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The Bonsai of Life

by on October 7, 2015

                                                            The Bonsai of Life

                                                              by Marco M. Pardi

                                                  Your comments are appreciated.

“The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.”  James Baldwin, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”, Nobody Knows My Name. 1961

“As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined” Alexander Pope. Epistles to Several Persons. 1732

Most readers are familiar with bonsai (“bone-sigh”; Japanese: tray tree) and some may nurture them themselves.  My introduction to bonsai came in 1957, though nearly thirty years would pass before I had the location stability to develop the practice.

Brother Basil was not one of the teaching order at Gilmour Academy.  He was essentially a monastic who assumed the duties of caring for the lawns, plantings, gardens and the small forest on the grounds.  Though he always had a smile, he rarely spoke to any of the boys.  For this reason, and his appearance – the closest caricature of him I’ve ever seen is the character Private Zero in the Beetle Bailey comic strip, the boys ridiculed him, often calling him a simpleton loud enough for him to hear.  Of course, then as now it was the most insecure and inadequate who hurled ridicule at or about others.  I think Basil understood that, though we never spoke of it.

Brother Basil tended the greenhouse, seemingly an outpost of nurturance in a hostile land.  Wanting advice on the small vegetable garden my family had half a mile away, I spent time with him there.  And it was there I met bonsai.

Basil explained that the art of bonsai started around 1,700 years ago during the end of the Han Dynasty in China and came to Japan in the late Heian period (794-1185). Considered a living art, it includes its own array of specialized tools much as modern surgeons rely on a variety of purpose-made instruments.  He also explained the Chinese process of Ming trees, a far more complex, delicate and difficult art.  Brother Adrian, the brilliant biology teacher, was an occasional participant in our discussions.  His insights into cell biology, grafting, and the timing of cuttings were invaluable.

But I was also coming to understand a larger lesson. Yes, I had heard “Give us a boy until the age of 7 and we will have the man”, apocryphally voiced in the Catholic Church.  I was also coming to understand that, as William James had put it, I was the White Crow which disproved the rule.  And, I had already learned that biological relationship, no matter how close, does not automatically spell love, or deserve trust.  Events, and a constant litany of demeaning and belittling comments and behaviors had bent the twig in ways that would take years of growth and introspection to understand.

Events took a different turn for Brother Basil.  While bicycling along the highway fronting the academy he was struck and killed by a hit and run driver. 

General survey courses in Anthropology include an overview of psychological anthropology and students sometimes asked the main differences between anthropology and psychology.  My answer was that while anthropology did examine individual cases to some extent, its emphasis was more on externals such as cultural norms, inter-cultural contact (including acculturation), and environmental adaptations.  But this did not obviate the need or ignore the process of the individual understanding the self; it significantly enlarged it beyond the scope usually developed in formal psychology.

At some point in their lives, usually a crisis, many people pause atop the thick and tangled bush of their life and wonder, How did it all come to this?  Why did I ever think this was what I wanted?  Particularly in Western societies, seeking a trained outside observer, or analyst, puts the person into the hands of a specialist dedicated to a formulaic system which often begins its search with, Let’s talk about your mother.

While this may uncover long buried grievances, and even provide moments of painful insight, it itself presumes to know the central force shaping the developing stalk and in so doing it often ignores myriad other influences some of which are barely noticeable even at the time.  Serendipitous occasions, even momentary, can have profound long term effects.  Twenty four years after my mother and father separated they were briefly together for a family event.  Each presumed I did not understand Italian and, while I was in the room they hashed over the issues which they felt drove them apart. I learned much about my being here, though the indicators had been there all along had I really looked.

And sometimes these events can be accidentally very positive.  I was talking with my daughter and her husband about their children when I opined that my – then 9 year old grandson was “really VERY intelligent”.  Sitting where I was, I had not seen him coming into the room but as his momentum carried him forward I did see the look on his face, a look I still treasure.  

Even into young adulthood the pruning and shaping goes on.  I’ve written elsewhere of a college housemate who, accepting my advice to take a 300 level Archaeology course to satisfy graduation requirements, found his true vocation, his true persona, but was constrained by finances and the Draft Board to finish his totally unrelated degree and face the maw of Viet-Nam.  At least I was able to steer him into an Air Force Commissioned Officer program and from there into a training program that would keep him Stateside for at least another year.  He never went back and became an archaeologist, but he didn’t get ground into hamburger either.  What if he had had a different housemate? How much of what we do, as we assume our growing shape, do we do because we think we are supposed to?  And where do those ideas come from? Mother, no mother, two mothers, is that all there is?  Certainly not.

I was never a Faculty Advisor; those usually are specially trained for assessing career potential and guiding students to appropriate courses.  But as an anthropologist, and having good rapport with many students I did have many occasions in which students came to talk not just about career, but about life.  Sure, these were not “twigs”; they were 18 and older.  But many seemed to be extending their new freedoms into the freedom to look at themselves and ask questions.  Of course, returning to the classroom after a more than 20 year absence enabled me to provide information and insights I did not previously have.  But even back then, as now, I had some awareness of personhood and the shapes it can assume.  In every case I sought to present information, elicit feelings once the information had been digested, and – where appropriate provide suggestions for a course of action to develop the direction the student chose to explore.  Paramount throughout this was my continuous assertion that I had “no skin in the game”.  I was not recruiting anthropologists, or any other kind of career person. In fact I probably spent as much time disabusing students of ideas they had acquired through mass media as I did in laying out the realities I had come to know.

Looking back I see this pattern in keeping with how I raise dogs – don’t poop in the house, horses – don’t kick me in the head, and bonsai – accept a little shaping, but please do surprise me.

As interest in bonsai grew in the West some twenty main styles arose, all with a common denominator: the realistic, albeit miniaturized appearance of trees in nature. Still a novice, I cultivate only Chokkan – formal upright; Shakan – slanting; Fukinagashi – windswept; and Kengai – cascade.  I have yet to try the most dramatic, the Ishitsuki – rock grown style.  But I will never engage in the trunk twisting, wire tying torture that says, You cannot please me unless you develop only a certain way.     


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  1. Lisa Fenske permalink

    Hello Marco,
    I could not resist the urge to write and thank you for your writings.
    May I ask so bluntly: WHY are your stories not published as a memoir? I cannot get enough of them, and I have read many memoir and non fiction books.
    Please continue to write, and more frequently. This Canadian is a fan!


    • Thank you so much, Lisa. I deeply appreciate your comment and your willingness to post it for me. I’ve been asked that question before, and have always deferred for a couple of reasons. One, I doubt any publisher would see a market; and, two, much of my life includes events I cannot, must not speak of. Still, I want to assure you that your post is most heartening and I will continue to write. Thank you sincerely, Marco


      • Lisa permalink

        I beg to differ, re: no publisher’s market. I have read many a memoir about women escaping cults…others hiking the Appalachian trail…and many non-fiction books that were not well written!
        You just need to find an interested publishing AGENT to find your blog. How lovely this blog would be, in story form…memories put to page. Too good for mere acquaintances and former or present students! (Or would-be students visiting their sisters ☺️)


        • Thank you, Lisa. I will look into it. In the meantime, I am so glad you are enjoying what you find here.


  2. I should have guessed you would have a very interesting hobby and one which provides you insights into life. You might need to add a picture component to your blog. It would be interesting to see the before and after pictures of your tree(s).


    • Lisa permalink

      I agree! It would be lovely to see pics!


    • Thank you, Mary and Lisa. I’ve had a couple of casualties from the weather irregularities but I do have three good candidates. I’ll see what I can do. Of course, there won’t be before pictures unless I can go back in time – several years for one of them.


  3. When I first came upon this offering, its posting date was still in the future. It was the end of a very long and tiring day, and the energy needed to comment was just not available.

    I was so pleased the next morning to find that someone else had not only appreciated your writing as much as I, but was willing to write and tell you so. There is so much which, throughout the years, I have assumed to know and understand about you; it makes me happy to know that I am not the only one to find you and your stories fascinating. The more I learn about your younger days, the more I admire the man you have become, as much in spite of your raising as because of it.

    I must admit to a familiar chuckle, “Marco and his trees”, but I must admit that Bonsai is a perfect allegory for the people and occurrences which so influence our lives. Between us, it goes without saying that you have been someone who has helped to shape my life. Even at my advanced age, you continue to affect my self image, helping me to find the courage to do what makes me happiest. Together, we are more than roots, and trunks, and branches, and leaves; we are the art and artistry which make up life. Rose


    • Thank you, Rose. That is so beautifully said. And I am not merely reflecting your words when I say you have the same influence on me.


  4. I could go on for days (and probably have LOL) about a child’s need for positive reinforcement. It changes us, shapes us, into adults with self respect, and the courage to do what’s right. That need for encouragement does not end with childhood, but continues throughout our lives.

    “If three people tell you you’re dead, lie down.” I don’t believe this is true, but something said often enough begin to sound like the truth, even when it isn’t. That makes it our “job” to make sure those things are positive.

    Every day of her first year of life, I told my granddaughter she was “beautiful, sweet, smart, strong, and tough (never forget tough). Since then, we have added brave and wacky girl. Two days ago, she asked me if we could add another word; we added awesome and extraordinary. Now, some may think this is silly, but to me, these are the words of self-affirmation that I never received as a child. I also make sure, as I did with my children, that she is told every day that she is loved. It might make no difference at all, but then again, it might make just enough difference for her to not settle (as so many do) for less than she deserves.


    • On the way home from school today, she asked if we could trade “awesome” and “extraordinary” for adventurous; I love this kid!


    • Rose, she is so fortunate to have you in her life. Yes, and adventurous is also appropriate in the drive to acquire new knowledge and understanding, which I know she will always do with you as her guiding light.


  5. Foodfaerie’s post made my day. I taught parenting and when in that world it seems the whole world has bad parenting skills. Your post made my heart soar.


  6. Dana permalink

    Marco, I just revisited this post, inspired by a story about bonsai at the National.Arboretum. It was quite timely for me.

    Today I’ve been internally struggling with some boundaries I needed to set with some family members. This portion you wrote especially stands out:

    “…I had already learned that biological relationship, no matter how close, does not automatically spell love, or deserve trust.”

    Even years later, I can read what you have written and gain something altogether new and profound. And for this I am deeply grateful. You continue to help me learn how to think, and I know that improving critical thinking skills is a lifelong process. I’m ever grateful for your strong hand in this.

    It’s curious that I never left a comment at the time of this post, but I am so happy to revisit this page of your history, your wisdom, and your experience.


    • Thank you, Dana. I am so glad you continue to find value in my efforts. Our own development, as we are entwined with the lives of others, takes shapes and forms we are sometimes unable to explain at the time. But we find ourselves and can rightly marvel at the twists and turns which have brought us to who we are.


  7. Dana permalink

    Thank you Marco, for words shared so eloquently.

    I was thinking about Mary this morning as I watched a rehabilitated animal release video from a Georgia facility. She had a very special place in my life after meeting her through you. Sometimes I’ve happened across her comments here, and feel grateful for the email and phone conversations she and I had. I can feel her presence today, and hope she knows what she meant to me.

    I would have enjoyed learning from Brother Basil and Adrian, and it’s wonderful there is a glimpse into their history here.


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