Some people take in stray cats or make a home for lost dogs; Dean Bull adopted a tree – and it led to a hobby turned "obsession" that eventually led the Traverse City man to hobnob with Hollywood types while serving as a film consultant.
A clockmaker by trade, Bull’s passion is Bonsai. Pronounce it ‘bone-sigh’ and it makes him smile.
“In 1983 I found a small white cedar tree growing on top of a concrete abutment at Sabin Dam,” he recalls. “I was captivated by the fact that it survived summer heat and winter freeze-drying and yet seemed to be very healthy.“
For years Bull would return to the dam and visit the durable little tree. Finally in 1988 he dug it up and took it home. He collected other trees and knew he wanted to ‘do bonsai.”
Bonsai plants are, in essence, little trees. Yet bonsai has a greater scope as it strives to replicate nature. It is an art that emulates the elements and their action on living plants. A tree is just a sapling until the roots grow, the water seeps into the soil, and the sun, wind, and gravity sculpt it into shape.
A bonsai artist uses tools to replicate these effects and create a perfect miniature version of life. Watching a tiny tree as it cycles through the seasons, going dormant, pushing out leaf buds, blossoming, and then producing fruits or berries is what bonsai lovers cherish.
Bonsai is ideal for an urban gardener; the plantings require less water, less soil, and less square footage. But just because they’re tiny doesn’t mean that they don’t need great care and tending.
Bonsai was a solo hobby for Bull until 1990 when Eunice Corp founded a bonsai club in TC. “My wife encouraged me to go to the meeting,” recalls Bull with a laugh. “And I was elected vice president.” He has since served as club president and in other offices for the group which meets on the second Wednesday of each month.
Over the years, Bull has won several awards for his trees, including the prestigious John Y. Naka Award for his cascading ponderosa pine. Each year since 2001, he has provided bonsai advice for the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.
Several of his trees were used as props in the 2012 movie “Hide Away,” starring Ayelet Zurer, Josh Lucas and James Cromwell; Bull was a consultant to Zurer, whose character worked in bonsai.
“These are fun things to have happen,” he says . “But at the very core of all of this is that same childlike awe that I felt in 1983 when I first found that little white cedar. That flame still burns brightly. It changed my life.”