The Call of the Wild Bonsai
Hunting tiny, trainable trees in Vermont
This year at the Champlain Valley Fair, the Green Mountain Bonsai Society tried something different with their display. Instead of putting their tiny trees next to the giant pumpkins and heirloom tomatoes, the 60-member group placed its pots on tables inside a square area bordered by cream-colored screens. Visitors essentially had to step into a different world to see them.
That made sense - the ancient arboreal art of bonsai is an Asian export. It conjures an image of elderly Japanese men fussing over perfectly pruned plants while sitting on tatami mats in an ascetic workshop. There's nothing even remotely Vermonty about it.
Or so it would seem. In fact, several of the trees in the GMBS display - larches, junipers and white cedars - were plucked straight from Green Mountain State ground, a few of them by GMBS member Rodney Larrow. Most bonsai practitioners buy their trees from nurseries, and they often get them from farms in Asia. Larrow uproots most of his from the woods near his Grand Isle home.
The Japanese call bonsai trees harvested from the wild "Yamadori" - not that Larrow, a 71-year-old native Vermonter, knows or cares. He does bonsai his own way: from finding the trees to sculpting them with whatever random supplies he has. The wisecracking septuagenarian is happy to share his unique techniques with me, as long as I promise not to reveal his bonsai hunting spots. "I'd have to gouge out your eyes and rip out your tongue," he warns. I'm pretty sure he's joking.
We plan to go bonsai hunting one dreary Thursday afternoon in late October. I offer to postpone the outing because of rain, but Larrow assures me wet weather is just right for digging.
I ride out to his house with his friend Sandy Anderson. Anderson and his wife own Mill Brook Bonsai in Jericho, Vermont's only bonsai specialty shop. Anderson meets me at the Milton Park & Ride, and we drive out to the island in a white van with the Mill Brook logo plastered on the side. The license plate reads "BONSAI."
The 62-year-old retired IBM manager has known Larrow for 20 years. "You know those people your parents warned you about?" he confides on our ride. "Rodney is one of those people." But I think Anderson's joking, too. He and Larrow clearly admire and entertain each other.
Before we charge into the woods, Larrow shows off his growing collection. He's been accumulating trees for 30 years, since he brought home an odd one he came across during one of his frequent walks. Now he's got at least three or four dozen of them.
Bonsai is an exacting art. Practitioners spend years pruning and shaping trees, wrapping them with wire, arranging every stray splinter of bark just so. You might expect a bonsai workshop to be equally tidy, but Larrow's outdoor work area - on a cliff overlooking Lake Champlain - is strewn with buckets and tools and bits of wire and plastic; every surface is covered with clutter.
And unlike the bonsai trees you find on display in greenhouses and botanical gardens - planted in ornate Chinese pots - most of Larrow's trees live in coffee cans and lasagna pans. "I empty the trash at church," he explains, "so I get all the empties from the senior citizens' meals."
If you look closely at his trees, you can see that they're wrapped in worn copper wire - Larrow reuses the stuff he buys. On one larch, he's wedged a Popsicle stick between the wire and part of a branch, to cushion it. Some of his trees are tied with strips of plastic. He points to one white cedar he found in the woods. "That nylon strap may have come from my Rototiller," he says.
"This is 'use whatever you got handy bonsai'" quips Anderson with a smirk. He carries a wide range of quality bonsai tools in his shop, and his trees range in price from $42 to "trade in your car."
But if Larrow's methods are haphazard, his instincts are impressive, Anderson says. "He has a very good eye for really nice plants."
Often that means being able to spot abnormalities, something Larrow did as a researcher at the pathology lab at the University of Vermont College of Medicine before he retired. A good bonsai collector can spot interesting trunks or root structures that, once pruned and shaped, will give the appearance of great age. Says Anderson, "We use the term, 'It has to have some character.' The Japanese use a term which is sort of like 'spirit.'"
But Larrow doesn't like to analyze it too much. He just advises, "You look for a base trunk that not only has good size, but does something besides go straight."
That might sound simple, but both Larrow and Anderson say it's far from. It can take years to properly prepare a tree for extraction. Then, Anderson estimates, it takes about four years of potting and repotting and designing a tree to make it into a real bonsai. "Lots of people think they can do it," Larrow says of collecting wild trees, "but find it's not as easy as they thought."
Larrow reluctantly leads us into his prime hunting ground, a wooded area near his house, which I am not at liberty to describe in detail. He tells us we won't be harvesting any trees today, just looking, though Anderson brings a shovel.
On the way, Anderson offers some advice to would-be bonsai hunters. "If you're going to dig anywhere," he says, "you should find out who owns the land, and what you need to do to get permission."
The land on which Larrow likes to dig is owned by the state, and he insists he has just as much right to swipe a few cedars as duck hunters have to cut the trees for duck blinds. Larrow points out that those trees which have had their tops chopped are often perfect for bonsai, because they've been scarred and forced to grow in unnatural directions.
When we hop out of the van, Larrow leads us into a heavily wooded area, full of young, mostly coniferous trees, few of them taller than 20 or 30 feet. We walk down what could loosely be described as a trail - the scrubby grass and saplings that grow in our path are only knee-high. Their dripping limbs thwack against my jeans.
This might have been a dirt road two decades ago. Larrow suspects that this land was once a town gravel pit. He calls it "ideal digging territory." "The usable soil here is very shallow," he says, "and then you get into this hard-packed gravel, so the roots don't really go anyplace."
When Larrow goes bonsai hunting, he brings a pair of pruners, which fit neatly into his back pocket, and a handful of small, orange nylon strips. He uses the pruners to snip trees he might want to harvest in a few months or years. Larrow has countless works in progress, and he uses the orange strips as markers.
"When I see something that lights my fire," he says, "I tie a little orange flag up here, then I'll come back later." Larrow ties a ribbon at eye-level near a tree that's caught his interest - but not too near, lest another enterprising collector follows in his footsteps.
He likes working with larches, junipers and white cedars best. "Junipers and cedars are both very forgiving," Larrow says. "You can brutalize them beyond words. They're very tolerant."
"That's what he says," Anderson jokes. "You oughta hear what the tree says."
We encounter the first orange flag after just a few minutes in the woods, and before long it seems as if we're surrounded by them. "Now see, here's something for people who like to play with little cedars," Larrow says, as he winds his way around a 10-foot-tall pine he's tagged. The tree he finally points to looks absolutely nondescript, virtually indistinguishable from the multitude of junipers and cedars around it, until Larrow brushes the branches away from the base.
"The trunk starts all the way over here," he says as he points to a spot a couple inches from where the tree finally rises. "And if you look very carefully . . . does it look like it's been root-pruned?" It has, of course - Larrow's already cut back the roots to ready it for potting. He's also dug around it, to prepare it for collection; a kind of halo surrounds it in the soil. "But I've rejected it," he says at last.
As Larrow leads us farther into the woods, he warns us to watch our step; the path we're on is pockmarked by craters a few inches deep - all that remains of the trees he's taken. Larrow points to a stand of pines in the distance, where he says he's left shovels so he can dig if the spirit moves him.
Forging ahead of us, he locates a knee-high stand of three junipers. At first, Larrow can't quite say what he likes about it. "It's like trying to describe an elephant," he says.
But when pressed, he observes, "This has nice trunk movement on all of the trunks. I'm not sure they complement each other as much as they could . . . but you see," Larrow says, pointing to one of the three, "this has a bend to it. And this," he adds, pointing to another, "has a bend that complements it." The third trunk bothers him, because it bends slightly back, away from the other two, but he says he could work with it.
If he decided to keep the set, Larrow says, "I'd pot it up at home in one of my new wooden boxes I made from the siding I tore off this summer." Then, he says, "I'd stare at it for two years."
Larrow explains that simply acquiring the tree is just the first step toward making it into a bonsai. To work on this tree, he'd first have to have a vision of what it might become. "A really good bonsai-ist can look at a tree and, all of a sudden, their little computer goes to work, and within minutes they have a vision of what it wants to be." He points to himself. "Not so," he says. "Minutes for them, years for me."
Anderson counters that he's being too hard on himself. "Something like this, even an expert couldn't look at it and instantly come up with an ideal solution . . . sometimes, you're just going to have to walk past this for, like, two years, and then one day, it's nirvana - ah! I got it."
"Yeah," Larrow agrees. "It happens all of a sudden. And you figure out you've been looking at the wrong side of it all the time."
"I use the term, 'it just speaks to me one day'," says Anderson.
The last stop on our native bonsai tour is a marvel. "Now you get ready for this, Sandy," Larrow warns. "You're going to cry yourself to sleep here."
Sure enough, Larrow has found two white cedars nestled beside each other, roughly 25 feet tall, with thick roots that intertwine. One of the trunks rises slightly, then shoots off horizontally for about a foot before bending back up. "My theory with these is that they got stepped on by a cow when they were little," says Larrow.
Anderson is impressed. He offers to bring his tractor back here to dig it up. "'Course, digging that might be a three-year thing," he says. "Chop the top, trim it back, do an initial root prune."
But is that kind of operation even worth doing? "A wild-collected tree like this," says Anderson, "if you took it to a big bonsai show after it's pruned back, would probably sell for $1000."
"That would almost pay for your hernia repair," adds Larrow.
Not that these two are in it for the money. They rarely accept cash for wild-collected trees; they're in it for the thrill of the hunt.
The sun has started to set as we stumble back toward the van. Larrow seems to have lost his way. "Fear not, gentle folk," he calls out cryptically from several yards ahead. "We are quite close to where we are."
Anderson confides that he thinks Larrow is faking his confusion. "He does it just to keep you bamboozled," he says. "So you can't find your way back."
Anderson pushes past a wet, prickly buckthorn and says he'd like to bring his tractor back for those cedars. "Next time we do something like this," he yells to Larrow, "I'm going to pay attention."