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Acer buergerianum

Fiction & Opinion

The Bonsai Way: Tradition

by Andy Rutledge, USA


Kevin and his teacher, Mr. Fukuda, were working in the big greenhouse today. This was the kind of work that Kevin loved; styling and repotting trees. Spring chores, as Mr. Fukuda called them, were not chores at all in Kevin’s opinion. He considered this work to be nothing short of spring fun.

Kevin,” Mr. Fukuda called again.

It was raining outside in the gray morning. The torrents of rain beat down on the plastic covering of the greenhouse to imitate the sound of a stampede of buffalo. Kevin was hearing none of it, however. The music from his headphones drowned out the white noise of the rain.

“MOST FORTUNATE KEVIN!” Called his teacher once more, with emphasis. His voice echoed in the cavernous greenhouse.

This time, Kevin’s head jerked around and he looked at his teacher with a wide-eyed questioning expression. Mr. Fukuda tapped his own ear and Kevin removed his headphones, sliding them around his neck. The tinny hiss of music could now be heard above the clamor of the rain.

Mr. Fukuda wrinkled his nose in annoyance. “You are going to hurt yourself with that.”

“Nah, it’s not all that loud.” Kevin explained. “I listen to it like this all the time.”

“Of course.”

Kevin paused the music on his phone. “Did you need something?”

“What are you doing to the branches of that maple?”

“Well, just …wiring and styling them.” Answered Kevin.

“That is not basic styling, though.”

“No, but I thought I would try something different for this tree. “

“No, just do basic styling please.” Mr. Fukuda turned back to his juniper and continued scraping soil from the surface of the root pad sitting exposed on his turntable.

Kevin stared back at his tree for a moment and then shook his head in annoyance. He turned back to his teacher. “Well, when do I get to make something other than basic style?”

Mr. Fukuda continued to work on the root pad. “After you learn to make basic style.”

An amused expression crossed Kevin’s face. “Huh? I thought that I had learned to make basic style. That’s all I do here. I think I’ve got it,” he assured his teacher.

“Of course.”

Of course. Kevin hated that. “Okay, if you were working on this tree, would you be giving it a basic styling?”

“Yes. It is a young tree.”

“Okay,” Continued Kevin. “What about the non-basic trees in your collection… you didn’t train them with basic styling did you?”


“Oh.” Kevin looked surprised. “Why?”


Tradition?” Asked Kevin, incredulous. “What does that have to do…”

“The tradition of making good bonsai.” interrupted his teacher. “The tradition of shaping the tree so that it has properly formed branches and trunk and taper so that we or other artists can have something good to work with in the future.”

Not yet convinced, Kevin pressed on. “Are you saying that if we don’t give all of these trees basic stylings now…”

“They will be worthless in the future. Yes.” Mr. Fukuda concluded.

“Hmmm.” Kevin pondered this idea. “So for now, all of these trees just live with their basic styling, basic branches, basic trunks, basic everything?” He looked disappointed.

“The trees do not mind, Kevin.” His teacher smiled as he continued removing soil from the juniper’s root pad with his repotting tweezers.

Kevin rolled his eyes. “I guess.” He went back to work on the maple, shaking his head. After a few moments, he ventured an observation. “Yeah, tradition is great and all, but it sure puts a damper on creativity.”

Mr. Fukuda looked up with a faint look of surprise. “How so?”

“Well, how can someone be creative and artistic when he’s bound by tradition? How can you be different if you’re following some tradition that keeps everything the same?”

His teacher thought for a moment. “Tradition is tradition. It is not just sameness.”

“Well if your tradition is to make all of these trees look the same, where’s the difference? Where’s the creativity?”

“Who is the band you are listening to?” Asked Mr. Fukuda.

Kevin looked confused. “What? I don’t…”

“Is it Kenny G?” Interrupted his teacher.

“Kenny… no, it’s Aerosmith.” He answered, almost laughing.

“Rock and roll?”

“Rock. Yes.” Answered Kevin, sounding as if he were talking to a 4 year-old.

“Ah, and do you listen to other rock bands?” Asked his teacher.

“Sure, lots of them. I like Puddle of Mud, Foo Fighters, Winger…”

“And all of them are the same?”

“No way. They’re all different. They’re totally different.”

“But they are all from the rock tradition.” Observed Mr. Fukuda. “They all play in the rock and roll style, right?” He shrugged his shoulders questioningly.

Kevin rolled his eyes again. “Yeah, I see what you’re doing, but this is way different.”

“No different.” Said his teacher. “This is exactly the same. All of these bands play rock music, but you say they’re all different from one another.”

“That’s just… this is music. It’s the same style, I mean… it’s different styles, but the same kind of…”

Rescuing Kevin from his flood of incoherence, Mr. Fukuda held up his hands in a plea to stop. “Alright, Kevin. They are each different from the other, but you can tell that they are all rock and roll bands, right?”

“Rock bands, yes.” Answered Kevin as he wiped the sweat from his upper lip and forehead. “They just have a rock sound. It’s, …it’s just rock music.”

“Of course.”

Kevin closed his eyes as he shook his head slightly in exasperation. The smile on his face made it obvious that he knew how this was going to end.

“Kevin, this music sound that ties all of these bands to the rock and roll tradition is obvious to all who hear it and yet each band is different. These musicians and these different bands use the same twelve notes that Mozart used, the same that Duke Ellington used and the same ones that Whitney Houston used. That thing you hear that makes Puddle of Blood and Arrow Smith the same, but different, is their basic style. That thing you hear that makes them all different, but the same, is their creativity within their tradition.”

“Okay, sensei. I get it.” Kevin admitted. “But it’s Puddle of Mud… Puddle of… never mind.” Kevin gave up, shaking his head again. “So all of this means that I still have to just give this maple a basic styling, right.”

His teacher looked at him with a concerned expression. “Well, keep trying anyway.”

“Ha!” Kevin exclaimed. “You know I do good basic styling. You just don’t want to let me know.” Kevin worked, smiling, for a moment longer. “See, it’s our common tradition that makes our work look so similar.” He said with a grin.

Mr. Fukuda’s brow wrinkled. “Mmm, but very different.”

“Of course!”