What To Read: Max Falkowitz is nurturing bonsai trees

This week, we interviewed Max Falkowitz, a food and travel writer who writes Fire Escape Bonsai, a newsletter about his journey with bonsai.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Fire Escape Bonsai is a New York apartment dweller's endeavor to connect with nature and the world through the art of bonsai.

Bonsai is a long-term pursuit you’ve said that you won't have meaningful results for at least a decade. What inspired you to embark on this journey?

Like lots of other people stuck at home over the past year, I've recently developed a fascination with plants. I never paid plants much attention, which as someone who writes about food for his day job, is a big shortcoming. Some friends gifted me a tea plant because I love tea, and sure enough, I killed it within a month. It feels awful letting a plant die on your watch. So I decided to study. 

I love learning how complex systems work, and plants are so complex. They're amazing. The more I learned, the more I became drawn to trees. Trees work in tandem with so many organisms around them. Birds and rodents and moss and lichens and fungi. And other trees! I see bonsai as an extension of that mutualism – a human and a tree working together to make something that reflects the awesome beauty of what nature can do in extreme circumstances.

I collect trees at different stages of development so I can learn cross-sectionally as well as longitudinally. Will any of these trees ever become show-worthy bonsai? Probably not! I recently got to see part of the bonsai exhibit at The New York Botanical Garden. I will never develop a tree as beautiful as those. That's comforting to me, in a way. I can just do my best and try to learn from my trees. I don't need to worry about human measures of success.

As someone who writes with a “beginner’s mind,” what have been the most interesting lessons you’ve learned so far?

What sticks with me the most right now is that it's really good and healthy to suck at things and do them anyway. We all could use more outlets for that. There's enormous pressure to turn any hobby into a side hustle or part of your brand; I already have people asking me if I plan to write a book about bonsai. I just want to help my trees grow, man, and I'm still pretty bad at it! 

I make artistic and horticultural mistakes with them every week. But trees are patient and resilient. So I get to learn from them all the time. In any practice it's natural to want to improve the quality of what you're doing. But there's incredible value, and even pleasure, in failure along the way. 

Your bonsai have gone through so much, from squirrel attacks to unexpected snow. What’s been the most challenging part of the process?

The mundane answer is light and space. I don't have enough of either, and if my neighbors weren't so easygoing, I wouldn't have outdoor space at all. I'm still learning which trees can thrive in the shaded microclimate I have access to. My Japanese maple is thriving. My larch is grudgingly tolerating it.

The more interesting challenge is access to trees and the outdoors. Many bonsai begin as wild trees, dug up from forests then transplanted into containers. In decades of living in New York it never occurred to me how far I need to travel to access those forests, or even suburban garden centers. I love it here, but I find myself craving time outdoors that isn't spent hiking. Because hiking sucks. 

Has working with bonsai changed how you experience nature and the natural world?

Literally every time I step outside. I find myself getting distracted on walks with people because I'm gawking at the trees. I'm paying attention to their habits and growth cycles, why some are blooming right now while others have yet to bud. It gobsmacks me that I never noticed this before. It's as if you woke up one morning and could see infrared and ultraviolet light; the world is suddenly so much fuller and more alive. 

What’s your favorite type of tree?

I've been thinking about this a lot, and I don't have a definite answer. For a while I thought I was a pine guy – now I'm much more into deciduous trees. My current fascinations are the ginkgo and the dawn redwood, which are surviving remnants of truly ancient lineages stretching back around 200 million years. Can you even conceptualize time over that scale? Their growth habits are also pretty different from most trees today; there's something almost otherworldly about them to me. These days they're nearly all cultivated, not naturally grown, and they're planted everywhere. Invaders from another time!

I also appreciate the graceful qualities of cedars in the Himalayas, and the gnarly trunks of the cider apples that grow in Spain and France. I identify a lot with those sour old apple trees.

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?

Midwesterner is a publication about food in the Midwest, edited by my pal Jed Portman. I love the stories about hyper-regional oddities and cooking with foraged ingredients I've never tasted. The United States is so big and I've seen so little of it. Midwesterner's writers help with that.

Subscribe to Max’s newsletter, Fire Escape Bonsai, check out his website, or follow him on Twitter.