Updated: Apr 13
“Follow the roots, and not the fruits.” A sound philosophy, as well as an apt metaphor to describe the endeavor of anyone pursuing something greater than themselves. It represents the idea that in order to attain the yield you desire from your craft requires you commit to a more intimate knowledge of the subject itself. This is built over many years and through the repetition of exercises pertaining to that particular skill set. While every individual is different, there must be a healthy level of inquisitiveness present in order to hope to achieve a successful outcome. All of this is predicated on the notion that through curiosity and perseverance we are able to build solid foundations. I have found this same sentiment echoing constantly throughout most things to which I am drawn.
My name is Dave Regan, and I am a deeply passionate, albeit it relatively new practitioner to the art of bonsai. I am a multi-disciplined artist, tattooer, musician and writer. I am and always have been a gardener, and a rabid house plant parent. Over the years, I have worked in teaching, fabrication, sculpture, woodworking, and am currently involved in extensive home repair and remodeling. What I have been able to realize in the last few years is that all of the things I have remained connected to share a very common concept.
Old Gold Juniper (juniperus x pfiteriana) Nursery stock first styling by Dave Regan
It is about not just practicing a craft so much as it is about presence. I don't just mean showing up, but true presence. Whether I am playing music, digging weeds, or laying down a stroke from my brush, the intention is the exact same as when I am working on a tree. I strive to maintain the balance of being both present and elsewhere, tapping into that feeling which firmly anchors one into the moment. Time, in these instances, seems to exercise it's uncanny ability to pass unnoticed, and cause a brief surge of panic when you realize the twenty five minutes you spent doing something was actually six hours.
If I am being honest, I have fought off bonsai tooth and nail for years. I took precautions to avoid it, because I know myself far too well. I knew that I would become obsessed, because bonsai is a practice without bottom or mastery. The potential for learning is exponential, and there is no shortage of voluble information, particularly thanks to the internet. I knew I would be able to feed my brain in the way it likes best, but my fear stemmed from a commitment of being home regularly enough to maintain something beyond succulents and other low water low care plants.
My grandmother had trees for a time, and perhaps that is where my first inclinations grew. When I was a teenager, I spent a great deal of time at used book and record stores. It was there that I discovered the book “Bonsai art of Kimura” and that was certainly cemented into my head from the minute I turned the first page. Landscapes of impossibility flowed in every direction. Which is not to say that I understood what the hell I was looking at –– I'm not truly sure I comprehend it much better now. I have a more deeply evolved horticultural understanding than I did back then, but magic is magic, regardless of knowledge.
I've lived in Denver going on eleven years, on and off. I returned to the States from many years of traveling overseas and purchased my first home. Despite doing everything by the book, I was sold a house with upwards of $140000 in completely and intentionally concealed damages, both on the part of the sellers, as well as their agent. I went through a very rough three year long legal battle, which although I won, was a victory that could be described as pyrrhic at best. I had accumulated more stress in a short period of time than I was comfortable with. In addition to a resting meditation practice, I wanted to do something that focused on a more waking, conscious meditation. In this process, I began my journey into bonsai.
Part of my resolution to confront the immense financial burden and loss of use of my home was to deal with all repairs by the book, but as cost and time effectively as possible. After hiring one terrible contractor, I decided that I would be doing the rest of the work myself. I spent a long time inside the house knocking out projects with the help of friends and was slowly able to make the house safe and livable. Then, during a late snowstorm year before last, I had a large branch hit the roof. I don't have a massive yard, but I have always loved that it has two beautiful honey locusts, although the larger of the two was in a bad state and was the culprit. I knew it was time to switch gears and address the trees before anything too catastrophic happened.
Andorra Juniper (juniperus 'andorra compacta') Old nursery stock styled with Todd Schlafer
I contacted an excellent arborist friend and asked if he could take a look and quote me a price on the work. We reached an amicable arrangement, and he returned later in the week to begin. When he arrived, I asked if I could help him out, and despite his puzzled expression, he agreed. This is not a common request, apparently. I had no real arboreal knowledge but was a climber in my former life, so I figured with the right equipment the risk was relatively low. We worked on both a 55' and 25' honey locust, and removed roughly 2700 pounds of material with almost no power tools. I asked an endless array of questions all revolving around how to properly trim and care for trees. We spent a few great days from our perches, enjoying the work and the conversation about something so seemingly mundane.
When I finished my portion of the work, I was left with a fever that many of you know all too well. Still reluctant to commit to bonsai, I began working on figurative trees, also called niwaki. My cache was readily available through the gardens of trusting and supportive friends. It was in these gardens I began to truly develop my love for and obsession with trees by practicing on junipers at first, then yew, then Alberta and finally blue spruce. As I completed a tree, my arsenal of resources to work from dwindled. I was learning, albeit haphazardly, but I was running out of material.
Shortly after spring work concluded, a long trip to Japan not only fulfilled many lifelong dreams, but forced me to appreciate the nuances of tree work in a way that is as foreign to us as kanji. It wasn't as though a few trees were styled here and there –– moreover, it was strange not to see a tree that hadn't been worked on rigorously. Coupled with a better understanding of Shinto, which seems as though it has the flexibility of being a religion for some, a philosophy for most, and an awareness for all, I was able to better envisage the reverence held for trees and the spirits, or kami, that inhabit them. The Shinto belief that all things in nature have a spirit so absolutely contradicts the philosophy I was raised by, and appealed very deeply to my grasp of the natural world. It is evidenced in the minutiae of everyday life. The Japanese have, in my eyes, one of the most robust, well defined, and time tested craft cultures in the world. To witness it firsthand as a craftsperson, is to clearly see the apogee of thousands of years converging everywhere you look. Japan is an experience entirely unto itself, and that trip is not a memory that I will ever lose.
Returning home and ready to explode, I went to a nursery to buy what would be my first tree, a mame Canadian weeping hemlock, which is still quite alive and well. That was the beginning of the end, really. One tree has become thirty plus, with a number of varieties of both deciduous and coniferous trees. Even though I have spent most of my life losing myself in the woods, bonsai has irreversibly changed how I interact with my environment. I am quite sure I am a horrible person to hike with anymore because I stop constantly to admire the inimitable artistry of nature, resulting in some poor friend of mine having to endure my musings. It has taken my love of plants and elevated it immeasurably, and has reinforced the appreciation and reverence I have for my trees by reminding me of the reciprocity and custodial nature inherent to this practice. I have also found a wonderful community through bonsai, one which continuously grows and allows me the space and resources to grow with it.
There are many analogies and metaphors to describe what bonsai means to me, and what the lifetime of work ahead looks like. I know that I certainly welcome it. Simply put, everything has been transformed for me, and I am far better for it.