The other day, I was snaking my way through the streets of South Philly, trying to avoid baseball traffic on my way back to the rat-race of Center City. It was, typical for this week, sunny and brisk, clear and windy.
I ended up on Ninth Street, heading north, ballgame on the radio. Stop signs on every corner kept me moving at a snail’s pace, the perfect speed for urban tree-hunting.
I might as well have been hunting underwater.
This part of South Philly is an urban tundra, as treeless as a clear-cut, unwooded, unshaded and unseasoned. Lately, all over the city, I’ve been breezing around, absolutely bedazzled by the budding trees and leafing branches, spinning in circles trying to catch all the colors like I was trapped in a kaleidoscope.
Here we are, in the middle of a delightful patch of cool spring days, but without any trees around, how can you tell? Even the current weather was no help. With the cool wind blowing through my open window, drowning out the ballgame, it could’ve been October.
It takes no trees to appreciate trees.
When I see a long stretch of street without any trees, all I think about is the sweat days of summer.
Without trees, these South Philly streets must be a sunbake. There’s no cover, not from the sun, not from the wind, not from the rain. It’s just one long stretch of pavement, street, wires and traffic machines.
The few trees I did see? They were grossly misshapen, either stretching out into awkward poses to catch the few rays of sun that make it through the narrow streets, or they were boxed into small sidewalk squares, or they were cut up to make a path for all those precious wires, or there were no trees at all.
Before I headed home for the night, I went out west, emboldened by a sudden urge to see big trees in open fields. My wanderlust drove me to the historic Woodlands Cemetery.
This cemetery has a storied past when it comes to trees. It was home to the very first American plantings of paper mulberry, the lombardy poplar, the ailanthus, and one of my favorite trees of all time, the ginkgo biloba. The original Philadelphia lawyer himself, Andrew Hamilton, bought the woodlands in 1731 and his family used to trade plants with the great West Philly tree baron, William Bartram. The Hamiltons even planted, on their grounds, an osage orange from the western seed collection of Lewis and Clark.
Obviously, there’s a lot to see, a lot to hunt for, in the Woodlands Cemetery. I wouldn’t have enough time that evening to see it all. Instead, I did my best to just cover ground and watch the big trees.
I was lucky to track down one of my favorite trees, the tulip poplar. This cemetery has a few magnificent ones. In a week or so, these branches will be a cascade of giant, orange flowers, as big as your hand. I'll be sure to track down some tulip poplars when these flowers appear. For right now, when watching this tree, the best part is following the paths of those tremendous branches. Look at all those crazy, quick turns these branches take as they grow. Sometimes, they flip a true right angle right in the middle of growing to the ground.
|Twin Tulip Poplars|
This cemetery is also home to some of the few surviving American elms in the city. This alone is worth the price of admission. Covered in dark ivy, these trees are a monument among monuments. This is their seeding time too, although their branches were just a little too high to really notice their small, green samaras. I wasn't complaining.
I know some people who might think that it's a little strange, to go haunting graveyards. Like most citybillies, I'll take any open, green space that I can. And if I need to step over a few graves to see some big trees in the big city? Well, at least I'm not doing it alone.
Still, an unsettling sense of the morbid and macabre began to cloud my heart and rattle my walking bones. I suppose it was inevitable. A cemetery has an uncanny way of putting things in perspective. As the medicine man Black Elk once said: Death will come, always out of season.
This cemetery was the perfect medicine for the treeless slog of South Philly. Here was a place where trees stood side by side with man's monuments and machines, each one given enough space to stand and rise again.
The sky was darkening and it was time to go. I won't always have the opportunity so it's important to appreciate the chance to walk out of a graveyard, to leave behind the big trees, the open space and the moon over the graves, even if it does mean heading back to the rat-race.
Only problem? I'd stayed too long. The gate was closed and I was locked in. True story. I walked along the fenceline to the other gate. That one was locked too. So, I had to scale the fence, swing over the top and jump down on the other side.
I hadn't done something like that in years.