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The World of Bonsai: An Interview with Ann McClellan

Author Ann McClellan will present “Bonsai: Tiny Trees, Big Stories” on May 24 at the Garden. Copies of her book, Bonsai and Penjing: Ambassadors of Peace & Beauty (Tuttle, 2016) will be available for purchase and signing at the event.

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Author Ann McClellan comes to the Garden next month to tell fascinating tales about the history of the bonsai trees in the collection of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

We were curious about why she chose such a singular field of expertise, and she was kind enough to share a few of her thoughts in conversation with Kristin Faurest, director of the Garden’s Training Center.

Kristin Faurest: What made you decide to pursue the cultural side of plants instead of the scientific one?

Ann McClellan: The notion that plants have stories, more specifically that trees have stories, was something I learned growing up on the Lawrenceville School campus in New Jersey.  It was an arboretum laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th century to serve as a “Library and Museum of Botany and Dendrology.” Many trees that Olmsted had planted were still alive when I was a child and we were encouraged to pay close attention to them.  I’ll admit it, as a child I used to make up stories about Olmsted’s trees.  Now I get to discover and share true stories of living legends of the plant world.

The Ellie M. Hill Bonsai Terrace in the Cultural Village offers a multitude of rotating bonsai specimens. / Photo by Julia Taylor

KF:  The art form of the bonsai seems to captivate people in a very certain way. Why?

AM:  I think the fascination with bonsai has to do with the shocking difference in how we experience trees when they are presented in small, comprehensible sizes, distilled to their very essence.  We are so accustomed to being under them or seeing only a partial view that it’s a jolt to be able to see a whole tree in one view: top, sides, even on occasion some of their roots.

KF: How do you think westerners typically appreciate bonsai as an art form, compared to how the Japanese do?

AM: Bonsai is definitely a global art form.  At last year’s World Bonsai Convention in Saitama City-Omiya, Japan—a quadrennial event, the next one will be in Perth, Australia in 2021—the largest national contingent hailed from India.  For many Japanese, bonsai have become like a commodity, or simply part of the décor.  They no longer really “see” them.  For those of us who are not Japanese, they stand out as different, and for those westerners enchanted with the Japanese aesthetic, they are outstanding exemplars of refined Japanese style.

Photo by Jonathan Ley

KF: What are the striking differences between how Japanese and how westerners approach the art of bonsai cultivation?

AM: These trees can live for hundreds of years, so a bonsai is under someone’s care only temporarily before being passed along to the next bonsai master. John Naka famously noted, “The bonsai is not you working on the tree; you have to have the tree work on you.” While I have come to recognize certain attributes as “western” as opposed to Japanese in bonsai I have seen, more often I am surprised by how “Japanese” bonsai from places beyond Japan can be.

KF: In your talk, you’ll be telling stories about the trees in the collection of the National Arboretum, which started with an extraordinary gift of 53 plants from Japan in 1976 and was, at that time, the biggest collection in the world. Can you tell me some of your favorites? 

AM: My favorites are too numerous to list here, though I can say I’ll be sharing the stories of the Hiroshima survivor that is nearly 400 years old, the bonsai and their keepers’ White House escapades, and the three bonsai given by Japan’s Imperial Family included in the gift.

KF: You use that word ‘ambassador’ in the title of your book. How does a beautiful plant change the way people interact, or connect people in new ways?

AM: In my view, bonsai have been chosen to serve as ambassadors because as living art forms, they bring with them the vibrant spirit of the land they are from. Their presence enhances the interactions between people and nations, inspiring people with their beauty, providing a common ground for communication, and a vital reminder that human life is short.  Bonsai remind us of what we must do to successfully connect with others: pay close attention, take time, be patient and stay humble.

The lecture is presented by the International Japanese Garden Training Center, which is supported by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.