Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

Juniper Progress.

This Juniper was lifted in June 2015 and planted in a plastic container. It came from a garden and was planted in a very sandy soil which came away during the lifting process. It was basically bare-rooted at the time which in my mind was not ideal at the time. I did bring some of the soil with me to add to the new mix with the hope that it contained some michoriza. At this stage I also removed some of the long, whippy branches with very little foliage on it to try and balance the foliage to root ratio.

From this point on it was watered and fertilised and received plenty of sun. A few branches died over the next twelve months, but plenty of new growth showed as well. All of this was of the needle type and then reverted to adult growth. The tree was also planted into a Bonsai pot at which time the roots were reduced a bit.

I had to move my trees three in the last six months. First from a colder, wetter part of New Zealand to an almost subtropical climate. The first place was a temporary place while we were shifting our household, then to a rental until we shifted into our own house three months later. Eighteen months after the lifting (January 2018) it was time for its first styling. Deadwood was created on the cut branches and then the wiring started. This took about six hours with not more than two hours done per day. I find it is best to start at the bottom of the tree and then work towards the apex of the tree. I have just used aluminium wire and varies from 1mm thickness to 4mm thickness. Quite a few guy wires were used to pull larger branches down. I use plastic tubing to protect the branches. Due to a few harsh bends, light cracks appeared and these were sealed with cut paste.

Now it is time to let it rest. Water and fertilise, keep an eye on the wire to prevent it from cutting in give it plenty of sun. It could be show ready in about three years. The foliage pads must mature and I have left a bit of new growth on the main branch from where another branch or two can be formed to fill some gaps.

Some of the Jin are too long, but I will leave it as it is for now. It is better to shorten them later. It is not that simple to make deadwood longer later. Lime Sulphur will also be applied later after some carving, burning and light sanding.

I like to study my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees in the past. Probably because I look at too many trees in photos. A top view shows you the depth of the tree.

I like to look at my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees. Probably because I look at too many trees in photographs and this made my designs look very two dimensional and flat. From the top, it is easy to see the depth. You can do the same by looking at the tree from the side, but from the top you can also look for branches and foliage pads shadowing the ones below them.

Creativity, Bonsai, Learning and Art: My Thoughts

 

I truly believe that creativity and to create is not just a mental need that all people need in their lives, but it is also a physical need. To create takes one out of your comfort zone and puts you in places where you have not been before. My choice of Art that I use to feed my creative spirit is Bonsai creation. I will be the first to admit that I probably spend a lot more time on the husbandry, maintenance and redesign of Bonsai than what I do creating Bonsai, but that is part and parcel of what we do as Bonsai artists. One of the main reasons why I am involved in this Art form is that it is never complete. You are constantly searching, asking questions and probing for your creation to become a master piece. Does that ever happen? I have not seen it in my own work yet, but have so in others and I am driven to get my own artwork to that level.

To explore Creativity as a study area, means that I read a lot and get trapped into conversations about what creativity is, how we can develop our own creativity and the creativity in others (that is the educationist in me). I spend a lot of time with creative people and I also do believe that it rubs off on other people mainly due to the passion that is shared when creative get in contact with each other. It can be a very solitary pursuit and aloneness and mindfulness is important in the pursuit of higher levels of creativity, but I also do believe that it is a social activity. It needs to be shared and shown.

A good definition that I have encountered on this path of creativity that I have walked, IMG_0269crawled and sprinted on, comes from Doreen Marcial Paraba in her book “Unlocking your Creativity” (2015) where she states that “Creativity is initiating, activating, and complementing ideas that are original, unusual, useful, or innovative. The ideas may advance an existing concept or seemingly spring forth from nowhere”.

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From this one can deduct that the end product should be useful and be put into action (a concept that the above mentioned author agrees with). Can that be applied to Bonsai? Most definitely it can! We start a tree from either a seedling, a cutting or raw material. We therefore activate the idea that we have and apply it to the tree. Real creativity is when we are original. In Bonsai there are “rules”, first started off by Chinese Bonsai practitioners and then taken further by Japanese artists. Out of these eras came many rules and conventions that should be applied to Bonsai for it to be Bonsai in its art form.  Do these rules restrict us in our thinking? No, it does not. It serves merely as a guideline, a foundation to work from. These “rules” did come from a deeply ingrained sense of Art applied to plants and therefore is legitimate (based on history) in the world of Art and Creativity. Most art forms do have a history and a foundation level of skills and knowledge. We see the same in Bonsai, making it a legitimate art form.

Can we be innovative? The above mentioned definition emphasises originality and uses the words, unusual and innovative. This is not restricted to the Literati style of Bonsai. Every tree has different growing conditions, trunk shapes, branch structures and foliage patterns. Even trees within the same species show different characteristics. Just as one artist can paint many different paintings, Bonsai artists can design and create many different forms of trees either within one species or across many different species.

A lot of people that I encounter, do not think that they are particularly talented when it

comes to creativity. When asked whether they have explored it, the answer is usually negative, followed by a whole lot of different reasons of why it is not happening for them. It is interesting that out of these conversations a large proportion of people identify that they cannot remember them ever being creative and except for early drawings and fooling around with paint, this aspect of their lives were just never explored or developed. Many literature sources that I have encountered ask the question “Is Creativity Learnable or Teachable?”. The answers range from “it is in our nature to be creative” to “we use our imaginations all the time” to “”creativity skills are learnable with training”.

This training can take many different forms. I learnt first through exposure to watching my father work with his Bonsai, to helping him with some tasks, to starting my own Bonsai and later reading profusely and learning from other more advanced artists. We know that Bonsai professionals usually undergo a long apprenticeship period, but these days learning can take place wherever, whenever and at the pace of the learner. Advances in technology have made this possible and it is possible that one can advance to a very high level of understanding and expertise without having to go through a lengthy apprenticeship. I still do believe that some form of exposure to good technique, skill and understanding is important for one to advance your own level of artistry and creativity.

IMG_0275You will probably not develop a very high skill level by just reading or just watching other people engaged in the practice of Bonsai. Learning is an active process. You need practice, you need to do and you need to get feedback to enable you to learn. Another great way of learning is when you start to share your knowledge and skill with others. In other words, teaching. Learning is a very interesting area of science. It is all about establishing neural pathways within your nervous system. The more you do something or interact with it, the easier data flows along these pathways and it can become an automatic response. Can you imagine how hard it will be if you have practiced the wrong technique over and over again and then have to unlearn it to enable you to learn the correct one. This is another reason why we do need exposure to others to establish these neural networks. Learning is also a social practice.

In summary then. We are all creative, we all need an outlet for our creative spirit, Bonsai can provide that outlet and we can all learn to become more creative and to express this in Bonsai as an art form.

Applications:

  • Read profusely.IMG_0268
  • Watch many videos.
  • Get to know the foundations and rules of Bonsai (only to bend them later).
  • Join a club.
  • Visit and talk to other Bonsai artists.
  • Create and maintain your own Bonsai.

References

Poreba, D.M. (2015) Unlocking your Creativity. New York: Penquin Random House (Alpha Books). 318p.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Better learning through structured teaching. Vancouver (USA): ASCD Press. 158p.

Leonardo Da Vinci and Bonsai

Yesda-vinci-profile, you are correct. Da Vinci never designed Bonsai, as a
matter of fact, there is no evidence to indicate that he even saw a Bonsai. What is this article about then, you may ask. In my quest to understand more about the creative process and trying to better myself as a creative person, I explore a lot of different theories and principles and try to open my mind to as many influences as possible to find my own rightful place within the creative space. My chosen field is that of Bonsai creation. We all know that the roots of Bonsai are firmly established in Chinese and Japanese culture. We also know that Bonsai as a creative activity has now spread to all corners of the world and it is clear that other influences are being incorporated into the creative concepts serving as foundations for Bonsai. The recent Artisans Cup in the USA is an example of this, but there are many others spread throughout Europe. A very distinctive style is emerging out of Africa as well. Why not look at the seven Da Vincian principles as a source of inspiration or direction in relation to Bonsai design?

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There are seven Da Vincian principles that can be used to give direction to a person’s life in exploring creativity. These are:

  • Curiosity – An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
    • This principle can directly be implemented in the life of any Bonsai artist. Being curious about life in general and then also the creative process surrounding Bonsai cultivation, is very important in establishing the next steps for growth. Asking questions, exploring concepts, trying new designs on the creative side, but also being curious about the horticultural process underlying Bonsai are all part and parcel of the Bonsai artist’s grounding. I encourage artists to make notes, read often, watch videos, talk to other Bonsai artists, attend conferences and to never stop asking questions. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks amount to over 7000 pages.
  • Demonstration / Independent Thinking – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and willingness to learn from mistakes.
    • As Bonsai artists we are involved in a practical application of centuries of knowledge and techniques. The last few decades saw an explosion of information and it is our job as artists to make sense of all of this and to apply what suits your own philosophy and style to your own designs. Yes, you can copy other people, but I am convinced that real satisfaction and personal growth comes when you use all of your knowledge and skill and create something new. This can be applied in a very practical way in Bonsai as each plant is unique.
  • Sensation – The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enhance experience.
    • According to Da Vinci, experience is delivered through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Bonsai creation is all about using your senses, especially sight, touch and smell. The more sense you can incorporate into your interaction with your trees, the more fulfilling the experience. You learn and experience through your senses. One of the problems that I experience is that modern day living is too noisy and very visual. So much so that it leads to sensory overload. Something that I need to work on more is to refine my sensory experiences by deliberately focussing on those sensory stimuli that matters during the creative process and to block or filter the “noise” out.
  • Smoke (Sfumato) / Embrace uncertainty – Becoming open to the unknown. A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.
    • In her blog, Andrea Balt mentions that we cannot “make use of our full creative potential without the ability to embrace uncertainty. An open, always questioning mind is our creativity’s best ally.” In Bonsai there are many uncertainties, especially when it comes to severe styling processes. Will a tree flourish after severe root pruning, how will it react to wiring, did I cut too much, etc.? There are many different thoughts and ideas around when things should and should not be done when it comes to repotting, lifting yamadori, using chemicals, etc. Embrace the unknown.
  • Art and Science – Whole-brain thinking. The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.
    • Your brain operates as a whole organ. Society has been telling us for a long time that one half is more dominant than the other. As an artist you are using both halves. You are programmed to be creative, it is just a case of exploring and finding your creative roots. The capacity is already there. This principle can also relate to the two parts of Bonsai creation. There is the creative / art side and then there is the science / horticulture side. Both are equally important. Embrace both. It could be that one of these attracted you more to Bonsai than the other. It is your task as a creative Bonsai artist to get yourself up to speed with both aspects. A beautifully created dead Bonsai is as unappealing as an ugly, living Bonsai. Study the art of science and study the science of art. Da Vinci was ambidextrous, something you can try to help with the development of the motor functions of both halves of your brain.
  • The body (mind-body care) – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise. Balancing the body and mind.
    • This one is self-explanatory. A healthy body is needed to dig trees, cultivate the trees, carry them around, etc. There is more to it than just being fit enough to do what you have to do around your trees. There is also the healthy body – healthy mind concept that is so important in the creative process. This principle was taken very seriously by Da Vinci in his day-t-day life. Mild exercise and good nutrition with ample rest serve as foundations for what is needed.
  • Connection – A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.
    • Da Vinci said: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” The growing medium that you plant your Bonsai in, the aesthetic effect of pot and tree, the light that all leaves get, the link between water and nutrition, your interaction with the tree, everything is connected. You are connected to the tree and everything the tree is connected to.

For you to be a better Bonsai artist and based on the Da Vinci principles, in summary: Be curious and never stop learning. Test yourself and be independent in a practical way. Use all of your senses when interaction with your creativity. Embrace the unknown and explore. Use your logical and creative powers. Look after yourself and realise that everything in life is connected.

References

Gelb, Michael. J. 2014. Creativity on Demand. How to ignite and sustain the fire of genius. Colorado: Sounds True

www.davinci.ac.za/

www.andreabalt.com/7-ways-to-think-like-leonardo-da-vinci/

Movement and Flow in Bonsai

Let us first define the two concepts to ensure that we are all on the same page during this discussion. Movement is what physically happens with the trunk and branches. In other words, whether the trunk moves to the left or to the right or in an S-shape to both sides alternatively. Flow is the general direction that the tree leads the eye towards. There are a few things that determine this flow.

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A formal upright tree does not necessarily show flow as the idea here is that the tree is symmetrical and well balanced.

Most sources recognise that it is the first or primary branch as

Homemade Bonsai

The primary branch’s movement is towards the right and the apex is also in that direction. Overall flow therefore is to the right. It can also be seen that the tree is planted towards the left of the mid-line of the pot.

well as the apex that determines the flow direction. I would like to add the trunk line to this as well. Although the trunk could be leaning towards the left, the primary branch could be moving to the right and the apex could be on that side as well. Overall the flow will be to the right. All the other branches and in some cases the nebari, will have to be designed to follow this flow pattern.  What if this does not happen? The main issue will be that the tree will look unbalanced and disturbing to the eye.

sample bonsai

This is an example of a tree with flow in all directions. The trunk on the right flows to the left, the trunk on the left, flows to the right.

Flow is important as it will determine the placement of the tree in the pot. Trees should be potted behind the mid-line of the pot, but the flow will determine whether it is planted to the left or right of the mid-line. As said, it comes down to the flow. If the flow is towards the left, the tree will be planted to the right of the mid-line. If the flow is to the right, the tree will be planted to the left of the mid-line.

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The primary branch is towards the right, so is the apex and therefore the overall flow is to the right. The tree is therefore planted towards the left of the mid-line.


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This tree has its primary branch moving to the left and the apex is on that side as well. The trunk is also slanting that way which makes it easy to determine that the overall flow is towards the left.

The display of the tree is also determined by the flow. The placement of the companion plant (kusamono) will be on the side of the flow direction. For example, if the flow is to the right, the kusamono will be placed on the right. This becomes very important when shohin are displayed in a multi-tiered stand. Trees should either be all adding to wards the overall flow of the whole display, or they should complement each other by forming a “closed” display. This means that they do face each other within the display. It all depends on the effect that the artist wants to create.

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The main tree shows its flow to the left and the companion tree shows its flow to the right. These two trees complement each other.


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In this shohin display the top tree is balanced with no overall flow. The next shelf down shows the tree on the left with its flow to the right and the opposite is true for the tree on the right. On the bottom shelf, the tree on the left flows to the right, the tree on the right looks relatively balanced and if anything, the primary branch could be moving to the right. In this case the companion plant to the right of the display, flows to the left. A well-balanced display.

The principle of flow and the calming effect that it can have on the observer cannot be underestimated. It is the same when one looks at a masterpiece painting. There is always some sort of flow to be seen. This is either in a specific direction (see kusamono placement above) or it is towards a focal point within the artwork (see shohin display above). This principle can therefore be seen as a wider artistic principle and not only applicable to Bonsai. For me it also has to do with the flow of energy. The overall flow of the tree indicates a flow of energy. This adds to the dynamic nature of a display or to a more relaxed feel. Where there is flow in too many different directions, the energy flow is all over the place which adds to a feeling of discomfort when observing the display.

References:

I would like to acknowledge the websites that the photos came from as used in this blog post.

http://michianabonsai.club/sample%20bonsai.jpg

https://sanaakosirickylee.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/bonsai-17.jpg

https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS9a_9UTyb_T8ZVzWH445ALrtjodYvDzxgwOtL3JN6aJAsICNlD

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSIAPeSEvPE8vsZk9tD36gsAcAQQR_Ee7UPYtL0bwceqOcqU9KP

http://dupuich.smugmug.com/Bonsai/Exhibits/GSBF-XXXIII-Convention-Exhibit/DSC0047/1078632432_2rHzx-S.jpg

http://bonsaitonight.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/display-10.jpg

Creativity and Bonsai

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Tree by Robert Steven

There is no doubt that Bonsai is a Creative Art form. Once the horticultural needs of the plant is met, the creative and art side of Bonsai kicks in. In thinking about this concept of creativity and how it applies to Bonsai, I had a lateral thought moment that it is not dissimilar to what Maslow proposed as the hierarchical needs of human beings. The major difference is that we do not work with an organism that can think when it comes to Bonsai. The lowest level of needs around the Biological and Physiological must be met for the tree to stay alive and the next levels applies to us and not the tree. Higher levels of Maslow’s theory do refer to the need for creativity and maybe through that, a level of self-actualisation for us as humans. There is a need for us to be creative. Not all of us are in touch with our creative sides. Mine came late. I realised that I could grow things, that I am good at educating people and once I was exposed to the Art of Bonsai, I found an area where I could feed this need to be creative and become involved in another where I could educate and be educated.

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Trees by Lindsey Bebb

What is creativity? I have consulted the writings of some of the gurus on this topic and came up with the following:

  • It is the process of having original ideas that have value – Sir Ken Robinson.
  • The phenomenon whereby something new is created which has some kind of value – Wikipedia (probably not a guru).
  • Micheal Gelb suggests that for original ideas to provide value, they must be translated into action. He also refers to the term “creative energy”.
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Trees by Masahiko Kimura

How can we apply this to Bonsai? I see three movements in the Bonsai world. The one is the creation of Penjing – landscape scenes mainly out of China. Another one is the following of the rules and “laws” of the traditional Japanese style and the third one, which is growing rapidly throughout the West, a more informal, creative style. Whatever path you take, creativity is needed to pursue it successfully. Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of having original ideas probably leans itself more to the more informal style as one is not necessarily bound by the “rules”. Although I have made a thorough study of both Penjing and traditional Bonsai, I find that I do lean towards a more informal, creative style. Why? It could be that it suits my way of thinking or it could be that the material I have available to work with, leans itself more towards it. The New Zealand Bonsai scene is relatively young compared to the rest of the world and we are bound by regulations through which we cannot import trees and have to rely on what is already here and then work according to what these trees allow us to do.

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Trees by John Naka

Is this a problem? No, I do not think so. I just had the privilege of helping to select the trees that will be on display at the National Convention later this year in Christchurch. The trees put forward for selection are of good quality and very dissimilar to each other. The variety tells me that there is a creative spirit or energy (Gelb) present. The lesson that I get out of this is that once we throw the shackles of conformity and “rules” off, creativity is enhanced.

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Trees by Ben Oki

This is seen throughout the world. I am not saying that the rules and the foundations of Bonsai must be thrown away, what I am saying is that it is clear that where people have the opportunity to be more creative through what the tree allows us to do, the results are as spectacular as when we follow the traditional rules. It is fascinating watching our best Bonsai creators in action and studying their creations. Even the ones with a thorough traditional Japanese grounding show that you have to respect the tree and when we especially work with wild harvested material (Yamadori), the tree’s history must be respected in the design.

What does this mean for our creativity? You have to let the tree lead you, but within that you still have options. Some of these options will include the following of traditional “rules”, but where the tree does not allow this, one will have to apply original ideas (back to Sir Ken) and if this leads to a well-designed Bonsai tree, then creativity is seen in action. It has value as it has added to a body of knowledge, ideas and even new techniques that could be used in future. I can use the composition of Music as an example. The composer needs knowledge, technique and an open mind to compose. The composer would have studied Music, played it, composed it, made mistakes and would have experienced success. The same is valid for Bonsai creation.

Study what is available, practice a lot, work on minor trees and work on superior material as well, but above all, ensure that you have an open mind. What does the tree allow you to do? How do you use that to create beauty? Do you have original ideas? Do you add value?

My last thought for today: Look outside of Bonsai for inspiration. Read and use You Tube to learn about other creative pursuits and let these inspire you to be even more creative.

References:

Creativity on demand by Michael J. Gelb. A great read for general creative inspiration.

Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson. I am an education leader (something has to pay for my Bonsai addiction) and find that I can apply ideas from all over to my recreational and creative pursuits.

Wikipedia. It always gives me a heads-up when I start to wonder about things.

The photos on this page ashamedly (on my part) comes from this website: http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2009/06/09/tree-art-6-amazingly-creative-bonsai-artists/

I apologise if I have broken rules to use them here, but all I am trying to do is to promote Bonsai in general and certainly not for my own gain.

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