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A Life Among The Trees

A walk amid the trees is, for many, a visceral experience.  We listen to the sounds and movement overhead, and let our eyes play with the fractured light that falls between their lengths and limbs.  Our minds meander as we go.  Maybe we consider their age and all they’ve seen.  Maybe we ponder the depth of their roots, penetrating far below our footsteps, entangled and communicating in the oldest of languages.  Maybe we realize we are connected to the trees.  Made by the same miracle, we breathe their lifegiving oxygen and give them breath in return.  They have sheltered us, fed us, and served as fuel for our fires and imaginations.

The walk down the heavily treed driveway to the Rosade Bonsai Studio is long and winding.  It is, in some way, a preparation for meeting the bonsai master.  Taking in the beauty of the trees around me, my mind seemed to shift from the world in which I live to the world into which I was walking.

Tiny trees of all species reside at Rosade Bonsai Studio where visitors are welcome by appointment seven days a week. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

Nestled far from the road’s edge, in Solebury Township, sits the studio and home of Chase Rosade, a lifelong bonsai artist, grower, and instructor.  The path to his property is a transition that feels almost intentional yet divine.  The incredible heights of trees possibly hundreds of years old stretch upward, rising overhead in the most peaceful of dominations.  They are all you can see and all you can hear.  Their formidable quiet settle the mind, clearing it of everything but wonder and calm. 

At the top of the driveway, I am greeted by several large bonsai pots housing what I can only describe as tiny forests.  One shallow oval is home to six maples, each standing about two feet high and perfectly arranged with distinct trunks and a complete hemlock.  As I begin to examine the others, Chase appears in the studio door.

Chase Rosade stands amid countless bonsai in the yard of his Solebury studio home. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

He is a tranquil and unassuming man, much like the trees themselves.  Simple.  Honest.  Real.  The lines on his face add to the charm of his gentle smile and kind, shiny eyes.  His dry humor and matter-of-fact tone of voice serve to enhance the comfortable feeling one gets being here.  After some brief introductions, he leads us to the enclosure beside the house.  Makeshift tables and stands made from wood planks and cut trunks hold dozens of different bonsai.  Some belong to Chase; others are simply living here for a time.

“Don’t look too closely,” Chase chuckles, as Kristina narrows her lens.  “You’ll see too much that needs to be done.”  Here, however, you are blinded by your sense of amazement.  Who could find a single flaw in a place where everywhere you look is a marvel of the relationship between nature and human creativity?

A centuries old art, Bonsai, Chase explains, is the art of growing a tree in a container “to create the illusion of a larger and older tree through the process of pruning.  Any of these trees, at one time – the big trees, the oaks, the maples – could’ve become a bonsai if you caught them young.  It’s a living tree in a container that, with care, can outlive you and I.”

This might be the most incredible part of bonsai; that the hulking masses overhead and the stunningly small beauties are the exact same species of tree.  Even more fascinating is that while you can modify the tree’s size and shape, you cannot change the size of the fruit and flowers it produces.  Chase shows us a flowering tree in bloom and tells us that, although he doesn’t have any now, he has had fruit trees.  Imagine full-size apples hanging from a two-foot-tall tree on your kitchen countertop. 

Full-sized flowers and fruit grow on miniaturized bonsai trees. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

To demonstrate the reality of exact species in small sizes, Chase pulls a tiny Japanese maple seedling from the ground.  With so many trees overhead and all around, countless seedlings of all kinds spring up everywhere in the warm weather.  He gently handles the roots as he talks, walking us over to another Japanese maple.  This one is contained in a pot and stands about two and a half feet high.  This, Chase tells us, was his first bonsai.

In 1958, Chase pulled the seedling and put it in a pot.  He was about 18 years old and had just started his education in horticulture at Delaware Valley College.  A few years later, upon the completion of his bachelor’s degree, having gotten a job at a nursery in Princeton, and subsequently meeting his first wife, Chase left the maple – along with some other plants – with his mother while he “went on the bum.”  He and his new wife, a Japanese woman, traveled to her native country by way of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  They drove from London to Calcutta in a ’63 Land Rover, putting the vehicle on boats when necessary.  Their passage through the Middle East included Afghanistan and Iraq at a time of “relative peace,” when the countries could be enjoyed for their unique culture and landscapes.  When starting on the details about the trip, Chase stops and laughs, “That’s a whole other story.”

At the end of this grand adventure was the most pivotal point in Chase’s life.  He had seen his first bonsai at the Philadelphia Flower Show when he was a child.  His family had visited from Allentown, where he was born.  He remembered being quite interested in the tree at the time, but the thought of becoming involved in the art of bonsai would not occur to him until he reached Japan at the end of his road trip.  Chase and his wife spent 14 months there with her family.  It was during this time that Chase took up an apprenticeship with a bonsai master.

In the 1960’s, long before the Information Age, there was no real avenue for a person to explore bonsai unless they learned from another artist.  There were very few publications on the subject, and even fewer were available in English.  It was an art form that was taught by doing, and the learning is never complete.  “I’m still a student.  I’m still learning.  It’s an art and a horticultural skill, a horticultural endeavor.”

More than that, it is – for Chase, like many bonsai artists – a way of life.  He returned from Japan and began pruning the small maple he’d left in his mother’s care, shaping his tree and his world with shears and wire.  After a short time, working in a nursery and doing bonsai for enjoyment, people began asking him to share his skill.  In 1970, he bought his home on Ely Road and gave his life over to his craft.  Soon, he would be running classes, and eventually traveling the world as a lecturer and instructor.  “It was a long time ago,” he says about beginning his life’s work.  “I’m an ancient person.”

At 82 years old, he is a self-proclaimed “Old Fart.”  He laughs about that, but it is easy to see that his trees have kept him young.

Surrounded by his work, Chase resides in a Mid-Century Modern house on a property that includes a greenhouse and studio, a yard enclosure full of trees on display, and breathtaking furnishings by his late, great friend, George Nakashima.  “He liked to display his work with bonsai, and I provided them.” 

Rosade‘s Mid-Century Modern home possesses the same strikingly beauty of nature meeting creativity as his work. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

The home possesses what Chase calls “a Japonesque feel” that is not accidental.  While he does not consider himself a Japanophile, his home, tastes, interests, and culinary skill would suggest otherwise.  Still, it is quite apparent when spending time in his warm, quiet company that Chase runs much deeper than any singular identity.  He has been a son, a husband – twice, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a student, an apprentice, a teacher, a traveler, a horticulturalist, an advocate, and an artist.  He has learned from his successes and failures.  He is candid and wise, humble and humorous.  Like the roots of the trees around him, Chase draws his life up from his environment and tells stories that span ages.  Stories, yes.  Chase tells stories, like the trees. 

“Every tree tells a story, of course.  I have a story,” he says with a shrug, as he moves his hands over the bizarrely twisted trunk of “a collected tree.”  He teaches Kristina and I that a collected tree is a tree transplanted from a place, as opposed to being cultivated in a nursery or from another bonsai.  He beams at the strange beauty of this one as he continues, “It came out of the Rocky Mountains, I think.  It’s about 200 years old.” 

A collected tree from the Rocky Mountains more than 200 years old that Rosade is nursing back to health. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

The contorted shape of this particular tree attracted both Kristina and I early in our visit.  Its immediate curve sends it growing horizontally out of its pot.  The curled trunk seems to have two tones to its wood and only a few branches, which extend from the very end.  This, Chase explains as he lays his hands on the tree, is “dead wood wrapped with live tissue.  This tree has a long story, which I am not going to get into.  I’m going to get it good and healthy.  It’s not good and healthy now.”

Looking at how the deep lines in the aged wood and the deep lines of age in Chase’s hands seem to mimic one another, I realize that this man is doing more than caring for or crafting these trees.  His life is their life, and they are connected in ways most of us cannot imagine.  This small studio home Chase has created deep in the woods of Solebury is a sanctum of sorts, a place of quiet vision, sincere love, and ancient art. 

The hands of Rosade doing familiar work, pruning a tree he intends to miniaturize and make full.
Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

I ask him if he talks to his trees, pointing to the old wisdom that speaking to plants helps them grow.  He answers in earnest, “Well… we understand each other.”

“You’re inspiring them,” I say.

“Inspire,” he chuckles, gently pruning a tiny juniper.  “I don’t inspire.  Encourage.  I encourage.”  He moves to the next tree on the table and continues, “I am a tree sculptor.”

I inquire about the tree he is working on.  The branches have deep scars that encircle them.  He tells me they are from wire that was left on too long.  The owner didn’t care of it consistently, wrapped it and left it, and now the tree is permanently marked.  He seems a bit sad and says he will not be returning this tree to its former owner.  When used correctly, the wire helps artists shape the branches in the directions they want them to grow.  “A wire is like a brush to a painter.”

“A wire is like a brush to a painter,” Rosade explains. Bonsai pots, like this one, are an art form of their own. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

As we tour the studio and home, I ask Chase if he knows how many trees he has.  He seems almost breathless as he tries to answer with a guess, somewhere between one and two hundred.  “You can have one tree, or you can have… too many.”

“Do you have too many now?” I ask.

“Yeah, yeah. I do.”  There is no suffering in that statement.  In fact, his tone is almost joyful.

“It’s a nice feeling,” he says.  “I enjoy what I do.  99% of the people that you know hate what they do.  I get up in the morning.  I come out here.  I play with trees.  I prune.  I trim.  I do whatever I want to do.  If I want to stop and have a glass of water, I do.  If I want to have a glass of scotch, I do.”

Many bonsai live indoors all year round, while some come indoors only in winter. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

But Chase is doing more than drinking scotch and playing with trees.  He is living out his passion, passing it on to students, sharing his wisdom, traveling to see his “bonsai friends”- as Kristina called them, giving Chase a laugh.  He is weeding and pruning and painting with wire.  He is communicating with living things far older than himself.

As we near the end of our visit, he trims small pieces from a tree he is sculpting and smiling at.  He says simply, “We help each other.”

I believe that is exactly what they are doing.

Rosade pruning one of the larger trees that resides at his home-based studio. Photo by Kristina Gibb D’Amico

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