“Ethics – moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity”
– Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition, September, 2023
The main area of ethical concern that comes to mind when I think about bonsai art is that of harming living things. I examine this here in order to invite other’s comments and to hopefully conclude that this is indeed not problematic. I have heard people say that the practice of bonsai is unnatural, a form of plant torture, even “an affront to nature”. Most bonsai practitioners are aware of these criticisms, however I believe that these charges merit a response in writing. As more people become familiar with bonsai and as its popularity increases, newcomers to the bonsai art form may raise these or similar issues. Bonsai practitioners should be able to engage the public and address any concerns that they might have.
Are bonsai an affront to nature?
My response to the charge that bonsai are unnatural is to simply point out that nature is the inspiration for the bonsai art form. Naturally dwarfed mountain trees, windblown trees along the shore, deciduous forests, etc. are the models for bonsai. As bonsai artist John Naka advised his students, “Do not make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree.” Furthermore, nothing that we do to a plant to make it into a bonsai doesn’t already happen to plants in nature (wiring and bending, after all, are techniques that mimic natural processes such as normal aging, strong winds, rock slides, or snowfall; animals “prune” foliage, deadwood decays or is “carved” by insects, etc.).
The idea of an art object being an “affront to nature” seems to have appeared in art criticism related to the environmental art or “Earth Art” movement, dating back to at least the late 1960’s. A number of artists at that time created art works on an often monumental scale, by dynamiting mountain ridges, moving huge boulders, carving lines into the desert surface up to a mile in length, poring hot asphalt down the side of an abandoned rock quarry, or piling rocks into unique shapes (1). Many observers considered the resulting changes to the land, even when that land was an abandoned mining or industrial site, to be offensive. There is not space to delve into the aesthetic and ethical arguments regarding Earth Art, but I do not believe that they apply to the bonsai art form with one possible exception – the collecting of native trees to be used as bonsai subjects. By following best practices, collectors can avoid harming natural areas while maximizing the survival of collected material.
Do bonsai suffer?
One of the first westerners to see a bonsai tree in person was Laurence Oliphant. He had accompanied the Earl of Elgin on his mission to Japan on behalf of the English government in 1858. In 1860, Oliphant wrote of having seen, “venerable forest trees in flower pots…twisted as if writhing…[with] unnatural branches spread out laterally like the fingers of a deformed hand”.(2) Clearly, this idea of bonsai being subjected to torture goes back a long way. Some people still wonder if a bonsai tree somehow feels pain.
According to science, plants do not feel pain in the same way that we think of it because they do not have a nervous system as we do. That does not mean that plants do not respond to their environment or to being injured, or that they cannot let other plants know of danger, or that they do not try to fight back when attacked by predators. (3) A recent article in the journal Science reports that plants use a class of chemical messengers that is also found in the vertebrate central nervous system to transmit information about an injury (a leaf being eaten for example) throughout the plant body to rapidly activate defense responses in undamaged parts. (4) However, this does not mean that they feel pain as we do. Some speculate that, from an evolutionary standpoint, one of the main benefits to an organism of being able to feel pain involves being able to withdraw from the painful stimulus by moving. Since plants are with few exceptions rooted and therefore unmoving, there would be no reason for them to develop a nervous system similar to ours.
Overall, there is no evidence that bonsai feel pain as a result of the techniques that bonsai artists use to create an aesthetic image of nature.
Are bonsai harmed?
A related concern is that a plant, since it is alive, is goal-directed (it is genetically programmed to be a big tree, for example) and that it is morally wrong to use bonsai techniques that interfere with these goals by restraining its growth, shaping it in a certain way, etc. One could respond by saying that if we felt that pruning was wrong we would never trim plants to make a hedge, or pull plants out of the ground to eat for food. One could also point out that a seedling that took root next to a wall will likely have its growth interfered with, yet few of us feel a moral need to dig it up and move it to a better location.
But while most agree that we are morally justified in eating plants for our survival, or pruning plants to form a hedge for privacy or to fence in farm animals, we instead choose to trim, wire and root prune bonsai to give them a certain appearance that we find aesthetically pleasing. Does this justify interfering with one of the goals of a living being, that of being able to grow freely and pursue a genetically programmed form?
I would respond that something similar happens with gardens and landscape design, both well-accepted practices. Bonsai might then be seen as an extreme form of gardening. While bonsai culture may limit the size of a tree, often the most successful, aesthetically-appreciated bonsai are developed when the artist takes their cues for shaping the tree from the natural growth tendencies exhibited by that tree. By doing this, one’s interference with the tree’s “goals” can be minimized (see Practical Magic, “take no unnatural actions”, also John Naka- “Listen to the tree; it tells you where it wants to go!” ).
Another goal of a tree is to thrive. While trees in bonsai culture are at a disadvantage compared to similar trees grown in the ground, bonsai practitioners provide the tree with daily care and attention in order to help the tree thrive. Bonsai die of course, as do all living things. However, trees trained as bonsai can and have outlived the bonsai artist that “created” them, with some trees living for hundreds of years. Bonsai are propagated by cuttings or air layers, even by seed. This fulfills another one of the goals of a tree, to continue the survival of the species.
So are we justified in harming trees if we accept that the practice of bonsai is a purely aesthetic exercise? Despite what I have written above, I believe that the answer is no. However, in my opinion there are additional aspects of bonsai that do serve to justify the practice. Humans gain a lot from our interactions with trees. As I have written previously (see Biophilia I and II), humans have a deep relationship with trees. Some 55 million years ago, our earliest primate ancestors evolved in the rainforest. (5) As Roland Ennis writes in The Age of Wood, “people are arboreal … with binocular vision, upright posture, hind limbs for movement, forelimbs for gripping, and fingers with soft pads and nails, all features that evolved to help primates live in trees”. (6) We renew our innate connection to trees and nature when we engage with bonsai. We learn about what trees and plants need to survive and thrive. Bonsai practice requires that we think long-term (see Harnessing Time). Bonsai stimulate our imagination and teach us to see the world differently. Many obtain spiritual meaning and satisfaction from these interactions. All of these things increase our biophilia, our appreciation for the natural world, a necessary characteristic if we humans are to save ourselves from the worst effects of our rapidly changing climate.
In summary, the bonsai art form is inspired by nature. Plants and trees, while responsive to their environments, do not have a nervous system similar to ours and therefore cannot feel pain as we can. Bonsai can be harmed or killed, yet they are capable of outliving us. Practicing bonsai is justified not only on the basis of achieving an aesthetic goal, but also because of plant-human interactions that provide both groups with many benefits.
Ethical bonsai practice begins with awareness. Those of us who love the bonsai art form want to see it continue to grow in popularity. We should be prepared to engage with the public and to respond to any of their concerns. Practicing the art form in a way that minimizes potential harms and ethical conflicts is our collective responsibility.
- Elias, T., “History of the Introduction and Establishment of Bonsai in the Western World”, in Proceedings of the International Scholarly Symposium on Bonsai and Viewing Stones, May 2002, National Bonsai Foundation, 2005, p28.
- “How plants sense and respond to the environment”. RHS.org accessed 10/31/2023 https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/understanding-plants/how-plants-sense-the-environment
- Toyota, M., et al. Glutamate triggers long-distance, calcium-based plant defense signaling: Science 14 Sep 2018 361, Issue 6407 pp. 1112-1115
- Wilson, Frank R. The Hand:How its use shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. Vintage Books, New York, 1998.
- Ennos, Roland. The Age of Wood. Scribner, New York, 2020.