The Sunday Magazine

What my bonsai taught me about love, precarity and perseverance

The Sunday Edition contributor Chris Oke tells a story about how a bonsai tree became the bellwether of his relationship.
(Chris Oke)

How to love a bonsai 

By Chris Oke

It had been a hard, cold winter. Months spent in longjohns, toques and scarves in a tiny, sublet apartment, searching for work and driving each other crazy. We argued constantly. It didn't seem as though our relationship would make it into summer.

And then we stumbled across the bonsai shop—a forest in miniature, blooming out of the sidewalk. We chose a little evergreen and took it home, strangely proud, giving it pride of place on the desk we shared in shifts. As I stood there admiring it, Erin commented, "You'd better take good care of it."

This was my first clue. A lot was riding on that little tree.

* * *

Erin and I met in Tanzania. We'd been sent there by a Canadian media NGO. She was part of the outgoing group and I the replacement. She'd decided to stay, hunt for work and freelance. I was in need of a roommate. So we moved in together. I was impressed by her work ethic, and her ability to negotiate difficult, sometimes dangerous situations. On top of all that, she was beautiful.

We gradually became something more than roommates. And when my six months with the NGO were up, I cancelled my return flight too. We remained there, alone together, in Dar es Salaam.

The following year wasn't easy. We were working journalists in a country that isn't known for its press freedoms. I was detained by the military. We were robbed more than once. Both of us frequently got sick, a few times with malaria. Our apartment flooded during the rainy season. Money was tight.

But there were also perks. Zanzibar was just a ferry ride away. And there were frequent visa runs to to Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt to keep our work permits valid.

It was on these travels that I noticed something funny: Erin wasn't superstitious, but she did seem to attach a strange level of importance to seemingly trivial objects. A shell might catch her eye, and she'd give it to me to take care of. Hours, days, sometimes months later, she'd ask me about that shell. And I was expected to produce it.

In retrospect, she was uncertain about our relationship. We'd been thrown together by circumstance, and relied on each other for everything. Our situation made it difficult to part ways, even if we'd wanted to. This was her way of testing my intentions, and I didn't always pass. I remember her eyeing me suspiciously when I suggested we throw out a chameleon she'd found perfectly flattened on the side of the road. It was stinking up our apartment. I ended up storing it in a tupperware container.

The flattened chameleon (Chris Oke)

When we returned to Canada, it was like starting over from scratch: getting to know each other's families and friends, redefining the rules of our relationship. Money continued to be tight, but costs were considerably higher. We searched for work, competing for journalism jobs at a time when every day brought another round of media layoffs. The tests of love increased proportionately. (I now have a large collection of very significant pinecones.) But the biggest, most important test was the bonsai. It was the bellwether of our relationship. Which is why I began to panic when the bonsai began to die.

* * *

It was just a few needles at first, dry and yellow at the tips. But then whole branches turned golden. I found the Toronto Bonsai Society online and wrote them a desperate email, demanding a bonsai doctor.

The sick bonsai (Chris Oke)

The guy who responded offered to help, asking a number of questions. About the species, the soil, the watering schedule and whether it was an indoor or outdoor species. I quickly wrote back: "I don't know. Some kind of pine? I water it everyday and keep it indoors." I also attached a picture.

The reply was prompt and wise. I pictured a Zen monk, sitting in lotus position, even though his name was Carlos: "The tree you have there is a juniper, which is an outdoor tree," he said. "It won't survive for long indoors."

* * *

Our relationship was also suffocating indoors. We'd gone from watching each other's backs in crowded markets to arguing over Netflix. When the next summer rolled around, Erin suggested we get outdoors, out of the city, and go camping. We got together some gear and drove north for a four-day canoe trip through Massasauga Provincial Park.

The trip involved multiple long portages and cooking everything with a small cookstove and an old hand-me-down fondue pot. We were lucky to survive. On Day 1, it began to pour. While fixing a tarp, I somehow managed to empty a few litres of water directly onto Erin's head. And later, during one last paddle before nightfall, we managed to tip our canoe and soak the last of our dry clothing.

But as bad as those moments were, I felt happier than I had in a long while. We were alone together again. On Day 2, we arrived at a remote campsite on a private island, in a private lake. And when the weather cleared, we sat up for hours, mapping the stars, comparing the northern constellations to those in the south, where we met and fell in love.

* * *

The bonsai also benefitted from the fresh air. Shortly after being placed on our porch, new shoots began to form. It quickly regained its health over the summer, and will remain outside all winter. Because it's a tree. And that's what trees need.

The bonsai, after its haircut (Chris Oke)

It looks pretty motley now, especially since we clipped off all the dead branches. But somehow that made it seem more beautiful, more uniquely our own.

I didn't throw the clippings away, of course. Those aren't the sorts of things you get rid of. I keep them in a shoebox. Next to a flattened chameleon. And a large collection of shells and pinecones.

Click the button above to hear Chris Oke's essay. 

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