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The incredible world of viewing stones

The people who grow and train bonsai have always fascinated me. The meticulous craftsmanship of getting a miniature tree to grow in a pot, then shaping and pruning it to create a compact portrait of nature is an incredible skill.

And for people like me, just keeping them alive is a challenge. Unhappily, I confess that every one of the gift bonsai that I have received over the years has succumbed to either too much care or not enough.

When I was working for the big paper in the valley, it was my pleasure to take photographs and interview members of the several bonsai associations in advance of their annual shows. And, each one would present me with a potted plant that faced certain death.



Allow me to explain that it was not standard procedure for writers to accept gifts like this. But to NOT accept such a gift would have been to infer, “I don’t want your stupid little tree!”

But one day after taking a picture of one Japanese gentleman’s bonsai, he offered me a truly remarkable plant, and I had to confess my ineptitude in keeping the plants alive.




Instead of hurt, I saw a glimpse of inspiration in his eyes. He went back to his collection and returned with an unusual small stone mounted on a wooden base.

“Viewing stone!” he smiled.

Happily, the viewing stone has survived over the years – needing only occasional dusting and rinsing off – and has given me much pleasure when dwelling on the enormous pressures that caused its formation and how old it might possibly be.

And that, essentially, is what viewing stones are all about. Their history and folklore and symbolism rival that of bonsai and are intertwined in both the Chinese and Japanese cultures.

Once I was writing about viewing stones, interviewing a Japanese collector who invited my photographer and me into an old garage whose walls were lined with shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of stones, many with handsome carved wooden bases.

“Pick one!” he offered to both of us. I selected one (which has since delighted my rock-loving grandson and is on display in his room) and my photographer – not at all enthused by his assignment – pointed to an odd-shaped stone on the floor. Our host appeared stunned for a moment, then lifted the stone and presented it with a smile – but first kissed it goodbye!

Astonished by this behavior, my photographer tried to trade it for another, but our host declined to interfere with fate. On the way back to the paper, my associate glumly admitted he “didn’t even want one of the rocks” and picked the one he thought was least valuable.

Lest this sort of thing happen to you, here’s a brief rundown on the art: Chinese (and subsequently Japanese) collectors have been seeking out these stones for thousands of years for their beauty and suggestive shapes.

In Japan, this complex art form is known as “suiseki,” and the stones are customarily displayed with bonsai. Traditionally mounted on a carved wooden base, the most popular stones are those that suggest a distant mountain, an island, a waterfall, thatched hut or animal.

Buddhists feel the stones symbolize the mythical holy Mount Shumi; Japanese Shintoists see them as representing the home of powerful spiritual forces; Chinese philosophers steeped in the riddle of yin-yang view a stone set in water as symbolic of two opposing forces; for Taoists they represent paradise.

Although first introduced to the art by the Chinese (during the reign of Empress Regent Suiko, A.D. 592 to 628), the art has been intertwined by the Japanese into the formal tea ceremony, flower arranging, poetry, calligraphy, literature and painting.

Some stones are so valued that they have their own carrying cases and seldom leave the company of their owners. And unlike the traditional Chinese stones, those most prized by the Japanese reflect serenity, austerity and a profound sense of “quiet.”

Insofar as color is concerned, the most prized suiseki are those with subtle colors that seem to rise from within, combined with the philosophic elements of “wabi” (melancholy) “sabi” (ancient, serene), “shibui” (understated elegance) and “yugen” (mystery).

The English language flounders in an attempt to define these elements of beauty and serenity in a few words and – if I were capable – it would take more room than we have here.

But just to give you a leg up on conversation the next time you see viewing stones, here’s a primer on the types that have become most popular:

Suiseki stones represent landscapes, including caves, islands and mountain streams and also may mimic the shape of a human, insect, hut or boat. Some (gasp) even have erotic overtones.

Biseki are stones that have been altered by cutting and polishing, and they’re carefully chosen from thousands of tumbled stones for the shapes and pictures they might contain.

Scholar stones, which follow the Chinese tradition (excellent examples are on display in the Chinese garden in downtown Portland) are usually abstract and are mostly vertical.

Got that? There will be a quiz.

Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, a trained master gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.


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