Washington Post (August 2.) introduces a 390-year-old bonsai tree displayed in the Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington under the title, “This 390-year-old bonsai tree survived an atomic bomb, and no one knew until 2001.”

According to the paper, the mushroom-shaped pine tree with the trunk in a foot and half in diameter survived the blast of an atomic bomb, dropped over Hiroshima on August. 6, 1945, less than two miles away from the hypocenter.

The tree which was owned by a bonsai master, Masaru Yamaki then, was placed against a wall at the time of bomb dropping, which shielded it from the blast. It was donated by Yamaki as a part of a 53-specimen gift to the United States for its 1976 bicentennial.

The job to ensure the continued survival of such an important piece of the collection falls onto the shoulders of Jack Sustic, the curator of the Bonsai and Penjing Museum since 2002.

He says: “One of the things that makes it so special is, if you imagine, somebody has attended to that tree every day since 1625. I always like to say bonsai is like a verb. It’s not a noun; it’s doing.”

He joked that tending to a centuries old tree every day can be enough pressure to keep him up at night. Unlike other museum pieces, there is no recourse when a plant dies.

“I have a packed suitcase at home,” he said. “There’s a few trees in here that it’s just kind of a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ if something happens.”

Bonsai article. Washington Post Local News: August 2, 2015

After a long story, here comes my question. What does ‘Where’s Waldo?’ here mean?

Does it mean “Who is blamed for, responsible for, or stupid enough to have withered 360 years-old bonsai? Does the curator need to keep a packed suitcase at home for runaway in case of being accused of letting the bonsai die? Could you paraphrase it in plainer words?


I know somebody has asked the definition of 'Where's Waldo' on this site. But I'm venturing to ask the specific 'nuance' of this phrase in connection with this particular episode.

'In training since 1625': title on placard in front of bonsai

In training since 1625: title of placard in front of bonsai


He is saying that some trees are so precious, that if he allowed them to die he would be in so much trouble that he'd run away and hide himself so well, it would be like playing "Where's Waldo?" trying to find him.

"Where's Waldo?" (or "Where's Wally?") is a book where the reader is asked to find that character hidden in a number of very elaborately drawn scenes.

  • Except that he says "There's few trees in here, presumably the Arboretum. Why would a person be hard to find in an arboretum. The only thing that makes sense with "Where's Waldo?" would be hiding the dead bonsai among the trees and then taking off. I'm beginning to think it's a misquote.
    – deadrat
    Aug 4 '15 at 3:35
  • He won't be in the arboretum, he has his bags packed at home, so he can quickly skip town.
    – Neil W
    Aug 4 '15 at 3:42
  • 1
    @deadrat - in here also means "in this precarious position of being invaluable at the arboretum that if anything happened to them, I'd have to skip town." If he were hiding in the arboretum, he'd not need his suitcase. He just picked a humorous way of saying he's feel like he had to hide from some angry people who might come looking for him. Aug 4 '15 at 5:55
  • 1
    @medica "There are a few equally valuable trees in here, and if something happens to any one of them, I'd have to leave town"? Maybe I'm the only one who fallen into the ellipses and can't get out. Sorry.
    – deadrat
    Aug 4 '15 at 6:17
  • 2
    @deadrat I’m not seeing the difficulty here—I think perhaps you did fall into the ellipsis. “I have a suitcase packed at home, ready for a quick getaway. There are a few trees [= and this is one of them] in here [= the arboretum] that are so unique and invaluable that if anything were to happen to them, I [= their carer] would be in such hot water that I’d have to skip town real quick.” Aug 4 '15 at 8:25

The question comes down to this: What does the following paragraph mean?

“I have a packed suitcase at home,” he said. “There’s a few trees in here [the Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum] that it’s just kind of a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ if something happens.”

Here is how I would reword the quotation to make it clearer what the thrust of the remark is:

“A few of the trees here in the Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum are so precious that my career would be ruined if something bad happened to one of them. So I keep a suitcase at home, packed and ready to go; and if the worst happens to one of the special trees, I will vanish without a trace before anyone can hold me accountable.”

The second sentence of Jack Sustic's actual quotation is intended as a kind of gallows-humor joke: If the precious bonsai dies under his supervision, Sustic will run away without a trace, leaving everyone to wonder "Where's Jack?" just as children presented with a Where's Waldo book are presumed to ask "Where's Waldo?"

I don't think the "Where's Waldo?" remark goes any deeper than that. It certainly isn't intended to suggest that Sustic will simply blend in with a bunch of similarly attired people at the National Arboretum and be difficult to pick out of the crowd, or that the dead bonsai will be difficult to spot in a place that has so many (live) trees. Bear in mind that the "Where's Waldo?" allusion arises in the context of an extemporaneous quotation. It may be that, on the spur of the moment, Jack Sustic didn't select a very apt metaphor to associate with his imaginary escape plan.

  • 1
    I like your interpretation... assuming this is a direct quote, it would be interesting to know if hearing the statement would make it more clear. So much can be conveyed in how something is said.
    – Catija
    Aug 4 '15 at 8:01
  • 1
    @Julie Carter. Many thanks for your adding a picture of 360-year old bonsai, which coldn't occur to an old man like me. Seeing is believing. Users will be surprised to see the bonsai gone through 360 years time of histroy and survived the blast of the atomic bomb the mankind have seen only twice - in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bonsai above experienced the blast tomorrow 70 years ago. I think the picture gives a great impact to those who read this question.
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Aug 4 '15 at 21:22
  • @YoichiOishi You are very welcome. It is a wonderful story:) Aug 4 '15 at 22:10

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