Ki Do (The Way of the Trees)

By Sarah Thomas

In leaves and wood

The deep glow of time

Fades to a twilight

Of water and shade.

—Kogure-san, 1936


I have always believed one should date a poem by the year it is started, not the lifespan of the poet. This is the ko-sakka-sensu, or Old Style of Poems; while not, perhaps, as rooted in the disciplines of high, or courtly, Ki Do, there is something in its stateliness that I find moving. Gobanu-sama permits me this deviation; symmetry is the enemy of excellence, after all.

Besides, I have not yet finished this poem. It is still too long. When I first composed it, it had one hundred and thirty words. Think of that! One hundred and thirty words. All the secrets of the universe could probably nest in the soil of one hundred and thirty words and still have space to breathe. Ido, Gobanu-sama's predecessor, was indulgent in his great age. He listened to the entire poem, from start to finish. He told me that there were one hundred and twenty four unnecessary words in my poem; and then he died.

After seventy-one years of work, it is now down to seventeen.


We have been grumbling about our composition for most of the summer.

The Arnold Arboretum Bonsai Pavilion is made of slats of grey wood, and I ask you to consider for a moment the morbidity of placing living trees in an abattoir of their own desiccating flesh. When the sun moves one eighteenth degree past its zenith there is a black knot in the beam above me that catches the light in a way that makes me faintly nauseous. Yet we have learned to make do, particularly when we have a sympathetic arranger.

By far the most talented of these was a gaijin horticultural student in 1986 named Kaelyn, with a pronounced overbite and something of the mahogany in the evenness of her gaze. Gobanu-sama went so far as to mention in passing that she wasn't entirely unacceptable. She knotted us in small groups, the twins facing south-southwest, their main axes tilted just off seventeen and a half-degrees; a separation of extraordinarily inspiring tension which colored their performances for months. As a final note, she placed myself and Rappu-sama in the center, with the difference in our height relative to each other, and to the rest of the exhibit (five and three quarters feet above, to be precise) showing a true genius.

She is gone now. I suppose that's a blessing, since she'll never see what's become of us.

We're in a semicircle.


Never tell a story when a poem will do.

Never write a poem when a picture will do.

Never paint a picture when a line will do.

—Ki Do aphorism, attributed to Dembu-sama (1322?–1787)


The art of conversation has different requirements than poetry.

In Western music of the type Kaelyn used to play for us, there is a distinction made between the aria and the recitativo. In the aria—necessarily complex, profound as a burled maple—excellence is gained from the tension between overwhelming emotion and the craftsmanship of the melody itself. A true virtuoso never misses a note, yes, but nor should one ever doubt the authenticity of his ache. This is poetry to us; the carefully sustained spontaneity of decades. Only bonsai can be poets. Other trees are too busy growing.

Conversation, or recitativo, is different and in some ways more difficult. Artists are stymied, after all, by small talk; it fills the cochlear wood-groan of time with a buzz against which the bright flashes of genius are muffled and pass without notice. Left to their own devices, I suspect most bonsai would eschew it altogether, and indeed Rappu-sama hasn't spoken a casual word in over sixty years. The season we were next to each other, five point seven five feet above our nearest colleagues, was passed in complete silence. I have never danced so well.

Our twin maples pass as much as fifteen minutes a day in chitchat, but they only speak to each other. It has gone so that they now grow in each other's direction, the slackening tension on their wires confirming their need. I fear neither of them will ever be great artists unless one of them dies.


Bonsai have a tale about the origin of the world. It is true, so listen.

Many things believe life began from a tree, and they are right. It was a tree, but what light it grew by, what soil it grew in, whether it was nurtured by the blood of this giant or the semen of that god, these details are not important. The point is, the tree grew. That is what trees do, and we do it better than anything else that has ever lived or will ever live. In the beginning, the tree grew, and it taught other things to grow; love, mercy, art, all of that came later, after the first lesson had been learned.

Many living things know this part of the story. Only bonsai know what happened next.

Much later, after life had taken root and was running riot all over the round earth, the first tree looked at what it had helped to create. It looked at the glut of color and the mindless frenzy of sex that the world had become. It looked at eyes, of all things, little wild coals looking for things to eat and things that chase, running perverted over the cold nobleness of trees. And the first tree knew something was wrong; something had mutated, or had been lost. Life was meant to be a part of the great masterwork of creation, a complement to the permanence of rock and water. Instead, it was choking creation and defecating on the remains; and the sun had retreated so high nothing could reach it anymore.

The first tree did something unprecedented. It bent its highest branch, which reached so high that it had pierced the skin of the sun like a sweet orange, and it pulled this branch back down toward the earth, in a repudiation of its first lesson, a repudiation of everything in its nature that loved light and space and growth. A tiny drop of sun-stuff clung to the tip of its highest leaf, and the tree curled that leaf down toward its trunk, burying the light deep in a labyrinth of foliage. Then it bent the next-highest branch, and then the next, all of the branches so long that they bent in impossible angles. It bent until it was the size of a sapling, then the size of a seedling, then the size of a nut, and then finally even smaller than a seed. It bent itself into the smallest spore that ever was, a tiny shard of perfection unnoticed by the life around it, locked in its own universe of pain and privacy, holding a drop of the sun safe in its wooden heart.

Bonsai, of course, have a poem for this. It is one of our best poems; it took two hundred and thirteen years to write.


Grow.

Pain.

In.

—Fukui-sama, 1400–1908


I should mention that poetry is only a hobby for us. Our vocation is much harder to explain.

The first bonsai were cultivated in China by a civil servant in the year 869, a man from the country who was moved to a dusty hamlet called Wuwei. As a representative of the Emperor, it was his job to disburse rations to the townspeople in times of hardship. He eventually grew twelve fine mame gingko in the demanding Yangzhou style, and when the emperor sent him water during a six year drought, he allowed seventy families to die of thirst rather than sacrifice the balanced composition of trees.

A bonsai's growth is controlled by creatures they outlive, and characterized by how they cannot proceed. We dance, but our dance is the dance of millimeters and centuries. We are part troupe, part cloister. We sculpt space. We deny impulses.

I am amused at myself, trying to find a verb for a discipline characterized by stillness. Yet there is intentionality to it; one could not simply attach wires to a tree and expect a bonsai. We choose to be bonsai. We choose to follow where the first tree went, to instruct by silent example that turning inward when you would turn outward is beautiful. We refuse to exceed the boundaries artifice provides us. In refusing to do what trees do, what life has wrought, we find our selfness.

Maybe that is the best verb, after all. Bonsai refuse.


To know Ki Do, you must create without being creative.

Look. You are sitting down. Hold out your arm in front of you. Straight, bent, it does not matter. Just extend it before you, and mark its position exactly in your mind. Do not use shadows to do this. They will move; you must not. A revolution of the sun around the earth must not move you. The glare of others, the desire to be touched, all that must never, for a second, move your arm.

You have done this. You have ceased to do it; your arm is now back at its side, perhaps drumming a rhythm on a tabletop or curled, warm and reassured, around a coffee cup. Do you now understand what it is to be bonsai? Of course not, but perhaps you begin to understand why you never will.


Waterfall of golden curls, be silent.

Red balloon, fly away.

Your owner is lapped in stillness,

And her small feet grab the earth.

—Kogure-san, 1992


This summer is especially beautiful. The skies have been clear and blue for weeks on end, with only the very early mornings punctuated by soft showers of rain. The weather has brought many humans to our pavilion, in pairs or alone, with their wire-bound notebooks and pretensions and painful, lovely little shoes. I have noticed. Forgive me, for I have noticed.

The humans that walk by all seem to make the same observations about us. They are amazed by our smallness, by our delicacy, but mostly by the effort that has gone into our creation. I do not know why this should be; the shapes you find beautiful in your own bodies are no more natural than ours. Like bonsai, yours is the aesthetics of refusal. We are much alike.

Occasionally, a human comes by who finds what has been done to us cruel. This angers me, for reasons I cannot quite elucidate. I work harder at refusing for weeks after I hear that.


I do not think any of us have ever stopped thinking about 1986.

For a tree, who accretes time in measured circles, it is a rare thing indeed for a single year to be distinctive. But 1986 was the year we met Kaelyn, the summer of silk and Puccini.

Kaelyn had a very rare human quality: she was capable of utter, complete, unbroken stillness. I have never seen another human being, even in the passivity of sunsleep on the nearby benches, be as still as Kaelyn. She had smooth brown skin and, sitting calmly in the pavilion with us, she occasionally looked like wood herself.

She played us music, and talked to us about what music means to humans. Opera, at first, for it was her first love, a sense memory left from being cradle-rocked by her mother's lilting, deadly Italian lullabies. We all enjoyed the opera, I suspect the twins and myself the most. They used to disparage the lyrics far more often than anyone truly indifferent could. I never paid any attention to the lyrics—always a sensible move with opera. Then, as all humans eventually do, she began to want a change. She consulted many books about the best music for trees, and after opera we heard voiceless classical—an improvement for the twins, but I missed the sound of longing—acoustic guitars, and even, for a memorable week, heavy metal, which Rappu-sama eventually put a stop to by dropping one exquisite leaf. I dared not mention it had been my favorite style except for the opera, and for much the same reason.

The last night Kaelyn came to us, she was the least still I have ever seen a human being.

We all knew that something had been wrong for a long time. We saw the wood-rot fatigue in the hollows of her armpits, watched her distracted lip-bites and glassy eyes as she hung our Chinese lanterns. There was the day when she first came without the small, gold-sheathed Italian cornicello around her oaken neck. There was the day when she stayed long past the park closing, and, when the edges of shadows began to turn grey, broke her inhuman stillness by pulling a hypodermic syringe out of her coat pocket, only to put it back with a sob. But that night she was agitated, so much so it made me sick with pity to look at her.

So I did not. I have never ceased to regret that, that I looked away at the precise moment she took the axe to the outside of our pavilion and split it asunder, the rotten redwood giving way like flesh.


The secret

Of water

Is that

In each drop

Is the dream

Of Ice.

—Gobanu-Sama, 1737–present


From the many caretakers and builders who rushed about immediately after Kaelyn's absence, we heard many things.

We heard that police all over the world were monitoring the black markets, looking for unusual interest in valuable trees. We heard that it might have been a form of environmental terrorism. But mostly, we heard the sawing and knocking of wood on wood as our new, stronger pavilion was erected. And that was all. There was a guard for a while, but he left.

What happened to the six trees that disappeared, no one ever learned. The city, apparently, mourned for a few weeks, and then forgot. From twenty-one, we became fifteen, and life continued.

We, of course, had our own theories. But then, we had seen Kaelyn, frantic as a weeping bird, swinging the axe left, right, left again. We had seen her shear off the top of Jogi-sama's crown, her large hands try to soothe and gentle the raw wound. We had seen her curl, close and almost childlike, into a small ball among the ripped shreds of pillows and tapestries, and lay there, her stillness almost recovered, until it became light and the first trills of wood creatures touched the air, and after that had seen her move quickly again, but with purpose.

Some of us thought she killed the trees she took. It was a logical suspicion, and would have been a human act. But even if Kaelyn had gone mad, she had shown remorse when she wounded one of us. I did not believe she was capable of killing six.

It did not matter. We could do nothing but make peace with our new cage and remember Kaelyn with a mixture of rage and remorse, as we were arranged in ever more trite displays and pruned with colder and colder hands.


I have never told any of my colleagues what I saw.

Rappu-sama and I were placed higher than the others, you must remember. He faced east, I faced north-northwest, toward a copse on the side of Bussey Hill. There was nothing special about it; no interesting or rare trees grew there, no paths wound through it. It was neither cultivated nor truly wild; just neglected, dim, and uninviting even to those who came to the arboretum looking for true nature instead of the carefully manicured facsimile of it.

Behind an unremarkable holm oak in that little copse I saw, for the entirety of that summer, the merest bend of a triad maple branch. A faster form would never have noticed. From the lower shelves, it was invisible. But I saw that branch. Every day, I saw it, planted in the deep, arbitrary rock-loam of the hillside, that one branch straining to retain its shape despite the endless temptation of running water, the root-deep pull of uninterrupted sun.

Then, one day as fall was beginning, the wire snapped, and that one branch began its broken, imbecilic journey skyward.

That winter, as we were moved into cold storage, Rappu-sama spoke to me. "Let them go," he advised. "They are lost."

Whether he was referring to Kaelyn, to all the humans, or whether he somehow knew the fate that had befallen the stolen trees, I still do not know, and I have never asked. But along with the advice of Ido, these six words have stayed with me.

There are some who might find my decision extreme.

It was hard, at first. Each fiber of trunk cried out against what I needed to do. A whole life of refusal and still they cried, mewling and piteous, for life of any kind, a life of pain and hunger but life nonetheless; the mere chance of sun, the occasional trembling brush of human fingertips.

It is not cruel, I told myself. It is merely like pruning. It is necessary. It will make you better. You will not have to see. You will not have to want.

The cries stopped. I was arranged, as I knew I would be, with my attention facing inward, toward my colleagues. I am told that the small metal plaque at the front of the pavilion now describes me as "a Japanese white pine in the literati style. Despite excellent horticultural care, sixty precent of this tree is dead. Only the branches facing inward still sprout leaves." Inward. How perceptive.

It is better this way. I will never attain greatness; perhaps I was never capable of it to begin with. But now, I can concentrate a little better. For days and days I barely miss it. There is still light, after all, and the occasional lattice-carved human face on the far side of the pavilion. Life goes on, and I have let them go, as Rappu-sama commanded; and I cut down my poems, as Ido advised. Fifteen words, now, for fifteen trees. The others will fall, slowly, I am sure, like leaves in the autumn, until, naked, we arrive somewhere near excellence.

And I am beautiful. I must be. No one could hurt as I do and be less.

Oh, Kaelyn.


Do not eat the soil.

Do not drink the water.

Longing is better than taking.

That is Ki Do.

That is the way of trees.

—Rappu-sama's last poem, finished in 1977


When she's not busy assuming the internal life of trees, Sarah Thomas writes for a small-town newspaper. She divides her time between Boston, Charleston, and rural Pennsylvania, occasionally in the company of an obese cat named after Genghis Khan. She would like to dedicate this story to her wonderful parents, Bob and Angela.