Body Building Through Amazing Grace


The first time it happened, I knew it would be a recurring theme throughout my life and resigned myself to trudge on. It happened on a Saturday in the 1950s at the New Mission Theater in San Francisco between a double feature — after watching “The Blob,” and before a screening of “Man of the West,” staring 56-year-old Gary Cooper.

The house lights came up and they brought a small hand-cranked drum onstage. They tumbled the contraption, the movie-house manager reached in and pulled out ticket stubs, announced winning numbers. Delighted children ran to the front to pick up their prizes. I studied my losing ticket, prayed a little, knowing enough at nine to rely on Amazing Grace and not too expect much.

My brother Richard won a red and yellow dump truck, huge and gaudy, the back end filled with candy. He put it on his lap, shared Milk Duds with me when the lights went down. I settled into the realization that good luck is hard to come by and prepared to be a perpetual loser, an understudy for the role of enthuser — the one who congratulates others for the good things that befall them and doesn’t betray their own disappointment.

Later iIMG_4498n life I discovered a four-leaf clover pressed in our family Bible, in the Book of Esther: Cha. 2, v. 15, and knew my Great Aunt Eva had found this Irish good-luck charm, that all benefits accrue to the finder, not to afterthoughts like me. They say the odds of finding a four-leaf clover yourself are like 10,000 to 1. I’d already given up playing long shots and closed the book.

When the phone rang yesterday, the woman called me Katherine, my given name, but a name mostly used by telemarketers, dentists and my mother, who died nearly 30 years ago. I braced for the sales pitch, was still clinched when she said, in a flowery voice, “Congratulations!” Faster than a squirrel after a nut, Yeah Right! ran through my head.

It was sitting on the tip of my tongue when she told me I’d been selected in a lottery at the sports club where I practice yoga to participate in weight lifting classes–for free. While not a toy dump truck filled with candy or a four-leaf clover, I’m delighted nonetheless with my unexpected winnings. Except I’m not sure actually what this stroke of luck means.

I’ve always sneaked past the weight room at the fitness club, hustling to get my favorite spot on the floor in the yoga studio. Stud muffins performing feats has never been a particular interest—six packs, eight packs, buns and guns—who gives a rip? Right?

But, truth is, some of my body things have gotten a bit mushy. OK, a lot mushy, like instant oatmeal with tiny apple bits, disgustingly gelatinous in hot water and inedible, if not for the sugar and cinnamon.

You’re not destined to grow softer and weaker just because you’re getting older, experts say in that “Now, Honey” voice. Most muscle loss comes from not using muscles enough as we age, they say, rather than aging itself. Using muscles regularly helps them stay strong and firm, regardless of age, adding it’s important for older adults to strength train. I’m sure there’s truth in this, but wish it didn’t sound so much like a laundry soap commercial.


An article on the AARP website says studies show men in their 60s and 70s who strength train regularly have muscles that look and perform as well as “inactive men in their 20s and 30s.” An image of beer guzzling, pizza scarfing video game players comes to mind.

The article is supposed to be about the benefits of weight training for “Boomers,” which I thought was a unisex thing. Instead, it focuses on benefits for men.

Turning back to the Internet for further enlightenment, I find a lot of old-lady weight training photos showing white-haired women sitting in chairs at rest homes waving hand weights or worse, grannies with cigarettes dangling from their mouths hoisting a weight in one hand, throwing a middle finger in the other, with a caption something like: “You want a piece of this?”

There are also photos of contemporary young women pumping iron that feature booming bosoms and bulging buttocks and women practicing Olympic-style clean and jerks. More than a few shots feature ladies working out in high heels with adoring men spotting them. Even movie stars have tried their hands at dead weight.

I’m beginning to wonder if I had a winning lottery ticket to a geek show, but I’m not going to act like a dumbbell. No Sir. For the foreseeable future, you’ll find me in the weight room on Thursday evenings with the other winning women. We’ll work up a sweat and count our lucky charms. After all, wise men throughout the ages have noted women hold up half the world. I just want to continue carrying my share of the load with a little bit of grace.



10 Steps for Stripping Down in the Garden

14577804547_17d042b819_bThis is the briefest guide to simple living, but it’s a place to start if clearing the clutter, reducing the load and building community are what you’re after. Perhaps the most personal way to make it simple is join the fun on World Naked Gardening Day – yes it’s a real thing. (Maybe it’s just me, but barefoot spade work doesn’t sound too appealing, likewise running a rototiller or trimming the blackberry canes, but hey, whatever puts zip in your skip.)

Here’s the truth: For more than a decade, people around the world have been dropping their socks and everything else on the first Saturday in May – in 2017 it’s May 6 – and heading to the garden in their birthday suits to plant, weed, prune and frolic in the buff.

WNGD observers say there’s plenty of friction, dissatisfaction and fear to go around these days. Resisting these forces takes courage and tenacity, the naked gardeners say. And, they claim one way to find strength for the long haul is to strip away the things that weigh us down and live lighter and brighter – unclothed – as nature intended.


by Michael Aitken

In Winter, when the trees are bare,
We mortals don our winter wear.
In Spring, when trees begin to dress,
We mortals then start wearing less,
Until, for some, with Summer’s heat
The role reversal is complete.

Whether or not naked bathing is appealing, here are 10 simple steps you, your family, friends and neighbors can take to use less energy, become more mindful about choices, and build stronger bonds within your family and your community, while sprucing up the garden.

  1. Build community. Relationships are the foundation of resilient communities. Get to know your neighbors by organizing a potluck, sharing something, or simply stopping by to say hello.
  1. Grow some of your own food. You can start simple by growing in containers on a patio or windowsill or renting a plot in a community garden. Or, if you have access to land, start a garden or go all out with a permablitz, a way of bringing the community together and turning a suburban house into an urban homestead… in a single day.
  1. Share and repair. Two simple and rewarding ways to reduce consumption and save money are by sharing things you don’t use all the time (vacuum, car, tools, etc.) with friends and neighbors, and by repairing items when they break instead of buying new ones. The New Dream Community Action Kit is all about sharing: everything from starting a tool library to organizing a solar cooperative, from holding a clothing swap to launching a time bank.
  1. Minimize waste by buying fresh and bulk foods to avoid extra packaging, and start composting organic waste.
  1. Help keep wealth in your community. Buy local when possible, and consider switching to a local bank or credit union.
  1. Reduce home energy use and save money by hanging a clothesline or conducting a home energy efficiency audit.
  1. Conserve water. Fix the leaks, take shorter showers, sheet mulch your lawn, and install a greywater or rainwater harvesting system.
  1. Green your ride. Walk or get a bicycle, learn how to use public transport, or redesign your routine to minimize your drive.
  1. Build inner resilience. Cultivate meaningful relationships, practice mindfulness or spend time in nature. The Japanese call it “forest bathing,” a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
  1. Join a Transition town or community resilience initiative near you, and start transforming your community!


Here is the “Simple Living Manifesto”

Information about World Naked Gardening Day is online at:


Wise Up, Skip the Crap

Six months into retirement, contemplating the stretch of 2017 from the fresh vantage point of January – rainy and cold – it looks like carnage, a quiet village overrun by marauders, chairs toppled, sink filled with dirty dishes, windows stripped of coverings, a mound of wet plastic and cardboard in the courtyard, switch plates missing, electric outlets busted. A mess of biblical proportions.


My post-holiday garage storage space

A friend suggested writing a story about my whole-house update, my remodeling project that has gone on for months, finally overtaking me a few days before Christmas. The idea was to share the before and after images, the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly.

On Dec. 20 at 7:38 p.m., I signed off on installation of the new carpeting. At that point I was just the tiniest bit over budget and a mere two weeks behind schedule. But I had managed to make six fruit cakes and buy and wrap Christmas gifts, if only I could find the boxes they were in in the garage. What I’d hoped would be a triumphant transformation has turned into – well, a lot more work.

My son and his wife arrived from Los Angeles on Dec. 23 to spend two weeks in a house freshly painted and carpeted, yes, but totally empty. Everything I still own was packed tightly into the garage. I got rid of about half the crap I’ve been hoarding for years, but even so it was a tight fit. It was then I realized putting my house back together was going to take a lot more time than I’d expected. I’ve spun a thick cocoon and it’s going to take a bit longer to kick my way out.

So I tried playing Grinch, wanting time to think about how I would put my house back together, winced at the sound of Christmas carols, squinted with disapproval at the neighbor’s festive outdoor lights, refused to buy a Christmas tree.

My sons, who are those annoying Whos from down in Whosville, said, “No! Christmas is coming no matter what,” and proceeded to drag tables, chairs and boxes, what is left of my junk, back into the house. They bought a table-top tree with oscillating fiber optic lights. I have never in my life owned a fake Christmas tree. My friends Carol and Tony also arrived with a couple of energetic teenagers to help with the household liberation. And then we built a fire, broke out the champagne and partied—for days.


My Grinchy Christmas Tree

Writer Anne Lamott in a Dec. 30 Facebook essay referred to the yearly resolution to lose weight or make other big life changes and pointed out: “Horribly, but as usual, only kindness and grace–spiritual WD-40–can save us.” Here Lamott is referring to saving us from ourselves. In my case, it’s the quest for perfection, order, absolute control and other delusions I really need to let go of. “Grace” is my word for contemplation in 2017. Grace is the grease I’m looking for.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) comes into play in my makeover project. I’m about 80 percent done with my project and the last 20 percent will be the hardest part. I tried to finish my project before the holidays so I could sit around in my black velvet slacks and an ugly Christmas sweater – everything in place for a graceful and stylish celebration with friends and family—and accept compliments about what I was able to accomplish in the home improvement department. After all, I am on a first-name basis with half the staff at the Truxel Road Home Depot. But no.

img_4133My plan to wow folks with my ability as a general contractor and interior design expert, not to mention my multi-tasking skills, quickly turned to shit. As you can see, my hubris got ahead of me. The result was a letting go of my constipated expectations and instead enjoy two weeks of fun and a heart swollen with love.


My favorite Christmas gift, a butterfly trinket box made by Fortuna CA artisan Lawrence Harvey. From my beloved sister-in-law Melanie. The silver coffee and tea service added a grace note in an otherwise absurd situation.

So, I offer you a sincere Happy New Year! I take comfort in the words of Thomas Merton from his essay Hagie Sophia (Ramparts magazine, March 1963) “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister. Wisdom.”

In my case and at my age, it’s hard won wisdom. I wish you Grace and Peace in 2017.


Son Mark and daughter-in-law Janie, who celebrated their first wedding anniversary on Christmas Day.

Dahlias: Picture Perfect

I got my first “grown-up” camera in 1980 after graduating from journalism school at San Francisco State. Back in the day, cub reporters needed a camera and a car to get a foot in the door at a newspaper. I had a yellow Volkswagen bug, but no camera. To make matters worse, my training focused on writing and I’d never held anything more complicated in my hand than an old Instamatic.

To remedy this gap in my professional training, I took my brand new Konica T4 to Golden Gate Park to learn my way around the equipment and take practice shots, using Kodachrome film in 24-shot rolls. At the time digital was still connected to fingers and complicated math problems, not cameras. Not like today’s sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras.


San Francisco dahlia expert Erik Juul in the dell outside the Conservatory of Flowers.       Photo by Gerda Juul

My first stop on my test run was the Dahlia Dell at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. My beginner’s shots weren’t always in focus or properly lighted, but the experience of looking deeply into the color and bloom structure of dahlias created a love for this wildly beautiful flower and I was hooked.

Native to Mexico and Central America, the flower has been cultivated and bred for ever more showy flowers for more than 200 years in Europe and North America. The flowering ornamental is named for Andreas Dahl, Swedish scientist and environmentalist. They generally flower from May to November, with the heaviest bloom in late summer into fall.


While history and science are important, I was reminded of my emotional attachment to dahlias the other day when my friend Kasey Kronquist, head of the California Cut Flower Commission, posted some photos from an amazing Field to Vase Dinner at the farm of world-renowned celebrity event designer—turned American flower farmer—David Beahm.


David Beahm

He owns Thistle Dew Farm in Quakertown Pennsylvania and a major events company in New York City. Think parties for the Oscars, Victoria’s Secret Beauty, Christian Dior, McDonald’s and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. He does weddings and social events all over the world. As to the price tag for these parties, one can only guess.

Beyond high society event planners turned farmers, these dinners are held at premier flower farms around the country. They feature gourmet food, fine wines and elegant settings. Of course, there are flowers.  I mean lots and lots of flowers at the peak of perfection.

The next event will be Oct. 16 at Cornerstone in Sonoma California. Guests will be among the first to experience the new home of Sunset Magazine’s test garden at Cornerstone. Guests will be greeted by Sunset garden editor Johanna Silver, who will host the sneak peak of the test gardens. Usually a sellout, tickets can be purchased online at

Field to Vase dinners are sponsored by the American Grown Flower organization to promote the nation’s floral industry. The events are more romantic than chick flicks, more fun than pulling weeds and more delicious than a mere 5-stars.

And then, when you toss in specialty flower farmers like Michael Genovese, owner of Summer Dreams Farm Oxford, Michigan, well, I’m done here.  I’m just telling you, when I started out with a camera and some vague career dreams, there weren’t any farmers like Michael hanging out at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.


Michael Genovese, owner of Summer Dreams Farm, Oxford, Michigan


Michael Genovese and friend on the farm.

But, if you’re ready to be seduced, as I was — by the beauty of dahlias — I mean, here’s a list of display gardens throughout the U.S. and Canada:

If you want to grow dahlias, here’s a link to the American Dahlia Society: They have chapters around the U.S. where experts and enthusiasts gather to teach and trade the latest dahlia hybrids.

And, it’s not too late to catch the last of the dahlia bloom in Golden Gate Park, but hurry. Bye the way, dahlias have been the City of San Francisco’s official flower since 1926. More info on visiting the park is online at

Can’t get enough dahlias? Here’s a link to free dahlia flower computer wallpaper:


How to Retire Kinda-Sorta Happy

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The curtain is about to drop on my 40-year journalism career and I’m practicing my curtsey before the standing ovation. Ever the nervous understudy, I’m searching for tips to make a graceful exit. A week away from my last day on the job, I need advice on how to cope with temporary insanity—while recovering from a broken right arm so I can get through the finale with aplomb.

Buried under a litter of books by my bedside, I fish out “How to Retire Happy” and leaf through it—again. There are sections on money, healthcare and real estate matters, practical advice. But, the author asks pre-retirees to consider this question first: “Am I really ready to retire?” There’s not a word about staying calm through the last day or the wisdom of continuously whispering the “Serenity Prayer” to stay balanced, which seems like a gyp since it’s a 12-Step book.

But, honestly, I haven’t seen a self-help guide yet that talks about how to respond to my adult son greeting me at the front door yesterday, a week before I quit my job, with news he has brought home a ginormous Doberman pinscher. The owner no longer wants it because of barking and biting issues. My son says the dog‘s a perfect companion for a confused pre-retiree like me, one prone to tears and toppling over at 3 a.m. and breaking her arm. I ask about the pony saddle.

With no help from the experts, no cunning strategies for handling the bump and grind of saying goodbye to one life, one identity, and hello to a new self, I’ll just put my boxes of dusty office ephemera, and the orchid from Christine, in my car, and pull out of the company garage one last time. The particulars of my last days on the job have me feeling like a frog stuffed in a blender after I hit “frappe.” In other words, I’m feeling fractured and churned. Let’s just say grace and peace have never been on my smoothie menu.

On Monday, my last Monday after 17 years as a staff writer, I will turn in 4 stories, work on a magazine feature, write a procedural memo on how to produce the magazine’s book section and respond to a dump load of emails. I told my boss I wanted to work up to the end, not shuffle papers or get the bum’s rush out the door. He took me at my word, unfortunately.

A wise friend who has shepherded many a creative type down the path to their next gig responds to my inquiry: “How do people actually retire. I mean gracefully walk out the door?” Her answer? Depends. Some keep the decision to themselves and just slip away. Some are gleeful and want to celebrate, others are sad to leave friends and work they love and can barely conceal their depression. I translate this to mean—no party, big party or sprinkle sesame seeds in my mouth and set me on fire. In my ambivalence, I haven’t decided what feels right.

I’ve been asked menu preferences for my goodbye luncheon, settling on a healthy combo of enchiladas and shrimp burritos, hold the salad. I’ve heard shrimp has fewer calories than steak so I’m good on that score. And, I’m told there will be cakes, one delectably made of sponge cake, lemon curd filing and frosted with whipped cream. The other cakes are currently of unknown delight, but I will be there to sample and smile, praying I don’t bust a seam in my worn-work slacks.

Cards and congratulatory emails, invitations to dinner and ice cream socials are pouring in. I’m being asked endlessly about what I’ll be doing in retirement, besides writing. Those who know me even slightly know I’m a writer, an occupation as fixed in me as gender. I explain about my novel’s narrative that won’t budge, my languishing short story collection and the poems that need spit polish. Oh, did I mention the essay collection?

Back at home this week, the phone has been ringing. Like sharks circling blood in the water off Stinson Beach, home improvement predators smell the meat and have been calling about free or nearly free ways to fix the roof, fences, outdoor sprinkler system, air conditioning, attic insulation and clogged drains. I ask about a severe yard clean up and, with smiling telephone voice, they tell me they just happen to have a discount offer on that, too.

A writer friend helpfully recalls meeting the author and anthropologist Carlos Castañeda years ago. She said he gave her several pieces of advice, including if she wanted her life to keep opening to wider horizons, she had to approach the world with love, instead of fear. Castañeda has also been credited with this advice: Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, and you will know if it’s true, then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question, he said.

I’m reading literary journalist Janet Malcolm’s essay collection, “Forty-one False Starts,” while contemplating my last days before retirement. I’m pretty sure there’s some pointy-headed guy out there in a tweed jacket with elbow patches and dandruff on the shoulders who would recommend I approach the final day with deep breathing, hydration and Metamucil to get through the worst of it. Makes sense, but lacks a certain Zen glow.

In Malcolm’s title essay “Forty-one False Starts,” she writes in crots—long and short bursts—to create a mosaic of her interview subject—American painter, printmaker and stage designer David Salle. At the end of the article, Salle remarks, “Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?”

I can’t speak for Malcolm, but my answer is: Yes. My new life is supposed to begin very, very soon. It’s crunch time, the shift from old to new is on. I’m looking forward to creating a happy retirement in years to come. I just don’t know exactly how at the moment. And, to answer the first question: Yes. I’m ready to retire, to open myself with love, instead of fear, and follow my heart path, to let my real life truly begin. I don’t see any other way to survive.

I was told there would be cake. No one mentioned gifts and flowers, wine and love. If retirement is anything like the launch party, it’s going to be fun! Here are some snaps from the party.

Photos by Dave Kranz, Manager Communications/News, California Farm Bureau Federation.

Good Country Music

Cooler loaded, picnic supplies and scruffy comforter in the back, we lock the front door and check the oil in the Mountaineer—a quart low and too early to do anything about it. The sun has barely roused its sleepy head.

We’re off to Three-Mile Slough in the south delta, fishing poles clickety-clacking all the way from Sacramento, roads mysteriously empty two days before the 4th of July, two days before the sparklers and bottle rockets and Roman candles explode, two days before children break their arms or cut their toes, burn themselves on the barbecue. Two days before life changes fully into summer and the new order of things begins.

Today, one of two free fishing days in California, we cross Three-Mile Bridge to Brannen Island, going after striped bass in the delta’s mixing zone of fresh and saltwater. We go without a license, without a clue, but there’s hope as we settle into canvas camp chairs just after sunrise and study the water. A fish jumps, another and eventually another. We’re in no rush. We have all day, a lifetime to burn daylight.

Wind from the Pacific Ocean pushes through the Golden Gate, flies past Antioch and Oakley, barrels around the tip of Brannen Island where we sit. It rattles tulles, rustles wildflowers, and sends white egrets and blue herons soaring. Ducks paddle through riffles looking for shelter. Stretching away to the west, farmhands tend fields of corn and alfalfa, their tractors’ soft humming carries on the wind.

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A jingle bell fixed near the pole’s tip will signal if a fish comes to nibble at the bait—sardine and anchovy. My son, hurtling toward thirty and rushing to get his line in the water, barely cuts the bait, fixes chunks too large for slough fish on his hook, too big for small stripers, the wrong bait for catfish that suck sustenance from the decaying bottom muck. I hold my tongue, keep faith in my son’s hard-headed ability to keep trying and learning, to keep fishing. The sun turns up its heat and butterflies and dragonflies flit around us.

The island’s named for early California business rascal Samuel Brannen, who bought up land in the delta and throughout the state with funds skimmed from the tithes of his faithful Mormon brethren, eventually losing his empire when he was found out.

Families begin to join us on the island, picking shady sites nearby to picnic. Children, hauling colorful float rings and mats, throw themselves into the warming waters of the slough. My son moves on to deeper water.


I spread the comforter in thick shade, loll in the relaxed, melodic sounds of Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Hindi, Vietnamese as women give directions for preparing lunches, laying nap pads under trees for the little ones, and arranging fishing poles for the hours before sunset when the fierce mixing of air and water comes again and the men go fishing.

They come now single–file, like squaws along a trail, coming from the overnight camps at the park’s south end. In ancient times they’d be gathering tulles for baskets, roots for medicine or acorns for mush, gossiping as they went about their tasks.

But, these country matrons chatter in English, dress in low-cut tank tops and tight shorts, wear sequins on their flip-flops and ball caps.  They sip from tall tumblers and play country songs from a hidden music box. Near my table, the last picnic spot cooks in the sun. They sit at the table for a while in the glare, smooth on suntan lotion, edge closer to my shady site. Stretched out beneath a thick cottonwood tree, I secretly watch them from under the brim of my sunhat.

“He said we had to be outta here by noon, then he got in the boat with his fishing poles,” one woman said. They laugh, all agree they were told the same thing. “We’ll be lucky to be home by midnight.” Then they fall to talking about the advent of their first menstrual cycle, compare how they felt, how prepared they were for the event, the response of straight-laced grandmothers, absent mothers, step-fathers, their own daughters now edging toward the day.

Alan Jackson sings from the music player buried inside the beach bag, resting now on my paper sack filled with cups and plates, a few plastic forks: “It’s alright to be little bitty, a little hometown or a little big old city. Might as well share, might as well smile. Life only goes on for a little bitty while.”

I relax, keep spying on these squatters pushing into my picnic space, blithely nudging aside my bag of pita chips. My son returns to the congress of matrons, glances at me playing possum under the tree. Before they can move, a crowd arrives, perhaps from the parking lot or from some celestial hiding spot, a few are dressed in white choir robes, others in patent leather shoes, sun hats and dress slacks. They skirt my picnic table and make their way down the slope to where the dozens of children play in the water.

The man in a flowing white robe wades into Three Mile Slough as his followers form a tight knot on the shore and to the astonished crowd declares in Spanish a “baptismo.” One after another, three teenagers enter the water and wade to the minister.



He murmurs to them in Spanish: “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” He calls down Espirito Sancto, tells the drenched teens to continue “glorificando a Deus,” tells them to become “fishers of men.” Then the congregation disappears.

The children return to their water play, the matrons return to lunch preparations and finding their fisherman husbands. My son and I eat salami and cheese sandwiches, chew on brownies, pack the Mountaineer, which is still a quart low. My son did not catch a striped bass, although he said others fishing around him did. But, in the spirit of hope, he says we have enough bait left for tomorrow. I love him too much to remind him free fishing is only for today. We don’t have fishing licenses.

Cover Photo: Three-Mile Bridge by Sacramento photographer Joe Chan. Joe’s images are currently on exhibit and for sale at Locke Food and Wine, the Moon Café and River Road Gallery. Down in Walnut Grove, he is exhibiting at the Seeker and at Husicks Taphouse in Clarksberg. Joe has an online portfolio at:


The Art of Shaping Nature’s Narrative

The semi cascade bonsai style Han-kengai  mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

My semi-cascade juniper in need of training. The Han-kengai bonsai style mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

Loving bonsai is about loving your great grandchildren—a love that can, if the art is carefully practiced, endure for generations. In part, it’s this idea of a trans-generational love narrative that attracts me to bonsai and sent me on a quest to find a practicing bonsai master in California.

I found many masters. I realized, after settling in with one to learn the basics of this horticultural art form, that part of the art is about understanding and accepting my own aesthetic values. To start out, I would have to listen and think about my bonsai–for a long time.

While the art of bonsai is often associated with Japan, horticultural historians say it actually originated first in China, and then spread eastward to Korea before reaching Japan. The practice of shaping tiny trees to mimic or stylize nature was spread by Buddhist monks who wanted to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples.

From ancient paintings and manuscripts, Asia scholars found “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars think bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 to 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C. by Yamaki in 1976.  Read more:

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C., by master Masaru Yamaki in 1976.
Read more:

Holistic health practitioners say benefits of growing bonsai include:

  • Careful pruning, wiring and shaping helps relieve stress.
  • Constantly caring for a plant can help develop mindfulness.
  • Working with nature, including bonsai trees, creates peaceful feelings.
  • Successfully growing and caring for a bonsai tree can create a sense of accomplishment.

Improbably, I appeared at the gates of a bonsai nursery in the San Fernando Valley a couple of years ago prepared to listen and learn about bonsai from a master. I was willing to consider accepting a tree into my care. Killing the plant out of ignorance wasn’t part of my plan so I’d given taking on the responsibility some thought.

That day I learned bonsai literally means “tree in a tray.” The tree and container must form a single entity, work together in a design sense. The most desired containers for the finest Japanese bonsai are often exquisite antiques. I also learned bonsai is not a house plant. The miniature trees, like their full-grown counterparts in nature, are meant to grow outdoors.

The master said he knew immediately when people brought yellow or graying bonsai into the nursery for his advice on how to improve the plant’s heath that it had been growing indoors. He said bonsai are miniature versions of species that grow naturally in nature and should be treated as such.

I also learned would-be bonsai artists should have more than one tree to work on. The reason for multiple trees, my master told me, is so the artist doesn’t overwork just one tree; multiple trees keep the artist engaged in bonsai and help avoid frustration.

He recommended sitting and contemplating the trees, listening for their stories, before taking action to shape those stories with wire and clippers into the narrative the trees want to tell.

After a long walk in his small nursery where bonsai starter plants are cultivated, the master determined my artistic leaning was toward the “Han Kengai” form an ancient cascade style symbolizing the “overflowing potential for growth.” The style is characterized by trees grown in the way the tree or shrub’s trunk and branches stretch below the pot. The branches flow down and out, attracting the observer’s attention.


Han-kengai bonsai at the Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden in Oakland, considered one of the best collections on the West Coast.

I’ve lived with and studied the juniper given to me by the master for more than two years. It put out tiny berries this winter, to my delight. Over time I’ve considered its form and its ability to express my thoughts into the future. I spend a few moments every day contemplating this plant and have decided it’s time to take some creative action.

April 9 to 10, the American Bonsai Association of Sacramento will hold its spring show, which includes demonstrations, classes, exhibits and sales of bonsai supplies. The annual event will take place at Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park in Sacramento. I plan to pick up a few more trees and get some supplies.

And I hope to take a workshop from Peter Tea, who has studied with masters Boon Manakitivipart and Junichiro Tanaka at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya Japan. Tea is in the process of building his own bonsai nursery and studio in Auburn, CA.

Show hours are Saturday, April 9, 10:00 AM till 5:00 PM, and Sunday, April 10, 10:00 AM till 4:00 PM. Demonstrations are Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 PM. Demonstration trees are included in daily raffles. I hope to learn how to better shape my tree’s narrative in the decades to come for those I love.

Here’s a link to my Jan 2014 feature story on the art of bonsai that appeared in California Bountiful magazine

And here’s a link to a story that suggests stressed out high-tech hipsters in San Francisco are turning to bonsai for relaxation: http://www.7×