I Killed a 260 Year Old Bonsai Tree

A couple of years ago, I quit my web business and my volunteer pastor gig to go stay at home dad.

I wouldn’t change a thing about it, but I’ve since struggled with the lack of paycheck and the sense of accomplishment I used to find in the workplace.

So I took up a new hobby. The Japanese refer to it as “Yamadori”

If you’ve ever seen a really old bonsai tree, it wasn’t grown from a seed, someone who’s really into bonsai trees climbed a mountain, searched for hours, maybe days, found a very old tree struggling for life in a rock, very carefully harvested it, put it in a pot, and trained it into something amazing.

That’s Yamadori – collecting wild bonsai trees. It’s a blast. You get to hike, “hunt,” and if you know what you’re doing find a really old, really amazing tree that you keep till you die. Here’s an example of a ponderosa pine that was harvested in the Rocky Mountains:

With time and training this tree will be extremely valuable. As-is, if the harvester can keep it alive in the box for a year, the tree could easily sell for $2000.00.

I lost my mind when I heard about Yamadori, how it works, and how to do it. I called a friend who owns some land in the Red Feather Lakes area near Fort Collins and he agreed to let me try and collect a few trees.

The problem with Yamadori is that these trees are struggling to survive – that’s why they can be hundreds of years old and only 3 feet tall. Their root systems are super complicated which makes the harvesting process difficult, especially for newbies. Most hunters lose half the trees they harvest.

I’ve taken 4. Yesterday I lost #2 – a 200+ year old ponderosa that’s easily the coolest tree I’ve ever seen. If I could’ve kept it alive and trained it well, it would easily rival any bonsai at the Denver Botanic gardens.

When I found it, I was about to give up. I had climbed to the top of a ridge near my friends ranch and was completely worn out. When I stumbled across it I shook the trunk to make sure it was loose enough to come out. I could tell it was crazy old but it didn’t look like much as it stood in the rock it had grown up in.

I decided “what the heck” and started the harvesting process, trying my best to track down all the roots and get as many as possible.

I wrapped everything up in burlap and started down the mountain. The whole package weighed 50 pounds, and I had 30 pounds of gear to contend with.

One thing I hate about Yamadori hunting is that you feel guilty when you harvest a tree, knowing there’s a 50/50 chance that it won’t make it. At one point, about an hour into my journey off the mountain, I had to decide whether to leave the tree behind, or my gear. I couldn’t carry both.

I left the gear – a nice, internal frame backpack, a 20 lb breaker bar, my water, some tools, and an awesome jacket my wife gave me for Christmas.

2 hours later I made it to the truck, put the tree in the bed, and headed back up the mountain to find my gear. It was getting late, and I can’t remember ever being that tired.

I spent an hour so on top of the ridge looking for my pack but couldn’t find it. The sun was going down and it was time to go home. I prayed – why not – “Jesus, you gotta help me find this backpack. You’ve done bigger things, really need some help right now.”

I said “amen,” went to the bathroom, walked about 150 yards, and stumbled into my gear.

You can call it dumb luck, I’m calling it a miracle. These days I’d rather err on the side of “Jesus did it” than “dumb luck,” annoying as people like me can be.

What a day.

Which made it all the more difficult when the tree finally died.

Pine trees don’t just give up the ghost all of a sudden, it takes them months to die. So when you bring home your prize, you get to bite your nails for a long time before you get your report card.

I figured if the tree could make it to mid-July I’d be in the clear. On July 13th it went from looking good, to worst case scenario.

Yesterday, I said goodbye, pulled it out of the ground, trimmed the leaves off, and prepared it for it’s life as an ornament in my back yard.

I can’t tell you how much this sucks.

I did however get to cut the trunk and count the rings. 260+. Counting rings on these trees is difficult because they’re so close together – you need a microscope, or a powerful magnifying glass, and some patience to get a good estimate of age.

But there you have it. I harvested a tree older than George Washington’s cat, and killed it.

Such is the life of a Yamadori hunter.

I’m still at 50% though – I’ve only killed half the trees I’ve harvested. I’m on par with people who actually know what they’re doing. The two trees I took last year are doing great, and giving me something to do in one of the most boring, discouraging chapters of my life.

3 Things I Can’t Stand About Being A Stay at Home Dad, Because I Don’t Have Time To Write about the Other 97, and One Thing I Love

When you see us dropping the kids off at school in our slippers – a little shot of whiskey in our coffee – have pity.

The divorce rate for stay at home dads is significantly higher than marriages where dad brings home the bacon.

This is not a happy place.

A few years ago, I was working as a pastor, with a cozy little web business on the side. Since my schedule was more flexible than my wife’s, I was on tap for getting the kids to and from school.

But our kids were struggling. They’re all adopted, still crossing swords with the aftershocks of whatever they experienced before coming home to us. They needed one parent to go full-time.

And I was blown-up tired.

My wife’s career is a bigger deal than the one I had scratched out, and far more lucrative, so I drew the short straw, passed the web business off to a girl I had been working with, and stepped down as a pastor – which was a good thing. I’ve never been good at pastoring.

I’ve had lots of career dreams and aspirations in my life. Stay at home dad never made the list. Read more