Desert Companion

Tree Time


Photography by Christopher Smith

Your Moment of zen: Many practitioners of bonsai say the focused attention it requires can be therapeutic.

The exacting care of small, bendy trees — the art and craft of bonsai — can lead you into ‘the zone’

Begin with the twisted trunk of a miniature pomegranate tree, with all of its elegant, ravishing curves. Pruning scissors in hand, you follow the trunk to the point where the branches begin to bristle. Then you snip away the ones that don’t feel right. You shorten others. Feel is important, as is understanding the tree in front of you. Because there is no immediate way to know if the cut you just made will ultimately yield beauty or ruin the plant’s aesthetic.

This is bonsai, the art of shaping and cultivating miniature trees to mimic full-size trees, through creative pruning and wire guides. It originated thousands of years ago in China, as one branch of a craft devoted to miniaturizing nature. Eventually, it traveled to Japan, before going global.

Perhaps because it is both relaxing yet requires focused attention, each cut leads you toward a meditative state. “You go into a zone,” says Ira Sisson, president of the Las Vegas Bonsai Society. “Like anything that you are passionate about, you could zone into what you are working on, and things just disappear around you.” Although, of course, “some people just find joy in watching things grow.”

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He mentions a member of the society, a retired 20-year corrections officer at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island facility, veteran of more than one riot. “He has had a potentially stressful work life,” Sisson says. “He got into bonsai, and he has found it incredibly meditative and peaceful. It’s something that he has talked to me about more than one time.”


The sense of focus extends to nearly every aspect of caring for a bonsai tree. Sisson says it took him more than four hours to transplant a central-California-grown trident maple to the lavish ceramic pot in which the tree will be displayed for years. One wrong move — trimming too much from the roots, even transplanting it at the wrong time of year — could have drastic consequences for the plant.

A good tree for beginners, he says, is the ficus. It’s very forgiving in the hands of a greenhorn, and can survive in the valley’s unrelenting heat.

Bonsai may seem like a daunting craft, but listening to Sisson enthuse about it, it’s clear bonsai is really for anyone who wants to relax, find some meditative space, perhaps expand their artistic side — and nurture their sense of caring, particularly in troubling times. As he says, “If you can take care of another living thing, then you can’t be a complete scam.”

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