By Nick Lenz
In the innumerable workshops I teach, I use two words to describe bonsai material I am stuck with. The first is ugly. This describes a piece of material that is beyond hope. Usually it is a stick with bad swirl-around roots, an inverse taper and at least one goiterous bulge of multiple branches. In this case, I usually pronounce the word with sympathy, despite the expectation from the student that I can turn it into a superior bonsai by black or white magic.
The second word is ugly. This is delivered with great excitement and usually describes a collected plant of incredible convolution, interest and suitability to bonsai culture, which I duly point out with enthusiasm.
Ugly and ugly, describing opposite poles.
In a one to one situation, with a real tree, the aesthetics of a piece of material can be demonstrated in hopes that the student will either begin a rewarding developmental process or feed the damn thing to his pet moose. I would never dare write about bonsai aesthetics, as I think it can not be done, nor would I attempt to lecture on it anymore. It is too esoteric a topic to be comprehended by weekend hobbyists.
I remember too well the awkward early days of bonsai in this country. When I would ask one of the presiding bonsai matron judges why the 1-2-3 rule was necessary, I would be answered: “Because that is the way we do it”. Oh.
When I asked another why deciduous trees were planted in gaudy blue pots, I was answered: “Because it is appropriate.” Oh.
Well, this means that good bonsai design is either indescribable or that the matrons in question had no clue other than what appeared in their book of rules.
Surprise, folks, Rutledge knows. In a short book, Andy takes on the impossibly formidable topic of bonsai aesthetics and carries it to a level not yet achieved in print. He does this with comprehensive understanding, wit, and excitement. This is not a PhD dissertation, but an easy read. Many photographs illustrate the design wisdom of the ages. It is not just a “must read” but a “must read again and study” endeavor.
I do remember the first drafts a year or so ago and found them incomplete. Rethinking and more real experience with bonsai has matured this publication into a near gem, even if e-critics will probably exchange e-snide-sides that someone bothered at all. They tend to do this in lieu of creating artistic and highly refined bonsai.
This is an excellent writing that would make me proud of my best bonsai student, if I weren’t a damn Methodist.
Read it and learn what you have been missing all these years. I did and did.