Exploring the practice of Bonsai is perfect for the topic of patience. When I finally saw a bit of his collection, I knew we could learn about the intricacies of Bonsai from Clark Mueller, PhD. So, to his kitchen table we went, and my eyes were wide open, as he talked about his journey and love of Bonsai. – Victorine
Tell me about your beginnings, where you are from, and how you ended up here in Florence, AL.
I grew up in San Pedro, CA, and went to K- 12 schooling there. I was one of maybe two redheads there. (laughs) Our community was very diverse; I grew up with a Slavic, Black, Latina population. I got my Bachelor’s and Masters’s in Political Science at Whittier, in Southern California. It was of Quaker background, so again it was very diverse. I got a wonderful Liberal Arts education there.
I was also into the Scouts, swimming. And in high school and college, I was very much into white water canoeing. We were getting pretty good and might have made it into the Olympics, winning one National Championship.
What about family?
I have a sister 5-1/2 years my junior, who lives in Philadelphia. Both of my parents are deceased. (Age?) I’m 74. Mary Eileen (Mueller’s wife) and I are 74.
From California to Alabama, or were there stops between locations?
I went to the University of Utah for my Ph.D. and had a teaching assistantship and surprisingly ended up teaching a class. My lovely wife was a student in one of my classes, but I didn’t date her until the course was over. We celebrated our 49th Anniversary this year.
With teaching experience under my belt, I applied for Political Science positions, which was a popular field at the time. I ended up teaching at a community college in Denver at the Red Rock campus, where I taught for three years. Unfortunately, the legislature cut funding to the community system, and I was out after three years with the first-in, last-out system.
I applied to three schools and was accepted at the University of North Alabama and taught there for over 30 years. I felt I owed them something, so I donated my last year’s salary to scholarships, half to the School of Political Science and a half to the Art Department.
What sparked your interest in Bonsai Trees?
Several things. First, my mom had a piano in my modest house, and sitting on top of it was a Ming Tree. I was always fascinated by it, even though it was artificial. The beautiful trunk line and the flowing branches captured my imagination as a child and continued to fuel my imagination.
Secondly, my father; was an amazing individual. He became Project Engineer for the Skyhawk airplane, a top-line carrier plane. He had 200 engineers working under him. His degree was in Forestry, but WWII changed the trajectory for a lot of people. He always had this love of nature, and the family spent a lot of time in the outdoors. On family vacations and backpacking with friends, I would marvel at the twists of the trees from high elevations. During a climb to Mt. Whitney in California, you’d see these wonderful twisted trees that were beautiful.
In Florence, AL, we went to events like Arts Alive. Maybe 35 years ago, a couple of people in this area, like John Landers, Butch Campbell, and Gary Wood, were interested in Bonsai. They got together and started the Shoals Bonsai Society. It no longer exists, but we get together for workshops. I went to my very first Bonsai workshop in 83′, and I still have my first tree. I liked doing it; I wasn’t very good at it, and I’m still not considered a Bonsai Master.
What is the process of making Bonsai?
There are some basic rules about what a proper Bonsai tree looks like, largely put forth by the Japanese. They weren’t the first to discover Bonsai; the trees can date back to China and India. But the Japanese developed different styles of Bonsai.
What defines Bonsai?
An appreciation for beauty. The objective of Bonsai is to create a tree in a container that looks like an old tree in nature. Again, subscribing to the Japanese, who live in crowded settings, but find a little bit of nature within their environments. Not just a tree, but an older-looking tree that tells a story. Every tree should tell a story. Is it just an art form; is it horticulture? In my mind, it’s both. It’s also meditation.
I can sit for hours on end, be in a Zen state doing my Bonsai, and be perfectly content. You have to acquire a state of meditation; it takes practice, and Bonsai is no exception. I am still practicing, and by the Masters’ standards, I am a long way from having arrived. I’m more intrigued by the process than the end result.
Remember, a tree is constantly changing. The only finished Bonsai is a dead Bonsai. Everything has its time, and even the best Bonsai is ultimately going to die. They may live hundreds of years, passed down from generation to generation. That’s not a benefit I’ve had. All of mine have either been dug up from the woods or from cuttings I have made.
How do you find them from the woods?
They’re all around us. You identify Bonsai, and you see them, and you work them. You can take a tree that has a wonderful root base but goes up to 15 feet, and you can scale it down to reshape it to a Bonsai. You can take a tree that’s young and scale it to have twists and turns in it. A tree can start as a Bonsai. But I can take a cutting from a tree like a Juniper, maybe 3 inches long, and root it, and after several years, I put a little wire on it and start giving it shape, and let it go from there. I have to take the wire off periodically to reshape it. I’ve Bonsaied anything from Junipers to Maple; for example, Magnolia’s leaves are too big for Bonsai. I could bonsai a Magnolia, but it wouldn’t look right.
I know you also do Tai chi. What attracts you to Eastern Traditions?
Again, I can harken back to the Ming Tree on the piano. Still, beyond that, because my specialty in Political Science was in International Government and comparing governments, I had the opportunity to t around the world extensively. I think I’ve been to over a hundred countries, some on my own, but a lot of it under Fullbright Grants and scholarships to the Middle East. Mary Eileen and I traveled to a number of countries in Southeast Asia, and we love the culture. So that certainly fed into the Asian influence.
As a fiery redhead, I am quick-tempered. So one of the reasons I took up Bonsai was to teach me patience. I don’t know if I had totally succeeded, but you have to be patient with your trees. You can’t impose too much of yourself in the process. You’ve got to learn to listen to your trees and let them define what they should be. Bonsai is not a rapid process; it’s something that takes plenty of time. If you try to force things too fast, you’ll end up with something very awkward, unpleasing to the eye, or it will die.
About Tai chi? In the 1980s, I went to China before it opened up for national tourism. Mary Eileen and I were off walking, away from our hotel. We saw people doing Tai chi. There was this shriveled-up man, about 80 years old, nearest to me. The poetry of his movement perfectly enthralled me, and I thought, “Wow if I could do that at age 80, what a blessing that would be.” He knew I was looking, and he invited me over. As I was mimicking his movements, I thought, this is not as easy as it looks.
Then, I went back to UNA, and by sheer chance, a librarian on the UNA campus taught Tai chi – Danny Chin. He offered a Tai chi class in Continuing Education, which I took and loved. When Danny Chin left, I took over the class, teaching the short 24 movement form. Like Bonsai, it takes a certain amount of patience and sticking to it ness, not just a once-a-week thing. After that, it’s rote memorization and getting your body to conform to that memorization.
The meditativeness of Tai chi and Bonsai only kicks in later. When you first start, you struggle, “Should I cut this or not cut this?” And it’s only after practice that you can start getting into the meditative aspects of it, which is true of any art form. Again, kind of an Eastern philosophy, but not exclusive.
How would you say these practices have influenced your life?
Tremendous gratification. When you work hours and hours on a tree, there’s a lot of gratification there. But, again, that’s not exclusive to Bonsai; that would apply to many things. But for me, I receive tremendous gratification and can spend hours bonsaiing. It’s something that doesn’t depend on others. Occasionally, I can work with others for suggestions, like, “Hey, what would you do with this?” But, most of the time, I work alone.
How many trees do you have?
I have over 250 trees, some in pots and some planted. Of course, a pot restricts growth for pruning, but I can still prune it in the ground. My ultimate intent would be to put it in a pot. They say that before you pot a bonsai tree, it should be 90 percent of what you want. One of the general rules you often break. The pots got to be so expensive, I make them.
May I see your trees?
Victorine, Foundeer, Editor-in-Chief,
Garden Spices Magazine
Wonderful article! Professor Mueller was such a positive influence on so many young lives during his tenure at the University of North Alabama. Great to see him enjoying such a tranquil and peaceful retirement surrounded by the beauty of nature.