Tripping on Bonsai
by Billy Goodnick
Does the current economic downturn have you contemplating a career change? Have you considered taking a hallucinogenic drug? No? Let me tell you, it worked for me.
Wait! Hold it! I'm not talking about my recent departure from my gig with City parks. I'm talking about the early 70s when I began extricating myself from the music business and entering the world of horticulture.
A bit of historical perspective is in order?
It's the early 70s and I'm a 20-something professional musician in L.A.-road trips, brushes with greatness, nightclubs, lots of recording work. I'm making a decent living for my age.
So I have my days pretty free and here comes a chlorophyllic avalanche in the form of the "house plant revolution" right about the time when the Whole Earth Catalog and one-world hippie-think are tunneling like mind-worms into the nation's consciousness.
Flash back a few more years to my innocent youth. The Goodnick family is once again attending the LA County Fair in Pomona, where my mom and dad schlep my bro and me through the home improvement exhibits.
Lo and behold, we're in the garden and landscape section when we come across a surreal display of bonsai, lovingly crafted by some amazingly talented Japanese-American gardeners and other enthusiasts.
My dad thinks they're cool, so we go out the next weekend, buy the slender volume of Sunset's bonsai book and promptly murder two innocent junipers.
Fast forward to 1972 and I'm at Leo Carrillo beach at the LA / Ventura county line with my girlfriend. Let's just say that we're about an hour into some mind altering recreation, gathering wet, glistening rocks from the shore and uttering profound descriptions, like "wow" and "what a trip."
Home come the rocks, but by the next day they're dry and dull and so am I.
"I'll make a turtle bowl so I can keep the rocks wet and shiny," me thinks!
So I buy a big bonsai pot, plug the drainage holes, artfully arrange my beach stones, fill it with water and wake up the next morning to a flooded bedroom floor.
Good thing I hadn't brought Yertle home yet.
What to do with the pot? Bingo! There's that bonsai book on the shelf in the den. I flip through the pages, look at the pictures and end up making a pretty damn convincing bonsai. Miraculously, this one survives!
So what does this have to do with career changes? Simple. Through some bizarre alignment of the planets, I fell in love with the art of bonsai while simultaneously developing an apartment-bursting collection of houseplants, to the degree that I traded my career in music for one in plants.
Don't get me wrong. I still hold drumming as my most transcendental passion. But back then, even at the ripe young age of 24, I had been in the biz long enough to have a bunch of seemingly sincere, very important people tell me,
"Son, you're going places!" Then I'd listen intently to the deafening silence of a phone not ringing. Jaded? You bet.
Once again the planets were smiling on me. While making my weekly pilgrimage to Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery on Sawtelle Blvd. (West LA), I learned that they offered bonsai classes. I had lots of free time during the day, so why not? I signed up.
My teacher was John Naka, who, it turned out, was the uncontested American master teacher. I learned from him every Monday afternoon. John had an exquisite balance of wisdom and artistic vision, always spicing it with a wicked sense of humor.
I needed more. I needed to go back to school.
Twenty minutes might have elapsed between the time I enrolled at L.A. Pierce College's horticulture program and the cessation of my musician's phone ringing.
My career change happened that fast.
I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I had taken the advice of a wise elder who told me, "Take the thing you love most in life and make it your hobby."
From horticulture degree to working in nurseries to gardening and landscape construction to a bachelors in landscape architecture to licensed landscape architect to my gig for the City of SB to teaching to my local TV show to writing for Ed and for Fine Gardening magazine to who-knows-what tomorrow.
One more planetary confluence?Last week, after attending the annual Garden Writers Association symposium in Raleigh, Lin-my spousal support unit-and I met in Washington, DC, for a few days of vacation. One of our day-trips landed us at the National Arboretum, home of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum (Penjing is the original Chinese version of bonsai).
On display were the finest bonsai trees I've had the pleasure of seeing. I moved through the exhibit in a dreamlike state, savoring each example of these living sculptures. I was taken in by the illusion of an ancient, contorted conifer represented by a mere three-foot tall, Japanese white pine in training for 80 years.
At my last stop, I was mentally transported into a towering forest of redwoods represented by the perfect arrangement of 11 junipers. I had arrived in front of Goshin, Japanese for "protector of the spirit". This is John Naka's most famous work, photographed and admired in hundreds of publications throughout the world.
Naka-san passed away in 2004. I had not seen him since leaving Los Angeles in 1976. Seeing Goshin and the bronze bust of my teacher on display at the arboretum brought back this long-dormant flood of memories. Bonsai-and a bit of psychic adventuring-opened the door to a career in landscape architecture that I still cherish, one that allows me to combine art and science while making a tangible difference in the places I've lived.
What's next? Bring it on.
* Goshin at Wikipedia
* Bonsai Club of Santa Barbara
* National Bonsai & Penjing Museum
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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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