Friday, December 7, 2012


This weekend, here in Philadelphia, we partake in an old tradition…the annual Army versus Navy football game.

Here we go again.   

Since 1890, these two branches of the American military have duked it out over possession of the pigskin, fighting for yardage and first downs, charging to the red zones, punching past the goal lines, kicking it through the uprights…clashing like titans on the combat zones of a neutral football field.

The majority of these epic battles have taken place right here in Philadelphia.  In the early twentieth century, these games were hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field…then it was moved to the old JFK Stadium…and now?  The Lincoln Financial Field all the way down Broad Street in South Philly.

The U.S. Military Academy of West Point versus the U.S. Naval Academy of Annapolis…the Army Black Knights versus the Navy Midshipmen…after 112 meetings on the football gridiron, the record stands in Navy’s favor…56 wins, 49 losses and 7 ties.

But who’s got the better trees?

In the competitive, collegiate spirit of this yearly contest, Jon Spruce goes a-hunting…Army vs. Navy, tree-style…which branch of the military here in Philadelphia has the greatest trees and the wildest wilds…huddle up and blow the whistle...line up and kick off…knock ‘em down but keep it clean…hike, hike...who will win this contest of the wilds…because if winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?

Let the games begin…are you ready for some trees?


In the fall of 1777, in the first years of the Revolutionary War, the British Army overtook and besieged the American capital of Philadelphia, forcing the capital of the country to move, for a brief time, to the pastoral city of York, Pennsylvania.

One of the last hold-outs of this British siege occurred at Fort Mifflin.

The fort still stands today…located between the muddy banks of the Delaware River and the eight lanes of Interstate Highway 95…on the riverside of the Philadelphia International Airport…at the end of long, snaky, weedy roads that make you feel like you’re a hundred million miles away from the megalopolis, except for the constant barrage of low-flying jet airliners screaming towards the nearby runways.

No matter who wins this contest for the greatest trees and the wildest wilds, Fort Mifflin is now highest on my list of the best Philadelphia museums to visit.


Because when I bought my admission ticket in the small office on the second floor of an old colonial house, the young man behind the desk handed me my change and said, Go wherever you want, explore away.

No rules.  No fences.  No gates.  No scheduled tour guides.  No security.  No no admittance beyond this point

Now that’s the kind of museum policy that keeps a place alive.

Plus, the fort has a moat.  

You know what I realized?  That’s the first moat I’ve ever seen.

It was a beautiful wintering day…the bright, cold sun hanging low in the tilted sky…the brisk air rich with a briny, oceanic tang…tugboat whistles to the east, low-hanging airplanes squealing up above…birds singing in the tall weeds… crisp breezes cutting across my trail as I walked the grassy sentry-paths on the top of the fortress walls…

…or as I walked across the green lawns in between the officer barracks and the blacksmith shop…

…catching the shade cast down by the staunch gateway, running my hands against the rough, red bricks…

…or taking the wooden steps above the high ramparts…

…or stealing into the scrubby-covered hobbit-holes of the military magazines…

…built into the earth to protect the rebel stockade of gunpowder and ammunition from the British fleet constantly bombarding the fort from the Delaware River.

 Explore away…it’s easy to do there in Fort Mifflin.

You’re allowed anywhere.  For a museum, that’s a wild policy.

Nothing’s off limits…and you can even sneak into the interior of the thick fortress walls and hide away in the old soldier quarters…


…through the barricaded refuges where they slept, ate, played cards, wrote letters and waited for the inevitable call for retreat.


But, as far as trees go, not much.

The fort was actually built before the Revolutionary War.  Construction began in 1771 and was finally completed, by General Thomas Mifflin himself, right before the outbreak of independence, in 1775.

It was built, strategically, on this small part of land, still part of William Penn’s original charter, on the marshy outer banks of the Delaware River…colloquially named Mud Island.


Lucky for me, there are no fences or boundaries to the historic Fort Mifflin site…so I was able to walk beyond the high walls of the fortress and across a wooden bridge…

…past a gnarled cherry tree, up over the hilly foxholes and right up to the muddy banks of the Delaware River.

I thought I knew mud.

I mean, I’ve known mud my whole life…but this is the real mud…geologic mud…the kind of mud that turns into shale or the kind of mud that can be made into bricks…the mud that built the pyramids...the kind of mud that takes no prisoners…


…hungry mud looking for its next victim.


What, exactly, is mud?

Or, more accurately, what makes up mud?

Slopping my way up and down this small coast of the Delaware River, I came to the amateur conclusion that real mud is, scientifically speaking, just a glue…a thick, sandy, watery sludge that traps every unfortunate thing that happens to wash ashore.

This mud?

It’s made up of washed-up willow leaves and cherry leaves…

..twigs, branches, rocks, trash, drifting cherry bark and oak leaves…


…lots and lots and lots of cockle shells…


…and just about anything that might be washed ashore, like this find…bobbing in the murky waters and trapped in the tight ebb of a whirlpool in between a circle of rocks…


…a native black walnut.

Further down the banks, I found a stagnant pool of foggy water, between a wall of mud-caked stones and half-drowned trunks of driftwood…

…full of newts and salamanders…flying right under the watery edge...zipping across the water, making v-shaped jet-streamed ripples...and so the activity inside this small pool reflected the same action happening in the air-craft busy sky...a haiku moment.

I got to get back here in the spring under the Frogs Return Moon…this is the place.  This must be where the frogs are.

As far as trees?

Of course, there’s the native black willow, aching to get to the water...and growing amidst the willows, that tenacious weed tree, the catalpa.

I walked closer to the tangle of trees on the edge of the mud and grabbed some dried-up catalpa fruit…and now it became clear.

This is why the catalpa is sometimes called the cigar tree

Catalpa fruit in July
Catalpa fruit in December

…you have to wait until early winter to figure that name out…because its long, slender green fruit dries up and turns into the same kind of smoky brown bean-pod that looks like a tightly rolled cigar.

A dendrology mystery, solved at last.

Mud Island and Fort Mifflin…lots of points, lots of yardage, lots of finds…but now it was time to cross the field…not far away at all, really just down the highway on the same side of Interstate 95…to the opponent’s Philadelphia home turf…team Navy.


The Philadelphia Navy Yards is now mostly an industrial park of private enterprises, located at the southern terminus of Broad Street, past the sports complex and FDR Park.

It’s actually huge…1200 acres…which is roughly the size of Center City…it’s like a small, quaint town…nestled in the open sun away from the rat race.

Amidst the corporate headquarter buildings, there are smaller, southern-style homes that have obviously outlasted the Navy Yard’s redevelopment into the private sector.

This is a good opportunity to begin the identification of conifers and evergreens.

Gracing the doorway of this charming house, that’s a member of the Cedrus family…the true cedars…

...distinct because its needles burst off its branches in star-like whorls…


…and because its cones grow upright.


Down the street, I found one of the classic Christmas trees…a good example of a blue spruce, one of my namesakes.


These spruce also have a distinct needle formation.  Their stiff, pointed needles grow in single spikes right off the soft branches, curved and pointing away from the tree.


It grows in an almost perfect conical shape and, closer to the trunk, it has a very pleasant, almost cuddly, dense foliage…but its outer branches shoot right up towards the sky and its cones tend to only grow on its uppermost branches.

But, here at the Yards, I was on the look-out for a very particular type of tree…entirely and historically appropriate…a rightful resident to a neighborhood dedicated to the military branch of the navy.

Thar she blows.

That’s white pine.

That’s the tree that built navies and armadas.

The white pine was one of the first chief exports of the New World, sold off to Spain and England and used primarily to build their massive fleets…especially using those tall, thick, strong trunks for their sturdy, unbroken masts. 

Before the discovery of the American white pine, the European countries had nothing to use for a single mast and had to settle for piecing together the trunks of Scots pine bought from Russia.

The discovery of the virgin forests of white pine here on Turtle Island was worth fighting for.

Laws were made to protect each country’s claim to certain white pine stands.  Spies were commissioned to track down rebel tree-fellers.  And, as one of the first acts of rebellion, the Continental Congress stopped the export of white pine to Great Britain.

The Minutemen from Massachusetts, the very first rebels to fire the shots at Lexington, carried as their emblem a red flag with a picture of a white pine tree, no joke.

From Donald Culross Peattie: The last cargo of American White Pine reached England shortly after Bunker Hill…the first flag of the Revolutionary forces bore for its emblem a White Pine tree…out of Portsmouth, November 1, 1777, sailed the Ranger, Captain John Paul Jones, fitted with three of the tallest White Pine masts that ever went to sea…in the three hundred years of its exploitation, the Eastern White Pine, more than any other tree, built this nation…to sum up a mighty epic in a few poor lines – it was under the boughs of the Eastern White Pine that there evolved the greatest woodsman the world has ever seen, the American lumberjack…

The tree that launched a thousand ships.


Here in the Philadelphia Navy Yards, there are other relics and more souvenirs of history…recent history…beside this solitary reminder of the white pine legend.

You just have to find the right path.

If you drive past some of the large parking lots, you’ll come across an abandoned neighborhood of red-brick apartments laid out along a cul-de-sac that appears out of nowhere.  It has the impression that the whole neighborhood fell out of the sky.

These were the living quarters of the officers and sailors who settled here in the Yards, back when it used to be run by the Navy.

This must’ve really been something…the American dream…nuclear families living and working together…a cherry tree for every front yard…

…a garage for every American-built automobile…

…and even playgrounds for all the children.

This must have been a bustling, crowded part of the Yards…evidenced by the few remaining artifacts of a once busy urban grid.

Driving even further into the abandoned parts of the Yards, I came to an area that was being taken over by the wilds…

That’s the sumac…leaf-bare but still holding on to its fragrant, red clusters of herby fruit, darkening and drying in the sere winter winds.

I found a path of broken macadam that coursed its way through fields of seeded reeds.

These are foxtails, completely familiar during the hot summer months but now bursting with its feathering heads of grass-seeds. 


This was a scene that evoked the wide open grasslands of the Midwestern plain states.

Notice how all the seed-heads point towards the direction of the sun...heliotropism.

I followed the broken macadam trail even further into the wilds…stumbling upon more brambly native black willows…

…and vines of the bittersweet, one of the very, very last explosions of color left to the year...extremely poisonous to most creatures, including me...and you.

The end of the trail led me to an abandoned football field…

…which reminds me: we have a game to play…a score to settle.


Who wins?

Army or Navy?  Fort Mifflin or the Navy Yards?

Well, at Fort Mifflin, I wandered around a colonial citadel, walked right up to the edge of the Delaware River, found willow, discovered the true meaning of mud, found a future place to hunt frogs, and solved the catalpa cigar bean name mystery.

At the Navy Yards, I hunted down some of the totems of this Long Snow Moon and holiday season, re-discovered the tree that built the great navies and armadas of the world, saw what happens to the sumac and the cattails, found some abandoned suburbia and an overgrown football field, plus lots and lots of deer.

Both were new places for me…and yet they’ve been around forever.

Both held new sights…new sights of very familiar things.

And I want to go back…to both places.

Who wins?

You know what…it’s a coin toss.

1 comment:

  1. Recently, I noticed a woodpecker tapping into my White Pine tree. Much to my delight, it was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,Fast Growing Tree Nursery