Beyond Bonsai

How often do we treat those around us as if they were bonsai?
Beyond Bonsai

I recently had an illuminating chat with a senior Afrikaans woman. I had been staying at her and her husband’s farm accommodation and were saying our farewells as we walked down the driveway. We stopped beside a tall healthy tree and she delighted in telling me that this tree was originally gifted to her as a potted bonsai. But she creased her face and said she didn’t like the bonsai idea: “Rather put in it the garden and let it grow how nature intended,” she confessed.

As I drove away, I began to reflect on my involvement with persons from local and rural communities in South Africa. Over the years, it has become increasingly apparent how historical actions and mindsets – normalised by the discriminatory policies enforced during the Apartheid era – have left a legacy which continues to influence the development of Black and Coloured individuals even today, over 20 years since the fall of Apartheid.

In other words, I felt that these marginalized persons were still often treated as human bonsai.

As a metaphor, human bonsai are persons who have been placed under restrictive social conditions that stifle their ability to grow to their full potential and capability. In many cases human bonsai are consistently manicured to serve another’s self-interest, e.g. as cheap labour doing the perceived “dirty work”.

Human bonsai primarily find themselves under three constraints:

  1. The restrictive container (pot) that limits freedom of expansion and freedom of choice;
  2. The continuous pruning back of both new growth and the roots which would otherwise ground and nourish these persons with a sense of pride, empowerment and identity; and
  3. The reshaping of growth pathways as a result of the above; in other words, these external constraints have been so persuasive that internal personal beliefs (brain patterning) have also shifted to conform to such persistent expectations: “I am and cannot ever be anything more than a bonsai” – the bonsai syndrome.

The fall of Apartheid and subsequent transformation intended to remove the restrictive container that prohibited freedom of movement. In many ways, this has been achieved. However, less clear is the extent to which historically disadvantaged persons are now free from the conscious and unconscious clipping of new growth or subtle trimming of roots as a result of habitual perceptions and social conditioning.

Do we by default treat these persons as bonsai because that is how we have always seen them? Or do they remain as bonsai because that is how we want them to stay, neatly conforming to the measured place we have reserved for them on the partitioned balcony of our minds? Do we remain a little fearful of what might happen should our ordered collection of bonsai grow out of our control to become fully grown trees?

What then?

Just like the farmer’s wife and her flourishing tree (and who is to be commended for supporting human development in their own farm community), we need to suspend our usual preconceptions and rise above our old voice of judgement. We need to instead co-create the conditions to allow historically disadvantage persons to move beyond bonsai and to grow and flourish as the trees that they can become.

As the road straightened into the horizon, I cast my eyes ahead to the sprawling Swartberg mountains and realised that this metaphor extends far beyond the South African situation. Reflecting on modern capitalist society with its tailored social norms, habits and often restrictive education, another cutting question arose:

How many of the rest of us choose to live as bonsai?

* The image above is of members of the Baviaanskloof Nature Awareness Group who, through the support of the EarthCollective Network, are being given chances to grow their potential as nature guides. A big thank you to Bergplaas Nature Reserve for welcoming the Group onto their recent Spirit of the Wild program (pictured).
Matthew Zylstra

Matt is a conservation ecologist with experience in facilitating action research approaches for collaborative landscape restoration and stewardship in South Africa and Australia. His research interests lie in coastal-marine ecosystems, naturalist mentoring and community-focused outreach. Matt’s PhD research drew on integral ecology, psychology and education to explore how meaningful nature experience supports transformative learning for sustainability.

EarthCollective is a peer-to-peer network catalysing and enabling initiatives that enhance people’s relationships with nature, themselves and their communities. Over the past two decade, this initiative has grown a lot like mycelium: a purposed entanglement of energised interactions that nourish networks and sporadically fruit into visible expressions with tangible initiatives, organisations and outcomes.