February  Recap: Jim Doyle on Bunjin (Literati), Keido and Collecting

By Jane Lancaster

With 48 years of experience to call on, Jim knows bonsai. Living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jim started his nursery in 1973 and looked at bonsai as a hobby. He soon started a bonsai club that now has more than 100 members. He has traveled world-wide to teach bonsai and conducts year-round classes from his Nature’s Way Nursery. He started off with a short video of his nursery, greenhouses, studio and sales area, event area and teaching area. Jim grows the trees he provides for his classes. His grower’s mix is composed of pine bark, coco fiber, coarse sand and pumice.

Jim asked us what “Literati” or “bunjin” (interchangeable terms) means to us. Steve I. thinks of elegance, a feminine look because they are so slender. Val likes the comparison of calligraphy to bunjin trees. Milton C. talked about the origin of the words bonsai (tree growing in a pot) and bunjin (scenery in a pot). Caroline K. sees bunjin as a tree that has survived despite what nature has thrown at it. Jim sees a tree that can survive, yet is graceful like a dancer. He referenced bonsai master Saburo Kato who says that bunjin have a natural style with everything unnecessary eliminated, a tree with natural grace and a feeling of elegance and simplicity. Jim struck a bell and asked if that was literati. The way the sound undulated can parallel the way a bunjin tree trunk moves in and out.

A slide of a lovely Japanese Red Pine illustrated the idea that bunjin trunks should have three movements or more, branches can cross the trunk line, with the tree’s emphasis on its upper third. “Focus on the hole in the doughnut.” Jim has collected trees all over America. He likes to collect pitch pine, an understory tree that stretches up. Before styling, it helps to draw what you want to do with the tree. “A poorly styled live tree is better than a beautiful dead tree.” Be careful and go slow in training your tree. Bonsai is fun!

Literati doesn’t have to be a single tree. You can use 2 or 3 trees, or a forest, and even a cascade. At the Taikan-ten bonsai show in Japan, he saw some lovely trees in all types and shapes of containers. Jim even put a pitch pine in an old filing cabinet drawer. He likes American trees in American pots when possible. One of the training styles that he likes is to take a branch and have it mimic the movement of the trunk. He has been gradually giving away some of his trees to various botanical gardens on his travels. He has about 2000 trees he wants to get down to 800. Longwood Garden is starting up a bonsai garden, and some of his trees are going there. The Chicago Botanical Garden has one of his trees that the garden dedicated to his first wife after she died. He had the honor of having one of his trees chosen to be in the U.S. National Arboretum, American bonsai pavilion. One of his students is the assistant curator, so that might have helped.

To be critical of your trees, use a blank background and shine a flashlight against the tree. The tree’s shadow will show off the tree better. Also try drawing your tree to see its future.

Think of how incense smoke moves up and tapers off when training your tree. Literati doesn’t have to be a coniferous tree. He had a picture of a lovely Japanese sumac bunjin.

Bonsai is the only living art, and it is always changing. There is Discovery with bonsai: see a tree for the first time, collect it, bring it home, and maybe someday it will be a bonsai. Inspiration: see something in a tree, what are its possibilities in 5, 10 or more years? Jim still has his very first tree. It’s dead, but he keeps it for its lessons. A bonsai can out live its corresponding tree in nature. Essence: a bonsai as it has developed with the ideas you put into the tree is a strong element of why we do bonsai. Your tree evolves and becomes more. A tree could have spiritual value. Trees grow up toward the sun; they have a desire to grow and flourish. Continuation: This is a living art, always ongoing. The tree will keep growing, even past our life times. All these ideas make up literati.

Next, Jim showed us some examples to get across some principles of Keido, the art of display. He had a tokonoma set up with a Japanese black pine, a Suzanne Barrymore scroll and a begonia complementary planting. Val asked how long he will keep a display up indoors. Depending on the plants, three days is his limit, longer if using a tropical bonsai. Just suiseki and a complementary plant will stay a week. Mostly when he has a display up for company, he removes the plants at night. He used an Engelmann spruce, the hawk scroll, and an ox figurine for the Chinese Lunar New Year. An appropriate complementary planting would be a fern for the season. He showed his winged euonymus (burning bush) with the begonia complementary plant. He likes euonymus for its yellow flower in spring, green leaves in summer that blush to red in the fall with an orange-red fruit. He uses corks to help separate branches since they can’t be wired. “A good excuse to drink wine.” He next used a tropical tree, a Jabily Bonsai Tree from Madagascar with a warty bark. Even though this tree has inverse taper, since this is natural to the species, it is all right as a bonsai. Jim used a little pig figure as the complement. Once Jim used 4 boxes of cocoa puffs cereal as ground cover on a bonsai in a show. After two days the cocoa puffs started to move. Ants were eating them and taking them away. Steve I. thinks we need a show inspired by humor, and we need to introduce Jim to Tim Kong.

Jim has fond memories of collecting trees in California. He has collected Sierra and Rocky Mountain junipers, and alpine fir that are all doing well in Pennsylvania. Mostly he has given his collected trees away. It was enough pleasure for him just to be in the Sierra Nevada. Once he was able to talk a Stanislaus National Forest ranger into allowing them to collect. He even got permission at an Indian burial ground to collect. He had a relationship with a Modesto man (who invented the smoker’s patch) to collect oaks and junipers on his 35,000 acre property.

He advises the collector to have respect and be patient. “The only person you have to satisfy is yourself.” Using pumice and wood boxes, it sometimes takes five years before he could work on a tree. Wait for signs that they are healthy and happy and style them while they are still in their boxes. Then wait 2 to 3 years before putting them in a pot. They like the good life that they get as bonsai compared to life in the mountains. “They like the steak and eggs.”

After 48 years of bonsai, Jim still considers himself to be a student. There is always something to learn, as in life. Having these trees to work on has been a blessing for him (and us) during this COVID lockdown. Check out his website for class schedules. If you ever have any questions, feel free to call or email him.