INTERN JOURNAL
Those cabin fever blues
Dealing with coming indoors to a smaller space.

By Seth Palmer

editor's NOTE:

The Rodale Institute interns take turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning as they help out the various departments here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of potential farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

--NF Editors

Posted December 13, 2007: The first real snow fell outside last night. It wasn't the first snow, but the first time that it laid on the ground for more than a few hours. Temperatures were in the 20s all day, and it seems like, in the middle of December, winter is finally here to stay.

I didn't have any tender plants outside this year—since I moved several times and will move again before the year is out—but everyone who did knows about the rush to bring everything in before the first frost. That was several months ago, but autumn is the prelude to winter and the frosts of late autumn put everything outside to sleep. Fortunately, that's not the case indoors and planters can be brought into the warmth, ground-sown plants can be propagated with cuttings brought inside, and the growing season can continue in a greenhouse or on a windowsill.

My personal interest this winter season is indoor bonsai, normally an outdoor craft, but one which can be adapted to species that do better indoors than the traditional conifers and deciduous hardwoods. Tropical species like the Jade tree (Crassula ovata, Crassula argentia), Elephant Bush (Portulacaria afra) and Hawaiian Umbrella Tree (Schefflera arboricola) are perfect for indoor bonsai, thriving in bright sunlight but also managing to be content in lower-light conditions.

The key to creating superior indoor bonsai, according to David Fukumoto—the creator of the “True Indoor Bonsai” and a world-renowned bonsai artist—is a process he calls “reduction-building.” Of course you must start with a healthy plant that is well-adapted to its environment, but once you have a suitable specimen you must then prune it back drastically, but also precisely, leaving just enough growth to allow the plant to regenerate. It is left to do this until it seems full again, and then, once again, it is cut back to a bare minimum. Each time the plant is pruned it enters a new phase of growth, presenting a new form unforetold by the old. It is this cycle of reducing and rebuilding which will give the tree its immense character, like a tiny replica of a grander and older cousin, shaped and weathered by the elements.

But anyone who's grown anything successfully will know that a plant's growth above the soil line mirrors the growth below it, and in order for such drastic reduction to take place in a bonsai's limbs, it must also be done to the roots. Otherwise, the plant will choke itself with the regrowth, and the desired effect will not be achieved.

I find, especially in this season of natural rest—a time for “coming indoors,” so-to-speak—that the art of bonsai offers an appropriate metaphor for contemplation: In the shaping of our own bonsai tree, it is the act of focused self-reduction that makes possible our regeneration and builds our distinctive character; but to keep our tree healthy and balanced, the work we do on our surface must mirror that which we do below it, inside. Where the hands cannot work, the mind and spirit together must always be busy.

On December 21st my work at The Rodale Institute is finished, and as I conclude my internship at The New Farm and prepare to draw this chapter of my life to a close, I'm focusing on what to reduce and where to grow in the new chapter of the new year.

On the farm, it's time to order the seeds for spring planting and to tend to any cuttings we might have taken in the fall, propagation being a sort of reduction-building exercise of its own. It’s time to make our plans for the future.

Working with annual crops, it's often easy to forget that the larger cycle doesn't stop and start, and that things don't really end; they simply change form and continue on down the line, like water that flows, then rises to the sky and falls again to the earth as rain. Likewise, winter is just another phase of the cycle, a time of rest and the earth's regeneration after a hard summer's growing.

Hopefully this harvest past was fruitful for you. It certainly was for me, and in so many ways. Already I'm eager to be back outside with my hands in the dirt, but there's a voice that says “all good things in all good time.” It's time for slowing down a bit, catching up with all the folks we missed during the busy times of warmer weather, and while the snow falls outside in the cold, sitting by the fire and drinking warm drinks that warm the soul.

Winter is the season to contemplate the renewal of spring, and how it is that we might achieve such grand things as we dream, like a bonsai tree in our own tiny space.