The origin of the art of bonsai and its predecessor penjing is ancient, dating from some 1,200 to 2,000 years ago. One of the early Chinese bonsai origin legends asserts that it was in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) that an emperor created a miniature replica landscape with hills, valleys, rivers, lakes and trees that represented his entire empire. Thus he was able to gaze upon his empire from his palace window. This landscape-based form of art was his alone--anyone found in possession of a diminutive landscape was seen as a threat to his real empire and put to death.
A new photography book, Fine Bonsai, presents rare specimens as photographed by Jonathan M. Singer: "The beautiful miniature trees and shrubs featured here, many never before photographed, seemed to pose for us, allowing the camera to capture a fragment of time and space wonderfully and effortlessly. Many of these trees are so rare they are almost mythical." The California juniper shown here is estimated to be 250 years old, and has reached a height of around 48 inches. Trained for more than 20 years, this tree was allowed to acclimate and strengthen before it was shaped. The dead wood on one side of the bonsai suggests that harsh desert winds might have killed and polished the wood. Although the exposed surface roots are dead, they still provide a stable base. California juniper is a popular bonsai subject that is found growing in dry or desert locations, usually growing as a shrub but sometimes reaching thirty feet in height. Trees with old dead wood on the trunks and branches are prized as bonsai specimens---dead wood resists rot and can be carved.
Bonsai gardeners use methods including wiring branches, extreme pruning of roots and branches, root binding, grafting, and custom soil and cinder mixtures. But perhaps the most important element of all is patience. Instructions for achieving the the "roots over rock" effect give insight to the work of a bonsai artist: trim the roots, place the rock, bind roots, then re-pot and wait two years. Often a bonsai is created by many hands over the years---a highly prized tree is one where the hand and ego of the artist become invisible, as in the zen concept of "artless art."
Edited captions from the book. All photographs courtesy Jonathan M. Singer/Abbeville Press