These weren’t just tiny little trees, perched in dirt and presented in pretty ceramic bowls.
The two bonsai trees were family members; sturdy, sage stalwarts at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, where they were carefully tended to for decades.
So when the trees “mysteriously returned” to the museum grounds Tuesday night after being stolen last weekend, well, people wept with relief.
“These trees matter,” Kathy McCabe, the museum’s executive director, said Wednesday. “They are treasures. They have such deep history.
“I’m going to cry. It makes me emotional.”
The trees — a Japanese black pine and a silverberry, each worth thousands of dollars — were stolen from the museum’s public display at about 7 a.m. Sunday. Security cameras captured two people crawling under the museum’s fence. It wasn’t clear what they had taken until assistant curator Scarlet Gore came around a corner a few hours later and saw the trees were gone.
Word of the theft — a kidnapping, really, for some people — spread quickly. The museum’s Facebook post about it was shared 3,000 times and reached 350,000 people. The New York Times called. So did NPR and CNN.
With good reason: The silverberry was created in 1946 by artist Kiyoko Hatanaka. The Japanese black pine was grown from a seed in a tin can by Japanese American Juzaburo Furuzawa while he was incarcerated in an internment camp in Utah during World War II.
The museum notified Federal Way police and put out a statement saying that if the trees were returned, no questions would be asked. Another bonsai was stolen from the museum in 2015, but it was found in some bushes outside an apartment complex about 2 miles away.
On Tuesday night, a security guard patrolling the grounds came upon the trees, sitting in the middle of the road, in the rain. One next to the other.
He called Gore, who then called curator Aarin Packard, who was asleep: “The trees are back,” she told him.
Packard dressed quickly and headed to the museum — not far from his home — and found the trees in the road, illuminated by the security vehicle’s headlamps.
“It was drizzly and misty and had a somber feel,” Packard said. “But there they were. It made you feel warm inside that they were back.”
He could see right away that there was damage to the silverberry; some of the branches had been broken off, “but not so much that it compromised the value of the tree,” Packard said.
“Minor damage, but overall, they are doing well.”
Gore, who started working at the museum in 1995, has cared for the tree since she got there.
“They are loved ones.” She said. “The theft was heartbreaking. I got mad and frustrated and I cried.
“The likelihood of them surviving someone else’s care was low, and the likelihood of them dying was very high,” she continued. “They are my family.”
They loaded the trees onto a small utility vehicle. Gore tapped the hood and said, “Let’s bring our babies home.”
Damage to the trees could have been worse, McCabe said. A few broken branches on the silverberry, and the wiring around the black pine was shifted.
“Everything looks good and we’ll keep monitoring them,” Gore said. “The roots aren’t disturbed.”
Museum staff doesn’t know much about what led to the return, “But there was definitely a change of heart that took place,” Packard said. “A combination of the media coverage and the net that was cast about these trees reached such a level that (the thieves) became aware of the significance of them.”
Said Gore: “It’s a relief, knowing that we can continue our care for them and everyone can see them.”
The black pine will be the centerpiece of an upcoming special exhibit, “World War Bonsai: Remembrance & Resilience,” which opens in May.
“There is something for everyone with bonsai,” McCabe said. “Whether you love art or horticulture or history.”
“My heart … I’m just so grateful,” she said. “They mean so much.”