Bonsai Care in an Industrial Zone
From the Series: Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction
Afu quietly trims a potted banyan in the corner of the bonsai garden that he shares with several neighbors. The tree’s leaves have all been cut off, and the bare branches are wrapped with aluminum wires for shaping. Yi-Fu Tuan (1999, 114), from his eco-moralist standpoint, would condemn the scene as “torture,” seeing “surgical violence” inflicted on the plants for human pleasure, but Afu perceives it differently: “Trees recognize how well or bad you treat them—I don’t know how to prove this, but it’s true. Trees just know it.” In the garden, I often hear people describe their plants as human-like characters, as kin and friends. It takes at least ten years for a banyan sapling to grow into full shape and “stabilize.” During this long growing process, the grower observes the disposition of the tree to attain a holistic understanding as to what shape it can become. Subjecting the tree’s limbs and trunk to the will of humans would not be a proper bonsai technique. Instead, the grower must be in “correspondence” (Ingold 2017) with the tree to cultivate a healthy and presentable bonsai. Analogous to how hair trimming and dental braces help in strengthening the innate beauty of a youngster, cutting and bending are considered part of the care practices that occur daily between a grower and their trees.
How can we conceptualize care in such an unlikely alliance, between a plier-holding man and his purposely dwarfed trees? To illustrate the implications of bonsai care, we need to look at the difficult ground where the care takes place. Afu’s bonsai garden is located in Houjin, a neighborhood near what used to be the largest petrochemical industrial zone in southern Taiwan. Houjin has been afflicted by hazardous clouds and wastewater released from the adjacent Kaohsiung Refinery since the 1970s, and the residents began to mobilize against the state-owned oil refinery on the eve of martial law abolishment in July 1987. The struggle lasted for nearly thirty years until the refinery ceased production at the end of 2015. However, the pollution problems accumulated for nearly half a century remain largely unresolved, and the downstream factories are still in operation. Against the backdrop of severe industrial disturbance, Houjin is well known for its decades of bonsai tradition. The earliest growers were blue-collar workers who utilized their residual time to salvage tree stumps from the blasted landscapes caused by industrial construction or excavation. The revived tree stumps were planted in pots and made into tradable goods through bonsai carving techniques (cf. Tsing 2015). At present there are five bonsai gardens in Houjin, all located in the ruderal spaces (Stoetzer 2018) near the former refinery, which contains multiple designated soil and groundwater pollution control zones. The gardens are spaces for human and plant sociality (Hartigan 2015). Most growers in the gardens have lived in the same area for their lifetimes due to low mobility corresponding to their socioeconomic status.
Setting the gardens in the industrial zone lowers the cost of rent since the land surrounding the petrochemical production site is deemed unworthy of commercial and residential development; the lower rent is the main reason for bonsai growers to stay in the neighborhood. Yet there is always the risk of land expropriation to meet the needs of industrial development. Afu’s garden was forced to move twenty years ago when the refinery purchased the garden site to build a buffer zone. He and his plants had to move again in the winter of 2019 owing to a municipal zoning change. Listening to Afu recounting the garden’s migratory history, it dawned on me that the bonsai is a miniature version of Houjin neighborhood, or more generally the common living conditions under industrial urbanism in which the residential space faces constant threats of enclosure and interference from industrial expansion, and the inhabitants have few options other than taking root in a disturbed environment. Bonsai plants are confined to the human-made containers, tamed and restrained. Do the plants feel the same as Afu and his neighbors do, for whom the wire and concrete walls of the factories are a daily feature of living in the industrial zone?
Communities like Houjin, often conceptualized as “sacrifice zones,” bear an unfair share of environmental damages under industrial production (Lerner 2010). Yet life can grow with the help of human intervention in the wasteland alongside industrial infrastructures. The introductory piece of this series calls for attention to the complexity of care beyond mere romanticism, and one needs to look no further than the pots to fathom the “ambivalences and compromises” entailed in bonsai care practices. The pots at once nourish and limit the developments of the plants; they also afford flexibility as potted plants are protected from and less susceptible to the contaminated ground soil, enabling the plants to flourish in the volatile and oft-unfavorable urban environments. Both the Houjin growers and their bonsais share a degree of precarity in their living space; nevertheless, they are adaptable. The dwarfed trees confined in artificial containers require intensive watering and pruning from their gardeners, who, in turn, must learn to realize their love for planting in a limited space and rely upon the daily plant care activities for recreation and replenishment in an area where factory facilities take priority over living quality in space allocation (cf. Archambault 2016). Over the past years of environmental struggle, the human community has seen cycles of accidents and remediation; so have their bonsai trees that wither and regrow along the way. Through the mutual care of survivor plants and humans, resilience and conviviality continue to grow in the damaged landscape.
Archambault, Julie Soleil. 2016. “Taking Love Seriously in Human-Plant Relations in Mozambique: Toward an Anthropology of Affective Encounters.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2: 244–71.
Hartigan, John. 2015. “Plant Publics: Multispecies Relating in Spanish Botanical Gardens.” Anthropological Quarterly 88, no. 2: 481–507.
Ingold, Tim. 2017. “On Human Correspondence.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23, no. 1: 9–27.
Lerner, Steve. 2010. Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Stoetzer, Bettina. 2018. “Ruderal Ecologies: Rethinking Nature, Migration, and the Urban Landscape in Berlin.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 2: 295–323.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1999. “Geography and Evil: A Sketch.” In Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, edited by James D. Proctor and David M. Smith, 106–19. New York: Routledge.