Unsatisfied with his own efforts at growing Ficus religiosa, bonsai enthusiast Harley Rustad totes his too-tall tree to Ontario to seek advice from Canadian bonsai expert Nigel Saunders. For The Walrus, Rustad profiles Saunders, who tends over 180 bonsais and has attracted a cult following for his instructive YouTube videos. His miniature lemon tree alone has earned 1.5 million views.
Then the bonsai master steps forward. My tree is indeed big, Saunders says, which is fine if I have space. Some bonsai, known as imperial bonsai, are, in fact, large. A 1,000-year-old tree at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Japan is more than five feet tall—though that height’s not exactly practical in my 350-square-foot apartment. Kneeling at his workbench, Saunders confirms that the issue with my tree is that it is completely out of proportion. He squints through his glasses, his eyes scanning up and down. “There is the opportunity here to start it over,” he says, chuckling. “If you want.” The importance in any bonsai, he tells me, is roots, trunk, and branches, in that order. People may focus on the canopy of leaves or the stylized branches, but Saunders says the most important feature is actually underground. I realize what I have to do.
Saunders hands me a pair of “bypass pruners,” named as if they were tools for open-heart surgery. My hand trembles with worry that this won’t be a new beginning but a tragic conclusion. You have to be brave in bonsai, Saunders says. He recites a bonsai mantra, often attributed to John Yoshio Naka: “Me chicken. You chicken. No bonsai.” I take the pruners and, in one snip, decapitate my tree. I nearly yell, “Timber!” as the leafy crown I’d spent four years growing falls away from its trunk. “Done! It’s bleeding,” Saunders says with a laugh, noting the milky liquid oozing from the cut. He quickly gets to work, shaking my tree out of its pot, washing it of its soil, and splaying its roots out on the table. I feel oddly exposed. After an hour, my tree is pruned, its roots trimmed, and it’s been replanted back in its pot. My beloved tree now resembles a sad, foot-tall stump. “It won’t look the greatest for a while,” Saunders says. In bonsai terms, though, I’m not sure how long “a while” will be.
A bonsai tree is a lifelong project,” Saunders says. “It is a hobby you can practise right to the end.” The end is something he thinks about often. There is a point in any artistic field known as completion, when the sculptor puts down her chisel or the painter washes his brushes and they step back to gaze upon their finished work. But this moment does not exist for the bonsai artist. “The closest thing to coming to a finished bonsai is when you put it in a show,” Saunders says. “It’s temporarily as good as it’s going to get at that particular point in time.”