Somewhere in the mountains of Japan there is a Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii) clinging to what appears to be bare rock. Windblown, starved for nutrients, and distorted; a tree very like this tree once formed the inspiration for the most symbolic of trees in the Japanese garden vocabulary. Similarly, somewhere near me, there is a Shore Pine eking out a meager existence on a rocky promontory in the San Juan Islands or Lodgepole Pine on a crag in the Cascade Mountains just a couple miles up the road. Shore Pine at sea level, Lodgepole at elevation; the same genus as Japanese Black Pine, different species, but the same as each other: Pinus contorta. Because the Latinate vowel makes the tree sound like an embarrassing personal problem and for ease of typing, let’s just call it Shore Pine.
I love these trees, all of them, for their bent and roughened appearance: as though they are just waiting for the chance to tell the story of what they did in the war, the storm, the fire. In addition to Japanese Black Pines in the front garden, I have three Shore Pine in the native landscape, one per long sightline as a focal point. I selected each for the pronounced ‘knee’ in the main trunk; I have planted them at acute angles to the ground to force each to bend the opposite direction. They are not on the side of a windswept mountain, but they will look as if like they are.
To emphasize this further I will eventually straighten some branches with wood stretchers, I may hang stones from others; if the tree doesn’t bend enough I might force the trunk over and stake it to the ground. I have been known to twine copper tubing around a branch like a snake; then the branch can be bent in any desired way and left to harden with maturity. I will also practice Japanese pruning techniques to thin and groom the branches and needles. I say “practice” not in the sense that I am a ‘practitioner’ of this art, but with the humility and frustration of having done this with several trees at my previous home. After eleven years I came to the realization that both the trees and I were finally going in the right direction. This Niwaki, or the shaping of garden trees, may in fact be the only thing for which I truly have patience. I’d be pretty happy if I developed more patience, and as the saying goes: it takes a hundred years to make a tree look a hundred years old.