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Connecting Kids to Nature Through Bonsai with Ryan Neil



By Cina Canada

All images courtesy of Bonsai Miria


Understanding time and relationship to and with nature can be abstract, but the gap may be easier to bridge for kids than you may think. Ryan Neil of Bonsai Mirai has created access for kids to these concepts through the hands-on approach of working with bonsai - nature in miniature. Ryan was gracious to chat with me about this and share his perspectives on connecting kids to nature via the context of his work and his experiences with his own son.


Cina: Hi, Ryan. I appreciate you making time for this. I imagine you are quite busy up there. Before we dive in, and because my audience may not be familiar with bonsai, would you give us a little introduction to who you are, what you do and why.


Ryan: Yeah, so My name is Ryan Neil and it's a little bit tough to quantify my job title. I could call myself a Bonsai professional which is sort of under-serving. I think you kind of sound like an asshole if you call yourself an artist. But certainly, I'm engaging in a creative endeavor where my medium is the stunted tree. 


Through that medium, I'm trying to explore the culture that emanates and exists as a result of these trees and how these trees are helping human beings in our small snapshot and perspective of our time on earth, how to utilize the tree as a greater narrator or orator of the elements acting on the landscape that inform the culture of that region-that sort of uses that tree as a reference.


And really looking at this creative endeavor and the expression that occurs through the forms that we create in bonsai as a mirror reflection of the individual and their experiences in life that have given them this interpretation of form with this paramount living organism that we depend on for survival and so many other things. And we also quickly forget it and exploit it as a resource. 


So, to call myself a bonsai professional connects me to the Japanese art form, and what we do here is so far away from that. My connection to the Japanese art form of bonsai was simply to develop the technique, and not just for Japanese bonsai, but specifically the technique of my master, Masahiko Kimura who kind of innovated and advanced the art of bonsai and really modernized it as a true art form and an expression, moving it out of the realm of craft, in my mind. 


I had to go there to get the techniques that I needed and expand my knowledge to the degree where I could come back and I could express myself through the medium that I work with. 


But in my mind, from when we were apes, and from the moment that we’re born, the tree was and is a safety and survival mechanism that's trickled down in our DNA to the degree that between 85 and 90% of all human beings associate their sense of home with a tree.


Trees form our first memories. Trees are something that we quickly connect with and identify with. Then, as we get older and we're sort of domesticated by the geometry and organization of the built environment, which is completely unnatural, to what we were geared to do and where we were geared to live, we lose that connection, you know? So, bonsai presents people with a micro iteration of this larger macro connection that we've forgotten about and creates an almost immediate nostalgia and connection to the environment that people forget. That's really the most important aspect of creating the work that we do, I think, is connecting people back to that thing that they had and is built into them but they've forgotten based on the unnatural organization of our societal and built environments.


Cina: Okay, so just to back it up a bit, in a quick bite-size, what is bonsai? 


Ryan:  Bonsai is the Japanese art form of recreating nature in miniature. I don't think that's accurate, but that's a good bite-size expression. It's the horticultural endeavor of growing a tree in a shallow containerized environment, most often in a ceramic vessel, which reduces and slows its growth rate. And it's the artistic execution of a greater image in a miniaturized form.




But I think it's important to understand that bonsai started in China

as pinging, which is the Chinese description of utilizing this miniaturized tree

to create a greater contextual composition. It was started in China to capture that spiritual moment that you have in the far-flung places of the world where the extremes of nature are so humbling that it really changes you as an individual. It was an attempt to capture that moment and it was defined as a religious practice.


But you know, nature has those kinds of profound abilities to change the way that we think through those experiences. The origin of pinging was to try and

hold on to that moment, that experience and that knowledge that you gain from most really special places. 


Cina: Which seems to be the case with much historic art, that it originates from spiritual expression or spiritual experience, right? So, regarding kids and how we nurture a connection for them to identify with nature, as nature, as a part of nature, not “other,” or separate from it -  for you, coming from a place of what you do professionally, but also from just your own creative expression, what comes to mind when I mention, “connecting kids to nature through the arts.”


Ryan: Well, I think we start off in life without any limitations, right? As kids, limitations are kind of a learned thing where we're told what we can and can't do. One of the more powerful experiences I've had was taking bonsai trees into my son's classroom at his Montessori school when they were, I think, in first grade. So, these kids are still trying to get the organization of adhering to the school environment.


I had all these nursery-stock Japanese maples that were donated and I had all these little pots and soil, and I would show them what to do. They would all take their trees out of the pots and comb out the soil and the roots, and trim the roots, and put them into the containers, and chopstick the soil, and everybody had a bonsai tree when we were done. It was perfection. It was easier to work with them than working with an adult. 


I realized that connecting kids to nature is actually already organically built-in and happening. Let's not disconnect them. Let's not take them away from that. Let's not make nature something that is separate from them.


I think that is a big problem, that we look at ourselves as this organism that exists outside of nature and so we walk to the park to be a part of nature. Or, we go to the mountains to get back to nature. I think that's a real issue and I think it starts the downward spiral of disconnection at a very young age and I recognized that when I saw these first graders handling trees better than adults. It was just like, “Oh, okay.”


Cina: How old is your son?


Ryan: He's getting ready to turn 10, he’s on the latter end of 9.


Cina; Okay. So, I think about these things a lot in terms of identity. Have you had a chance to make that connection with your son about his identity as nature?


Ryan: Yeah, I think, because he grew up here where my garden is out in the country and we're surrounded by like 90 contiguous acres of forest preserve. He's grown up with all these bonsai trees, he plays on them all the time with his toys and I never have to worry about him damaging my trees, you know? He's learned that, it’s just an intuitive part of his world. It’s like this miniaturized version, like his Legos and action figures. 


I just learned early on that the more that is commonplace, then… there is a certain part of it where I was worried that it's not going to be special for him. But in all actuality, the natural and intuitive relationship that he has with it is super special.


So, his class has come up here, the teachers from his school have come up here for a teacher retreat, they did their class celebration up here last year, and the way he was able to help people understand, help his fellow students understand what we're doing, how he was able to answer questions for the teachers and introduce them to this lifestyle that is intuitive to him but is very foreign to other people, was really… I just felt good about it because it felt like it was a part of him. It wasn't something outside of him that he was trying to explain. He was just like, well, this is just the way that it is and this is how you have to be around these trees because they demand our respect and we depend on trees, they purify our air.


In our recent discussion, he said, “I wish we could stop using toilet paper.” I said, “Well, you know, you'd have to become very comfortable with the bidet, but it’s very, hygienic. In Japan, I used the bidet for 6 years.” He was like, “That's gross! I don’t want water squirting on my butt.” And I was like, “Well, that's what it would take to get rid of toilet paper.” So, we’re talking about how much it’s worth to him. He thought about it and he’s like, “Let me let me think about that a little bit.” 


Cina; Ha, yeah, maybe a reconsidering of that idea. So, did you have thoughts of that kind of connection with him and “nature identity” when you went into it? Or, is that just something you’ve learned along the way while observing his behavior, observing his observations? Because you then have all of the values and the ethics as well, especially with what you do. I obviously don’t know a lot about the values and ethics behind bonsai and that’s probably for another conversation. But yeah, did you go into raising a child knowing that these are the topics that you wanted to dive into? 


Ryan: I mean, I think some of it was necessity because I didn't want this place to be off-limits to him. I wanted it to be a part of his world, so I had to teach him how incredibly powerful, but also how delicate these trees are, and how they can absolutely be something that we can let our imagination roam free on, also we still have to conduct ourselves with respect. 


I thought this would always be a great place to raise a kid just because it’s like a miniature capturing of the wild places on earth, here in the garden. He loves it here. We don't live here any longer because we had some unfortunate things happen to our home, which we're kind of working through, but most of his childhood was spent here. So, he really is connected to this place. He likes to come out here. He likes to be left alone to do his thing, here. Even if he comes out here with his step brothers and other people, he'll find his own space to have his time with the trees and create his microcosms and stuff. 


I didn't know how that would all work out, and I didn't want to force it upon him, but it was always just here and an intuitive part of his life. I realize how making nature more intuitive just is a part of kids’ lives, instead of this spoken-about foreign entity that we have to make an effort to go be a part of, has set him apart from his peers that he goes to school with. 


Now, I will say that I go above and beyond to take him to the national parks and to these places that are part of the great privilege we have as Americans. Our wild spaces are some of the most wild spaces on earth. Even though they're not what they used to be, they still are better than anywhere else that you can go to experience the really humbling power of nature. I think that everybody needs to take advantage of that because it's a disappearing entity, you know?


We're going down to the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park for Christmas. We were in Yosemite last year, he's been to Yosemite 3 or 4 times, we'll be in Yellowstone and we're going to do a backpacking trip in Great Basin to go see Prometheus and some of the bristlecones. 


So, I’m just trying to introduce him to those places without any preconceived notions or expectations of what they will become for him. I think having that interaction at a young age where that's expected and understood and letting that do what it's going to do over the course of his evolution as a human being, and relinquishing control, I've done my job and I've exposed him to that, in my mind.


Cina: How do you think about “relationship with” versus “pursuit and use of” nature? You use trees for your personal creative expression, how do you think about that and discuss that with him? 


Ryan: Well, I mean, I also depend on them economically. So, it's a very complex entanglement. You talked about the ethos and the ethics of what I do and whatnot. I think about and discuss this a lot. I think if you're going to do that, you have to be very proactive about identifying how you feel about it and how you feel right about it, you know? 


What he knows about that component of it is that we do depend on these trees to be able to make a living and to be able to live our lives. It's not something that we abuse and it's something that we need to respect. There is also that component of it where there's a dependency on the natural environment for us to put food on the table, go to school, wear clothes and drive our car. So, he understands that part of it. But we are also, at the same time, continually trying to reduce our consumption of unnecessary things. 


That is a continual sort of bridge that we try to cross anytime that we have the opportunity because there's this scalable representation of nature in miniature that he can identify with and understand. It's not some super-size tree which is awe-inspiring and amazing. Also, if you tell a kid that they need to think about their actions in the world because they might harm a tree, if that's an invincible organism to a kid… but we've got all of these smaller organisms that he's seen their branches brake, he's seen them suffer from weather, or people, or whatever. 


I think it has given him a lot more empathy and understanding that the natural world is fragile under the pressure of human beings. So, we walk a fine line in terms of all of those complex thoughts being digested by such a young, impressionable mind.


Cina: Right. I was curious at what age you were able to start talking about these things and even things like reciprocity, impact and personal responsibility and wondering if you just let those things happen organically, or if you systematically teach those things.


Ryan: He comes to me with questions as he has thoughts evolving in his head. He has asked me, “Well, if you sell the trees doesn't that mean that you're kind of like using them and exploiting them?” And I’ve always told him that my work and what we do is designed to help people better understand their relationship with trees and the environment. The more that I can show people my work and help them understand trees better, the more we can use these trees to teach people and increase their awareness, then the better off the forests of the United States are going to be and the less likely people are going to be wasteful. 


That's how I've always justified the effort that we go through because the carbon footprint of bonsai compared to almost any other artistic endeavor is very, very small. Inside of the limited carbon footprint, the volume of the messaging that these trees can have through their ability to connect and raise people's awareness about, or reawaken their relationship with, the environment is maybe the most significant cost-benefit ratio, right? 


A low carbon footprint for a massive amount of awareness and relationship-building is something I feel super proud to be involved with. I do depend on it for a living, and I don't have any moral issue with the way that we conduct ourselves. It does alter the way we conduct ourselves compared to other bonsai professionals and practitioners across the globe, namely, the Japanese model which is not something that I feel very good about. But, those are all too complex to talk about with him now. He's not ready for that stuff. 


Cina: Yeah, but it does sound like he's a natural critical thinker and that is one of my questions to you, how do you encourage his critical thinking? 


Ryan: I ask him more questions than he asks me. You know, I ask him, “How does that tree make you feel?” He's so good with the trees, but occasionally something will happen, and I'll say, “Do you know how long that branch has been growing?

Do you know how old that tree is? See how we damage that? Do you know how long it takes to get that back? That changes it forever. How does that make you feel?”


I think every kid, every boy that I've experienced in nature, is going to pick up rocks, break sticks, bang things and stuff like that. Maybe it’s part of the primal instinct, part of the primate, I don't know. I've always been very comfortable with that, but there was a time when we were in the bristlecones and he started defacing one of them. That was a really significant moment to be able to teach him about how long that piece, that he felt he had the right to break off of that tree, how long it had been there, how long it took to grow, how many generations of people have come and gone in the world, and that piece of wood was still there until he decided to be the one person who altered it forever.


That kind of critical thinking exercise of being able to make him aware of how long these things have been here unaltered, and then his impact changed it forever, is maybe the best lesson that he gets from dealing with such antiquity. Living antiquity, you know, because we have trees well over a thousand years old in pots. That's a real responsibility to interact with things that old.


Cina: Have you had any big assumptions challenged in meaningful ways on this path that you've chosen? 


Ryan: I thought people would care more. I really thought people would care more. That's been a real disappointing aspect of what I do. You know, the vanity of and the novelty of things in our very rapid and overstimulated culture, in the current model of things, isn't enough to help people cross that threshold of truly caring on a large enough scale in my mind. I thought it would. I thought more people would care, you know? And I have to believe that any conservation

or sustainability-minded endeavor would feel the same way.


I think it's part of one of these things where there's this convenience factor of technology and there's a comfort of the built environment that has led to just a lazy complacency as an organism.


There's no fighting that. You can talk about it all day long, and you can be negative about it, but you can't both blame people or fight it because it's understandable. There are some staples to life like shelter, food and safety. If you have those things, then you can start thinking about the more esoteric things, and there are a lot of esoteric things to talk about and think about. There's a lot of different interests that people have and there's access to all of that information now with the click of a button. I think it has made the endeavor of a slower, not immediately satisfying thing that demands your attention and dedication to really actualize and see the results over a much more prolonged period of time, whether that is helping a forest, or raising a bonsai tree, raising a kid, in a lot of circumstances, not as appealing. 


It's been really disappointing, unfortunately, to see how little people care, or have the stick-to-itiveness to make the changes or do the things that would bring about change. 


Now, obviously, any time you point a finger you’ve got 4 pointing back. So, it's made me incredibly aware, and maybe even overly reflective of my own actions. Okay, so this is how I feel. Am I putting my money wherever my mouth is? Am I doing the things that I would hope other people would be doing? And not just in terms of conservation, sustainability and hopefully raising a human that is aware, courteous and conscious of the environment, but also just in any endeavor that I have where I may have feelings or thoughts or criticisms. 


Again, if you're pointing that finger, there's 4 pointing back. Do I feel good about the way that I'm conducting myself? So, on a human level, on a core principle basis, my disappointment has led me to not sit in that disappointment and feel critical or negative or defeated by it, but to use it as a vehicle to really hold myself accountable and continue moving in a direction that I feel positive about. It's been completely and totally constructive to spend the time thinking about that and to continue to use that as a guide for raising my kid, for conducting myself in the modern world as it exists, and for continuing to make decisions about how to move forward with what we're doing to try and accomplish what we aspire to accomplish, here.


Cina: And specifically, you're disappointed that people don't care more about sustainability and conservation, things like that?


Ryan: Across the board, but let's just take the subject of trees. I'm disappointed that people don't care more. Like the Puglian olive trees that are dying in Italy, right now. These are the oldest trees on earth that have had the longest-standing relationship with human beings. We started a campaign to raise money to document these trees and to try and bring awareness to what's happening to them. It was horrifically unsuccessful. That's totally fine. We presented it to the bonsai community, a community of people that should care and they really didn’t. That's okay. A few people did, but not many did.


Does that then deter me from going and trying to continue to find a solution for those trees? If it did, then I'm no different than everybody else in my limited dedication and fickle mentality about the necessity to conserve and save these trees.


So, we're headed there next week and we're taking a group of scientists that I think can really help to talk with the boots on the ground in Italy. Up until 2 days ago, we were funding that out of my own pocket. That continues to be my mentality, that if other people aren't going to help at least I can feel good about what we're contributing as a company, as a community, to hopefully solutions that matter and have an impact and are measurable in their scope. You know, it's like the Red Cross figure of 99 cents out of every dollar goes to pay for the infrastructure and one cent might actually do some good. That is not where I want to be.


Cina: I've seen a lot of that in my own work. It was profoundly disturbing and disappointing when I first discovered that sort of thing happening in the humanitarian crisis sector. So, when did that start for you? Did you assume that people would care when you came back from your time in Japan? 


Ryan: Yeah, in 2010. The first 2 years I really, really wrestled with it. It was really disturbing to me. But then I did start to recognize, “Hey, this is your choice, you chose this, and you chose to try and do something about it and this is what it looks like. Also, for every person that you could criticize, you're the only one who's responsible for you. Don’t continue to interpret these things and let them bog you down. Instead, use that as motivation to continue holding yourself accountable when doing the things that you say you're going to do, that you want to do, that you feel are important or valuable and continue setting that model for your son and for the people that matter to you.”


Ultimately, I think when it’s time for all of us to say goodbye on planet Earth, you have to reconcile your contributions and your conduct with yourself and only yourself. So, I do want to feel good. One change that we've made over the course of time here at Mirai, that's really put an exclamation point on that, working with JP my administrative director, is asking ourselves what is our goal. One of our goals is to leave the world better than we found it on a broad scale. For me, my expertise is in trees and I've been able to use these tiny trees and this art form of vanity to contribute to the greater macro system. That's where we're going to continue to focus our efforts. And my son goes with us on these journeys. He's part of that.


Cina: Has he always traveled with you on these?


Ryan: Yeah, we started doing projects in the wild. and he was on the very first project at the Olympic National Park. He came with us to Crater Lake for the second project, he's been with me to Sweden, he's been with me to Italy, to Belgium and Holland. He is a big part of the journey.


Cina: Yeah, talk more about that and the impact you’ve seen even with other kids and bonsai.


Ryan: When we help the kids make trees that they take home, their parents are informed by it because now their kids have done this in school. Like the project that I did with my son's Montessori school, the bigger impact, because it was already intuitive for the kids, was the parents and the teachers. It was like a profound impact because suddenly their kids are bringing home a bonsai tree that now they're helping water, they care about it, they're watching it. It's like a family thing and I didn't anticipate that. I just wanted these kids to put their hands on trees and suddenly their families are like, “This has been amazing. We had no idea and no connection.” I was like, “Oh, noted. Kids are a great connector.” 


Cina: Yes! We have found that across the board with everything that we’ve done. The parents get excited because they're watching their kids get excited. We host a nature camp in the summertime and one of the parents emailed me after this year and said, “When my daughter left Nature Camp, she was full of confidence that I wish she could find in school.” For me, that was everything.


Ryan: Because everything is equal in nature! All of this other bullshit construct doesn't exist. There's no rich, poor, black, white, male, female or different. It's all the same out there. Mother Nature couldn't care less. And I love that.


Cina: Right. Speaking of that, I'd like to get into the question of the life process. Have you had a chance to use the way that happens in nature to talk about the life cycle with your son? Have you guys even ventured into that topic, yet?


Ryan: Absolutely. In fact, it's actually like a background of what I do. Because, first and foremost, the reason I went to study with the master that I went to study with was because he had a technical capacity and acumen beyond anybody else. Every time you touched a tree when he was done with it, it felt like it had a human personality. 


I know when I make my work, I really need to see that identifiable character and personality that I connect with in my tree before I'm finished. That's the goal-post for me that I've done a good piece of work if I can see the soul of the tree, or the character, if I’ve brought out that expression. 


But that's the aesthetic part of it. Going back to humans and plants, human beings need only 2 more essential elements for survival than plants. So, when you start to equate a plant’s existence and all the physiological actions that a plant performs, there's an equal and relatable action that humans perform and vice versa. Obviously, the one limitation is movement, but even movement exists inside plants in a manner and method that would correlate to a similar response in human beings. 


When I look at trees, and even if I think about the higher level of intelligence, the tree is the constant protagonist. It's an organism that cannot do things that harm itself. It's an organism that is functioning on such a significant level of intelligence to have survived thousands and thousands and thousands of years. It's an organism that depends on time to be able to exist and that is the one thing that is disappearing, right? That's why trees are suffering because they don't have the time they once did to adapt in their offspring through that genetic mutation of every seed from the parent. 


So, as far as my relationship with trees, I look at them as equals. That sounds a little weird, but not like I'm saying cutting this tree down is equivalent to shooting a person in the head. Although there might be a little bit of truth to that, I'm not using human bones and skin and organs to build my house, but I am using this tree to build my house. So, there is a little bit of give/take relationship there. 


I see trees as very much an identifiable sort of cohort in those habitations that we engage with. I don’t know if that answers your question…


Cina: Well, yeah. I was curious how you talk about birth and death, but within the parameters of time is one I hadn't considered. 


Ryan: Well, that's the biggest one, that's why people are fascinated with ancient trees because it's unfathomable that something could live that long. As far as birth and death, I think the way that we relate those concepts, that I convey those concepts to him through trees is, you know, we're going to live for 80, 90 a hundred years if we're really lucky. That tree is going to live for 3, 4, 5,000 years if we don't do something to destroy it. Think about that. How many lifetimes exist in that tree? Or, when we're standing in front of an ancient bristlecone pine, how many human lives have lived while that tree has grown to what it is? 


The thing that I started doing when I was going around the world looking and seeking out these ancient trees and these ancient forests that are just remnants of what used to be there, but still exist, is I started bringing him back cones of each of the ancient trees that we would go visit. The most powerful one was when I was going to the bristlecone pines in the White Mountains. There are 5 groves across the Western United States and the most famous is in California, where Methuselah, the oldest tree, is currently known to exist.


I said, “I'm going to the bristlecones, do you want me to bring you something back?” and he said, “I would like for you to bring me back a cone and a rock.” I said, “Okay, that's cool.”


So, I brought him back a cone and he said, “Wow, I wouldn't have thought that’s what a bristlecone pine cone looks like.” Okay, that's cool. 


When we went to the giant Sequoias on cone collection because they're not reproducing at the same rate anymore, I brought him back an open cone and a closed cone. We opened up the closed cone and the seed for a giant sequoia is very, very small. It's incredibly small, but it's the most massive tree on earth. So, when he sees the most massive tree on earth starting as this tiny little seed, that was a real moment for him to be like, whoa!


Cina: I think about that a lot, and we talk a lot about that in camp, that all the information needed to bring into exitance any plant, even that big tree you’re standing in front of, is stored in that little seed.


Ryan: It's particularly powerful when you’re standing in front of the most massive organism on earth because that little seed made that. Right now, I'm reading him John Muir’s, Our National Parks. It basically talks about the formation of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Towards the end of the book, John Muir is walking through the band of giant sequoias in the Sierra before they ever became national parks and he’s tracking these groves in his naturalist way and he’s trying to define how these giant sequoia exists. Because to that point, nobody had really defined these things. He really was an elevated naturalist. He started talking about how giant sequoia don't grow in high moisture areas, the presence of the giant sequoia makes that area moist. So, Taft, my son's name is Taft, and I have been talking about the fact that trees give rise to groundwater. Last night, that was our big discussion of how that happens when there was no water before and suddenly when trees are growing there’s now groundwater.


It's particularly poignant in this current situation in the Western United States where fire is such an issue because the trees are disappearing, the water is disappearing, and fire is an issue. But if you bring back the trees and you're able to continue to conserve those ecosystems, the water will be there. It will inevitably be there. That is really a special point to acknowledge. 


Cina: What a great conversation to be having. That must be so special for you, to share with your son what you really care about and have him be interested. 


Ryan: Yeah, oh, absolutely. Isn't that the great pleasure of being a parent? It's too painful and shitty, otherwise. It's just devastating, you know? You have to let go of so much, you have very limited control, but getting to share these wonders of the world with your kid-yeah, that's what it's all about. 


Cina: Does he show any inclination toward bonsai? Is he interested in that?


Ryan: Yeah, he's got his own trees. I don't force it on him, but he comes and works on them. Sometimes, he'll come here and say, “Dad, I wanna wire or prune my tree.” So, we'll bring in his trees, we repot his trees, he picks out the pots, he's had school projects and he takes the trees to school to show them during his project. Then, somehow through this, he decided he wanted to learn how to make sushi, so we made sushi. And then, I've had some of the Japanese bonsai professionals come here and he's spent a lot of time with us, and we speak Japanese, and he's fascinated with Japanese. So, it’s interesting.   


Cina; Okay, so I just have a couple of more things. You pretty much answered this in ways, but just to frame it more clearly, how do you discuss the “long game?” For kids, it seems harder to help them connect their immediate decisions and the implications of those decisions when they may never see the results in their lifetimes. How do you think about getting kids to care about making good, responsible choices for purposes beyond their own experiences?


Ryan: You know, I have the best tool in the world for that. It's important that you understand how powerful these tiny trees are because I am able to illustrate that point on a digestible scale for a kid through these tiny trees. 


I don’t say things like, “What you do today, you're never going see this thing come to fruition because it's going to take a hundred years, 200 years,” or, that they’re conserving something for the next generation. No, I tell them to just focus on this tree right here and what you do today in terms of how you prune it. It's going change the way it looks tomorrow and it's going to change the way it looks next year. If you don't water it correctly, it's not going to make it tomorrow and it's not going to make it to next year. It's not going to make it 10 years, or it's not going to be 100 years old. 


It's very easy. It's one-to-one for kids to understand the impact of their actions on this living thing that is the tree. All of a sudden, I don't have to say, “Now, this tree is like that full-size tree outside.” They get there on their own. It’s not necessary to try and close all the gaps that maybe adults would have a little bit more of a challenge with in terms of those chasms to cross. Kids cross them organically. It's almost immediate, just connecting them to this tiny thing that embodies everything that those bigger things embody. It's digestible for them and it's very effortless. It's shocking.


Cina: You really do have one of the most powerful tools for teaching about the long game.


Ryan: It's unbelievable how digestible it is. It was really through working with kids that I started to recognize how powerful the tool bonsai was on a greater macro level.


Cina: Okay, the last real question that I had on my list is why does supporting creative discovery, creative expression, or creativity in general matter? When the world is in such crisis all the time, why does art matter?


Ryan: Well, I think, just in general, it's like, an escape for a lot of people. Art allows you to communicate in the language that's comfortable to you about the deep and intimate things that are causing you great happiness or great sadness. It's an outlet. It's a vehicle to communicate. 


As less and less is heard because the echo chamber is getting louder and louder, I think arts becoming more and more important. Unfortunately, it's the thing that's getting cut out of schools, along with music and a lot of other creative outlets. It's like the sacrificial lamb, which is unfortunate. If somebody has a creative outlet or a creative endeavor, it allows them to really focus on other things that are considered priorities, like math, science, literature, or things like that. 


You have to give that space. We've crossed the tipping point of each generation becoming less educated than their parents as opposed to more educated than their parents. At this point in time, we're slipping as a nation in terms of the education of our population on a world scale, dramatically. 


These are statements that we’re not headed in the right direction. And yet, we're not really changing what we're doing to alter that trajectory that has started us declining and going in the wrong way. In my mind, to have a positive, productive civilization we’re not headed in the right direction. But I think one of the backbones of North American culture was valuing arts and creativity. We were one of the most creative cultures, which is why we rose to prominence so fast in the industrialized world. 


So, I feel like creativity is of paramount importance, especially if you're a developed nation. That's one of the luxuries of having all of your fundamental needs met is that you get to focus your time on being more creative and exploring thought and communication through those actions.


Cina: I'm glad you brought that up. It is a luxury and something that we take for granted, or maybe just have a lack of awareness about how much of a luxury it is to have the mental and emotional capacity to be creative. But also to have the time and space to do something about it, to actualize that creativity. This is true even in places and circumstances in the developed world, for that matter. 


But it was interesting what you said earlier about art because that term has always been uncomfortable for me and I’m not sure why. I use it because it makes a clear connection for people about what we’re doing, but we’re more nurturing the ideas of creativity, discovery, self-expression, critical thinking, all things that in my mind are what art is. 


Ryan: Yeah, it's so loaded. Also, the crazy thing that I’ve noticed in Taft is that creativity is how kids are engineered to learn and we strip them of that. I try to look at that on a continuum of how to not strip that from him. He really does have this imagination that when he is here just takes over and I’m like, “Good,  go do that. I'm not going to bother you until you're ready. You do your thing.” Any time he comes up to me and he's like, “Can I play on this tree?” It's like, “Absolutely, yeah, that's so cool.”


Cina: So good. Well, Ryan, I could keep chatting but I don’t want to keep you. This has been a fantastic conversation and I appreciate your participation. Give me all of the ways that we can point people to learn more about Mirai and the work you’re doing. You mentioned a non-profit. 


Ryan: Yeah, we're launching a nonprofit called The One Tree Project. I have the belief that one tree can save the world because when you connect a person with that organism and they understand it, or they identify with it, it changes their awareness of the entire world, you know? This is something I experienced at 12 years old when I found bonsai and suddenly I'm looking at the bushes in town, I'm looking at the shrubs on the mountain, I'm looking at the trees on the peak, and I'm saying, “Wow! That's an interesting tree. Wow! Why is that growing like that? Wow! Why is that whole hillside dying, what's happening here?” 


It led me down the rabbit hole of starting to understand ecology and sustainability and the plight of the Western United States and this grand scale on a global level, and then to ask what is the solution to all of it. 


Let's just start with one tree and give people the ability to connect to one tree and help conserve or sustain one tree. Now, is that the General Sherman tree in Sequoia? Or, is that a tree on the hillside in Yosemite?


And how do we connect people to that one tree? Is it a kid with a Japanese maple in his first-grade class? How do we make this connection to a tree where somebody understands and decides to take action to help preserve the DNA of these ancient trees, work on fiery ecology to sustain the grove that that tree grows in, perform vascular research so that we understand the hydration capacity and how we can continue to assist that, or funding education that goes into schools so that these kids get that experience with that one tree. 


It's a very big, broad goal that we have, but it all starts with a single tree and connecting somebody to it. It is very powerful what can happen when somebody forms a relationship with a tree. We see it every day.


Cina: That’s great. It’s a foundational idea to any type of “service” work, right? I come from more of a humanitarian crisis background in my work and have also witnessed the power that happens when somebody cares about one cause, one place, one family, one person. Because people often experience compassion fatigue when the need is so great, everywhere, that idea of “the one” and focusing where you feel personally compelled, is critical to people getting involved in works in meaningful ways. 


It’s because they have that connection point. When people connect to something they are more likely to care about it, which is why we’re starting with the kids. Let’s raise a generation of young people who care, and have a sense of personal responsibility, so they will champion the changes we need in the world. 


Ryan: Yeah, when people care they’re going to do something about it. 


Cina: Agreed, powerful stuff and powerful mission. O.k., how else can people learn about your work with Mirai? 


Ryan: Yeah, bonsaimirai.com, we're on Instagram, our Youtube presence is probably the best place for people to find us. Also, we have a significant amount of our ethics and ethos about the natural world available on our blog which is, I think, a really powerful tool that isn't utilized enough. That expresses some of our thoughts about these things. 


Cina: Great and also your education at Mirai Live and your podcast Asymmetry! Thank you, again, Ryan for being open and willing to contribute to our project and discuss coming to the learning center in Springfield, MO!


Ryan: Yeah, thanks for wanting to talk with me. I look forward to it and I think there are some wonderful things we can accomplish.


Cina: Same. O.k., I’ll be in touch with ideas and we’ll see what feels right and what’s inspiring. I look forward to an ongoing conversation! 


Ryan: Love it.

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