Nature – Image

Longing to be in wild nature and designing a bonsai go hand in hand, as we learned in our interview with Zhao Qingquan. In fact, there are seven main nature-images to be found in the history of Western philosophy: Physis, Kosmos, Creatio, Universe, Landscape, Wilderness and Reservoir. These answers to the question of the ontology of nature are described by Prof. Dr. Hub Zwart from the Radboud University of Nijmegen. He tries to gain insight in our present experience of nature, arguing that these seven nature-images can be traced back in the present discussions about nature. An important note is that these beliefs and the moral appreciations of nature that lie in them, are closely connected with our ‘power’ over nature and the impact of our acting on our natural environment. Physis refers to that which comes, exists and goes on its own accord, without human intervention. Early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos, distinguished changing (visible) and permanent (invisible) nature. Only the latter could be conceptualised as the visible nature couldn’t provide reliable knowledge. Nature was met with fear and respect, being all encompassing in a world where humans had little influence on it. The experience was one of respect. From Plato onwards, nature was perceived of as creation. The idea, which dominated Kosmos thinking (idealism), was that nature was standing out in perfect order. Even though it’s ability to change and apparent

inconstancy, the underlying structure was rational, equal and stable. The experience, which corresponds with this belief, was admiration. This admiration didn’t concern

the real, visible nature, but the ideal mathematic structure. For Christians, God is more powerful than the mathematic structure. Nature in terms of Creatio is a creation out of nothing. Instead of mere admiration, the Christian sees a more active role for himself. Being appointed by God, he should maintain and recover nature. The distance between paradise (perfection) and the real, fallen nature is man’s fault. In this belief, the experience is one of supervision. In late Medieval times, the idea of nature as Universe (Rationalism) arises, which is indicated as Faustic thinking by Spengler. The Gothic period, with it’s explicit attempt to transcend nature, is the childhood of the industrial era. Where the Greek kosmos was a world on human scale, the Faustic universe is inhumanly empty and terrifyingly big. Scientists’ attention was drawn to the real, visible nature. They began building optical and mechanic instruments to manipulate nature on the one hand, and to perceive it with more scrutiny on the other. Thus determining the conditions by which a natural phenomenon manifests itself. Universe, here, stands for a neutralised, homogenized nature, in which life-forms loose concrete meaning for the human existence. From a moral point of view, the modern, rational belief explicitly distances itself from nature. Romance is countering modern rationalism. Like Christianity, Romance looks back at an idyllic and harmonious situation between individuals, mind and body,

but also man and nature. Subsequently, crisis occurs and man alienates from himself and his natural environment. When the 18th century forest landscape is demolished for the industrial revolution, the Romanticist discovers its value. The image of the lonesome wanderer in a magnificent natural landscape becomes almost an archetype of romance. For Darwin, another nature-image dawns: Realism. This vision doesn’t see relationships and harmony, but a state of battle. Darwin sees proliferating nature, competition, the struggle for survival, the urge of reproduction and mass mortality. The experience of Wilderness is one of battle. The origin of species introduces this new realistic way of looking, which is also emerging in literature and politics. Marxists saw a continuation of the natural battle between varieties in the class struggle. Liberals saw a justification of their ideas on society as social competition. For centuries, man barely influenced nature, the ecosphere. Nature took care of itself. Hans Jonas tries to thematise the new responsibility that comes with man’s increasing control over and effect on nature. Technology once held the promise of a better, more humane world, but has now become a threat to it. Nature is thought of as a Reservoir that we have to manage in justified way for future generations. The experience of this nature-image is sustainability. Zwart concludes with questioning the attitude with which we should approach nature in the

future. Ethics urges us to critically reflect on the possibilities and limitations of the nature-image that works in our thinking and acting. We believe that bonsai

simultaneously embodies nature and image. With this thought on our minds, we noticed another phenomenon on the streets of Yangzhou. Telephone and electricity boxes we found in parks, planters and roadsides were decorated with printed nature. Close ups of leaves, bamboo, rocks, and complete little trees as well. Mostly, the contrast between box and background was big, but on a few occasions, we encountered an almost perfect match. Besides the visual match, it got us thinking: What kind of nature-image would be at work here?

What makes a bonsai?

The concept of bonsai can be quite confusing. Is it a sort of tree? A philosophy? Or is it a form of art? At the same time, one instantly recognizes a bonsai when seeing it. With an average height of about one meter, these trees are a lot smaller than their natural examples. But still, they look rather old, which gives them a mystical presence. For us, bonsai is the most unnatural nature that exists. This predicament is based on the degree of human intervention. To understand better what makes a tree a bonsai and which need they fulfill, we study the origins and development of this cultural phenomenon. It is impossible to pinpoint the origin of bonsai. There are multiple histories on the moment and place when plants were first potted. Most likely, the technique arose simultaneously at different places in the world. Although the question of origin remains unanswered, many accounts give the same explanation for the question why: plants were potted out of necessity. The connection with a philosophy or art was made only later. The oldest proof of potted plants is found in murals from the tomb of Nakht in Thebe, Egypt, around 1500 BC. The cultivation of plants in pots was developed further in the Persian Empire and China. While plants in Persia were potted in big containers because of drought, in China it became a custom to pot plants in smaller and manageable containers. How the need emerged to use trees instead of

plants and to transform them into miniature nature is not clear. During the Han dynasty (200 BC - 220 AD) bonsai art reached it's peak in China. At that time, it was an art form that occupied only the bourgeoisie and monks. The combination of technique, nature and simplicity made the concept bonsai appealing to Buddhists. With the spread of the Buddhist faith across

Bonsai student during a contest in Pretoria

Asia, bonsai reached Japan in the middle ages. Around 1190 the first trees were exported to Japan, where bonsai was met with a great enthusiasm. It is in Japan that the first style forms and rules to which a bonsai must oblige, were written down. At the same time, the Japanese improved the prevailing techniques with which trees could be transformed and manipulated. Influenced by essentialism, the emphasis in 18th century teachings of bonsai was on form. This idea was based on the conviction that for every entity a series of characteristics and qualities is set. Following this idea, a schematic division was made between 15 ground forms on the basis of their natural habitat. A tree on a mountain slope, for instance, looks very different from one that lives near a lake, at sea level. Also in the 18th century, the Japanese board of sages appointed the first bonsai master: Ibo Ito. He was the first to combine the essence of bonsai with poetry in the form of Haiku. By combining a bonsai, a stone and a haiku, Ito made his first tokonoma's. These were meant to give its viewer a sense of tranquility by removing all noise from the real world. With the rising popularity of the tokonama came new insight in the idea bonsai. Zen Buddhism influenced the growing importance of bringing back bonsai to a natural essence. The art of bonsai yet again, influenced Japanese garden architecture, by emphasizing a pure experience of nature. When Japan opened its borders for the world in 1850,

Bonsai student during a contest in Pretoria

foreign eyes saw Japanese gardens for the first time. Astounded by the perfect harmony these gardens seemed to have with the human mind, Japan was invited to participate in the World Expo in London in 1862. The English, especially, were interested in the insights Japanese could give in perfect gardening.

After participation in three more World Expo's in Vienna and Paris, Japan's stock of bonsai had almost vanished. It was decided that big nurseries should grow bonsai for the sole purpose of exporting. At this time, the worldwide popularity of bonsai was established. Ever since, bonsai hasn't only been spread over the world, but has been developed with influences of other cultures. Our interest lies in trees that are localized; for which a maker took his own environment as subject for his bonsai. This conviction results in the expanding of variety, style and appearances. But the question that arises is: when is a bonsai a bonsai? There's no definite answer, but it depends on a presence of natural beauty. This beauty is determined by the shape of the tree, in combination with the landscape (pot) in which it is planted. Usually, it takes about three years to train a tree to become a bonsai. During these first three years, the final shape of the tree will be determined, but after that its life as a bonsai will begin. An important feature we encounter time after time is age. A good bonsai looks aged. Some are really old. Others are made to look it. Whatever means used, the apparent age of these little trees contributes a lot to the mystery. Not only, because they might remind you of long forgotten myths or a jungle. Maybe even more, because they make you realize what it takes to bring a tree back to its essence.

Assistant in the Slender West Lake garden, Yangzhou

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