I am studying to be a guide to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and among the greatest pleasures of the training has been my introduction to the bonsai collection. The BBG has the second largest display of bonsai (pronounced BONE SIGH) outside of Japan.
The collection of more than 400 plants began in 1925 with the gift of 32 trees from a collector who brought them from Japan.
Stepping into the frigid cold of the C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum in the Steinhardt Conservatory, I was stunned to see trees over one hundred years old but no taller than a 12-inch ruler. Barks wizened with age, trunks bent as if by a strong wind, branches bare because it is winter.
These are the very same trees that could grow to as much as seventy feet tall if it were not for the intervention of humans.
These humans are no ordinary mortals, but artists who learned over time to twist and turn limbs, stunt growth by pruning roots and branches, and create indoor environments to simulate each tree’s natural habitat. The results are magical, strange, and very compelling.
The current curator of the collection, Julian Velasco, held back tears as he told us of a curator of a rare collection of ancient bonsai in Japan who refused to evacuate during World War II when the US warned that his village was in imminent danger of bombing. He survived, and so did the plants. Some of them may now be living in Brooklyn.
Photos copyright Lorna Sass, 2009