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Bonsai Heresy and Beyond - New Interview with Michael Hagedorn



 Michael Hagedorn's Bonsai Heresy is here. It's a remarkable book, full of deep bonsai wisdom that can only be the result of years of practice and study, as well as a willingness to learn from one's mistakes (and the mistakes of others), an abiding suspicion of conventional so called wisdom and a gift for communication. A high functioning sense of humor doesn't hurt either

A few days ago, I reposted our 2009 interview with Michael about his apprenticeship in Japan and more specifically about his book Post-Date, the Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk, which was a refection on the strange wonders of that time. I thought reposting it would be a good prequel to today's second interview, Bonsai Heresy and Beyond. I hope you enjoyed the Post-Dated interview and that you likewise enjoy this one as much as I have


Michael Hagedorn


My questions are in italics and Michael's answers are in plain text

Wayne... Why Heresy?

Michael... The idea for the book started very early in my apprenticeship. I'd already had over 20 years of bonsai 'experience' before becoming an apprentice under Mr. Shinji Suzuki, and shortly after my arrival it quickly became apparent that I'd a lot of unlearning to do. Some of that feeling started when I studied with Boon Manakitivipart, before going to Japan, but the book concept started overseas. And it held true throughout the writing process, my initial intention of starting a conversation about where we were and where we are now in bonsai technique and aesthetics. It essentially asks, how might we do bonsai optimally? It uses a lot of embarrassing stories from my time running a bonsai garden back in the states as fodder. I figure if you're not ready to embarrass yourself it probably isn't going to satisfy the reader much.

The title is a bit of a double entendre. Though I wrote it from the standpoint of what I consider to be heretical to bonsai, many might think what I'm saying is heresy. A third complication to the title is that some of the technical parts involved a lot of research, and in digging though primary scientific research I discovered that I myself had harbored heretical thoughts. Burnable notions.

My father, himself a scientist, always thought I'd be burned at the stake at some point, and he might finally be right. I console myself with the thought that there's still time to escape the country by rowboat.
Continued below...


Which brings me to the image on the cover, a lit match. That was the only illustration that was my idea. Where illustrator Sergio Cuan went with that one was entirely his creation. And all the interior illustrations were his as well. He's a mad genius, and I was delighted to make his acquaintance with this project. One of the illustrations even has a bikini on a bonsai pot, so see if you can spot that one.

What were some of the big surprises in your research?

The research behind the cold hardiness of roots was particularly interesting and complicated, and surprising. As was some of the background behind organic vs. chemical fertilizers (I thought these were some of the funniest chapters---for some reason I found the entrenched positions in our community to be quite amusing). Also, I had to pay for an old paper that explained where we went wrong with vitamin B-1. The history of that was fascinating, going back to the 30's. Finally, in a long search that involved my friend Jonas Dupuich, we discovered through translating an old article written by Saichi Suzuki that black pine decandling was not from the early 1970's, as we had thought, but originated way back in the 1930's.


Decandling a black pine from Michael's Crataegus Bonsai blog


If you had to do it again, what would you change?

I suppose any technical book that relies on science for at least 30 percent of its content is going to be obsolete shortly after publication. As the book was being printed we discovered that the acid we used in our bonsai garden, muriatic (hydrochloric) acid, is not used by horticulturists because of concerns over chlorine burn. And there were a few strange things in the bonsai garden that no lab could identify as pathenogenic, yet we never thought to look at the acid. So, long story short, there's one errata I can claim at the start: try acetic acid to lower your water pH to the ideal of 6.5, not muriatic.

Because Heresy was just released, you haven't gotten much feedback yet. I'm sure there will be ample positive responses, but when it comes to negative feedback (if there is any) which topics do you suspect will be the most incendiary, to borrow your cover metaphor

I'd be curious about the responses to the soil media and fertilizer chapters, both of which take a slightly different tack than I have in my blogging about them. In general though I hope that the chapters will start conversations rather than end them, and so a response of any sort is encouraged. I think that's implicit in the writing. It is after all a continuation of the big conversation that we've all had since entering bonsai, just with Heresy there's maybe a few more data points to engage with.


Michael and his sharpie illustrating something
at one of his Seasonal programs. I forgot to ask Michael
about his Seasonals in this interview. Next time...


How's your next book going?

Rather well. As Heresy was being printed I was in a momentum of writing and just started the next one. I wrote most of Heresy in a tiny home that I'd built in 2017, and had such an interesting experience living in it and discovering how it changed many of my assumptions about what living well is, that a book about that felt right. Much like Heresy, while the majority of it is from my experience there are also large chunks that are research based. So I'm learning a lot about architecture. The book itself will resemble Post-Dated, in that it's journal based, with some after thinking. And it's rather humorous.

Following that I do have another couple ideas for future bonsai books, and am making notes for those as well.

Ah... future bonsai books. Now you really have my attention. I understand it may be too soon to say much, if anything, but just in case, anything you'd like whet our appetites with?

The book I just mentioned has a working title 'Life in a Teacup: Tiny Home Epiphanies from Design to Daily Living', which obviously isn't about bonsai but about what it's like to live in a tiny home. Then there are two bonsai books I've been sketching out. The first bonsai book's working title is 'Yanking on Needles: The Bonsai Tantrums of the Unsettled West'. This one is going to playfully explore some of the hot-button topics in our diverse community. The second bonsai book is a comedy, and doesn't even have a working title yet. It's a set of stories with dialogue, and follows the bonsai capers of our ridiculous and not very bright heroes Shin and Jari as they generally make a mess of things. A Laurel and Hardy duo.


"Life in a Teacup" Michael's little house in his backyard (his apprentices live in the big house)."Kanso means ‘elemental and natural, free of non-essentials’---a good name for this tiny home which I built in 2017. And the flowers are nice."

Staying on topic with books, though not necessary books about bonsai, what are you reading now?

Many non-fiction books. I'm writing non-fiction so it helps to read good non-fiction. Two books that are helping frame my tiny home book are 'Home: a Short History of an Idea' and 'the Architecture of Happiness' (which is about architecture). For fun I'm reading two books about birds, 'the Wonder of Birds' and 'the Genius of Birds', and a hilarious but disgusted essay from 1907 disparaging the working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, 'The Right to be Lazy, and Other Studies'. Drop-off-to-sleep-reading is the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. good to get into another world just at bedtime.

You had a tongue in cheek post awhile back where you referred to your apprentices as pirates. I know it's not all unicorns, but I get the sense you like having apprentices. Still what are the challenges and the rewards for you

Apprentices are great! And it's a win-win. It grows the community with new highly skilled bonsai professionals, and allows me a slightly more relaxed work day where I can investigate other projects. Bonsai Heresy is a product of having apprentices. Without them that educational book would have taken three times as long to write. So in a way having apprentices helps the whole community, not just the professionals.


The Dark Paths of Apprentices from Michael's Crataegus Bonsai blog

 I'll open this question by reminding our readers that you were an once apprentice yourself... I'm not sure if this question makes any sense but it keeps coming to me...After fourteen years since your apprenticeship, how far do you feel you've moved from the Japanese ways of bonsai?

I use what I learned from tradition to make bonsai that are sometimes in line with traditional ideals, but often they're in a more personal style. it's probably best to see this visually than talking abstractly about it, so I'll suggest my portfolio page (link at the bottom of the post)
On this webpage the images are linked to photographic stories about how each bonsai was created. I do a lot of creating in the studio, from raw stock. Some of it is collected, some of it is grown. The old collected trees get turned into respectable looking bonsai at 1/10th the speed of a deciduous plant, so there are more conifers featured there on the portfolio page than deciduous, but if you visited the garden about half my trees in development are deciduous.


Michael with Boon, his first bonsai teacher, from an earlier, more innocent age

Speaking of you garden... Not only do you live in the Willamette Valley, a near perfect place a for growing bonsai, but you're lodged between two mountain ranges with others not that far away, All with excellent potential yamadori just waiting for you. Do realize how lucky you are?

Actually we don't have much in terms of collecting that resembles what we're used to in twisty old trees; the area is too mild for that. We have the height in the mountain ranges, but too much rain and not quite the right sort of rock for good pockets. There's nothing like the Rockies. But, there's some interesting 'alternative' trees out there like mountain hemlock, yellow cedar, and vine maple. The yellow cedar often has some interesting shari, but generally speaking the Northwest offers shari-less collecting.


A yamadori Rocky mountain juniper from Michael's Portfolio on has Crataegus Bonsai site

How's the Bonsai Village going?

Being recreated! Andrew Robson is now the Director of the Portland Bonsai Village. He had an exciting World Bonsai Day event set up and co-sponsored with the Portland Japanese Garden this May that was sadly kneecapped by Covid-19. But Andrew has other events planned though so stay tuned there.

Quoting Michael... 
"Sadly, I discovered a few things about the new Portland Bonsai Village
passport on my trip to Europe. For one, it won’t get you
into the Habsburg castle in Vienna…"


If you could grow only one species for bonsai what would it be?

Probably mountain hemlock. Really easy plant to grow, and if I am forced to grow only one thing I'm assuming life is challenging and I've only time to grow easy things...


Michael's prize winning Mountain hemlock planting 



 Michael's books (to date)
Post-Dated and Bonsai Heresy are available at Stone Lantern

Here's your link to Michael's Crataegus Bonsai website,
which includes among other things, his blog and his Portfolio 

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