The Snake Thuya Posted December 13, 2020 by TBS Webmaster

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by Mike Roussel

Published on Collaboration Bonsai VL, December 10, 2020

The energy in the coils adds to that rhythmic feeling. The movement goes from left to right with a long counter-balancing branch that echoes the main trunk. This creates an interesting positive/negative space both between the trunk and main branch but also on the exterior. This is my chosen front but there were numerous options. It has a bit too much foliage at this time to be a true literati bonsai but that may change over time.

Some trees have a shape that we can associate with natural or super natural creatures. This is one of them! I call this bonsai the snake because it reminds me of a reared-up cobra preparing to strike or entranced by a snake charmer.

The first time I showed it as a finished tree was at the Toronto Bonsai Society 2019 fall show (i.e. below picture from Mike Pochwat) where I was honoured with the Dick Norton Best of Show award. I have since been accepted to show it at the next US National Bonsai Exhibition.

I am not exactly sure when I collected it but it was sometime around 2000. It was collected alongside of the road on a northeast facing drumlin slope that was slowly eroding away as you can see in the pictures below. There were many other trees in that location that I had planned to collect. I delayed doing so because I didn’t want to cause further erosion. However, when I finally decided to go back, I was shocked and saddened to find that the county had razed and regraded the entire area, killing all of the trees that were there. I am still kicking myself for that!

If you look below at the trees I missed out on, you will see how the snake was formed. Most of the tree is actually a root that was formed as it penetrated and grew through and around the rocks on the slope. As the slope eroded away, the roots became trunks and branches. I was able to collect this tree easily because of the rock decomposition.

When I first collected it, it had a very long main root so I put it in a tall garbage can where it recovered for 3-4 years.

In July 2004 I decided to figure out the front of the tree and its future shape. I exposed the existing deadwood and added some more. I often find it hard to make decisions about a tree when looking at it live and in 3D so I use a technique where I put it on a pedestal and take multiple pictures of it, rotating it a bit prior to the next photo and tilting it various ways. When I look at the photos later, I find I can assess the tree more objectively. I use this technique a lot still.

You can see below multiple options that were explored.

In the spring of 2005, I took a 2-day workshop the club organized with Colin Lewis which was one of the most pivotal learning experiences of my life as a bonsai artist. He taught me the slingshot method of wiring which I use to this day. In that workshop we reduced the roots further and repotted the tree into a terra cotta pot. At that point it ceased to be rough material and entered into the pre-bonsai stage.

Over the next few years, I let the tree grow further and introduced deadwood further up into the apex of the tree. I also started encouraging the counter-balancing first branch as we can see in the below picture.

In 2008 I replanted it again into what I thought at the time would be its final bonsai pot, which I ordered from Tokoname through Reiner Goebel. You can see below that I used an upside-down tomato cage to hold the tree upright while a root ball was being formed.

In 2012 I did the first true styling of the tree with Marco Invernizzi. In that session he suggested that we incline the tree to introduce direction. I had not considered a left to right movement. Right to left just didn’t seem right even though it would be the “correct” decision, given that the deadwood was on the right. To this day, I do not regret my decision. It leans into the wind.

Changing the inclination necessitated a repotting but it was clear that even 3 years in the tomato cage did not result in a stable root ball. He showed me two techniques which I continue to use when repotting this and other trees in my collection.

1 – We introduced a brass screw into the base of the tree and tied it through the drainage hole to hold the tree in position.

2 – We hammered a number of chopsticks horizontally through the root ball to stabilize it enough to tie the tree into the pot. I was amazed at how well that worked!

Over the next 6 years I continued to build the tree’s strength, ramification, flaky bark and branch thickness. I did some wiring here and there, repotted it one more time and pinched/pruned it annually to prevent the loss of the interior foliage. Mostly it just sat on the bench as a shaggy cedar with potential.

I don’t remember exactly when (probably multiple times), a good colleague said to me: “When are you going to finish that damn tree?” He was right, 6 years was a long time and I was procrastinating. Mostly because I was not satisfied with the pot, unwillingness to take on the job due to the magnitude of wiring that was needed weighed against all the other trees that demanded my attention.

Anyway, in 2017, I decided to get off the pot and began the search for a finishing container. In the winter of 2018, I finally found a few candidates which I tried out using my simulation technique. Basically, I took one of my photos of the tree and manipulated the image in a photo editor. I whitened out the background and eliminated the foliage until I got an idea of the final outline. I then pasted in candidate pots to see how they look. I continued to refine the image until I “perfected” my vision. I find this technique really useful to refine the image without touching the tree. I can also test pots out which I do not have. Once I find the right pot, I seek it out and buy it. It does not always work out exactly as I envisioned but it is better (and cheaper) than simply guessing!

Over the winter of 2018 I found the pot I wanted: A round brown Japanese pot with a pronounced rim like the old Chinese antique pots. It had a nice patina and was reasonably priced, unlike an equivalent antique version would be.

So, in the spring of 2019, a colleague and I transplanted the tree into the new pot.

I started the wiring the tree in August 2019. It took me well over 24 hours to complete it. I fertilized it heavily and mossed the surface at the beginning of September. As cedars do, the foliage grew in every direction and the tree lost its shape. So, just prior to the show, I pinched and detail-wired the foliage into the image you saw at the show (another 5 hours or so).

I am really glad that people enjoyed the snake at the show. It was very satisfying after almost 2 decades of work to be recognized for a tree that I created from scratch.

How did TIME factor into the creation of this Bonsai?

Quite frankly, I just needed lots of it, along with a very healthy dose of patience. Sure, I could have rushed this tree but I am glad I didn’t.

It took time:

  • to arrive at a final vision for the tree
  • to build a root ball capable of supporting the tree.
  • to grow the branches, foliage and bark to realize my vision for the tree
  • for the deadwood to mature.
  • to decide upon and find the right pot.
  • for me to learn how to wire!

…. And through the process I grew as a person and an artist.

For you people new to bonsai, I have some advice. Don’t get bogged down with wanting finished trees. The best part of bonsai is the day to day process. Make sure you start off with good material and remember:

Bonsai is a journey, not a destination – Take your time and enjoy the ride!!!!