The Art of Creating a Bonsai: One Year Condensed Condensed Into 22 Mesmerizing Minutes

To be a good writer, one must be a good read­er. This is made true by the need to absorb and assess the work of oth­er writ­ers, but even more so by the need to eval­u­ate one’s own. Writ­ing is re-writ­ing, to coin a phrase, and effec­tive re-writ­ing can only fol­low astute re-read­ing. This con­di­tion applies to oth­er arts and crafts as well: take bon­sai, the regard­ing of which con­sti­tutes a skill in and of itself. To craft an aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing minia­ture tree, one must first be able to see an aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing minia­ture tree — or per­haps to feel one. “Bon­sai trees (and inspir­ing art in gen­er­al) give me a ‘feel­ing’ that is hard to describe,” as prac­ti­tion­er Bucky Barnes puts it in the video above. “I’m not get­ting it from this tree yet, so I know I need to con­tin­ue tweak­ing.”

That tree is a Japan­ese larch bon­sai, Barnes’ year of work on which the video com­press­es into a mere 22 min­utes. The work is more than a mat­ter of water and sun­light: aspects that must be con­sid­ered and aggres­sive­ly mod­i­fied, include the plan­t’s view­ing and pot­ting angle, the num­ber and direc­tion of its branch­es, and even the struc­ture of roots spread­ing through the soil below.

Barnes breaks out a range of clip­pers, knives, pastes, brush­es, and wires — part of a suite of tools that, at least for the mas­ters back in bon­sai’s home­land of Japan, can get expen­sive indeed. To us lay­men, the tree that results from this year of work looks pret­ty respectable, but by bon­sai stan­dards its exis­tence has only just begun. Over the com­ing decades — or even the com­ing cen­turies — it could take on oth­er qual­i­ties alto­geth­er. When well main­tained, bon­sai only improve with age.

As demon­strat­ed in the video just above, how­ev­er, not every bon­sai receives such main­te­nance. A prod­uct of the same Youtube chan­nel, Bon­sai Releaf, “Restor­ing a Neglect­ed Chi­nese Juniper Bon­sai” begins with a tree that, to many of its near­ly four mil­lion view­ers so far, prob­a­bly does­n’t look too bad. Barnes sees things dif­fer­ent­ly: begin­ning by sketch­ing the tree, appar­ent­ly a stan­dard stage of his pro­fes­sion­al bon­sai-view­ing process, he sets about cor­rect­ing a host of defi­cien­cies like “low­er branch­es com­pet­ing for light,” exces­sive upward or down­ward growth (as well as some­thing called “weak crotch growth”), and dead tis­sue not delin­eat­ed from liv­ing. This labo­ri­ous oper­a­tion requires an even wider tool set, encom­pass­ing Dremels and even flames. But by the video’s end, any­one can see the dif­fer­ence in the tree itself — and more impor­tant­ly, feel it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art & Phi­los­o­phy of Bon­sai

This 392-Year-Old Bon­sai Tree Sur­vived the Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Blast & Still Flour­ish­es Today: The Pow­er of Resilience

A Dig­i­tal Ani­ma­tion Com­pares the Size of Trees: From the 3‑Inch Bon­sai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

What Makes the Art of Bon­sai So Expen­sive?: $1 Mil­lion for a Bon­sai Tree, and $32,000 for Bon­sai Scis­sors

Daisu­gi, the 600-Year-Old Japan­ese Tech­nique of Grow­ing Trees Out of Oth­er Trees, Cre­at­ing Per­fect­ly Straight Lum­ber

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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