Shaping a life with bonsai
Ryan Neil is the first to admit it. Life would have been a lot easier for him if he had chosen to pursue a career in something like business.”Sometimes I feel like, ‘Why couldn’t I have picked something normal?'” he said.Far from it, he opted to study something that has forced him to live a lonely life as a stranger in a faraway land, unsure if his efforts there will result in a career at all.But as a rare American seeking to learn the art of bonsai in Japan, Neil couldn’t be more sure of what he wants to do in life.The Glenwood Springs native spoke of his apprenticeship during a trip home last week to visit his parents, John and Linda Neil.Whatever made this 24-year-old American pursue bonsai? The answer has its origins in a movie, and Neil’s experiences provide numerous parallels to that movie.As a child, Neil saw the film “The Karate Kid,” and was fascinated when he saw co-star Pat Morita working on a bonsai tree. But while Neil always had enjoyed plants as a kid hiking and fishing in the mountains, he considered bonsai some mysterious thing out of the reach of someone like himself.That changed by the time he was in high school. During Glenwood Springs’ annual Strawberry Days event, he saw a booth selling bonsai trees to the masses.”Then I thought if anybody can do it, I might as well give it a try,” he said.He even decided to pursue bonsai as a profession, and began by studying horticulture in college in California.
Needless to say, Neil’s dream raised eyebrows among friends, from high school on.”People thought it was kind of weird, even in college,” he said.Neil admits that even he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to make a living in bonsai. But he figured he would never know if he didn’t try.His hope is to be able to teach bonsai back in the United States, grow trees and sell bonsai supplies. Just like the underdog character in “Karate Kid,” Neil has faced long odds and no lack of difficulties in chasing his dream.Through a contact in California, he was introduced to Masahiko Kimura, who Neil said is the best bonsai teacher in the world. Neil made up his mind that he wanted to complete a six-year apprenticeship under Kimura in Japan.Neil said he wrote a letter a month for two years before Kimura even responded. Finally Kimura wrote that Neil was welcome to try to study with him, but he doubted an American could complete the apprenticeship.Fresh out of college and having studied Japanese for just a year, Neil headed for Japan, determined to prove Kimura wrong.It was welcome to bonsai boot camp. Neil works from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, kneeling treeside for hours at a time. Kimura gives him only one day off a month.”He’s very strict with us, he’s very hard on us, but that’s how he teaches us, that’s how he pushes us to be better,” Neil said.He said Kimura was the toughest on Neil the first six months, to see if he would quit.
“Once I got past that sort of washout phase in the beginning I think I earned his respect,” he said.Neil is almost through his second year of being pruned and shaped by Kimura, but it’s still not easy. Kimura’s apprentices aren’t just his students, but in some respects his servants. If he gets up and sits back down they must straighten his shoes, if he drops a tool they must pick it up.”If he carries a tree, I have failed. I didn’t carry the tree, I should have been there,” Neil said.As in the student-master relationship in the “Karate Kid,” Neil does household chores for Kimura like cleaning his car and painting his house.Neil said older apprentices told him he would learn a lot more about life than about bonsai. He has learned about himself, and about being mentally tough and enduring.Being a foreigner just made it harder on Neil. Japanese often don’t say what they feel, unlike Americans, who are more expressive, he said.”If I have a problem I have to keep that to myself. If something is wrong I have to keep that to myself. That’s been difficult to learn, but it’s been valuable at the same time.”The language barrier didn’t help, and the lack of free time has kept Neil from making friends. And at first Kimura’s customers would say they didn’t want Neil working on their plants because foreigners don’t do bonsai.But as Kimura grew to believe in Neil, he showed customers trees Neil had worked on and won over their trust of Neil.Now, Neil is becoming the subject of photo shoots for Japanese magazines. He is as much a novelty as an American sumo wrestler might be.”It is kind of a rarity so in a way it’s been kind of neat,” he said.
Neil has learned to use tweezers and special scissors to delicately cut trees, and wiring to help shape them. Proper watering is a key part of bonsai, Neil said. And it’s important to get it right, as the trees sometimes can be many hundreds of years old, with documented records.”To work with that kind of material and be a part of this tree that has this written history 500 years long, and you get to be somebody that adds to that history of working on that tree, that’s a very big honor to me,” he said.It’s also humbling, he said.”The tree in the bigger picture is probably more important than you.”I think it’s beautiful,” he said of bonsai. “There’s a relationship with nature there. As kind of corny as it may sound, trees are definitely a living thing. You kind of work together with the tree to expose its better qualities and make it more beautiful.”Neil’s mom, Linda, is amazed that the son who once came home from Strawberry Days with a $20 tree now works on ones costing $1 million. She is impressed by bonsai as a traditional art form, and proud of her son’s determination to pursue it.”He’s one of those kids that when he sets a goal he really goes for it,” she said.Neil said there were times earlier in his apprenticeship where he wondered whether he would make it. But he knew the answer.”There was no way I could quit. It was what I always dreamed of doing, and I was living the dream.”
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