19 April 2013

Small Trees

My son Tom is a gardener back home in Australia. This is an appropriate career for him as he has always had a thing for plants. Tom spent half of his childhood up trees. He was a climber and he likes dirt as well. 

I remember when he was very little Tom was attracted to Bonsai plants. Bonsai plants are small trees. It was therefore no surprise to me when he told me that he is now working a couple of days a week in the Bonsai section of the nursery where he is employed. He is learning this ancient Japanese craft and he has also started his own bonsai collection.

My daughter Totty took this photograph of Tom's bonsai collection and she sent it to me. I think they are beautiful and my Totty is beautiful too:

I spoke to Tom on the phone earlier today and he told me that the plants on the far left and the far right of the table were shaped by him and the other two were shaped by someone else at his work. He informed me that each plant only cost him $40 and that he gets a very generous employee discount. Tom told me that after a couple of years of continued shaping and careful maintenance the plants will be worth ten times that amount. He informed me that it is important for moss to be grown at the base of each plant to both retain moisture and to add character to the mini trees. Tom told me that the trees are shaped with wire and in order to keep their growth slow the roots need to be trimmed very carefully. I take Tom's estimate of the potential worth of each plant with a little grain of salt as he has always been prone to gross exaggeration.

There are a couple of very interesting theories about the origins of the term 'to take with a grain of salt'. In the context that I have used it - it means it to be not quite believable. The term was used by the Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Galus Pilnius Secundus. who was also known as "Pliny the Elder". Pliny wrote an encyclopedic work called Naturalis Historis around AD70 which is a long time ago. Naturalis Historis  is a book about 'all things' and it was the basis for all other following encyclopedias or books of knowledge.

In Naturalis Historis Pliny wrote about the discovery of an antidote for poisons. One of the ingredients in this antidote was a grain of salt and so threats about being poisoned were therefore to be "taken with a grain of salt".

In a different account of origins of the term, the Roman Emperor Pompey is said to have believed that he could make himself immune to poison by actually ingesting small amounts of poison. He took these concoctions with grains of salt to help him swallow the vile tasting poison but the salt was not an antidote - it was merely a taste disguiser.

The Latin word 'salis' means both "salt' and "wit" so the Latin phrase "cum grano salis" could be translated to mean both 'with a grain of salt' or "with a grain of wit". 

Interesting huh? 

I think so.

The art of bonsai is Japanese and it has been around for a long time. I have been to the Royal Palace gardens in Tokyo and I have seen bonsai plants there that are four hundred years old. They are beautiful. 

Really beautiful.

The iteration of the word bonsai is 'plantings in a tray'. It is derived from 'bon' - which is a tray or a low sided pot and "sai' - which means a planting. This Japanese tradition is over a thousand years old and it is considered to be an art.

There is a beautiful quotation from an ancient Japanese scripture entitled "Utsubo Monogatari' – that was written in the year 970. The English translation of this work is "The Tale of the Hollow Tree". In it is the passage:

"A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one".

I think this is poetic and gorgeous.

My son Tom is twenty years old and like the bonsai plant he is slow in maturing. He still has a lot of growing up to do but life experience is shaping and styling him and he is growing into a fine young man. 

He is my bonsai. 

He is my little tree.

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