The Human Side: Bonsai tree wisdom at its best

I found myself always afraid that I would make an error and the tree would reflect that mistake.

“Always do what you are afraid to do.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson



I always admired bonsai trees.  Long before I had any, I liked everything I ever heard about them.  I liked knowing it was a combination  of natural growth and human choice. I liked the contemplation I saw in illustrations. I liked what I saw of the process involved — the years of work, shared by the tree and a person.

I particularly liked how beautiful they often were. Or sometimes they showed how strong and persistent life can be, as they lived in the face of adversity, on a mountain top or in a canyon, or another setting where snow and cold winter wind would make staying alive difficult. Sometimes it seems almost as if they won’t make it. They have scars or broken branches. Tops, branches, or sometimes the whole trunk will die off. But they keep trying.

Now I have several little trees and have learned a lot, from them and from books. There is much more to learn, and I like that, too. I find I like the fact that a bonsai tree is never finished, nor is its designer.  Because the tree keeps on growing the work of the designer doesn’t end. Each year, or several times a year, the tree needs work. I’m happy to oblige. The roots need trimming so they fit the pot, branches need to be cut, wiring needs to be applied to shape them to a design. As I work, sometimes the tree begins to look like what we agreed on. That makes me even happier.

Yet, I found myself always afraid.  Afraid that I would make an error, would cut where I shouldn’t or would fail to do something important and the tree would reflect that mistake. I was told that there was only one error in bonsai — killing the tree. Everything else was only a design challenge.

Those were to be worked out in joint decisions made by the bonsaist and the tree. That helped, but I remained afraid.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher and essayist, made his living by lecturing. He said a person should “do what you are afraid to do.” I was afraid I didn’t know enough to do bonsai. I was afraid to make a mistake when I cut and shaped trees. I learned, from the trees and from reading.

Almost any tree can be made into a bonsai. Two trees that come from the same source — a cone, for example — can be a two- or three-hundred-foot tree and a small bonsai, such as Redwood bonsai. And, anyone can do it. It’s not the same as a house-plant. They require more attention. But anyone can challenge personal fear.

Fred Elford is a retired international organization development consultant, living in Invermere, where he spends his time with bonsai trees. He can be reached at fredelford@

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