The beauty in bonsai

Times Staff Writer

AFTERNOON shadows of the bonsai fall upon Frank Goya's hands. It is, he says, a juniper, hearty and young, 15 or maybe 20 years old. He bought it at a nursery. Seated in his backyard on a tiny plastic chair, the kind meant for small children, Goya begins trimming the tree. His movements seem unencumbered by doubt or hesitation. At age 79, he has done this hundreds of times. His eyes have learned to see, and his hands have learned to feel.

"You have to think about how to make the most out of the tree," he says, "the most beautiful shape. Sometimes you have to compromise with the tree. Sometimes the tree has to compromise with you."

It started with one tree more than 40 years ago, and now his yard is lined with rows of bonsai creations of nature that he and his wife, Margaret, have beautified through an art thousands of years old. Next to the garage is a display of saikei, a form of bonsai that incorporates trees with rocks, moss and other elements to create landscapes. The rock is a mountain, sand a river, trees a forest in saikei.

In retirement, this is his passion. He and Margaret tend to the trees daily. Some of them are hundreds of years old -- yielding young leaves from bone-smooth wood. The trees are fed by gnarled roots that grab the soil like ancient fingers and are harvested from harsh mountain and desert conditions. Much of their beauty is that of resilience, survival, of bending with the wind and living despite extreme climactic conditions. Goya, too, has survived, has bent with the wind.

Born in the United States, he was interned during World War II because of his Japanese ancestry. After the war, he served in the military, in Japan and Korea, and when he returned to California, he became a gardener.

"Everybody has to work for a living," he says. "It's the only thing I could do. I had to be a gardener. After the war, there was still a lot of hatred for Japanese. It was hard to find work, so you had to work for yourself."

In the late 1950s, he met a man named John Naka, who was giving a demonstration in bonsai. Naka has written two books on bonsai technique. He is a poet and artist who has influenced many of today's most respected bonsai artists.

He learned from Naka that bonsai has a beginning but no end. It is a continuous process of trimming, shaping, watering, pondering. So, even in retirement, the Goyas remain busy with the eternal cycles of bonsai. They enjoy the fact that it is living art, but as in all of life, there is death. Earlier this year, a couple of trees died. One of them was hundreds of years old.

"We went to China for two weeks, and last summer was cool, which is not good for trees," says Mr. Goya. "Tree should get heat when it's supposed to get heat and last summer was too cool, and the trees weren't happy." After they returned home, the old tree was nearly dead and could not be revived. There is an empty feeling when this happens, says Goya. "It's sickening."

It was a tree he found in a canyon. He walked around and around looking for a suitable tree, and he kept returning to the same one. "It felt like it was meant for me," he says. And, perhaps, it was.

It was a beautiful, stately tree. Goya keeps the dead wood from which leaves once grew. The grain swirls in smooth rhythms, like veins and wrinkles on an old face; and, even now, it is beautiful. As the afternoon sun drops low in the sky, Goya finishes trimming the juniper, which begins to unveil itself the way clouds unveil the nighttime puzzle of moon and stars.

Each tree, he says, must have a front and back. The front offers the most beautiful perspective, he says, the one in which the tree seems to reach toward, not away, from the viewer. After trimming, Goya wraps aluminum wire around the branches, bending them down and away from the main trunk.

There are different styles of bonsai, and this one is called cascade. Branches lean down and away, flowing from the apex of the tree like a cascade of water. When the tree is suitably shaped, Goya taps dirt off the roots, preparing it for a new pot. He trims the roots until the tree fits into a ceramic pot, then replaces some of the dirt, packing it with a chopstick and his fingers.

Goya is a member of the California Bonsai Society. To join a group is a good way to learn, he says. On an informal basis, friends drop by the Goyas' West Los Angeles home almost every morning to discuss bonsai, to work and feel the peace of trees, to visit and drink tea.

He carries the bonsai to a tray and waters it. "Not too bad," he says, still picking at it with his fingers.

The air turns cool by late afternoon. The small juniper casts a long shadow as Goya sweeps up. When spring comes, the wires will be removed, and just as seasons come and go, the tree will change, entering a new phase of an endless art form.


Bonsai for beginners

* Buy trees or shrubs from a knowledgeable dealer, who knows the suitability of various trees for different climates and conditions.

* In choosing a pot, consider color, shape and size to enhance beauty and well-being of the bonsai.

* Study other trees to help you understand which bonsai style your tree commands.

* Attend a workshop or exhibition such as the March 21-24 California Bonsai Society exhibition at the Huntington Library. For info: (858) 486-4805.

* Try the Golden State Bonsai Federation Web site (, which contains information about local clubs and events.

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