I first met Allen Gautreau (“Go Tro” – it’s one of those Cajun names) in 1986, when my rekindled interest in bonsai had me seeking out local enthusiasts. He was new to the art, as was I. While I don’t recall that many details of our early encounters, I know we went on at least one collecting trip together and a nursery hunt.
The latter occasion got Allen this crape myrtle, dug from a field growing bed at an eclectic nursery outside of Baton Rouge. His notes say I helped him. The tree isn’t huge, so I suspect my help was limited to the selection process. Regardless, he worked on it over the next few decades and the tree is now a very mature bonsai that has come into my care. I think it’s got great character. Better still, it has great meaning for me.
By 1989 I had advanced enough in my study and practice of bonsai that I decided to begin teaching classes. My first class consisted of three beginners; Allen was one of them. As I recall, the course was three sessions long, each one lasting four or five hours. But memory fades, so I could certainly be off on my numbers.
No one who lives in the Deep South and loves bonsai doesn’t want a nice live oak bonsai. Problem is, they aren’t that easy to collect. On the other hand, they take to container life very well and are easy to train. Given their great features, I often wonder why more artists don’t grow the species.
Allen usually acquired his live oak pre-bonsai from nurseries selling end-of-season inventory on the cheap. These landscape-bound trees would be chopped down to just a few inches in most cases, then a new compact trunk grown in the “grow and chop” fashion. He worked with a number of specimens over the years that were created this way. A few years ago he gave me one of these trees that had been chopped and trained in the common live oak style, a short main trunk with multiple sub-trunks flaring off from it, some sweeping down to the ground. I reduced the root mass drastically and placed the tree in a shallow tray, to emphasize its style, and was working on development of the multiple sub-trunks when Winter 2014 hit. Alas, my gifted live oak bonsai didn’t survive.
I think that’s why Allen wanted me to have this tree to care for. I’m not sure if this is the only one he actually collected from the wild, but there couldn’t have been that many. His notes say it was dug in 1997, cut back and training begun. Here it is, 18 years later. In 2009 it was worked on in a session with Joe Day, and repotted in 2011, 2012 and 2014. The maturity of the structure of this tree is good testimony to the great work Allen put into it.
And finally, no bonsai collection is complete without bald cypress – doesn’t matter where you live. This forest was started in 2010. I don’t know its entire story, but one tree was replaced and one died and was transformed into a feature of the forest. All in all, though, it’s a nice rendition of a swamp scene. And the tray is a signature Tokoname piece.
One of the most appealing things about the art of bonsai is we often work with tree species that possess the capacity to outlive us (often by far!). While it’s easy to observe that as we learn bonsai we tend to kill a lot of trees, still the thought of having bonsai that can outlive us is testimony to the human spirit. We’re all just passing through this life, but we all have the opportunity to leave something of ourselves to the world and make it a better place. Allen did just that. Rest in the Lord’s embrace, old friend.