SMALL TREES, LARGE LABOUR: Bonsai on display
Photos by Neda Pandza
Heading to this year’s bonsai expo, I expected to meet a few eccentrics. Bonsai, after all, is an art that combines horticulture with heightened aesthetic sensibilities and obsessive compulsiveness.
I was, put simply, hoping for weirdos I could write the shit out of.
On that front, the annual expo — hosted by the Société de bonsai et de penjing de Montréal — started well: Within 10 minutes, a man dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, sandals and socks told me, “A bonsai tree is like a woman in an evening gown. Some are thin, some fat. Personally, I like them thick, but everyone’s different.”
Ordinarily, this kind of unsolicited observation from someone in cruise wear would seem a bit creepy, but, as I would come to discover, the local bonsai community — among the largest in North America — is one of the friendliest and most even-keeled groups of people I’ve ever encountered. Quasi-philosophical comments like these are sort of normal.
TRIP OUT, BRO: Horticultural artistry
I had been invited to the event by Beniamino Conte, a short, thin auto mechanic with an unassuming air and even gentler voice — the kind of person who is deeply reflective, patient and thoughtful, but not exactly expressive (“My father gets tongue tied,” his daughter told me).
Over the last few years, Conte has turned the garden at his Laval home into a bonsai shrine, with an impressive and unexpected array of trees; seeing it can give you a sudden pang for Mr. Miyagi-like mentorship. “I always liked gardening, small plants and trees especially, but they always died,” he told me. “Slowly, I learned about form, roots, earth. I learned how to keep them alive…but it takes time.”
Conte’s bonsai instruction has been heavily influenced by one man — a man he calls “the master”: David Easterbrook. And Conte’s not alone. Talk to enough local bonsai artists, and you’ll start to picture Easterbrook as a chanting, robed figure that walks on water.
In reality, though, he’s a slightly rotund 62-year-old man with a kind, oval face, deep, help-me-I’m-lost-at-sea blue eyes and the beaming, trustworthy smile you’d expect of a Mr. Rogers impersonator.
Easterbrook’s passion for bonsai began in the early ‘70s, when the green-thumbed young man received a book on the subject. “It was a whole new world, and so exciting! But there wasn’t a bonsai store; you couldn’t even find the tools,” he said.
“You can start with a young tree, and really develop it, almost like a baby. But then, older trees start developing character, like humans. They have an aura about them, a charisma. You learn how to respect them.”
Easterbrook’s trees are imbued with a symmetrical subtlety, an unfussy artistry that’s difficult to put into words but easy to spot when displayed among 51 other bonsai trees. It was one of the only things that stood out to me at first.
“We have to train our eyes to see the beauty within the tree,” Johanne Lafontaine, communications director of Société de bonsai et de penjing de Montréal, had told me. “We want to ‘turn’ into a bonsai and use our techniques to achieve our vision,” she said.
I had no idea what that meant, and initially, the trees looked liked skeletal, nightmarish landscapes — a kind of visual representation of mental instability, akin to looking at an acid trip (otherwise put, it was awesome). With Conte’s help, though, I started also seeing the aluminum wires and effort, the battle to impose a sense of order to randomness. It’s a battle that can take decades, making each tree a tiny triumph of the will.
That kind of commitment can be difficult to understand, so much so that I had to turn to Easterbrook, the master himself, who told me, “A lot of people ask why there’s such an interest in bonsai. I think it’s just that people like to play god.”
The Annual Bonsai Expo is held every September. For more information on bonsai in Montreal, visit the Société de bonsaï et de penjing de Montréal. ■