The art of bonsai, according to an engineer

Julian Adams clearly remembers the first time he saw a bonsai. He was young in a botanical garden when, among the orchids, cacti, and vegetable acres, he came across a room full of diminutive and ancient trees. Adams had always felt a respect for the older things, he says. Something about the bonsai hit a deep rope for him. “They have changed the way I perceive things,” he says. Shortly after that fateful visit, he received his first bonsai as a Christmas present. It marked the beginning of a passion for life that led him to study radar technology and sell cars to manage Adams Bonsai, a nursery he calls “a furious hobby gone.”

Adams grew up in Virginia before leaving to study engineering at MIT. Her childhood was very different from what she found in Cambridge, where she tried pizza and Chinese food for the first time. While many of his college classmates had studied differential equations in high school, he had never even taken the calculation. He describes his first-year studies as “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

What saved his academic career, says Adams, were the fraternity brothers who helped him learn his study skills, with his time leading the team as a coxswain. “I found that I enjoyed working with people towards a goal,” he says. Although his classes continued to be difficult, Adams found them fascinating. He focused on electronics, communication and radio technology, and after graduation he put his skills to work doing radar defense work. But he soon found himself missing Virginia and eventually moved home to Lynchburg to work at his father’s car dealership. “It wasn’t the solution to technical problems, but the solution to people’s problems,” he says.

After his Christmas gift of bonsai, Adams spent 18 months practicing and experimenting before venturing into the strange world of the bonsai market. An art that has been studied and refined over the centuries, bonsai dates back to 6th century Japan and involves the formation and care of a miniature tree that mimics the plant on a large scale in its natural environment.

“It started out as an absolute hobby with little piddly anything,” he says, “but like seeds when you plant them, they grow and grow.” He began to read as much as he could on the subject, then sought out mentors to teach him more about the technique and science behind art. Her bonsai garden felt like her private biology lab, a place to experiment with trial and error, test hypotheses, and observe what made her trees the happiest. Soon, he began traveling to hobbyist conferences and meetings; became a source of advice for newcomers, specializing in bonsai pines. “At one point I realized I had so many plants that I couldn’t take care of them,” he says. When he offered to sell it, he was surprised at how quickly he found buyers, and Adams Bonsai was born.

Today, Adams prefers to grow his trees from seed or cuttings, so he can pay close attention to the trunk cover and the position of the branches, the two keys to getting the “old” aesthetic of bonsai. The plant, he says, is a living plant that grows despite its limitations in its pot, cultivated “to represent, in miniature, an old tree that man imagined could be somewhere in nature.” But to achieve that goal requires time, patience and hard work. Each tree should be watered daily and fed weekly, and carefully guarded against potential pests or diseases.

“I like to say that bonsai is 50% art, 50% horticulture, 50% philosophy,” he says. The practice may be based on the science of horticulture, but it is focused on the application of science in a practical landscape for experimentation and exploration, whether engineering applies mathematics, chemistry or physics. “We need engineers among us to do things that are useful,” he says. “The way I think about bonsai is probably the way most engineers think about their field. There are basic skills, yes, but how can you use those skills in the world?”

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