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An Opportunist's Tale

As a Bonsai and Suiseki nut with mountaineering tendencies, I spend a season in the Alps whenever it's feasible. In years when I cannot get there, reading mountaineering literature is a poor consolation. One book, entitled "Ten Years Under the Earth" (by Norbert Casteret), describes his discovery of fantastic ice-filled caves passing through mountain summits. Reading it prompted me to visit the Pyrenees for the first time.

A fortnight of fruitless searching for the ice caves, high on the mountainsides, gave me opportunities to study the wonderfully dwarfed pines that cling to life near the tree line. Failure to locate the caves led me to seek local expert advice. The Guide Bureaux near our campsite had a notice indicating that a trip would be visiting the "Grottes de Glace" in a week, just before we were due to leave. I swallowed my pride and paid for my first guided ascent in the Alps.

The day was remarkable. A party of ten european alpinists, the guide and myself struggled with each other's languages. The mountaineering was not a problem, as the techniques are the same in any tongue. Attempting, in poor "Franglais", to explain my fascination with the superb rocks strewn about, I drew many blank stares.

We crossed the chain of the Pyrenees from the snow covered French side and descended onto a barren and dry Spanish plateau. Exploring the intriguing caves, with floors like ice rinks, I noticed walls of wonderfully rugged dissolved limestone. Once above ground, the party rested for lunch. I was immediately captivated by the jagged bicoloured and suitably sized, weathered rocks, lying as scree all around us.

There was much consternation as the eccentric Welshman ran from rock to rock, hefting and turning them, gleefully sorting them and finally deciding to place the best, largest, sharpest and most weather-beaten one inside his rucksack. A flood of concerned questions in Dutch, German and French. They obviously thought that the heat or altitude sickness had turned my mind and that I had decided to carry half the mountain back over the summit with me. Limited linguistic abilities allowed me "Pour les petit arbres." No reaction. "Pour le bonsai". A gleam of realisation on the guide's face and he rattled off a few sentences in French. The translators in the party went to work and soon the whole group was nodding in comprehension.

The weight in my sack seemed reasonable but increased inexorably, as the day wore on. We tackled the return ascent over the jagged spine of the Pyrenees. I managed to keep my place in the group but struggled to finish the descent over the glacier and back to the road in good style. By the time we arrived at our transport, my shoulders were bruised and I was beginning to wonder whether I had taken leave of my senses. Once reunited with my family, I checked the cargo. I had been right. It was worth every minute of pain and torture. It was and still is a beautiful rock.

For a while I could not make up my mind what to do with it. My bonsai society colleagues urged me to plant on it. I didn't want to tarnish its surface with soil, moss and trees. I was afraid that my judgement was clouded by the memories of the circumstances in which it was collected. But then other "masters" said keep it as suiseki. I am glad I did the latter. This stone was one of the most commented upon at the International Exhibition in Bournemouth. I think it may be a good while before I find a better and more worthy viewing stone!

Kevin Bailey is an ex-teacher of Geography and Outdoor Pursuits. His interest in Bonsai dates back to the late sixties, developing out of a passion for nature and a keen gardening background. He now juggles three jobs; teaching Media Systems at a Sixth Form college, running his own video production company and establishing a new Bonsai nursery in North Wales.

All Text & Photographs © Kevin Bailey 1997 - 2008


Photo’s, illustrations & text © Kevin Bailey  1999 - 2008

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All Text, Diagrams & Photographs © Kevin Bailey 1998 - 2008