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August 2011 Issue
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Bonsai, luck and adversity

The James Caird displayed during the ‘Antarctic Heroes’ exhibition at Te Papa, 2004. Used with kind permission of the Governors of Dulwich College, where the James Caird is normally housed. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography
A bonsai tree offers lessons in adversity today’s overindulged society would do well to take heed of

For my 30th birthday, my sister gave me a pot-plant. Worsley, as I named it, grew in a blue pot, standing about 35cm high, with a profusion of short, twisted limbs. Each branch ended in a flourish of fleshy, red-green leaves. As far as pot-plants go, Worsley was quite striking. I instantly liked it, though I normally prefer native plants.

Worsley had unusual characteristics. Although its height was diminutive, its trunk was disproportionately thick, as were the nine branches. Its leaves were so symmetrically packed together that they had an ordered, cultivated appearance.

Worlsey’s appearance was not a quirk of nature, but resulted from a Japanese plant cultivation technique called bonsai. It had been deliberately shaped over some nine years, its roots clipped and restrained, its limbs carefully pruned.

From my limited understanding, bonsai encourages this sort of striking but stunted form in a plant that in the less-restrained environment of nature would be a much larger, wilder and less-ordered shrub. Or even a tree. By actually restricting the plant’s growth, deliberately hindering the root structure, and creating a slightly adverse environment, the plant cannot adopt its strictly natural form, but is shaped into something which is nevertheless somehow stubborn, proud and often pleasing.

I named Worsley after the New Zealand-born captain of the Endurance, the ship that took Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica during 1914. Shackleton hoped to traverse Antarctica, passing over the South Pole en route. As an admirer of the British explorer, I was tempted to call the plant Shackleton, but my sister already had a Shackleton pot-plant. So Worsley it was.

Frank Worsley was a shortish man: stubborn and proud. And admirable in adversity. After the Endurance (what irony in the ship’s name) was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea near Antarctica’s coastline, Shackleton and his men escaped to camp on the ice flows. There they waited out the long Antarctic winter until the ice began to thaw. After some false starts, the men managed to sail their three remaining lifeboats to Elephant Island, a small, inhospitable island off the Antarctic Peninsula. There the men made a makeshift hut constructed from two of the upturned boats.

The explorers’ only hope lay in reaching outside help. Shackleton, Worsley and four others took the remaining, slightly larger lifeboat, the James Caird, and sailed it to the nearest habitation – South Georgia Island in the south Atlantic. Their journey ranks amongst the greatest sea journeys ever undertaken, and against all odds they managed to sail the diminutive vessel across the most inhospitable and tempestuous ocean on the planet. I’ve seen the James Caird. It’s little more than a dinghy.

Worsley navigated using a sextant, and in the monstrous seas they encountered, taking bearings from the horizon was often impossible. If his calculations proved to be incorrect, they would sail right past South Georgia, and all hope would be lost. Worsley’s navigation faced its greatest challenge. Due to his skill – and a great deal of luck – they reached South Georgia after 15 days. It was the nautical equivalent of finding the needle in a haystack. At South Georgia, help lay with the Norwegians manning the whaling station at Stromness.

Shackleton eventually managed to launch a rescue ship from Chile to pick up his remaining men on Elephant Island. No one died.

Although the trans-Antarctic expedition was undoubtedly a massive failure (they failed even to land on the continent) their escape from the Southern Ocean remains one of the greatest survival stories ever.

Not long after Angela gave me Worsley, a mishap occurred. After the pot tipped over, one of Worsley’s branches snapped off. I duly planted this limb in another pot, hoping it would grow roots, thereby producing another Worsley – one I could gift back to my sister.

In the months that followed, the ‘Worslet’ did establish roots, and after a period of leaf shedding, managed to gain some colour and even began to grow.

Several months after my 30th birthday, Worslet had quite a different shape to his parent. Instead of a compact, tight head of leaves, he developed an unruly tuft. Each individual leaf grew longer, more green and less red, slightly less fleshy, and independent of its neighbours.

I should not have been surprised by the difference in shape: my attempts at bonsai failed. Worslet’s pot was too large. Its root structure had experienced uninhibited growth, and its resulting form was much different to that of the carefully cultivated Worsley. One looked like an unruly teenager, while the other, an aged and wizened adult.

Worsley had a grace of form, maturity, and a shape somehow more satisfying. By overcoming a degree of adversity, it had developed character.

Quite apart from introducing me to bonsai, I think Worsley gave me insight into human nature. Like his namesake, the plant had overcome an environment of adversity. Shackleton once wrote of his men: ‘No words can do justice to their courage and their cheerfulness. To be brave cheerily, to be patient with a glad heart, to stand the agonies of thirst with laughter and song, to walk beside Death for months and never be sad – that’s the spirit that makes courage worth having.’

I worry we are becoming too soft. We’re getting fatter and less active. A friend recently told me that his teenage son stopped exercising when he began to sweat, as that was a sign of over-exertion. How much inactivity, complacency, shopping malls and gluttony can society stand before imploding? Didn’t the Roman Empire fall when it had all become too easy?

Trampers and climbers know something of adversity. Through the physical challenge of mountainous terrain they learn something of the relationship between effort and reward. At times – when the rain arrives, when cold bites, when windfall covers the track, when injury occurs – you simply have to face some level of hardship, or at least discomfort, and push on. In our increasingly cushioned, flabby, have-everything-now world, that’s a good lesson.

We can’t always be strong enough to welcome adversity in our lives, but we should value its role as a motivator and shaper. To risk nothing is to do nothing.

Stephen Hawking, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, is an example of a man pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge despite the most debilitating physical disability. He communicates his brilliant theories on space, time and the universe through a computer and voice simulator. Hawking once surmised that, without his great disability, he might never have become anything other than a mediocre scientist.

I’m over 40 now. Sadly, Worsley and Worslet did not survive shifting house, neglect and the arrival of children. I’ve never been a keen gardener, or a diligent keeper of pot plants. A cactus is our only pot plant now – it can tolerate months of drought.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there too. Adversity plays a role, yes, but human lives – like plants – need some nourishment too. The days when the tui call, the navigation goes well, the rain holds off, and the clouds unexpectedly clear reward the tramper who has faced adversity on other trips.

I think of long trips when the weather has remained uncharacteristically good for weeks. When it feels like you’re being smiled on simply for taking a chance. When you know that the outdoors rewards those who are willing to sweat a little.

Sometimes, like Shackleton or Worsley, all your will and effort and optimism are rewarded with a simple and extraordinary measure of good luck.