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.