The Purloined Pomegranate

In 1960, California was building the Golden State Freeway. Thousands of homes needed to be removed before the ribbon of asphalt was laid
. And all that lovely landscaping would also end up in a landfill. But not if John Naka could help it.

John and one of his original Nanpukai members, Ichio Koga, went cruising the abandoned streets looking for potential bonsai material. At one old home, they saw four interesting pomegranates against two sides of the structure. Normally, you'd expect John to evaluate the rootage, movement, taper of the trunk, and branching when deciding which tree to dig. But not this time. John spat into the palm of his hand and slapped the spit with two fingers to see if the spit travelled to the right or the left. Spit direction guided John to the tree he would take home with him.

Early the next morning, they returned to dig up their treasure. But before the deed was done, a black-and-white patrol car pulled up, and a patrolman and his sergeant exited the vehicle, walked up to John and Koga, and inquired what they were up to. John saw that these men were not mad, and he figured honesty was the best policy (even if he was caught in the act of stealing property), so he 'fessed up.

“Good morning, officer. We didn't ask for permission. If we knew who to ask, we would have done so. We knew we were doing wrong, so we came early.” The sergeant asked for their names, addresses, phone numbers, and what they had intended to do with their loot. So John told him about bonsai – “This art is so fun. I love it so much I want to share it with others, so I teach.”

Imagine John's surprise when the sergeant responded, “You're an instructor? I've heard about bonsai. I love it. Are there some more pomegranates? I'd love one, too.” Then he added, “All this property belongs to the state. You're not supposed to have anything from here, but I'm sure you've spent hard work to dig it out, so you may keep it.”

John, the generous (and grateful) gentleman he was, dug up a couple of small trees for the sergeant before heading home. As soon as he unloaded the tree, his wife Alice fell in love it – so John gave it to her. She nurtured it with daily care. For the first few years, the tree was allowed to recover from the ordeal of collection. The training of this tree began in 1963. John stepped in to do the heavy work, but always with Alice's help and input. It was originally a sprout-style, so John cut everything but the one most interesting trunk.

Pomegranate, 1972
Pomegranate, 1972
Photo: John Naka
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For the next 27 years, John and Alice teamed up to develop a masterpiece. And when in 1990 it was time to donate more trees to join Goshin at the John Y. Naka North American Pavilion of Bonsai at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., this purloined pomegranate was a top choice.

Pomegranate, 2003
Pomegranate, May 2003
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This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the NBF Bulletin.
© 2006 Cheryl Manning. All rights reserved.

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