For hundreds of years, a gnarled California juniper struggled to survive on a wind-swept mountainside near Tehachapi. Snow and rain battered it during the winters, and parched, arid summers stunted its growth.
Much of its twisted trunk had died, but a portion of the tree was still alive when Harry Hirao came along in 1974. Hirao, who has an uncanny knack for finding such natural treasures, carefully removed the tree from its lonely mountainside and took it home, where he began to work his special magic.
Fifteen years later, that tree, which stands only 36 inches high and could be up to 750 years old, is a bonsai masterpiece. It was officially given that designation by Bei Koku Bonsai Meigo Kai, a group of American bonsai masters, in recent ceremonies presided over by Hiromoto Seki, the Japanese consul general in Los Angeles. Named Ten Ryu, meaning heavenly dragon, the tree is one of only 10 so honored in the United States.
Bonsai ( bon means a shallow pan, and sai means plant) is a centuries-old Japanese art whose practitioners may spend years--and sometimes a lifetime--sculpting their living artwork. The trees are planted in shallow pans, and their roots pruned, to restrict growth. Then the branches are clipped and wired so they will grow into the shape envisioned by the bonsai artist. The goal, Hirao says, is to "show beauty, character," and this is done with an artistic eye to balance, naturalness and shape.
Hirao, 71, is a bonsai master whose special skill is finding ancient trees already twisted by nature and then refining them into the classic, triangular bonsai shape.
"He's a very, very talented bonsai man," says John Naka, who taught Hirao the art of bonsai. Naka, a Los Angeles resident who is internationally renowned for his bonsai artistry, says that Hirao is known for his work with California junipers. "That's his outstanding specialty. I started him out, and now he is really way beyond me."
California junipers are Hirao's favorite trees for bonsai because once they are more than 200 years old, they begin to develop dead white wood and dead branches that give them a gnarled, ancient look. They are similar to a shinpaku , a juniper that grows on mountains and cliffs in Japan and has been highly prized by bonsai enthusiasts for centuries.
Hirao's crowded back yard holds treasures that few people would suspect when passing his modest house. Even he doesn't know how many trees he has. He estimates 200. But Larry Ragle, a student and close friend of Hirao, says it may be more like 400.
A longtime Orange County resident, Hirao himself possesses some of the qualities found in his prized trees. His gray hair and weathered face and hands mark the passage of time, and an inner strength shows through along with a mischievous good nature. Spending time with Harry Hirao is relaxing and fun and a bit like enjoying the peaceful beauty of a bonsai tree.
A gardener and landscaper by trade, Hirao moved to the county from his native Colorado in 1959 and has been doing bonsai since 1960. He started bonsai because he missed his frequent Colorado fresh-water fishing expeditions and was looking for a hobby.
His skill as a landscaper made bonsai a natural choice. He enjoys it because it is "relaxing," he says. Today, his hobby occupies most of his time.
And much of that time is spent teaching. He gives several classes a month, some at his home and some at nurseries. He says of his students: "Some people catch on pretty fast. Some people take a long time. . . . You have to have a lot of patience."
Hirao founded the Kofu Bonsai Kai club to promote interest in bonsai, and the club, which has about 200 members, meets once a month to discuss bonsai techniques. (The club will present a showing of members' trees--including a number of Hirao's works--from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.)
"Patience--that's the main thing" required for bonsai because the process is long and painstaking, Hirao says.
Once he finds and digs up a tree, he brings it home and plants it in agricultural pumice. Then he waits--for 7 to 8 months--to see if the tree is going to survive.
When tiny green buds appear, indicating the tree has survived, Hirao must decide how he wants to mold it.
First, he must determine what will be the front of the tree and how he wants it to look, based on the tree's present shape and how it will evolve.
This is followed by trimming away much of the root system, replanting, shaping, pruning and other processes, including wiring branches to direct growth, removing dead bark or even ripping, cutting or grinding away the flesh of a tree.
There may also be an application of lime sulfur to keep fungus from rotting the wood. The lime gives bark a green tint and is later removed with a tiny wire brush, leaving the bark with a bleached, aged appearance.
And this is just the beginning. The trees require almost constant care.
When asked how he manages all of this with so many trees, Hirao laughs and says, "You have to have a good wife."
He is able to maintain his miniature forest because his wife, Alice, helps water his collection and tolerates all his digging expeditions for trees with bonsai possibilities.
Alice Hirao doesn't do bonsai herself, but she enjoys the trees and says that after all this time, she can certainly "tell a good bonsai from a bad one."
"Digging" is perhaps Hirao's favorite activity. "If I've got time, I go every week," he says. "Last week I went out two times."
Sometimes he is accompanied by Ragle, who is director of Forensic Science Services for the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department and has been creating bonsai in his spare time since 1961.
They go to mountains near Tehachapi or Mojave, or sometimes as far as the Las Vegas area, to dig for trees--always on private property with permission from landowners. When a Nevada digging expedition is planned, the two leave home at midnight and arrive at daybreak, digging until 1 p.m. before returning home. Sometimes, several other bonsai enthusiasts go along.
"Harry walks up the mountain and leaves these young kids behind," Ragle says. "Harry's up there digging trees. Then he comes back with these huge trees strapped to his back, like a young kid."
Ragle says Hirao always finds the best trees. Asked why, Hirao laughs and replies with a shrug, "I don't know. I think the tree invites you, huh?"
Ragle thinks that is exactly it. "There's a communication there. I'm serious about this. Harry is attracted to these trees. . . . The trees call to him in some way. I'm not jesting. It's an innate sense that he has."
Hirao is eager to share his knowledge and expertise. For instance, he has shown many others where he finds his prized junipers, many of which probably would have been destroyed by development if he hadn't rescued them. "He could have kept that all to himself up there," Ragle says, "but his nature is to expand the hobby and to get as many people involved as possible."
A special part of his skill as an instructor is his ability to help his students visualize what a tree will eventually look like.
"The secret Harry has is his ability to visualize it, to sense it," Ragle says, "to see the raw material and in his mind see exactly how that tree is going to look at the point it achieves its perfection.
"Harry's an artist," he adds. "He can sit there and in a few minutes draw the tree, how it will look in 4 or 5 or 10 years." The student then has a blueprint to follow for future development of the tree.
Hirao is known not only for his bonsai skills but also for his suiseki , a companion Japanese art form using stones to create an illusion of something in nature, such as animals, mountain ranges or perhaps even people. The stones, mounted on custom-carved wood bases, may be left natural or may be polished and painted. The result is an artwork resembling abstract sculpture.
Hundreds of suiseki stones line Hirao's garage. All sizes, shapes and colors abound, and the stones almost invite visitors to touch their ancient forms, which have been molded slowly by the elements.
Bonsai trees, however, are the focus of most of Hirao's time and effort.
Of special note besides Ten Ryu is a scrub oak that Hirao says may be 1,000 years old. The trunk of the oak is twisted and gnarled to create an opening you can peek through.
Hirao is also especially proud of another California juniper which he has had for 20 years because it attracted the attention of Masao Kimura, a bonsai master from Japan. During a visit a few years ago, Kimura told Hirao that he wished he had the juniper back in Japan because it very much reminded him of his own prize-winning masterpiece.
In spite of his success, Hirao would be the last to say he has reached the pinnacle of his artistry. Bonsai, he says, is an art you are "always learning."
And he will continue to answer the call of the trees.