Sunday, July 13, 2008

Army man finds pease with bonsai

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

Thou shall not ignore thy tree.
If there were to be an 11th commandment, Ian Toland would say it should be something like that.
And he wouldn't be joking.
Trees are serious business at Toland's Killeen home.
For 10 years, he has dedicated two hours a day to the maintenance of his 125 bonsai trees.
'That's how I end my day - out with the bonsais,' Toland said. 'I like it that way.'
Tending to them caters to his desire to be outdoors.
'Never did I think I'd have to work at an inside job,' Toland said, referring to his position as database administrator for the Killeen school district.
After eight years, Toland still is adjusting to life behind a desk. He misses his outdoor work - the years he was a mechanic and in the U.S. Army.
'I'd still be working on cars if it wasn't for my shoulder,' Toland said, explaining the injury that prompted early retirement from the Army.
But he isn't bitter over the predicament. If it never took place, he would have never discovered the art of bonsai.


'My neurologist at the VA told me that I needed a soothing hobby that would relieve stress,' Toland said. 'But it had to be one that didn't involve any heavy lifting.'
The outdoorsy Toland immediately looked to nature in search of something that would comply with his doctor's orders.
'Plants were always around when I grew up,' Toland said. 'Before she died, my mom was a professional horticulturalist, a landscaper in San Antonio. So we were always planting something. I guess the interest stuck.'
It was research and curiosity that led him to bonsai.
'I'm self-taught,' he said. 'It was several years before I read the Bibles of Bonsai.'
His wife, Brooke, fetched two encyclopedia-sized books from another room. Toland's 'Bibles of Bonsai' are the late John Naka's 'Bonsai Techniques, Volumes I and II.'
'John Naka was a Japanese master of bonsai. He moved to the USA and lived in California and wrote these books,' Toland said. 'Everything I figured out on my own was supported in his books.'
The neurologist never learned what became Toland's hobby of choice. But Toland said he'd be pleased.
'It's very relaxing,' he said.
Using gardening as a way to cope with anxiety is called horticultural therapy. Common among veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, studies show that it can improve self-esteem, mood and muscle tone.
A recent article in the Virginian-Pilot described bonsai as a beneficial horticultural therapy.
'Imagine you are pruning out disease and disorder,' said Mary K. Scott , a Norfolk Botanical Garden horticultural therapy manager. 'As you nurture your bonsai tree, visualize and you can use it to heal yourself.'
Toland understands this.
'Bonsai is without stress,' he said. 'It's about creation, concept and design. It's beauty.'
And it's been a welcome addition to his family life.
'My wife has her favorite ones that she likes to keep an eye on. And Tanner, he's 7, he waits for me to get home from work, so that he can say 'Daddy, it's time to go water the bonsais,' And Dale, he's 9, he likes to help plant seeds.'
The dad is a frequent guest at the boys' school as well.
'They want me there on Career Day,' Toland said. 'But the teacher's more interested in bonsai than my real job.'

***
Bonsai may be relaxing, but it certainly isn't dull - at least, it isn't for Toland.
With a vocabulary full of terms like 'Bibles of Bonsai,' Toland applies humor in his homage to the ancient tradition of bonsai.
Several green and yellow plastic snakes sit on top of the wooden crates that house his leafy treasures. Their red tongues point forward angrily as if they're about to attack.
'Eh. They're there to scare away birds and cats,' he said in a business-like tone. 'It works.'
If Toland shares one of his bonsais as a gift, his wife said he makes the recipient promise to return it 'if it goes bad.'
'People will think they want a bonsai,' Mrs. Toland said. 'But they don't realize how much work goes into taking care of it. It's not uncommon for it to come back.'
Toland nurses them back to health.
'It's bonsai rehab,' he said, 'in the Toland Hospital for Criminally Neglected Trees.'
Orphan bonsais find their way to his house too - in what he calls 'foster care.'
'I watch bonsais for friends while they're out of town,' Toland said.
Sometimes trees appear without warning.
'They just pop up in the pots, trees that we didn't plant,' Toland said. He calls them 'volunteers.'
'Surprise seeds,' Mrs. Toland said, starting to explain. 'A seed from somewhere else had to fall in the dirt, one from the wind or one that landed on one of the other plants.'
A couple of months ago, Toland gladly welcomed the presence of a crepe myrtle volunteer.
'I started to bonsai it,' he said. 'It was doing great until it got this hot.'
The crepe myrtle bonsai isn't a lost cause, though. As he does for the rest of his trees, Toland will continue to care for it, forever readying it for spring.

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