Warning: This Could Happen to You

I knew the minute I bought the bag of rocks that I had become “a lifer.” Purchasing the $4 stick just confirmed it.

“Remind me what the stick is for,” my wife said as we left the Huntington Library in Pasadena and headed for the car.

“Root work,” I said.

“Do you think the roots will know that they are being dug at with a professional stick, versus, say, a stick stick?”

I swapped hands, moving a large gnarled root in a plastic bucket to the left hand and the bag of rocks to the right. “Yes,” I said with conviction.

It all started innocently enough when I signed up to take this class called “The Art of the Bonsai.” It sounded fun, and I thought I could slip in, grab some material for my column when no one was looking, and get away undetected.

How many other lifers have had those same thoughts, I wonder?

“Over the next few weeks, you will trim a Bonsai, shape it with wire, create a soil mix, repot and learn the value of fertilization,” the instructor said as she handed me a plant.

“Wow. That’s a lot. What if you don’t finish?” I asked the guy beside me.

“You take the class again.”

“Does she give you a plant each time?”

“Yup. Sometimes two.”

“So how long have you…”

“Five years,” he said.

“It’s been six for me,” a woman added.

Pretty soon others joined in, volunteering their years at The Art of the Bonsai class with bravado like repeat offenders bragging about their ongoing sentences in the prison yard.

I should have bolted right then and there. Defaulted to my second column option, the merriment of macramé.

But I didn’t. Instead I picked up that pair of shears, snipped a little piece of juniper and watched it fall to the table. It was a powerful moment. So I snipped again and again and again. I felt like one of those famous sculptors who chip away for months at a solid granite block until a statuesque naked woman appears. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop.

That was four classes and eight trees ago now. Most of the others I first met are still there. Very few people have come, done one or two quick terms and moved on, but I thought maybe I still had a chance to finish all my projects and hang up my branch cutters once and for all.

Then… I heard about the California Bonsai Society’s 50th annual show and sale at the Huntington Library. More than 100 Bonsai on display, plus demonstrations and a bazaar. I was drawn to it like Richard Dreyfuss was drawn to Devil’s Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

I wasn’t alone of course. They came from all over. Some of them knew each other, but even us strangers felt an undeniable bond as we shared tales of prunings past and present.

One man told a gut-wrenching story about wiring too close to the crook of a major branch and then when bending actually snapping it off. There were few dry eyes in that room.

Another man told us about stowing some tropical plants in his luggage in Florida, which by the time he reached the West Coast had begun sprouting in his underwear. Some laughed, but most of us wanted to know what brand of underwear he thought most fertile.

I felt myself being drawn in further and further. “We’d better go,” I said to my wife.

“Let’s check out the sale,” she said. “You don’t have to buy anything, just look.”

Yeah. Right.

They had tools, pots, turntables, stands, accessories and, of course, plants small and large. I knew what buying a plant meant. Another class, which would turn into another and another. I was helpless.

A hundred bucks later, we were leaving when I spotted the decorative rocks. I wanted one for my gnarled root, but there were more than a dozen to choose from.

“You can have them all for five dollars,” the vendor said. “And I’ll throw in this hardwood stick for another four…”

So, that’s my story. It’s going to be hard to turn back now. I’m one of them. But don’t pity me. I’ll be OK. I’m just going to finish one or two more trees. I promise.