Walter Pall and the early days of bonsai in Germany
Author: Walter Pall
Collaborator: J.P. Arzivenko
It was in the very early 80’s that I started to do bonsai, and at that time it was very difficult to you get information and find books. I had found out that there is was guy in Hannover, Germany, who still exists, and then there was what is called Bonsai Center Heidelberg, which later on became quite famous. I ordered two or three books from them, and from these books I learned everything.
So I found from these books that apparently in the old days the Japanese and the Chinese would go to the wilderness and collect trees. I grew up in the Austrian mountains, so I said “I know where these trees are” and I was very naive with no clue of anything, but I knew where the trees were. I was living in Hamburg at that time, but my parents lived in Austria, so we went there on vacation all the time. During the vacation I went up to the mountains and brought back a larch, I did this several times, and after a while I had a nice collection of collected trees.
Then I found that these trees didn't fit with what the books told me. The books told me that there must be a nice trunk, up on one third the first branch, and there must be triangular crown. The trees that I had found would not conform to that; so I was clueless, and then I somehow tried to do something which looked like what I had hoped it should look like. I tried to make a bonsai look out of that. Which now I know was futile, one shouldn't do that, but I didn’t know. So I thought “I must be very careful when selecting material”, because most of the material seemed worthless to me at that time. Nowadays this is exactly the material we want.
So I wasn’t the only one in Germany, but I was certainly one of the pioneers of collecting trees. In Switzerland at the same time, in parallel a man called Pius Notter was doing the same but then I didn’t know him. Well, anyway one day I thought “I am creating something which somehow looks nice but I must learn to create a bonsai properly”. So I went to the Bonsai Center Heidelberg in Germany and I was deeply impressed by the trees they show, all Japanese imported trees, some Chinese.To me, at that time, the trees were brilliant, extraordinary.And there were the employees and there were masters. Horst Krekeler was one of them, later on a famous name. And I asked them questions like “what do you do with this collected material?”, and from the answers I must say, I found out that they had just as little clue as I had - they didn’t know. They knew exactly what to do with well prepared material - if the tree is already prepared for becoming a bonsai and you just finish that, then you have a good bonsai. They knew that this is the way bonsai is done in Japan from material, they did not know what I was really interested in “what do you do with collected material which is totally wild, and does not at all conform to the bonsai rules”, I found that I had to experiment myself.
And then we had the first exhibit in Düsseldorf, Germany which was in 1985 or so, and I found that I had much bigger trees compared to the rest - much bigger, much more wild, much more exciting to me, and at that time already I found that some people didn’t like them, because they didn’t conform, they didn’t look like bonsai.
Well anyway, at one point I was considered an expert, I knew about the art of converting these trees into something that looks like a bonsai or even a real tree, and I also had learned how to not kill the trees. In the beginning if you have no clue you kill just about every single tree, and so did I. Then I learned how to keep them alive, and I found that even trained gardeners wouldn’t know. I thought “oh, gardeners can give me the answers”, and then I found this is not what they are learning in gardening education.
And then I thought I had to deal with real experts; I went to the research lab of a really large chemical company. I went to the top chemist, who was an expert in feeding, and I asked him “how do you feed bonsai?”, and the man gave me some feed which they still have, which is worthless, it is a feed which makes trees not grow, there is no nitrogen in there, because he was under the impression that thats really bonsai, you feed them so that they are somehow happy but they don't grow. Now we know exactly the opposite is true - you only can develop a tree if it grows, you need a lot of nitrogen.
You see, the top expert, the chemical expert would give me the totally wrong answer. I found the hard way that there were no experts, and then we had this Japanese master coming into Heidelberg and doing a performance in the stage and he impressed me deeply, the way he pulled out the bark, creating dead wood.
Now I know, the kind of tree they offered to him was so silly, so nothing, it was just a stick. The only thing he could do was a dramatic jin and shari to show some action there. But that deeply impressed me, and of course when I came home I started to rip and break trees apart, again there was nobody to show me what to do. And then I found that these Japanese people show you something, but I didn’t really get my answers to the questions I had. Even if you asked him a question, maybe you get an answer, but was not the answer you wanted, so you have to find out yourself, and this is the way Japanese teach anyway, they will never tell you what to do, you have to find out.
So I found out and one day I was considered a top expert in the major part of Europe - so that is how that happened. And around that the Bonsai Scene started, Bonsai Club Germany and the exhibits with everything, and now its one of the most developed in the world, and its only happened in thirty years, and I went through these thirty years.