I have been trying to get a grip on the concept of Wabi-Sabi for a while. I was standing in front of a pine tree this January at the Bay Island Bonsai show in hayward with Morten Welhaven, a former president of BSSF, when he pointed at a small dangling piece of bark on the trunk and said “this tree has had that one piece of bark hanging off like that for more than ten years. I keep expecting it to fall off, but it never does. That is Wabi-Sabi.” I stood thinking for a moment about how much I too appreciated that single piece of bark, and how it spoke of so many things without saying anything.
I recently stumbled upon a book about Wabi-Sabi which seems to have cleared things up for me a little. The book is called “Wabi-Sabi for Artist, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” by Leonard Koren. It manages to cover simply and clearly the history of the concepts of Wabi and Sabi separately and together and in doing so imparts ideas which, in my mind, are quite useful in bonsai.
“The Wabi-Sabi Universe:”
“Metaphysical Basis: Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness.” This seems to sum up the life of a tree to me; in the beginning from almost nothing the shape of the tree evolves into something large or small, plain or elaborate. Then, at some point unkown to the tree and any observer, the tree passes its prime and startes devolving back to nothingness: first a limb dies, then it is broken off in a storm. The tree tries to cover the wound, but only manages partially. The windward side of the trunk dies leaving half the crown with just branches but no foliage. Years later the tree’s major remaining root is severed in a rock slide but it stands still as a snag until another storm knocks it over and fungus, insects rodents and birds dissect it into nothingness.
-Truth comes from the observation of nature.
-Greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details.
-Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.”
This is everything that a bonsai artist is trying to do. Imitation and reverence for nature, use of small details to make something look incredible and the transformation of something mundane into something evokative and beautiful. The closer a bonsai artist manages to follow these three statements the better their trees will be. Nature has been shown time and again to be our best teacher. Looking through bonsai magazines, from Japan, from Europe, and from the US, many of the most astounding trees are collected; those that are not collected are modeled closely after natural trees, or at least borrow principles from them heavily.
-The suggestions of natural process
If every tree could posess all of these traits, bonsai would be considered by everyone to be one of the most fantastic arts on the planet. Just think about it for a minute: suggestions of natural process means that there are no wire marks, no tool marks, no sign of the hand of man whatsoever…this alone is very difficult in bonsai. But even in the absence of the obvious marks of man, trees that are sculpted by people can end up looking regular and predictible; or they can become cluttered with branches that are unneccesary and unnatural. For a tree to be aptly described by all of the words above it would truly have to be masterful. “Simple” describes something that is easily taken in with a glance, yet “murky, intimate, unpretenious and earthy” qualify this and make us realize that something which we may have mearly glanced at could be much more complicated and hide many subtle and interesting features.
I am lucky enough to also have a pine which exhibits flaky bark similar to the one I saw at the Bay Island show and I think that it is one of the singularly most interesting things in my garden. After about five years of doing bonsai it may be that only that one tree out of the many in my collection comes close to “being Wabi-Sabi.” I can’t say for sure. I think I am one step closer to understanding thanks to this interesting book, but as I learned when I started bonsai, not everything can be learned from reading books.