I think I need to release my bonsai trees. After several years of fettering them in small containers where I know they are root bound, I have had enough of restrained growth.
They have been giving me hints. My bonsai banksia mysteriously died after a late Spring heat wave I’m sure it could have survived in a larger pot.
I have started my release program with an olive tree. It had been looking very unhappy with pale leaves gradually turning yellow. After seeing furry buds emerge in Spring, I was devastated when they dropped off after just a few days. Something—the restricted space, the soil, the heat, the dehydration—some factor I couldn’t pinpoint meant that little olive tree did not want to blossom and set its own fruit. I was amazed at how sad I felt and eventually let the grief move me to action. In an impromptu burst of courtyard gardening, I set the tree a little freer by planting it in a terracotta pot whose rounded shape seemed to suit the tree’s Mediterranean origins. The pot also allows plenty of room for it to move beyond its current size and I can re-pot as it grows. This first release was an experiment to see whether a little more depth of soil would help a tree I had forced into submission.
The olive looks happier after just a few days. Already, most of the leaves have darkened. Some new growth has sprouted including one tiny branch with fuzzy grey-green leaves striving towards the light even after yesterday’s excessive heat.
Success with the olive started me thinking about two bonsai maples—a Trident and a Japanese maple. Both have been confined in their shallow pots for years. Now they are due for re-potting so I’ve decided to forsake the bonsai notion of tiny pot and scarce earth. Instead I’ll choose something deeper and wider and watch how they respond.
I can already picture them stretching upwards and outwards, letting their roots reach beyond the scanty soil without curling backwards or spiralling into knots. I could, of course, let them loose in the earth, but like me, they are tenants here, holding on to this particular location while it suits us. When the time comes to move, in pots they can accompany me.
As well as topiary and bonsai in the plant world, and many of the oddly shaped dogs we have bred as companions, there are all the strange confinements we have either chosen for ourselves as humans or had imposed on us in service of some fashion. There are past habits like the cruelty of foot binding, the weight and heft of crinolines, the confinement of corsets. Then there’s our current fetish for lifting, shaping and injecting our own flesh with toxins in search of lost youth rather than appreciating the wabi sabi beauty of ageing.
Yet frequently our habits are not just about physical confinement or shaping. Instead we contract our souls or hide our lights under that proverbial bushel*. Sometimes we dread revealing too much of ourselves without concealing or contracting what doesn’t seem to fit whatever norm we want to impose on ourselves—too ugly, too beautiful, too creative, too risky—something that never stopped the likes of David Bowie. We fear that we must fit in with whatever we decide the world can cope with, or we determine that what we value deeply will be laughed at or rejected by others.
For one or more of these reasons, we ‘bonsai’ ourselves. We confine ourselves in a pot we think will suit the world, prune back our over-enthusiastic growth and try to fit within the narrowed scope we allow ourselves. In our prim constraint, we can fail to honour what our hearts are calling us to serve.
Just as I have released my olive tree and plan the next phase of my bonsai release program, I also want to give room for parts of myself which long to expand beyond the limits I have set them. I want to let these neglected parts bud, blossom and set fruit. I promise to pay heed to whatever needs to be allowed to grow beyond the confines I have imposed because of fear. I don’t want to indulge in egotism but I do want to make room for self-expression of the kind that serves not only my own needs but compels a creativity that does something out there in the world; it encourages others. I have a sense there a quite a few of us who also want to lift that bushel or choose a roomier pot.
If you would like to explore a little release into greater spaciousness, I am offering January workshops in Hawthorn or Mount Dandenong to let in a little more light especially in the realm of our feelings and emotions.
*A bushel is a basket or container, apparently the kind that would have been used to measure eight gallons of grain or fruit, and cover a rather large light!