The Museum in the Forest

In the Arboretum, Tiny Bonsai Loom Large

Photo by Stephen Voss.

Even if our Chinatown has few Chinese-Americans left in it, D.C. does have some impressive Asian institutions. These include several of my favorite places in DC— Toki Underground, Panda Gourmet, the Freer | Sackler.

On Friday, I had the chance to check out another of these institutions, at a moment of renewal: The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum. Filled with gifts from the Japanese fine art, it’s the perfect place in the city to press pause.

Not everyone knows where the arboretum is; not everyone knows it exists. Nestled above Carver-Langston, east of Bladensburg and south of New York Ave NE, it’s sort of unclaimed by any single neighborhood.

But it’s one of the city’s treasures, a much-loved respite against the bustle of the city, where time is measured in tree rings and rainy seasons rather than 24-hour news cycles and disposable scandals. Its forlorn columns bespeak something of the ancient values of democracy our government once aspired to; its dawn redwoods hearken beyond, to something timeless, wild, and essential. When I miss home — both the Mediterranean part of California where palm, redwood, maple, oak and olive trees grew alongside one another, and the piney foothills of Appalachia where family hail from — I visit the Arboretum, for placidity, comfort and contemplation.

Nestled within the Arboretum is, like a matryoshka doll of havens, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum — the museum in the forest.

(Aside, because I didn’t know either: Penjing is a related Chinese art with its own aesthetics that involves setting rocks, trees and the like into containers.)

It takes a certain kind of patience to appreciate, much less to cultivate, bonsai and penjing. But the bonsai itself provoke this patience, if the verb can be used with that object; they are the anti-GIF, daring you to take a second look, finding the imperfections among.

American and Japanese officials get ready to cut the ribbon on new garden and pavilion.

For the rededication, the Museum invited bonsai fans and supporters, as well as Japanese emissaries and artists, to a reception that culminated in a ribbon-cutting for the new Japanese Pavilion. Beyond the ribbon is a stylized Japanese garden with a walking path that takes you to both open-air and greenhouse areas.

I didn’t realize until I visited here that bonsai are made from such a wide variety of trees, from Californian juniper to Chinese quince to live oak.

Bonsai also, I learned at the reception, attract a diverse set of followers — from the retirees you might expect to younger partisans of the art, and even one middle-aged man in a gold suit who’d somehow summoned a martini glass to an event where only wine and beer were served. (The event and the renovation were supported by the National Bonsai Foundation.)

Photo by Stephen Voss

Bonsai are both the anti-drug and themselves intoxicating. It was so much fun to watch enthusiasts swoon over the specimens in the Museum. “This tree has been in training since before I was alive,” said a man twice my age.

“Their flourishes,” said another, referring to the small bushes that fill out the settings of some of the bonsai, “are better than any main event I can offer.” He was filled with awe and respect, not envy or anger.

There’s a concept called wabi-sabi in Japanese art. I don’t know anything formal about wabi-sabi that I didn’t learn in Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, so let’s say I know nothing — but, at a gloss, it’s an artistic embrace of imperfection, simplicity, chaos, and transience that surpasses the aesthetic and into the spiritual.

Something about bonsai transmit this without words. These dwarf trees whose lifespans dwarf our own. These cultivars which lurch, veer, and dance into shapes no man ever designed without recourse to the subconscious.

Amidst hammy ceremonies and necessary handshakes, the words that lasted with me longest weren’t spoken into a microphone. In a handout to the attendees, the bonsai master who crafted and gifted the Pavilion’s newest trees wrote of a time “I fell into such a despaire that I truly wanted to die.” Continuing:

It was bonsai that saved me. Left unsold, the bonsai in my shop suffered [during my depression]. The bonsai in the corner of my garden at home were all on the brink of dying, save for a single branch that desperately pushed out a new sprout. I wondered to myself, “Whatever shape it might eventually take, this tree is clinging to life. What the hell was I thinking?”
Actually a different dude in a gold jacket, not the one with the martini glass.