Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Philadelphia is currently coasting, in the most pleasant way, straight into a breezy and brisk autumn.  Tricky Coyote is making his long retreat into the woods and Brother Grizzly will soon take over the moons, one final burst of food and action before the long, sleepy winter.

The fall is all about movement, all about dropping.  You can hear it happening as you walk down the streets.  Acorns are falling.  The sky is falling, too, earlier and earlier.  Sycamore branches are breaking.  Chestnuts are splitting.  The leaves will soon drop.  The temperatures too.  Ducks and birds will fly away as others stop by on their marathon migration.  Same with the monarch butterfly.  Any day now, the burst of autumn colors will be lighting up the Philly treeline and this blog will be busy, busy, busy.

Flowers, fruits and then leaves…another spectacular show is only a few weeks away from its opening notes.

And yet, as it always does during this time of year, my thoughts and meanderings take a ruminative and macabre turn.

You see, two years ago, at around this time, I was stung by a yellow jacket while camping and, unaware that I was allergic, I soon went into anaphylactic shock and, soon after that, I was knocking on heaven’s door.

Three things saved my life.

One, I didn’t panic.  When that allergic reaction kicked in, I knew that I had to get out of that Port-A-Potty as soon as possible and find the nearest group of campers.

Two, the campground staff and the fans of Camp Jam, the musical festival I was camping out to see.  They took control of the situation, called for help, tried to help the ambulance driver find the campsite, and kept me calm while my body swelled and my throat slowly, surely closed for good.

Three, the Epi Pen, which showed up just in time, just as I was saying my goodbyes to the world, to my parents and to the trees.

Every death day, I’m sure, has some sort of meridian.  A moment of no return.  Right at the edge of my meridian, as my lumbering breath struggled to push its way in and out of my tight, tight throat, I wasn’t thinking about my past.  That old saw about your life flashing before your eyes?  That’s bunk.  It was my imagined life -- all that I thought was going to happen in the future, all that I was sure would now never happen – that’s what flashed before my eyes.

And after I survived my death day, my mind didn’t stop that train of thought.  It kept on re-enacting all the events that never would’ve happened, all the people I never would’ve met, all the days that I never would’ve lived.

Until finally, peacefully, everything became clear…and a certain kind of Truth slowly enveloped the long nights and dreamy days…something some people would call a dogma settled into my walking bones…and it went a little something like this: you can't spend what you ain't got, you can't lose what you never had.

That’s the other side of the meridian.

And that’s why, during these September days, I often find myself, whether I know it or not, hunting for the native willow.


What is it about the willow?

I try very hard not to personify the trees when describing them: their forms, their movements, their decorum…but the willow forces it.  It’s such a character.   

That shaggy shape, its humpback crown and those droopy, twiggy branches…

...its slender, graceful trunk hidden behind that wise slump…

...all those feathery leaves…the way it slouches over a city street.

The willow, except for one species, grows exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere.  Here on Turtle Island, it has one of the widest and largest native ranges.  The genus grows more widely in North America than any other tree-like plant ranging from the Arctic to the desert to the subtropics, David Allen Sibley writes.  No matter where you are in North America, chances are there is a native willow growing nearby.

The willow's range on Turtle Island

Now, way up north in the Arctic, a willow grove is a shrubby mat that creeps into any sunshiny open place.  Along the sandy dunes of beaches and even in some desert areas, the willow is a shrub or just a tangle of short trunks…but here in Hardy Zone Seven, the willow is a tree, one of the most distinctive trees in the entire landscape.

It’s a tree that is instantly recognizable and, for that reason, it’s a very popular tree in the world of graphic design, logos and illustrations.


I can see why it’s used so often like that.  Like the best of trees, it is evocative, even to people who know nothing about trees.  It either seems to mirror your dreary thoughts or it immediately puts you in a contemplative, solitary state of mind.

But it’s wrong to think that the willow, especially in its native habitat, is a solitary tree.  Yes, it loves water and it’s appropriate that it’s usually pictured on the edge of some lazy waterway, in the words of famous writer, playing the water like a harp.

But it’s not a loner. 

In fact, it’s the opposite.  In the wild, in its native habitat, the willow is just a part – a big part – of a diverse, rich community of muck-loving plants and trees and wildlife.  In a bog, in a marsh, along a riverbank, in a swamp or a fen, or just stuck in the wallows of some muddy bottomland, the willow is just another person in the neighborhood.

And so, on Death Day 2012, feeling dauntless and intrepid, I went searching for the native willow in the wild…which meant that I would need to pick a waterway.

Lucky for me, I live in Philadelphia.  Here in Philadelphia, I am surrounded by waters.


Philadelphia is actually just a series of watersheds.  From north to south, east to west, it’s all watersheds.

Forget your North Philly and your South Philly.   Center City, Graduate Hospital, Fairmount, Manayunk, Queen’s Village, the Northeast, the Southwest, the Northwest, West Philly, Germantown, Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, whatever…forget about all that.  It’s all bunk.

If you live in Philadelphia, then you live in one of three watersheds.

If you live in the Northeast and North Philly, then you live in the Delaware River watershed which includes, as its tributaries: the Pennypack, the Poquessing and the Tacony which turns into the Frankford…all those creeks form the Philadelphia Delaware River watershed.

The Northwest part of Philadelphia, and then all the different neighborhoods of Center City, are part of the Schuylkill River watershed.  This includes the great Wissahickon Creek which flows into the Schuylkill River right before it bends behind the Art Museum and meanders its way to the Delaware River by the stadiums and the Navy Yard.

The hills of Manayunk divide these two watersheds. 

I happen to reside in the other watershed, the Cobbs Creek watershed, dominated by Cobbs Creek, of course.

I decided, on Death Day 2012, to trace Cobbs Creek’s path through the city I love.

Cobbs Creek is smaller than the others watersheds.  It’s a smaller waterway.  It’s shorter and a little more ragged.  It doesn’t have some of the spectacular views of the Schuylkill or the Wissahickon and it doesn’t have the tourist attractions of the great Delaware River.  It doesn’t receive a lot of fanfare or notice but it runs a path through some of the most distinctive, strangest parts of Philly...traveling ten miles through the hinterlands of the city…from big mansions to housing projects…through golf courses and behind train stations…for almost its entire run, Cobbs Creek actually forms one of the borders of Philadelphia…from the Main Line to the airport…plus, it’s just chock-full of willows.

I started this expedition at the exact location where Cobbs Creek enters Philadelphia.

The Overbrook and Haddington Neighborhood

This is where Cobbs Creek sneaks into Philly, just when City Avenue turns into Township Line Road.

In order to catch its entrance, I had to park at a driving range off City Avenue.  

From there, I found a path towards the creek and, sure enough, the tree marking the path was a native willow. 


From here, the creek runs through a golf course named, naturally, the Cobbs Creek Golf Club.  

I wasn’t allowed to follow the creek through the golf course.  My membership application must’ve gotten lost in the mail.

To catch the creek again, I had to wend my way out of the Overbrook neighborhood.

Out there in Overbrook, the houses and the trees are huge and probably deserve its own expedition.

After the Overbrook neighborhood, I had to drive down 63rd Street through the row homes of Haddington.

The next place to really catch the creek is at 63rd and Market, an El Train stop.   

This part of the city is actually called the Cobbs Creek neighborhood.
The Cobbs Creek Neighborhood

This is Cobbs Creek, as seen peering over the bridge that spans the western side of Market Street after it crosses 63rd Street.

I tried to find a path towards the creek so I walked behind the blue steel clamps of the El Train…there I saw a small trail that might just lead to the creek…but instead I stumbled upon a large, thriving, absolutely beautiful community garden.

It was bursting with food: sweet potatoes, lima beans, Chinese cabbage, peppers, a large fig tree right in the middle…


This was a real surprise but not a path to the creek.  So I walked back to 63rd Street, past the El station.  This is actually the beginning of the Cobbs Creek bike path and so finding the creek again was pretty easy.

That’s the creek as it runs under the El tracks. 

There’s a well-kept trail that begins here, that runs south alongside the creek almost all the way to the airport.  Along this creek, of course, there were willows…although not the stately, elegant types you’ll find on the cover of children’s book or as the logo of some financing business.

This close to the creek, you’re also bound to find one of the native willow’s most common neighbors: the river birch.

There are several different types of native birches but you can always tell a river birch by that thin, papery bark and the way that bark reveals that sandy-colored inner wood.

This birch is a mudder.  It just loves the mud and it anchors down as close as it can to the riverbanks and creek swells, just like this.  A river birch next to water is a sign of a healthy waterway.  It actually helps hold the banks, which keeps the river from overflowing and flooding.  It’s not the most elegant birch but it does its job.

The Angora Bridge

The next good place to catch the creek is when it runs underneath Baltimore Avenue at 61st Street, at a weird intersection where the trolleys turn around.
Here, Cobbs Creek runs under the Angora Bridge…the other side of the bridge is East Lansdowne.

One of the coolest parts of traveling the Cobbs Creek path?  It seems everywhere you stop, you keep seeing vintage signs welcoming you to Philadelphia.

Mount Moriah

Keep following Cobbs Creek along the border of Philly and, right after Baltimore Avenue and the Angora Bridge, you’ll find the abandoned Moriah Hill Cemetery.


Back in the 18th and 19th century, and into the first half of the 20th century, Philadelphia did what most urban centers did: establish cemeteries on the outskirts of its city limits…an idea that preserved the open spaces on the edges of the city instead of taking up valuable space in the inner urban areas.

But I guess that cemeteries, just like everything else, eventually wanted to move to the suburbs.  This cemetery is officially closed for business, it looks abandoned and, most recently, it’s been placed on the Most Endangered Historic Properties List.

As I was walking through the abandoned cemetery, I found a lot more of the willow’s neighbors, including red maple, wild grape and the milkweed.  

The milkweed is a very important plant for the wet landscape.  It plays a crucial part in the life and migration of the monarch butterfly.

In the summer, it grows these large, wavy fruits up and down its straight, leafy stalk.

Such a cool shape, reminds me somehow of a underwater those soft spikes. 

Inside this strange capsule, there are hundreds of milky white filaments. 

In a month or so, these milkweed pods will dry up and these sticky feathers will invade the air. 

It’s a very interesting plant and, like the river birch, it’s a sign of a healthy, wet field…I didn't find any willows in the actual graveyard but this is still willow country.

The Elmwood Neighborhood

From there, Cobbs Creek runs along a very scenic part of the Cobbs Creek Parkway, lined with lawns and trees and stone bridges.

It doesn’t last long enough...before you know it, you’re in the Elmwood neighborhood…and there’s not much to see in Elmwood…unless you like to be served Chinese food behind bullet-proof glass…or unless you need a check cashed real fast.

The best place to catch Cobbs Creek in the Elmwood neighborhood?  Stop at 73rd Street and Woodland Avenue.

That’s the site of the old Blue Bell Tavern. 

Here?  According to legend, George Washington and his troops spent a few nights here, recuperating after one of the first skirmishes of the Revolutionary War, before they set up camp in nearby Valley Forge.

Behind the Blue Bell Tavern, Cobbs Creek is basically stagnant…lots and lots of black mosquitoes.

There were also a few sycamores…very old sycamores...and silver maples, more trees, like the willow, that are fond of riverbanks.

I’m not sure what the spray-painted Ss are all about.  I guess it’s too much to ask that they were painted there by some fellow citybilly on some reckless tree hunt.

S for sycamore?

The Eastwick Neighborhood

I guess it’s only fitting…rugged little Cobbs Creek ends its run through Philadelphia in one of the most curious neighborhoods in the entire city…Eastwick.

The first sign that something different is happening here in Eastwick?  There, on that lawn, I saw a big flock of wild turkeys.

Around the corner from there, across the street from a school, there is a whole section of cinder-blocked housing projects…

…and, as I was driving around the blocks of Eastwick, I stumbled upon a small horse farm…

…and then a very nice lady washing a horse in a driveway under a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag.

Yep, there’s something happening here in Eastwick and I have no idea what it is...but it's got that rugged, ragged Cobbs Creek character written all  over it.

It’s hard to believe this is still Philadelphia…but the careening airplanes overhead made it too clear…plus I knew that Cobbs Creek was right around here…hidden in the thicket of bulrushes or right behind the line of tall trees in the background.

After Eastwick, Cobbs Creek really mellows out…slowing its current to form the swamps of the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum...which itself skulks its way leisurely into the greater waters of the Delaware River.

A swamp?  Now, that’s willow’s native habitat...its home.

The John Heinz Wildlife Refuge

One of the utmost joys of tree-hunting is seeing common street trees in their natural, wild settings.  You’ll find a lot of that here at John Heinz.  Honey locusts, pin oaks, red maples and silver maples, sweet gum, birches, those are all ubiquitous trees on the city streets...but trees whose natural habitat is the wet and mucky land of willow country.

Of course, the other utmost joy of tree-hunting is finding trees and plants that nobody would ever plant in their yard or street...the button bush comes to mind...but still, plants that play an important part of the willow's habitat.

Box elder, button bush, honey locust, pin oak, sweet gum, birches, sycamores, silver maples, speckled alders, mulberries, mallows, milkweeds, bulrushes, cockleburs…just some of the trees and plants that grow naturally in the wetlands…though, here in the muck, the willow is, no joke, the mayor of the neighborhood...and a worthy, proper destination to the end of the Cobbs Creek adventure.

Here at John Heinz, you can find willows taking over a patch of grass a few yards away from the waters...

That's right out of a storybook...Old Man Willow and all...but not exactly what I was hunting for.
I wanted to see a native willow in its rightful place, leaning over the banks of lazy waters.  Now, that's a prize.

The willow is the most thoughtful of our native trees…it’s always there when we need to sit down by the banks and listen to the waters run.

From its shaggy crown, it drops all those thin, feathery leaves and yet it never blocks the view of the winding river, or creek, or swamp.

I think everybody should have their own willow…their one spot to watch the world go by in rhythm.

Go seek out a willow.

Underneath the willow is the perfect spot for reflection and meditation…there’s a lot to chew on when you’re sitting under a willow… it’s the natural vantage point for all the wayward and rugged paths that a creek, or a life, can take.

Go hunting for it where it belongs.

You might belong there too.  Just remember.  It's not alone.

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