Tuesday, December 4, 2012


People are always asking me: Dear Jon Spruce, what makes a good gift for a tree-hunting citybilly?

This happens every year.

Maybe you have a newborn in the family…and you want to make sure they’ll grow up with an inquisitive mind, observant eyes and hungry hands…no time to waste. 

Maybe you got a little nephew or a cousin…someone who always comes in for the Sunday dinner with dirty nails and scabby knees.

Hey, ladies, maybe you want to catch the attention of that dashing, scrappy urban rambler that keeps bumping into you around the neighborhood…or maybe, this year, your Secret Santa is that weird dude in the other cubicle who’s always cracking black walnuts in the break room.

What do they want?

What material possession could possibly thaw their cynical, frosty spirits?  What one thing has the potential to pierce and brighten their somber, restless souls?  What one gift could make a dent in their deep, bottomless hearts?

This is not an easy question and there are no easy answers.

By anybody’s standards, we are not the easiest to shop for.

By nature, we live simple, uncluttered lives and we don’t make room for knickknacks, or ornaments, or the modern bauble of devices, appliances, gizmos and doodads.

Electric toothbrushes.

The last thing you want to give a citybilly is some mass-produced trinket…something that just takes up space.

Celebrity bobble-heads.

Not that we don’t have any treasured material possessions.  A lot of times, that’s all we have. 

But these are things that weren’t bought…and can’t be given…and certainly cannot be owned…or returned.  We cherish things that are native, true and seasonal…things full of marrow, things that cut close to the heart.  We want our things to be durable, tough, sentimental and built to last.

Like the poet Gary Snyder once wrote: you don’t want nothing that can’t be left out in the rain.

Sorry but we’re picky…and we like to pick battles with inanimate objects.   

Material possessions?  We’re not supposed to pine for those things.

In fact, those are the very things that we’re trying to shed.  No adornments.  No miscellany.  We need drinks when we’re thirsty, eats when we’re hungry, a few extra potatoes for a little bit of fun and, every once in a while, an elegant, unclouded, perfect epiphany…now how you gonna fit that into a box?

But before ye lose faith during this holiday season, let me tell you that there is hope.  There are gifts out there that any citybilly worth their salt would love to receive…and so I humbly present the Jon Spruce Holiday Gift Guide…chock full of the oldest trends and the ancient fads…completely out of fashion and cluelessly out of vogue…if we didn’t have bad style, we’d have no style at all…the do’s and the don’ts of shopping for citybillies.

Researching this subject was not an easy task.  It took tremendous willpower, herculean self-sacrifice, lots of cider and hours upon hours of transcendental meditation…but I did it.

For the blog, and for you, I did it.

I went to the frigging mall.


Rule Number One: no gift-wrapping.  Gift wrap kills the environment.

May I suggest a re-usable bag…but a re-usable bag that accurately reflects the current season of the Long Snow Moon.

White pine and holly.

Or even this design is appropriate…

…obviously inspired by my favorite weirdest flower, the maypop.

I walked up and down the crowded halls of the Gallery and, to be honest, it’s a bad way to spend the afternoon.  This gift guide was going to be harder than I thought.

I’m sure that, back when it opened in 1977, the Gallery at Market East was really a sight to behold. 

Its location can’t be beat…it’s the junction of some of Center City’s busiest public transportation systems: the Market-Frankford Line, the Greyhound Bus terminal on Filbert Street, and the New Jersey Transit Hi-Speed Lines…and just a short walk away, through the subterranean concourse, there’s the Broad Street Line…plus there’s City Hall, where you can catch the trolleys to West Philly, and there’s the Suburban Station, where you can ride the rails to the outlying Philly neighborhoods.

And it was bordered, east and west, by Wanamaker’s and Gimbel’s, giants of American retail.



I’d rather be outside, especially considering that it’s a balmy, misty sixty-degree day.

And as far as trees go?  You got your classic indoor plants: the palms, the bamboos and the succulents.

These are, obviously, non-native to the Delaware River watershed…interesting to the tree-minded for the somewhat rare chance to see some exotic branching structures, foreign leaf patterns and alien green colors…

…and that’s about it.

An indoor plant is an outdoor plant somewhere in the world and most of these hardy, popular houseplants can actually be found growing wild in the lush rainforests of South America or in the mountain-and-river landscapes of the Himalayans.

So that’s kind of interesting.

There's also a lot of English ivy, hanging in pots and dangling from the many, many balconies.

There’s the poinsettia, a very profitable business this time of year for the big floral factory farms, a shrubby tree from the Spurge Family which originally hails from the western edge of Mexico…

….and those aren’t red flowers…those are just differentiated leaves which actually require a steady supply of darkness in order to change colors like that…which is why its red colors bloom at this time of year under the Long Snow Moon.

That’s also kind of interesting…and seasonal…but, man, walking through the Gallery, I was so starved for a good tree that I started identifying the species inside the snow-globes in the Hallmark store.


Ah, birch…what a sight for sore eyes.

But that reminds me of the second rule of the Jon Spruce Holiday Gift Guide.

No knickknacks.  No trinkets.  No clutter.  No snow-globes.


So what would make a good gift?

Well, let’s try the video game store.

I have to admit, I’ll a little behind the times when it comes to video games.  I don’t really play video games anymore and I don’t own a current video game console…unless you count the iPhone and my current addiction to Word Warp Extreme.

And, based on the selection at the Gallery, most video games aren’t really geared to the tree-hunter.

I found one game that looked like it had potential…

From Sydney, Nebraska, the company Cabela’s is one of the most successful retailers of camping gear and fishing, hunting and just plain shooting merchandise…and, inside their warehouse-sized stores, there are the kinds of showcases of taxidermy and terrariums usually seen in outdated natural history museums.

They recently started making video games…like this one…where dangerous turns deadlier a virtually realistic first-person shoot-em-up that asks the ultimate question: can you hold your own against the most vicious beasts the animal kingdom has to offer?

I don’t know.  Considering that you’re the person walking around with a gun shooting things, just who is the most vicious beast in this game? 

The reverse of this game actually sounds more interesting and exciting…a game where you can be a wild animal hunting hunters hunting other wild animals…and you have to sneak through the forest, lurk through the tall grass, climb through the jungle canopy, dive out of the clouds or leap out of the water...you have to find and kill the reckless, drunk, bloodthirsty band of weekend hunters before your pack or herd or flock or school is completely destroyed…you’re their only hope for survival.

Now that would be a good game.

Besides, the most vicious beasts in the world aren’t lions or tigers or bears or crocodiles or moose.

The most vicious creatures?  How about the hemlock wooly adelgid, a bug that is currently destroying the mighty hemlock trees…

…or the emerald ash borer, the insect that already has destroyed almost 100 million ash trees around the world and it’s not stopping…

…scientists predict that this little bugger will end up annihilating the entire world population of ash trees…estimated body count, 7.5 billion trees.

I’d like to play a game where I could squash these vicious beasts.

No, instead of Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2013, I’d recommend the video game, Afrika

…by the company Natsume…it’s a stunning safari experience…where you engage in a wildlife photography adventure…your mission might be to photograph a stampede of wildebeests or a pack of lions on the hunt…the better the photo, the more money you earn, the better equipment you can buy, the riskier the next assignment, all the time playing for the ultimate reward: national critical acclaim.

Game on!

Next up…the book store.  You can never go wrong with a good book.

Here at the Gallery, they actually have a pretty wide selection of field guides…

…including these new ones published by the National Wildlife Federation, each page dedicated to a single species, complete with photos of fruit, bark, leaves and native ranges…

I got to add these to the Dendrology Library.  They look pretty good.

But, if you’re unsure about buying a field guide for a present, then there’s nothing wrong with going back to the classics…

…although I’ll let you in on a little secret.

Most citybillies love a good book cover.

Even to this day, I can instantly remember the great book covers I’d received as holiday gifts, just as memorable as the stories themselves.

That’s why I was a little disappointed at some of the editions offered at the Gallery…classic nature adventure books…full of life, bubbling with marrow, red in claw…all with boring, lackluster, stuffy covers.

No, if you’re going to buy one of the classics as a gift, then do yourself a favor and go to a used book store and find an edition with the kind of illustrated cover that gives the book its due justice.

Take The Call of the Wild.  Which book cover better captures this passage:

Sometimes he pursued the call into the forest, looking for it as though it was a tangible thing...he would spring to his feet and dash away, and on and on, for hours, through the forest aisles. 

A classic book with the right cover art…that’s the kind of touch we really appreciate…and will remember forever.


In the long run, in the end, shopping for a tree-hunting citybilly is really just a state of mind.

Unfortunately, you lose that state of mind real fast in the mall.

I tried my hardest to stay focused but, after a while, everything started looking the same…and be careful…if you blank out for just a few minutes…you’re toast.

You can't say I didn't try.

Just a few minutes of daydreaming to break up the monotonous smell of fried chicken and the relentless jingles of holiday music…and all of a sudden, you’re not in the Gallery anymore…you’re locked up in some futuristic factory of people-moving machines…

…or you end up walking down some hallway that never seems to end…

…and you’re tempted to follow some tunnel to some place you don’t want to go…

…and everything looks the same and everything is made of the same stuff.

Talk about your lack of biodiversity.

I didn't last long at the Gallery.  I busted out of there, lickety split, and caught the last hour of an unseasonably warm December day.

In the end, dear readers, you don’t need a gift guide for citybillies.

What's needed is a shopping guide.  Citybillies need a shopping guide…how to shop…how to keep our cool in this kind of environment.

Don't ask me to write it.  I don't have a clue.  

My best shopping tip?
Keep it seasonal and try to keep it native.

That is, after all, the real meaning behind this holiday season…it’s the celebration of the evergreens…the pines, the spruces, the firs, the hollies and the yews.

During these holidays, we are the stewards of light, and green, keeping them alive and indoors through the frosty, defeated nights of the yew-time yuletide…a celebration of the bright colors and flickering lights that persist even through the darkest days of winter.

So, with that in mind, just fight back the urge to buy things like this…

…and stay away…far away…from things like this…

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