Aesthetic pruning is a living art form combining the skill of the pruner, the science of horticulture, and the essence of a tree. While the emphasis is on beauty, maintaining the vitality of the tree is just as important; aesthetic pruners make the right cuts for the right reasons. For Master Pruner Michael Alliger, this art is a balance between the present and the future.
In the 1980s, Alliger was eager for change from a career in retail; he felt an inner calling to work outside. “I thought you had to be a gardener to do that,” he explained, so he enrolled in a plant identification class at Merritt College in Oakland. “I found I had a facility for it. My passion just exploded! I had never been happier.”
He had grown up in the suburbs, surrounded by lawns. “I hated mowing the lawn, so it was such a surprise to me. I found a whole new world to walk into. Suddenly the streets of Oakland came alive as I got to know the plants—the world went from two dimensions to three dimensions, from black and white to color.”
In 1986, while studying horticulture at Merritt, Alliger met Dennis Makishima, a Japanese-American student from El Cerrito. Wanting to connect with his Japanese heritage, Makishima went to bonsai clubs to learn that art, and realized that he could take elements of bonsai and apply them to landscape pruning. One day, Alliger watched Makishima prune a Japanese maple. “I was transfixed. I knew that was what I wanted to do. It felt like home. I asked if I could follow him around and watch him work.” Their relationship evolved into a formal apprenticeship.
“Dennis is brilliant,” Alliger said. “He’s a visionary, a brilliant organizer and strategist and leader.” Makishima suggested to Merritt College that they offer classes in aesthetic pruning and asked Alliger if he would like to teach. “I taught an Introduction to Aesthetic Pruning for a half-day each month, and Dennis unfurled this whole series of classes.” The classes that Makishima organized and taught explored plant material, pruning for the focal point, pruning for the big picture, Japanese maples, pines and conifers, flowering trees, pruning as a career, and finding the essence of the tree. A year later, Makishima offered those classes to Alliger, who would teach most of them for the next 20 years.
The two men organized an informal pruning club that continues to this day at Merritt. “People could drop in or drop out any time. We would volunteer at schools, churches or parks. It was mutually beneficial. The students would get experience and the trees were cared for,” Alliger said.
Makishima also envisioned a professional organization for aesthetic pruning, similar to the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA); and he and Alliger were among the founders of the Aesthetic Pruners Association (APA), a non-profit that promotes the craft of aesthetic pruning and supports professional pruners in their work. This group sets the standards for aesthetic pruning.
Alliger explained the focus of the APA. “Our school of pruning is in the lineage of Japanese garden pruning, which is distinct from European pruning. Principles of the Japanese lineage are pruning to the human scale, size control and containment. The artistic model is based on nature as you see it, nature in essence. We seek both containment and natural expression. The overarching factor is garden design: to have the tree or shrub fit the garden design and still honor the natural form. Our approach works on fruit trees, too, but it’s different from pruning skyline trees, like redwoods and oaks.
“Unlike most animals, plants and trees have the ability to regenerate lost parts. Follow-up pruning requires consistency and has the potential to give the tree longer life. In order for pruning to be structurally sound, it needs to be continually applied—you can’t just do it once.” Some bonsai trees in Japan are 500 to 600 years old. Because these trees outlive human beings, their care has been handed down from generation to generation. For Alliger, “It’s all about love and all about care.
“While the school of thought comes from Japanese pruning, we are not pruning Japanese gardens—we are pruning California gardens, American gardens. But the principles are universally applied,” said Alliger, who is exploring working with native materials to find their potential. The idea of containment and structural pruning has not happened before with our native woody plants.
“I’m experimenting at home with buckeye—how old do they have to be before they flower? How small can they be and still flower? It’s so exciting to think about! The Japanese have been working with landscape plant material in their gardens for 1,100 years. Here, we’ve been doing it for only 75 years, and we’re in the baby stage of realizing the possibilities and finding out which ones are going to be functional in gardens from the point of view of beauty and containment. The more we use our own plant material, the more comfortable we feel. That sense of context is salubrious.”
A powerful part of Alliger’s exploration is in joining the stream of people who have been doing this work for centuries; now he is able to pass it forward. After moving to Sebastopol in 1992, he took on the aesthetic pruning of the Japanese-style gardens at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. While he continues to maintain those trees, most of his work is done in private gardens around Sonoma County. Retiring from teaching at Merritt in 2011, he currently offers an annual one-day, hands-on class in Aesthetic Pruning for the Master Gardeners of Marin County. He also writes a garden blog for the Osmosis Newsletter which you can sign up for here.
Over 150 delegates from around the world gathered the National Japanese Garden Association Conference at the Morikami Gardens in West Palm Beach Florida March 7th and 8th. Leading experts from Japan and Europe along with US counterparts provided two days of inspiring content at the home of one of the most celebrated Japanese Gardens in the United States.
The conference theme was: Towards a Healthier World – Japanese Gardens As Places For Wellness and Transformation.The healing effects of this beloved landscape garden art form was presented from many perspectives ranging from public settings, studies of gardens built in the WWII Japanese internment camps, therapeutic settings and Zen Buddhist temples. In several fascinating presentations researchers presented their findings of scientific data on the effects of Japanese gardens on Alzheimer patients, hospice patience and community members with various handicaps. It was a profound confirmation of this fine tradition.
The Osmosis garden fit right into this program.
Meditation garden designer Robert Ketchell came from England to join Osmosis founder Michael Stusser and pruning expert Michael Alliger to present the story of the spa’s unique meditation garden, how it cultivates awareness, tells a story beyond words, and nurtures a mood of repose.
The 90-minute Osmosis session highlighted the founding intentions and collegial collaboration that seeded the success of the project. From the perspective of pruning it was shown how: anticipation and patience play out over time in ways that remind us of humility available to us in everyday life; the use of native plants reinforces a sense of place and human context in nature; the equanimity of empty space is shaped by pruning and design. The intimacy of detailed pruning techniques leads to a recognition of the unseen world of spirit.
The designer explained his use of narrative to engage garden viewers with his use of the Ox-herding parable from Zen as a way to guide on the journey to liberation. It was shown how spa programs use the garden for ritual; meditation, classes, and relaxation serve the deeper purpose of Osmosisto synergize the renaissance in the healing arts taking place in our culture along with the distinct healing properties that have been identified in horticultural therapy. These elements along with the quest for awakening seeded by the arrival of Buddhism in America reflected in the Zen parable make for a potent combination.
The Ox herding story is cast in stone in the landscape garden. This parable is both the physical and physic heart of Osmosis. We cannot avoid being reminded of it each time we visit the garden. Every day the alchemy of this ancient tale works its magic on the hearts and souls of guests and workers alike.
Osmosis presence at this prestigious international gathering allowed us to join into the growing association among builders and curators of Japanese gardens who are focused on the healing aspects of this treasured art form.
Left to right: Robert Ketchell, Michael Alliger, Michael Stusser and Martin Mosko
Primed by the barrenness of winter, the renewal of spring inspires awe at the site of the smallest sprout emerging from the soil. Witnessing a tree glow with color again encourages hope for our own renewal. If we want to find inspiration in the blossoming tree and the sprouting seedling, we must also recognize the ecosystem supporting their growth and the often ignored interdependence of nature. Our society has lionized the rugged individual and forgotten the nourishing collective.
There is a revitalization that comes through connection. Our species thrives in an ecosystem of relationships and community. Vital gatherings catalyze the transformation and growth that we hope to experience as individuals and as a collective.
The modern culture of consumption has eroded fundamental aspects of connection. Some aspects of community have been tragically absent since the demise of tribal and village culture. But our interdependent nature remains part of us; if unfulfilled, it is replaced with grief.
During this season of renewal, take cue from the soil teaming with myriad organisms that support one another in bringing forth new growth. Let yourself be nourished by the exquisite ecosystem of life. Partake in inspired gatherings.
Stress fogs your mind and creeps into corners of your body. Joints and muscles ache from the burdens of life. Some nights you have trouble sleeping. Digestion issues are emerging. Your body is communicating imbalances to you. Finally, you listen. You need treatment. Searching for “Health Spa In Northern California,” you come across Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary and the Cedar Enzyme Bath. “Enzymes,” you wonder, “like the enzymes you take to help your digestive organs?” It seems strange but intriguing. The reviews sound positive, almost too good to be true. The photos of beautiful Zen gardens draw you in. What the heck, it’s worth a try. You book an appointment online.
Arriving at Osmosis
Driving into Freestone, CA, you marvel that these quaint little townships still exist. When you get out of your car at the spa, you feel a clean moisture on your skin and in your lungs.Ahhhh, the ocean isn’t far. Every square inch of this part of the world is lush and seems to have received a special blessing from mother nature. You walk into stunningly architected gardens, like a layered sculpture of the elements. The terrace has the glow of lush Northern California landscape but the restraint and precision of a meticulously pruned Zen garden.
Walking into the spa, the aroma of wood and herbs strike you. The receptionist welcomes you and details how you will be guided through the bath experience. She seems to answer all of your questions before you’ve had the chance to ask them: how you’ll know when it’s time to go into the bath, what your options for clothing in the bath are, what you should do if you feel uncomfortable or have questions at any time, and what the steps are following the bath. This is a safe place, you can relax. Attendants will guide you.
You’re guided by a kind woman named Shelley down a clean hallway. There’s a monk-like quality about her and this whole place feels like a temple. Peaceful. Meditative. Shelley leads you to a small room that opens up to an stunning courtyard garden and pond. It looks like you’re gazing at a framed picture, it is one of the most pristine gardens you’ve ever seen. “Am I still in the US?” you question for a moment. Shelley serves you tea and offers you a cushion to relax on. The tea is mellow and fragrant. The attendant tells you that the tea has enzymes in it that will heal your body from the inside out. That sounds wonderful! Healing from the inside out. You hadn’t quite thought of a trip to a spa in those terms before. While you knew that your body needed some love and attention—some deep relaxation—you’re starting to think that this enzyme bath experience might be more transformative than you’d anticipated. You take a deep breath and imagine the enzymes in the tea entering your organs. You hope that they’re combating the less-than-ideal foods that you’ve been indulging on lately.
The Cedar Enzyme Bath
Your told that it’s time for the bath and Shelley guides you from the tea room to the tub room. It’s warm and steamy. You’re struck by the size of these beautiful, wooden tubs. Their design reminds you of a Japanese architecture. A wall of windows to your right looks out to another incredible garden. This garden is more expansive and airy. You can see the steam rising off of the auburn-colored mixture in the tub. It’s hard to believe that it’s contents are finely ground cedar and rice bran! You dip your hand in to feel it out, the way one dips their toes in a pool to test the water before jumping in. The bath feels fluffy and soft, you spread the mixture across the back of your hand and you already sense the oils seeping into your skin.Immediately you want to make the plunge.
Getting into the tub is easy. The mindful attendant has already explained to you how to climb into the nice little canal that’s been dug for you. Then Shelley covers your body with the mixture. As the soft, heavy mixture encapsulates you, a layer of tension escapes. The mixture is pillowy but supportive. Like the best kind of mattress only this supportively shapes to the most comfortable posture for your body. Once you’ve found your ideal position, the attendant piles more of the mixture over the top of you and makes a small mound just behind your neck to provide perfect support for your head and spine. Another layer of tension evaporates from between your shoulder blades and down the middle of your back. You want to burrow yourself inside this bath and never get out. Your whole body is pulsing with warm energy. You notice it in your toes, then in your knees and ankles. Your joints actually feel good. The warmth of the bath is permeating your entire being in a way that is gentle yet very powerful. Now you understand what “warm to the bones” really feels like. Your attention broadens and your entire body feels weightless and balanced and you drift in and out of consciousness. Dreamy.
Shelley asks if your comfortable and tells you that she’ll be back in five minutes. When she returns, she lays a cool, wet cloth on your forehead. It smells like lavender. This is the life of the gods. Then she offers you a sip of water. She asks if you’re too hot or need any of the cedar adjusted or if you’d like to get out. This process repeats every five minutes until you’ve completed the maximum time of 20 minutes in the bath. You to sit up and drink some more water. A thin coating of the moss-like mixture covers your ams. She helps you emerge from the bath. Your skin feels deeply moisturized. Your body feels more alive, more flexible, more capable. Though you just emerged from a dream-like state, you don’t feel groggy or cloudy. Rather, you notice that the fog of stress in your mind and body that led you here in the first place has lifted, like a cloudy morning in San Francisco suddenly transforming into a warm, sunny afternoon. Energized.
Following the Bath
You’re led to a private patio. Shelley uses a soft brush to sweep the cedar off of your back and then hands you the brush to continue sweeping the mixture off. Next to the patio is a shower that will rinse all of the remaining mixture from your body. You rub your hands over your body feel a heightened awareness. The feeling of your own touch is elevated. Your skin is supple in a way that it hasn’t felt in years. And you feel clean. Incredibly clean. You didn’t predict this sensation. Warm bath in cedar and rice bran: relaxing, yes. Moisturizing, possibly. But clean? Yes! Like all of the skin is fresh. Impurities on the surface removed. Sparkling.
After you turn off the shower, a mist turns on in the shower that sprays gently across your body. The mist has Vitamin C and other healthy supplements for your skin.
As you step out of the shower and put your robe on, you feel alive and clear-headed. There’s a sense of deep peace and love toward your body.
You’d be content and satisfied to go home at this point. But you will be guided further to other transcendental treatments of Sound Therapy, a facial and massage followed by a walk through the Zen gardens. On your meditative walk you’ll notice yourself slowing down and appreciating each moment with a calm, clear mind.
You leave Osmosis with a soft smile on your face that doesn’t seem to shake. You feel good inside. Your tummy feels calm and you notice the marked absence of muscle spasms in your back. You’re recharged, refreshed, rejuvenated.
This place truly did serve as a sanctuary and brought rejuvenation to your mind and body.
I’m hiking at almost 8,000 feet, an elevation that is straining my east coast sea-level lungs. We’re at a brisk pace and I should be doubled over, but the conversation and the scenery are working hard to distract me—and they are doing their job well. We are in majestic Yosemite National Park where the mountains rise from the valley like ancient deities and the ecology and geology are one of the most dramatic displays of the natural world I’ve ever seen. An equally compelling and spiritually grounded subject is my hiking partner, Michael Stusser: organic gardener pioneer, health and wellness innovator, spa-owner, master of fermentation, Zen practitioner, and co-conspirator in the sustainable spa movement among other things. I’m at the 8th Annual Green Spa Network Fall Congress and while many parts of this gathering were very inspiring, my hike with Michael was a genuinely moving experience filled with lessons that are still resonating with me.
One: Good food nourishes the body; Beautiful places nourish the soul
Hiking at its best is a deep conversation with the natural world. Footsteps consult the earth’s topography, breath is exchanged with the surrounding plants, eye contact is ever-present with views that seem to reflect back a sense of true self. Yosemite is hiking at its best. I’m part of a large group of Congress attendees that has embarked on its way to Sentinel Dome via Taft Point. A small group of us stops for lunch. Mimicking the depth of our exchange with the trail’s ups and downs, we begin to talk. Michael brings up the subject of healthy food and we all quickly launch into the complexities and problems plaguing our modern food system. How can we ensure that all Americans have access to healthy, affordable and safe food? How can move away from industrial agriculture? How can we engage communities into growing gardens to feed one another?
When it comes to answering these questions, Michael is the sage. He’s no recent kale convert. He’s been living this lifestyle for decades as an integral part of the food movement vanguard. I learn that he and his roommate, John Powell, were there at the conception of Allan Chadwick’s first gardens at UC Santa Cruz in the summer of 1966. Chadwick is arguably one of the forebearers of the organic movement and these gardens have grown into UCSC’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems–an undisputed leader in education and the hands-on practice of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. After studying intensive horticulture production under Chadwick, he spent ten years growing produce professionally and personally, including five years at an intentional community called Camp Joy Gardens and five years at the Farallones Institute, now known as theOccidental Arts and Ecology Center. Michael’s bright eyes, clear thinking and lean and healthy physique are no doubt related to his commitment to healthy food. As I eat my carrots and hummus, I find myself hoping that I’m as vital as he thirty years from now.
The view from Taft Point
We eventually get up from lunch to continue our winding journey to the top. Michael’s own journey from farmer to his status as a noted and influential leader in the spa world has had its own curious turns, too. As we ascend, we become hiking partners and he tells me part of his life’s story…a story unequivocally intertwined with the origin story of his groundbreaking spa Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary.
During a stopover in Japan while on his way to tour sustainable agriculture techniques in China with the New Alchemy Institute, he met the head gardener of Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto. Whether through luck or divine intervention, the gardener invited him to be an apprentice. At this point I began to gain insight into the bravery and trust with which Michael Stusser lives his life: with little prior planning, he committed to live in Kyoto with a 4th-generation traditional landscape garden family. It was here that Michael fell in love with Japanese style gardens. Today he speaks with deep respect and love as he describes the sense of peace and stillness that gardens can evoke—a welcome contrast from the measured chaos that often erupts while farming vegetables.
I knew that good food nourishes the body, but it was here that I realized that nature’s beauty nourishes the soul.”
He stayed for a number of years in Japan and became a full time Zen practitioner at a monastery. From farmer to novitiate monk. There’s still a few more details that led to Osmosis, but at this point I’m already hiking–and listening to him–in awe. This guy helped to start the modern food movement, and he’s also a Zen practitioner! His is an amazing life, and I’ve only had about a mile’s worth. At this point I have fully accepted Michael Stusser as my guide for my experience in Yosemite. I’m eager to learn more.
We’re deep in the woods, surrounded by trees and as I’m processing what I’ve learned, we crest a hill and turn a corner and come face to face with the northwest side of Half Dome. The awe continues.
Two: Allow Yourself to Be Amazed by the Natural World
Half Dome and Yosemite Backcountry
Our group gathers and we stop to take a breath. A picture. A deeper breath. Another picture. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of seeing such a clear view of 50 million years of geological action. From this point it is almost possible to envision the giant glacier that covered, and slowly carved, the sheer face on Half Dome. Michael has been coming to Yosemite since he was a teenager. He’s hiked much of the backcountry, the forecountry—hell, he even spent a night once on top of Half Dome. He points out several different sections of the park and tells us about hikes, mishaps and starry nights here and there. He’s about as familiar as one can be with any land, and yet he looks at it as if it is brand new. A newbie to the park, I’m floored by the view—and Michael is right there with me. This is a man who knows how to fully embrace the natural world and see its newness and beauty everywhere.
We see a Jeffrey pine and someone picks up one of its large cones. “How do you get out the pine nuts?” someone asks the group. We discuss the process and Michael observes that while humans have a difficult time extracting these seeds, squirrels are very efficient. He tells us a story:
I was on a vision quest and I hadn’t eaten or had any water in many days. I came across a cone and while contemplating it, I found one lone nut inside! It seemed that the squirrel had either forgotten it, or perhaps even left it there for me. It was the most delicious pine nut I’ve ever had in my life. Ever since then I’ve held pine nuts with the highest reverence.”
There’s no ego in his story. It is clear that he doesn’t care if we are impressed that he went on a vision quest—just an honest recounting of a time that he felt completely connected to the natural world. This story stuck with me. I was impressed with the way he took such a playful question and turned it into a nice little lesson. The juxtaposition of the vast expanse of Yosemite, Michael’s magnanimous squirrel, and the lone pine nut stuck me as an example of how we, as humans, are simultaneously so big and important, yet so small and fragile. We continued on to Sentinel Dome.
Three: Follow your own path
During his study of Zen, Michael developed a serious case of sciatica. He sought a cure exploring traditional allopathic medicine as well as other healing modalities. His search led him to the fermentation bath, which is now the signature treatment at Osmosis. While it provided relief to his pain, this bath, the very first enzyme bath that he took, also changed the course of his life.
To hear Michael wax poetic about fermentation and the Cedar bath treatment is to hear a master explain his true passion. Microbes work within and without to cleanse the skin, boost metabolism, break down lactic acid, balance body chemistry, promote a better night’s sleep, improve digestion… the list goes on. He’s a believer in the healing powers of these baths. His very first bath in Japan inspired him to enter into the world of spa and to offer his powerful healing experience to others. He felt it was a calling and a mission. Here it is in his words:
As the healing warmth of the bath enveloped my being, the whole picture of a healing sanctuary with a magical fermentation bath at the core surrounded by meditative Japanese style gardens, architecture and gracious hospitality flashed before my mind’s eye. From this remarkable moment I knew it was my calling to come back to Sebastopol and make recreating the Japanese enzyme bath my focus. I knew nothing about spas or business.”
Over thirty years later, his business is thriving. What I love about Michael’s story is that each piece of his life clearly led to the birth of Osmosis and his commitment to providing a healing modality to the world. From farmer, to monk, to bather, to healer, to successful businessman and pine nut connoisseur–his trusting approach to life made it all fit together. At any point along the way, it could have gone a thousand different directions. What if he had declined the offer to go to Kyoto? What if he hadn’t been afflicted with sciatica? To me, the story that he shared is a reminder that we can’t be sure where our lives are taking us, but if we are open to possibilities and working to authentically connect with our natural selves, then we can find our own peace and purpose.
Michael and me in front of Half Dome on the way up to Sentinel Dome
We sat on top of Sentinel dome, reconnected with the rest of our group, circumnavigated the dome’s top and took in the 360-degree view of Yosemite and the Sierras beyond. The wind blew and the slightly overcast day provided a complementary backdrop to the mountain range’s jagged undulations. During that moment, contemplating Michael’s story and taking in such a dramatic example of the Earth’s beauty, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and peace.
Michael describes the healing power of the natural world as “a magic balm that soothes the soul.” My experience of hiking in Yosemite with him exemplified that. A hike in a beautiful place with a great person can go a long way to inspiring happiness and a desire to do good things in the world. I felt very lucky to stand over 8,000 feet in the air with such a grounded guide.
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