Last week I came home to find my sons clustered around the kitchen counter, admiring their latest acquisitions. Bonsai trees. They had driven past the “Bonsai Guy” who randomly appears on a street corner near our house with a truck laden with bonsai trees. We have seen him now and again for years, but had never stopped.
This time, my boys did. They each bought a tree for themselves, and one for my EC for her birthday. Now everyone in the house has their own personal bonsai tree, except me. The good news is that I will be the only one in the house that will not eventually kill their own personal bonsai tree.
I can’t see a bonsai tree without thinking of Mr. Myagi in the Karate Kid (1984)
While the meditative aspects of for a bonsai tree artistry are worthy of consideration, I was curious as to what you have to do to care for it, and keep it looking like, well, a bonsai tree. So I checked out Wiki and discovered that there is a lot to the art of bonsai.
Watering, soil composition, fertilization, repotting, sunlight, pruning, shaping, etc., are all part of keeping it alive and flourishing. The part I find most curious is the shaping. There are all sorts of techniques to make the tree look the way the gardner wants it to look, including the following:
- Leaf trimming, the selective removal of leaves or needles from a bonsai’s trunk and branches.
- Pruning the trunk, branches, and roots
- Wiring branches and trunks to create the desired form and make detailed branch and leaf placements.
- Clamping using mechanical devices for shaping trunks and branches.
- Grafting new growing material (typically a bud, branch, or root) into the trunk or under the bark of the tree.
- Defoliation, which can provide short-term dwarfing of foliage for certain deciduous species. (link)
As I learned about these techniques, I understood that they are often used to do a very specific thing: To force the tree to grow and develop in a way that is not natural, or comfortable to the tree. By clamping or cutting of one branch, the tree is forced to grow in another direction. With this kind of manipulation, the gardener eventually gets the tree that he wants. The tree has two options, conform, or die. The gardener is basically saying to nature, “No, I don’t think so – let’s do this instead.”
Even tougher, the gardener might use one, two or more of these techniques – at the same time! Imagine being uprooted, pruned and forced to bend, all at the same time. (Actually, I’ll bet that a lot of us can imagine – or describe – that process.)
Another aspect I found quite intriguing is that this is a very, very slow process. One that is measured in months and years, not in days. I can go back and trim one of my pomegranate bush, and within a few months it will be gangly again. But there are bonsai trees that have been around for 1,000 years. Think about that! Growing and grooming a bonsai is not a quick and easy process. It takes time, and patience. It also takes timing. There are certain times when the tree needs pruned. Other times it needs uprooted and repotted, and other times it might need an increase of sunlight.
The goal of the gardener is to keep the tree healthy, and beautiful, and to continue becoming something more and more beautiful. That gardner is willing to spend a lifetime to get his tree as close to that place of near-perfection as he can.
Cutting, uprooting, scraping, clamping, etc. The gardner doesn’t do it because he hates the bonsai tree. He does it to make the tree more beautiful, and of more worth.
Which leads me to a wonderful story you might know from Elder Hugh B. Brown, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He told a story in a talk he gave at a BYU Commencement address way back in 1968. It has been retold more recently by Elder Christofferson, and might be familiar to you. Enjoy!
Could I tell you just a quick story out of my own experience in life? Sixty-odd years ago I was on a farm in Canada. I had purchased the farm from another who had been somewhat careless in keeping it up. I went out one morning and found a currant bush that was at least six feet high. I knew that it was going all to wood. There was no sign of blossom or of fruit. I had had some experience in pruning trees before we left Salt Lake to go to Canada, as my father had a fruit farm. So I got my pruning shears and went to work on that currant bush, and I clipped it and cut it and cut it down until there was nothing left but a little clump of stumps.
And as I looked at them, I yielded to an impulse, which I often have, to talk with inanimate things and have them talk to me. It’s a ridiculous habit. It’s one I can’t overcome. As I looked at this little clump of stumps, there seemed to be a tear on each one, and I said, “What’s the matter, currant bush? What are you crying about?”
And I thought I heard that currant bush speak. It seemed to say, “How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth. I was almost as large as the fruit tree and the shade tree, and now you have cut me down. And all in the garden will look upon me with contempt and pity. How could you do it? I thought you were the gardener here.”
I thought I heard that from the currant bush. I thought it so much that I answered it.
I said, “Look, little currant bush, I am the gardener here, and I know what I want you to be. If I let you go the way you want to go, you will never amount to anything. But someday, when you are laden with fruit, you are going to think back and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down, for loving me enough to hurt me.’”
Ten years passed, and I found myself in Europe. I had made some progress in the First World War in the Canadian army. In fact, I was a field officer, and there was only one man between me and the rank of general, which I had cherished in my heart for years. Then he became a casualty. And the day after, I received a telegram from London from General Turner, who was in charge of all Canadian officers. The telegram said, “Be in my office tomorrow morning at ten o’clock.”
I puffed up. I called my special servant. (We called them “batmen” over there.) I said, “Polish my boots and my buttons. Make me look like a general, because I am going up tomorrow to be appointed.”
He did the best he could with what he had to work on, and I went to London. I walked into the office of the general. I saluted him smartly, and he replied to my salute as higher officers usually do to juniors—sort of a “Get out of the way, worm.” Then he said, “Sit down, Brown.”
I was deflated. I sat down. And he said, “Brown, you are entitled to this promotion, but I cannot make it. You have qualified and passed the regulations, you have had the experience, and you are entitled to it in every way, but I cannot make this appointment.”
Just then he went into the other room to answer a phone call, and I did what most every officer and man in the army would do under those circumstances: I looked over on his desk to see what my personal history sheet showed. And I saw written on the bottom of that history sheet in large capital letters: “THIS MAN IS A MORMON.”
Now at that time we were hated heartily in Britain, and I knew why he couldn’t make the appointment. Finally he came back and said, “That’s all, Brown.”
I saluted him, less heartily than before, and went out. On my way back to Shorncliffe, 120 kilometers away, I thought every turn of the wheels that clacked across the rails was saying, “You’re a failure. You must go home and be called a coward by those who do not understand.”
And bitterness rose in my heart until I arrived, finally, in my tent, and I rather vigorously threw my cap on the cot, together with my Sam Browne belt. I clenched my fist, and I shook it at heaven, and I said, “How could you do this to me, God? I’ve done everything that I knew how to do to uphold the standards of the Church. I was making such wonderful growth, and now you’ve cut me down. How could you do it?”
And then I heard a voice. It sounded like my own voice, and the voice said, “I am the gardener here. I know what I want you to be. If I let you go the way you want to go, you will never amount to anything. And someday, when you are ripened in life, you are going to shout back across the time and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down, for loving me enough to hurt me.’”
Those words—which I recognize now as my words to the currant bush and that had become God’s word to me—drove me to my knees, where I prayed for forgiveness for my arrogance and my ambition.
As I was praying there, I heard some Mormon boys in an adjoining tent singing the closing number to an M.I.A. session, which I usually attended with them. And I recognized these words, which all of you have memorized:
It may not be on the mountain height
Or over the stormy sea;
It may not be at the battle’s front
My Lord will have need of me;
But if, by a still, small voice he calls
To paths that I do not know,
I’ll answer, dear Lord, with my hand in thine:
I’ll go where you want me to go.
. . .
So trusting my all to thy tender care,
And knowing thou lovest me,
I’ll do thy will with a heart sincere;
I’ll be what you want me to be.
My young friends and brothers and sisters, will you remember that little experience that changed my whole life? Had the Gardener not taken control and done for me what was best for me, or if I had gone the way I wanted to go, I would have returned to Canada as a senior commanding officer of western Canada. I would have raised my family in a barracks. My six daughters would have had little chance to marry in the Church. I myself would probably have gone down and down. I do not know what might have happened, but this I know, and this I say to you and to Him in your presence, looking back over sixty years: “Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down.”
(Here is a link to the entire talk. I heartily recommend it. Audio and print)
I love the currant bush story, but when I think about how it applies, the bonsai compliments it. The Gardener does not always chop us down to mere stumps. Sometimes it is more precise, more nuanced. A little pressure here, a nudge there, and maybe a little snip to foster needed changes that are only visible to the Gardener.
We are all subject to a lifetime of constant, gradual, and sometimes painful pruning. And we should actually strive to understand and be grateful to be on the receiving end. Grateful? Yes, grateful, because that is the only way we can become what the Gardener wants us to become – more productive, more fruitful, more beautiful, less “natural,” and nearer to perfection.