Sunday, August 19, 2012


Contrary to popular belief, I have a lot more interests than just trees.

Okay, ladies?  I’m not just all about trees.

I got a lot of passions.  I got a lot of interests.  I’m smart.  I can do things.

My other passions?  I like my sports.  I like my cars.  My favorite car company?  Pontiac.  After all, the real Pontiac was an Ottawa chieftain from the Great Lakes who led an unsuccessful revolt against the British in 1763.  Hey, I like to do a lot of things.  Restaurants, bars, museums, art galleries, used bookstores?  Let’s go.  I read a lot of novels.  I especially like dark science fiction, hard-boiled crime stories and violent westerns.  I like going out.  I like fine California wine, good Pennsylvania canned beer and bourbon.  Ah, bourbon.  That’s how you say Kentucky in whiskey.

I’m also a movie buff.  I love the movies…and that’s why I am shocked – shocked – at the radical change that just happened with the newest Sight & Sound list of the greatest movies of all time. 

Every ten years, the British cinema magazine, Sight & Sound, mails the voting ballots to movie critics and filmmakers all around the world, asking them all the same question: What is the greatest movie of all time?

Since 1962, Citizen Kane has remained at the top of the list…until now. 

The newest greatest movie of all time?  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological San Francisco thriller, Vertigo.

I never thought I’d see the day.

It reminds me of the famous Native American Zen story…the one where the Great Chief assembles all of Turtle Island’s wise men together in one place and demands, from all of them, that they solve this profound puzzle: invent a sentence that will be true and appropriate for all times.

Their final answer: And this too shall someday pass.

It's true.  The only constant is change.  Everything is fleeting, everything is temporal, nothing remains the same.  Down here in the mean streets of Philly, we say it like this: you can’t be king forever.

And so, in 2012, Citizen Kane slips down a notch to number two and Vertigo takes the coveted catbird seat at the top of the Sight & Sound greatest movies list.

It is a great movie, full of twists and turns…and I’m not just talking about the city streets of San Francisco where it was filmed.

My favorite part?  When Scottie, played by Jimmy Stewart, takes the blonde enigma Madeleine to the redwoods forest on a dark and gloomy afternoon.

This scene was actually filmed in the Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz.  During that pivotal scene, Scottie shows Madeleine the exhibit of a giant cross-section of a redwood and has this meaningful, puzzling exchange:

Scottie: What are you thinking?
Madeleine: Of all the people who’ve been born and have died while the trees went on living.
Scottie: Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens…‘always green, always living.’

Then, Madeleine points to the concentric rings in the wood and, speaking to the tree itself, says: Somewhere in here, I was born.  And there I died.  It was only a moment for you.  You took no notice.

Pure.  Movie.  Magic.


People are always asking me: Jon Spruce, what are the five most famous trees in cinema history?

That’s easy.  There are, actually, a lot of famous trees in movie history, not just the redwoods in Vertigo.  There’s the southern live oak in Forrest Gump and Gone with the Wind.  There’s the Tree of Life from Avatar.  There’s Treebeard from The Lord of the Rings and there’s Ferngully and there’s even a movie named Willow.

And then there’s the famous tree stump in Shane, probably the most famous scene in movie history of man versus tree…and it makes a hickory man like myself weep like a school marm every time.

But the top five most famous trees in all of movie history?  Let the debates begin.

Number Five: the entire forest moon of Endor, from Return of the Jedi (1983)

Yes, more redwoods.  The Endor scenes were filmed in the Jedebiah Smith Redwoods State Park in Crescent City, California, while the speeder-bike chase was filmed in the redwood grove on Skywalker Ranch in Marin County.

In the original screenplay, this final battle against the evil Galactic Empire was supposed to be the planet Kashyyyk, the home planet of the Saquatchian Wookies…and then George Lucas decided to turn the Wookies into the more cuddly, more merchandisable Ewoks.  Nonetheless, the “always green, always living” backdrop of planet Endor plays a perfect foil to the mechanical, lifeless planet of the Death Star…two kinds of worlds at war.

Number Four: the treehouse in Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

This movie was filmed on the island Tobago, near Trinadad in the Caribbean.  The tree itself?  That’s a real tree.  It’s a saman tree, Albizia saman, in the same family of trees as the mimosa, the night-sleeper tree from many posts ago.   

The Swiss Family Treehouse attraction in Disneyworld and Disneyland and Euro Disney?  Those aren’t real trees.  Those are made of concrete and stucco.

The actual tree from the movie still survives in Tobago…and the treehouse set remained on the tree itself as a tourist attraction until, only a few years later, a hurricane blew away all the fun.

Number Three: the Possessed Oak from Poltergeist (1982)

Another California tree, Poltergeist’s outdoor scenes were filmed in Simi Valley.

This gnarled, knotty, man-eating oak tree plays a small but important part in this fantastic ghost story from Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hopper.

Early in the film, the little kid Robbie has this exchange with his father, Steve:

Rob: I don't like the tree, Dad.
Steve: That's an old tree, it's been around here a long time. I think it was here before my company built the neighborhood.
Rob: I don't like its arms.  It knows I live here, doesn't it?
Steve: It knows everything about us, Rob, that's why I built the house next to it, so it could protect us: you and Carol Anne, and Dana and your mom and me ... It's a very wise old tree.
Rob: It looks at me. It knows I live here.

A few night later, during a thunderstorm, the tree crashes through Robbie’s bedroom window, grabs him and tries to eat him up…and, while his frantic father and his rain-swept mother are saving Robbie from the maw of the possessed tree, the vengeful ghosts haunting the house are able to snatch away little Carole Anne.

The tree disappears in a supernatural vortex but it remains forever in the nightmares of the 1980s children, fresh off the E.T. hype.

Here’s a link to the scene from YouTube, in case you don’t want to sleep tonight: Poltergeist Tree.

Number Two: the Radley Live Oak from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Is Boo Radley the greatest character ever in American literature? 

Maybe…maybe Moby Dick the Great Whale himself is just a little greater, maybe Huck Finn or Jay Gatsby or Holden Caulfield or Yossarian…maybe….but there is no competition in one regard: no character in literature has a better entrance than Boo Radley.

“Hey, Boo.”

And to think: it all began with a tree.

In the book, it’s the narrator Scout who first discovers Boo’s gifts, left behind in the hollow knot of the live oak on the Radley Place:

Two live oaks stood at the Radley lot; its roots reached out into the side-road and made it bumpy.  Something about one of the trees attracted my attention.

Some tinfoil was sticking in a knot-hole just above my eye-level, winking at me in the afternoon sun.  I stood on tip-toe, hastily looked around once more, reached into the hole, and withdrew two pieces of chewing gum…

When Jem got home he asked me where I got such a wad…

“Spit it out right now!”

Jem stamped his foot.  “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to even touch the trees over there?  You’ll get killed if you do!”

In the movie, filmed on the back-lots of the Universal Studios, it’s Scout’s brother, Jem, who first spies the gifts in the tree.

The set of the Radley Place, along with the giving oak tree, still remains on the Universal lots, a popular spot on the studio tours.

Number One: the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Not much to say here except that, like most people, I often wish that trees could talk.  I just hope that they’re not as mean or as ornery as these trees.

So that’s the list, the five most famous trees in movie history. 

But – and it’s still sinking in -- this should be Vertigo’s moment in the sun…and so let’s take that moment to honor the newest greatest director of all time.

In honor of the master of suspense himself, let’s go find some trees here in Philly, Hitchcock style.

Saddle up, citybillies.  We’re going tree-hunting…north by northwest.


Northwestern Avenue runs along the very northwest border of Philadelphia.  The street helps form that right angle, on the north buckle of the yellow highlighted area.

It starts at Ridge Avenue and crosses over Germantown Avenue, finally hitting Stenton Avenue where it ceases to be Philadelphia…ceases to be Northwestern Avenue at all.

Stay on the eastern side of Northwestern Avenue and you’re still in Philadelphia…and all trees on that side can be considered the domain and focus of the Philly Trees blog.

But go to the other side of Northwestern Avenue and you’re just a stranger there…in some town called Lafayette Hill…or even worse.  Flourtown.  I’ve never met anyone, friend or foe, from Flourtown.

I found Northwestern Avenue off Ridge Avenue. 

There’s a Friendly’s Restaurant right on the corner.  As you turn onto the street, you’re immediately under the jurisdiction of the Fairmount Park Commission and headed straight for the woods of the Catfish Creek, more commonly known as the Wissahickon.

Once you park and start heading into the woods, you’re only a few steps away from the champion beech tree of Philadelphia…a magnificent site in the shady woods over there.

If you don’t know the beech tree by name, then you know it by sight…and you know it by legend too.

From John Eastman’s The Book of Forest and Thicket: the beech tree belongs in a forest dark with menace and mystery…beech is the environment of Grimm fairy tales, of Robin Hood’s merry men, and of Tolkien’s hobbits.


According to the website PA Big Trees, this beech tree towers over you at 102 feet. 
At waist level, its circumference is 21 feet, although that includes the several trunks launching themselves out of the fundamental base.

But all that’s just technicalities.  It’s like saying: Vertigo?  Yeah, that’s a great movie.  It runs 128 minutes long and it cost 2.4 million dollars to make.

No, the true greatness of a beech, especially this beech, is the same thing that makes Vertigo such a great movie.  It’s evocative.

It starts at the bottom of the tree, with those rippling, serpentine roots oozing out of the swath of its base, taking over the soil surface.   

Those are kinds of roots that trip up Snow White as she’s escaping from her wicked stepmother…or that hides the hobbits from the Dark Riders on the road.

Then, it continues with that famous beech bark…that thin, smooth, steely gray bark.  All the field guides say the same thing: like elephant skin

This is a very unique tree bark.  Most tree bark is plated or ridged or furrowed…or the bark peels or strips…or the bark has characteristic scars or lenticels.

The features of a tree bark are usually a protective measure against the winter frost.  When the temperatures drop below freezing, the water inside the tree will turn to ice and then it needs more room…or else it will burst or crack open.  The cracks along a typical bark allow for the extra space needed for that frost and thaw.

Not the beech though.

And perhaps it’s that difference, in the bark, that has attracted us, for so long, to the beech tree.

Its very name, beech, comes from the same root word as book.  That’s because the beech tree bark was one of our first writing surfaces…it still is a popular way to convey a quick story…or to mark our presence in the woods.

The beech will always be our storytelling tree, whether it’s a character in the actual story or whether it’s the medium for the story itself.

Like William Shakespeare wrote, in reference to the beech tree, in As You Like It:

Oh Rosalind! These trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts I'll character…

It’s still happening…

I guess the Native American Zen masters were just a little bit wrong.   

I mean, yeah, the words may change but some songs remain the same.

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