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Tiny oasis of peace, perfection

August 26, 2003|MARY McNAMARA

Beneath strings of white party lights, Denny Roche is telling a story that involves a long bow, a Greyhound bus, a 200-pound buck and too much whiskey. It is a tale from his younger years, when he was a jazz trumpeter and pianist, mostly out of Chicago where he played with Anita Day, but also all over the country when he was part of Neal Hefti's first band. No animals were harmed in the making of this story, and Roche tells it well, with the raspy syncopated tones of someone who has spent a fair number of years in jazz clubs and piano bars.

It just isn't the sort of story you expect to hear at a meeting of the local bonsai club.

Roche is a member of the Descanso Bonsai Society, which gathers on the third Tuesday of every month at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. The most recent meeting was the group's annual potluck and fund-raising auction, so there was perhaps a more festive air than usual, what with the cans of Budweiser and the jugs of Chardonnay, the turkey and ham, the German chocolate cake and four kinds of pie.

The hundred or so members who gathered were mostly white, mostly older; there were more men than women, and everyone seemed to know everyone else very well. On the patio outside the garden's Van De Camp room, they clustered around little tables, shoveling in potato salad and telling stories; laughter rose above them in sudden bursts like helium balloons or puffs of steam.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Anita O'Day -- In the Aug. 26 L.A. Centric column, jazz singer Anita O'Day was incorrectly referred to as Anita Day.

For outsiders, bonsai -- technically "plant in a tray" tree -- conjures images of the hazy green serenity of Zen gardens, the delicious scalp-prickling sound of the bamboo rake on gravel, the curved back of an ancient Japanese master meticulously pruning leaf by leaf.

Budweiser doesn't usually figure into it much.

But this is bonsai, L.A. style, and if it seems way too much fun, it is still quite serious. Many of the members of the Descanso club have been working with bonsai for 10, 20, almost 30 years and own hundreds of trees. Many are teachers, many have won prestigious awards for their pots and trees, some are considered masters.

They are not interested in the kind of bonsai found in malls and farmers markets and Home Depot, the tiny trees with the pebbles glued on. "Mall-sai," society members call them. No, these are folks who go to special bonsai nurseries, or who scan forest, desert and the gardens of friends for any likely sapling, stump or California juniper to be dug up and trained.

"Bonsai is an internal communication with nature," says Ted Matson. Browsing in a San Francisco bookstore 25 years ago, he came upon a photo of a bonsai tree; it was, he says, a life-changing experience. A marketing and public relations writer by profession, he is considered one of the best bonsai teachers around.

"It is an absolute classic art form," he says. And more than that, it is a way of experiencing the world. "You begin to see time in tree scale," he says. "Some of these trees are 200, 300 years old. It gives you a vision of where you really sit in the whole thing."

California is the capital of bonsai in America. There are more than 100 societies in the state, about 30, including the oldest -- the California Bonsai Society -- in the Los Angeles area. Although originally Chinese, bonsai came to this country via Japan, and its first stop was California, where, for a time pre- and post-World War II, many of the local gardeners, landscapers and nursery owners were Japanese.

John Naka, a legendary bonsai master who now lives in Whittier, is credited with the local rise of bonsai culture; after he was released from an internment camp, he began focusing on bonsai and went on to write "Bonsai Techniques I and II" considered the bible of the bonsai set. The Descanso society has a John Naka award for masterpieces; there are years when it goes unwon.

Matson entered the bonsai world in San Francisco, which at the time had a fairly rigid system of club etiquette -- you chose a particular teacher, and club-hopping was not encouraged. When he moved to L.A., he found a much freer bonsai culture, as well as a climate with two growing seasons and a wide assortment of indigenous plants -- from pomegranate trees to California junipers -- that are suitable for downsizing.

But if the popularity of bonsai in Los Angeles makes sense historically and climactically, it seems a bit at odds with its reality. Although Los Angeles embraces the traditions of many lands, it often does so at hyper-speed -- this is the city that delights in "power yoga."

In the land of perpetual rush hour, it seems strange that large groups of people would be willing to hang with a project after their teacher hands it back to them and says: "Well, this will be a very nice tree. In nine or 10 years."

Strange, but very, very comforting.

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