Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A bonsai buckeroo

You're driving down, say, Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on some Tuesday evening. You pass, roughly 173 taverns, 24 bowling alleys, and 5 Lutheran churches (hey, sometimes stereotypes are accurate). The last of these Lutheran churches is Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the parking lot is filled to capacity. You figure, "Maybe a youth group. Maybe choir practice. Maybe they're making lemon bars."

You'd be wrong.

I've recently come from an assignment at the aforementioned Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, where some 60 tiny tree enthusiasts were plying their trade. The Milwaukee Bonsai Society was hosting its annual "Group Slash" competition, and I was along for the ride.

Me, I always thought of bonsai trees as little junipers that city apartment-dwellers placed on their window panes when they got tired of looking at the little cactus garden they bought at Safeway.

Turns out that hundreds of people in the Milwaukee area alone are really into these things, and in a way that seems healthier than that whole Star Trek fancier phenomenon. Some of these folks have been working on the same tree for decades. The way the bonsai aficionados see it, their trees tell a story - a story that they've crafted by making it look as though the tree was hit by lightning, weathered by mountain winds, clear-cut by a paper company, etc.

But there was little time in the "Group Slash" for telling too complex a story. Teams of three or four (or more) people ganged up on the little trees and tried to turn them into something interesting in the span of an hour. College students, day laborers and senior citizens pulled, snipped, and wired their small plants into position. One participant was a middle school teacher whose 6th and 7th graders will hold a day-long bonsai workshop later this spring.

Some of them looked like high-elevation bristlecone pines, gnarled by years of harsh weather. Some of them looked like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, scarred (physically and mentally) by poor application of pruning shears. But in a room saturated with the heavy, sweet aroma of juniper, the enthusiasm was infectious. And the lemon bars were tasty, too.

Considering the number of plants that have come and gone from my household, it's probably a good thing I wasn't tasked to judge the evening's results. But in the end, no one got hurt and a good time was had by all.

And I got a pretty good radio piece out of the hour, which should make it to air in a couple of weeks.

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