Seattle’s thriving bonsai community tells stories through tiny trees
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Seattle’s thriving bonsai community tells stories through tiny trees

MAPLE VALLEY — There are hundreds of trees in Tony Fajarillo’s backyard. Dozens of species. Deciduous, coniferous. Tropical, temperate. Big ones, little ones. Well, mostly little ones.

Fajarillo walks among them, weaving through homemade platforms of cinder blocks and weather-treated boards, and he can’t help but stop. He’s lived with these trees for decades. They have stories, a veritable catalog of his life.

Here’s a juniper salvaged from a neighbor’s compost heap. Here’s an acacia that will need to be repotted — but not yet. “Just developing it, letting it get strong.” Here’s a bougainvillea, brought back in his luggage from a Hawaii vacation years ago. Here’s a viburnum, really more shrub than tree, that Fajarillo saved from a client’s yard when he first started his landscaping business, 20 years ago. “But look at that trunk,” he says, with reverence.

Each tree lovingly planted, potted, trimmed, pruned, wired, sculpted, fertilized, watered, repotted, retrimmed, repruned and watered some more. Almost none are more than a few feet tall.

Fajarillo is one of the preeminent bonsai practitioners in a thriving Seattle-area bonsai community, a hub of locals practicing an art form that seeks to bridge the gaps between the natural world and human creation.

They’ve all been drawn to it in different ways, but have converged on a craft where progress often takes years, if not decades, where a finished piece is never finished, and where trees become living sculptures, ever-evolving through an alchemy of natural growth and artistic intervention toward some unreachable ideal.

“In bonsai we celebrate the defects of the tree,” Fajarillo said, pointing to a streak of dead, bleached wood cut through the twisting trunk of a black pine. “It insinuates a persistence, and resistance.”

At the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, the most famous trees are monuments to resistance.

The Furuzawa Pine, a 3-foot, slanting Japanese black pine, is about 80 years old. It was grown, from seed, by Juzaburo Furuzawa while he was held with other Japanese Americans in an incarceration camp in Utah during World War II. Family members in Japan had sent him seeds by mail, which he grew in a tin can and cared for through three years of imprisonment. It is thought to be the only surviving tree that grew out of an incarceration camp.

The Domoto Maple is probably the largest tree at the museum; at 9 feet tall it’s far larger than traditional bonsai. Its size tells its story. A trident maple imported from Japan, the tree was bought in 1915 by the Domoto family, who ran a nursery in Oakland, Calif. When the family was incarcerated during World War II, they left the tree behind. In four years without care, its roots broke through its wooden planter and entered the soil beneath, causing it to grow much quicker than it would have otherwise.

Bonsai, literally translated, means planted in a container. Placed in a shallow pot, roots trimmed, a tree can grow, age, thrive, without getting bigger. They can grow, without growing larger, for hundreds of years, long outliving their original artist, cared for by generations.

The art form, at least a millennium old, seeks to evoke nature without exactly mimicking it, to summon a feeling — of a towering redwood, a serene pine grove, a flowering azalea.

Bruce Williams, a local bonsai artist, explained as he gave a pruning demonstration at the museum last month. In a forest-style bonsai, one with multiple trees in one pot, you generally want the larger trees in front. Because in nature, when trees are more than mere inches apart, the ones in back appear smaller simply because they’re farther away. He’s trying to capture a feeling, an idea, about the natural world.

“It’s like a painting, I want you to remember something,” Williams said. “When you’re the artist you can do whatever you want. Jackson Pollock threw paint at the canvas. Personally I like a Matisse, I like a story.”

“You can kind of play God for a minute,” Fajarillo said, laughing.

A past president of the Puget Sound Bonsai Association, Fajarillo works on trees for himself and for clients. He also teaches classes and sells trees and tree paraphernalia. He has 100,000 followers on Instagram.

Bonsai has become a hobby, a business, an obsession. It started when he was a child in the Philippines; he loved being outside, in the forest, among trees. One day, leafing through a back issue of Architectural Digest, he happened upon a spread on bonsai.

“I was really fascinated by the idea of, you know, miniaturizing things,” he said.

At age 15, he immigrated to the U.S. with his family. He went to school, became a mechanical engineer, got married, had kids. On the weekends he fiddled with bonsai.

At work, he was a project manager, working on buildings for Microsoft, AT&T, the downtown YMCA. He started bringing his hobby to work, working on trees and teaching classes to co-workers at lunch. He traveled to California to take courses from bonsai artists who’d studied in Japan.

He started doing gardening and landscaping projects on the weekends. After a couple years of that, in 2004, he quit his day job and launched a full-time landscaping business, Redwood Builders.

“It all started because of bonsai,” Fajarillo said.

Fajarillo gets trees from nurseries, from friends, from bonsai sales. He also practices what he calls “urban yamadori.” Yamadori means collected from the mountains. It is the practice of collecting wild trees, perhaps stunted and gnarled from weather and environment, and transforming them into bonsai.

Fajarillo finds trees in his clients’ yards, by the side of the road, destined for the garbage.

“My landscape guys know what I look for,” he said.

He’ll plant them in the ground behind his house, let them get healthy, see what lives and what withers. Eventually, sometimes years later, he’ll trim them, pot them, manipulate them, letting a tree’s natural features point him toward what style it will become. Dead wood can be peeled of bark, carved, accentuated, highlighting a tree’s longevity, its grit.

For Ladd Smith, the process went the other way. Smith was a landscaper first, and “working with plants, seeing the little trees, fell in love with them.”

Smith, also a past president of the Puget Sound Bonsai Association, has about 70 bonsai at his Lake Stevens home. The two most important ingredients for bonsai: time and patience.

“You’re always kind of working them, kind of manipulating them, building the branches, building the structure and then letting time take over,” he said.

The Pacific Northwest, with its temperate climate, “is phenomenal for bonsai,” Smith said, “because we can grow almost anything here.”

Seattle and Portland have become epicenters of the art, he said, with interest growing as more and more artists who’ve studied in Japan pass on skills that have long been shrouded.

“The bonsai community right now is just exploding,” Smith said. “It’s always been kind of an art, you look and go ‘Oh, how’d they do that,’ and it’s like ‘This is my secret.’ We’re trying to open it up so it’s like you could create something like that.”

Lynn Paietta was a longtime gardener when, about 30 years ago, her husband gave her a couple of bonsai books for Christmas.

“I could do this,” she thought. “That’s where I started and I tried to bonsai everything.”

She “killed a few” at first but one of the first she got was a dawn redwood seedling, from a friend. For decades, the dawn redwood, the smallest redwood species, was known only from fossils. It was thought to have been extinct for millions of years before a forester in central China rediscovered the species in the mid-20th century.

It is a seeming contradiction — a deciduous conifer (meaning it both loses its leaves and has cones).

Paietta has had hers for about 30 years; its craggy red trunk is only a couple of inches wide, but reminiscent of the giants that once towered above huge swaths of the Pacific Coast.

“This is one of my very favorite trees,” Paietta says. “And you’re always developing.”

When Paietta gets a new tree (she’s got around 100 now), she lets it get healthy. She puts it in a new pot. She waits. When it’s ready to be worked on, she’ll walk outside at night, with a flashlight and just look. The darkness, the spotlight, the shadows, they give her ideas.

“I don’t know why, the light hits it a certain way or whatever, maybe you can see the bones of the tree, what it’s trying to do,” she said. “What’s the tree telling you?”