Author Topic: Post-Dated by Michael Hagedorn, a review by Chris Johnston  (Read 12398 times)


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Post-Dated by Michael Hagedorn, a review by Chris Johnston
« on: September 03, 2009, 11:41 AM »
Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk
By Michael Hagedorn
Portland, OR, Crataegus Books
2008, 215 pp., paper. $14.95
Reviewed by Chris Johnston


This little book caught me by surprise. Divided into two parts, serendipitously named Part 1 and Part 2, Michael Hagedorn goes beyond the simple memoir of a trying time as a Japanese-style bonsai apprentice and touches the essence of bonsai. His writing style is simple, straightforward, and yet quite eloquent at the same time. Using excerpts from his journals and insight gained from hindsight, he illuminates some of what Japanese bonsai is all about so that a Westerner might get a bit beneath the surface.

Part 1 deals primarily with recollections from Hagedorn's journals, providing thought-provoking and sometimes humorous excerpts from his time as an apprentice. For example, his difficulties with the Japanese language come out in this excerpt from the chapter, "Brain Misfires While Speaking Japanese:"

Sometimes it was tempting to plead incompetence regarding the language. I had studied Japanese for a full year before arriving in Japan, and in every class I had attempted there was a faint halo of a dunce cap sitting on my head. The brain had ossified in my thirties, seemingly unwilling to assimilate anything new of this sort. The difficulties continued while in Japan, where one would think constant verbal exposure would soften this mental geology. This was a conversation in Japanese, at teatime, going over a bit of studio inventory:
    I comment: "We have long onions and short onions but no medium ones."
    They stare at me, wordless.
    The conversation continues and leaves me far behind, mulling over long and short onions.
    "SCREWS! Not onions, screws! Sorry!"

There are great lessons for the bonsai artist to learn in Part 1 as well. Hagedorn's metaphor of bending branches as a dance with a partner is especially enlightening. After describing the interplay between dance lead and follow, he then applies this to working with a tree.

In bonsai we are also within the tree's space, and to lead a tree well is to be familiar with it and ourselves, and to move as a unit. From this understanding a tree will be led effortlessly and naturally, as if the dance of its branches were the most natural thing in the world...One of the major challenges for bonsai artists is to arrive at this kind of organic harmony. And it's very subtle. Often we see bonsai that have a trunk and branches that do not belong with one another. They clash, forming a bizarre, confusing aesthetic. And it is in part because the natural history of that tree--a miniaturized, to some degree fictionalized, natural history--is not there.

The second part of this delightful book deals with lessons learned as a result of a shift of world-view on the part of the apprentice, perhaps after the fact. As the author says in his preface, all apprentices have certain things in common, including stress, bonsai, and sore muscles.

And yet beyond these givens, as with any adventure of this sort, you are never sure of what you might find. Inevitably, the findings are beyond calculation. We launch off confidently into a little puddle with the intent of splashing around in it for our amusement, only to discover it is less like a puddle than the deeps of the ocean with its weird and inconceivable forms and patterns--encounters and unexpected lessons entirely unrelated to the reason we jumped into the water in the firs place. The landscape of our investigation changes; our confidence wavers. We feel a clunk as some internal edifice shifts and opens a well. Part II consists of these sleeper lessons.

This portion of the book takes lessons from some Taoist works as well as an imagined dialogue between the author and Henry David Thoreau. It's more thought-provoking with less emphasis on being entertaining, and also holds some quite incisive insights. My favorite passage comes late in the book, where Hagedorn deals with the tradition of bonsai in the chapter titled (oddly enough) "Tradition."

In Obuse the months passed. From watching Mr. Suzuki's example as an artist, I learned that being unique does not equate with being weird. Bonsai is an art of nuance. If we can't recognize nuance, only the weird will seem unique. Further along I learned that it is to tell a tree's story that we do bonsai. It is not to write our own story in the limbs of one. We cannot dominate a tree and expect that to be bonsai...
Another idea that took root was that bonsai is an art of reticence. We carefully enhance a tree, rather than risk obliterating something special with too much technique. When only what must be done is done, we approach the highest level of the art.

I recommend everyone interested styling and caring for bonsai buy this book, and read and re-read it as often as possible to absorb some of the inner lessons to be learned. It's a very fast read the first time through, because you won't be able to put it down. But there's so much more than a reader can get in the first reading, you will want to go back to it time and again.
The book is available from the author at
Chris Johnston
« Last Edit: September 03, 2009, 12:20 PM by bonsaikc »


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Re: Post-Dated by Michael Hagedorn, a review by Chris Johnston
« Reply #1 on: September 04, 2009, 07:08 AM »
Hi Chris, very good review! It was so refreshing to read about bonsai other than "How To" I also believe everyone involved in bonsai could benefit from the read.


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Re: Post-Dated by Michael Hagedorn, a review by Chris Johnston
« Reply #2 on: September 04, 2009, 09:36 AM »
Thanks, Gary. I have to say that I wanted Michael's writing to show through in the book. He's truly gifted in so many areas, why was I surprised that he can write so well?

The book does give a good deal of information about the practice of bonsai, too, from the artistic and display perspectives. I imagine I will wear mine out.


Owen Reich

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Re: Post-Dated by Michael Hagedorn, a review by Chris Johnston
« Reply #3 on: April 17, 2012, 11:58 PM »
I just wanted Michael's book to get a little more good press.  I've read it twice and as a current apprentice it is the best concise overview of what goes through the mind of someone while here.  The second half is profound.    A must-read.