwich I felt sort of sad about its demise. I contemplated the ideals below the surface of the bonsai tree raising experience.
Perhaps what the young man was trying to explain to his young girlfriend at the conservatory in 2007 was that bonsai trees are important not just because of what they look like in their physical form, but also in part for what they represent on a deeper level.
In order to keep a bonsai tree alive you need a lot of patience. Many of these tiny trees require a lot of work to keep alive and healthy. They don’t care what you have going on in your own life they only require you take the time to take care of theirs. And they don’t grow very fast or get very big. If you expect to see any progress in their lives you’ll have to look at them for an extremely long time. They don’t care if you have a fast paced life and they certainly don’t tweet. They just live. And chill…. for as long as you take care of them. In fact, they’ll easily out live you. It’s funny to think a tiny tree could live 3 or 4 times as long as you could. Bonsai trees are a physical representation that other beings and even ideas take time to grow. And require a huge amount of patience to make sure they keep on living.
Taking care of a bonsai tree requires dedication. Even looking at one you don’t own presents this to you in its form. Each tree is carefully monitored, protected, watered, trimmed, misted, and transported. It lives as long as someone is there to be its guardian. It could be a life long commitment to take care of a single plant. In the society we live in now there is almost no such thing as a life long commitment. Less than half of modern marriages make it past a few years. It’s amazing how much a tiny tree can symbolize the idea or ideals of making a commitment to something outside of yourself for the long haul.
It seems that bonsai trees are also an amazing symbol for the fragility of life. Not just their own lives, but all life. When you look at one you get an immediate sense of how easy it would be to throw it on the ground and after a few swift kicks kill it within a matter of minutes even if it had already been living for a hundred years or more. It’s kind of amazing to think that these trees, like us, would certainly die without water any longer than a week. Their weakness is a reflection of our own. It’s interesting because I think when we’re healthy adults we rarely think about the extended periods of times in our own lives that we would perish without the care of others. The very young and the very old require the care of other humans to live. Those of us beyond or before these points in our own lives rarely think about the fact we would most certainly be dead without someone else’s care.
Trees are amazingly beautiful things. Stoic, silent, and humble living creatures. Their beauty goes beyond their physical form in that they are a reverse reflection of our own human lungs. They actually look like lungs and take the exact substance we release in our own process of exhaling and return to us the oxygen we require to live. Trees are our twin caregivers. The balance between our species is nearly unmatched. This kind of beauty goes beyond any aesthetic explanation.
Dream of Trees
A handful of years ago I had a strange reoccurring dream involving trees. I thought it would be interesting to look-up what it meant if you had a dream involving a bonsai tree in a dream dictionary. It said this:
“Dreaming of a bonsai tree indicates the limitations of your own conscious mind. You need to consider what your instincts are telling you.”
Maybe these tiny old trees are trying to tell us something after all?