Bamboo is an amazing plant. Sturdy and strong, it stays green year round and adds its unique character to the landscape in which it grows. In summer it grows quickly and the sound of its leaves as they brush together in a wind is like a whisper, a secret conversation happening amidst the stalks and foliage. In winter, bowed by snow or ice, the shoots arch and bend, stretching the tips of the plant toward the ground in graceful, comma-like shapes.
I’ve been fascinated by bamboo since I was a child. Our home in Alabama had a grove of bamboo in the backyard, a natural screen separating our property from our neighbor’s. The stalks were verdant and thick, some as large in circumference as a baseball. As kids we played among the bamboo, wriggling into tight spaces and trying to bend the heavy stems. My mother hated the plant, cursing it regularly as it encroached into the yard. Bamboo is prolific and when the environment is right, it can grow at an unbelievably rapid speed. It sends its roots underground and pushes its way through the soil in search of air and light. It likes its space and in good, rainy conditions, its possible to see two-foot shoots push up over night, young, thin stalks bravely emerging into the world, eager to rise and thicken. Once a stalk of bamboo is mature, it is extremely hard to tame or to remove. My mother was on that backyard bamboo mercilessly, attempting to mow it back and keep it from overtaking the backyard.
In many Asian countries bamboo is still used in construction. It is that strong. In Japan, I recall seeing bamboo platforms and posts hugging the sides of buildings being erected or repaired, supporting clusters of workers bustling about on it, wielding hammers or paintbrushes. No steel needed, just the indomitable power of one of nature’s sturdiest plants.
In Sumi Ink painting, there are four forms which a novice must master. Entitled the “Four Gentlemen” by Chinese artists (alas females were not considered to be worthy of study at this time), students who wish to master the basics of sumi ink and brushwork must start by rendering a chrysanthemum, a wild orchid brushstroke, a plum branch and, of course, the bamboo brushstroke. Each of these elements correlates with a season in the year and represents a specifically desired, manly characteristic: the chrysanthemum stood for Autumn as well as modesty and loyalty; the wild orchid stood for Summer and noble virtue; the plum branch is Spring and the white blossoms that cling to the branch signify character; and the last form is bamboo, symbolizing Winter and strength or integrity. I love this ideas and how the elements of the natural world expand into art and life.
When I took Sumi ink painting, we practiced all of the above forms. I struggled to control my horsehair brush, to make my marks on the page with accuracy and fluidity. What can look so simple, especially when created by a master artist, is really very challenging. It can take years, or a lifetime, to truly have command of this medium. Oddly enough, my teacher, a lovely Korean woman who had started studying sumi ink as a child, constantly praised my bamboo renderings. I liked the other forms but somehow the works I did that focused on the stalks and leaves of the bamboo plant were the most graceful, the most beautiful in their freedom of expression. “You are bamboo,” she said to me. Apparently one way to determine one’s basic character traits is to see which element she gravitates toward in painting. ” Hmmm,” I thought. “Not quite as showy as an orchid or as open as a chrysanthemum.” But my black and gray shoots of bamboo covered my papers with a kind of quiet grace, spilling here and there in random patterns, small and earnest leaves popping from the stalks at artistic angles. I was happy for finally I had found some truth to my essence. Bamboo. Maybe not the most aesthetically beautiful of the plants but certainly the strongest and most useful. “You are bamboo,” she said again as she looked at my work for the course. “It is good. Strong but also very flexible. Bamboo knows when to bend but rarely does it break.
I thought of lifelong connection to this plant and smiled. To have the character of bamboo seems like a very good thing to me.
And now, in my own backyard, I have a forty-foot screen of bamboo. I did not plant it; I inherited it when I bought the house. When I told my mother about it, she said, “Oh no. Maybe you can have it removed.” But I did not want to remove it. I love the gentle flow of the stalks, the rustle of the leaves. I take pictures of it in winter as snow gathers in the topmost sections and forces the thirty foot branches to bend and almost kiss the earth. Sure it’s alot of work as I am constantly cutting it back, trying to control its prolific desire to spread. In certain weather conditions, I almost police my yard for if I don’t cut the stalks early, they can be beyond my reach and my strength in a matter of days. I cut and trim and try to manage but I love my bamboo grove. I look out my window and see my friends, a lovely shade of green, providing home to many birds and a shady spot for my dog to rest. I think of my sumi ink teacher and the assertion that my character is like that of bamboo. Strong and flexible…These are traits with which I can happily live.