Saturday, August 16, 2008

Customers Say the Darndest Things

#15 - Draw a Tree

I had the good fortune to spend five years working for a bonsai master. I wish I could share one tenth of what I learned from him in this short essay. Heck, I would be happy if I could just remember one tenth of what I learned!

I spent most of my time in the nursery, which was generally blissful, the rest in sales which sometimes could be frustrating. What is this obsession with age, for instance? Yes, there are some trees that have lived in captivity, so to speak, for a hundred years and more. This is a fun fact, but let me say this as clearly as I can, you cannot purchase such trees in a commercial nursery for nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents. Yet on more than one occasion I've had people stomp away from the cash register in a huff because I was trying to cheat them with a tree too young to be "genuine bonsai."

Outside of the antique plant market, rules of esthetics count far more in the valuation of bonsai than age. Without continuous and skilled training, a bonsai does not automatically appreciate with each passing year. This is hard to explain to the gal who picks up a starter plant from the cheapest table, points to the custom collection plants priced in the hundreds, and asks - "How long must I wait until this tree is worth as much as those?" I was often confounded by this question, and never came up with a concise reply, at least not a polite one. Then there was the gentleman who insisted on buying three very expensive plants even though I'd tried to talk him into something better matched to his skill level, which I'd judged to be rather low. While I was finalizing the purchase, he told me he'd never had much success with keeping houseplants alive in the past, but that was about to change because these bonsai were "already trained." While the process of reducing and styling the plant material into a shallow pot is referred to as "training," I guess he thought it meant they'd been taught to care for themselves. What really gave me pause was his final comment. He said he didn't have children, but it made him feel good to know these lovely trees would continue on long after he was dead and gone!