Wednesday, January 9, 2013


New year…new coat of paint.

About two weeks ago, just before the 2013 New Year’s weekend, on day six of the Earth Renewal Moon, Philadelphia got snow.

A lovely, bright, roaring burst of driving snow, just the perfect way to begin the new calendar and to mark the season of the Earth Renewal Moon.

The Medicine Wheel totems for this moon?  You got the quartz, the birch and the snow goose…three totems with one thing in common…the color white.

And, right on schedule, snow Just before the New Year’s parade?  It’s a sign.


Yesterday’s news.

Snow is nature’s fresh start…the open page…the blank canvas…turning every landscape into a playground…

…in the words of Thoreau, the great revealer…no escape…all tracks in plain sight…the palimpsest of the previous seasons finally, ultimately, complete for the year…the last chapter writ…

…and, I ask, is there any other scene that better evokes the wild wonder of youth than a snowy morning through a frosted window?

Thanks to snow, the old becomes new…the old becomes young again.

Now, I quoted Thoreau but, of course, the greatest snowfall in all of literature comes from that obstinate Irish wild-goose, James Joyce. 

At the end of his short story, The Dead, the main character, Gabriel, just learning of his wife’s passionate teenage lover, stays up and catches the snow…he watched sleepily the flakes, silvery and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westwards.  Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.

It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Sorry.  You can get your library card revoked if you don’t quote that final passage in full.

And, of course, a fresh coat of snow on New Year’s weekend makes anybody, Irish or not, ponder the possibilities of the upcoming calendar…the new you.

Now, Jon Spruce?  I don’t make resolutions. 

I don’t promise change.

I don’t want different.

Instead, I pledge but one thing: more of the same. 

That means even more adventures, more danger, more action, more friendship, more intrigue, more love triangles, more roads, more wine, more cider, more color and, naturally, more trees.

I got a long list of trees to hunt down for 2013.

Hemlocks and tamaracks, junipers and cedars, the dawn redwood and the bald cypress.

The honeysuckle.  The mountain ash.  The bur oak.  The witch hazel.  The serviceberry and the mountain laurel.

Just to name a few.

I want to catch the redbud in bloom.  I want to see the willow catkins and the walnut flowers.  I want to hunt down wild sunflowers, wild asparagus, wild pumpkin.

Where are the Philadelphia hickories?  Where are the Philadelphia aspens and cottonwoods?  Are there any persimmon trees in the Wissahickon?  And where, exactly, is the fabled pawpaw patch of the Pennypack Woods?

And, maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally get around to the horse chestnut.

No time to waste.


According to the World Meteorological Society, there are sixteen phases of ice.  There are sixteen ways that the hydrogen and oxygen molecules, already bonded, can freeze into a solid shape.

Ice, after all, is the most abundant solid found on Earth.

From the massive icebergs to the hoary rime to the lowly snowflake, sixteen kinds of ice can be found on this blue planet.

Right before New Year’s, we all witnessed one type of ice: the snowflake.

About a week later, I caught another kind of ice.

This is called Ice One and it’s the most common form of ice.  Look in your freezer.  You got some Ice One in there right now, just waiting to be set free.

Ice One is actually a collection of ice…planes of ice…bundled together in a lattice of different layers...alternating layers of A sheets of ice on top of B sheets of ice, with just enough room and high enough temperatures in between each sheet to trap unfrozen water.

This configuration results in Ice One’s most distinctive characteristic.



The best part of Ice One?  The way it’s able to interact with the wintering world.


The great revealer.

You need a new set of eyes if you plan on tree-hunting during the stark, cold winter months. 

Winter, as far as tree-hunting is concerned, can be a real conversation stopper.

Leaves?  Dropped.  Well, except for the evergreens.  Flowers?  A few months away.  Bark?  Not the most interesting of subjects.

Fruit?  Mostly, the fruit has been harvested or eaten or rotted or just plain gone.

But not really.

Some fruits persist.  Like the tulip poplar…

Its fruit tends to stay frosted and upright on its high branches…bright as flowers against the harsh, arid January skies…

And the sweetgum?

Its seeds have already escaped from their woody hatches but that spiky capsule still dangles from its withered branches.

Now, I always thought that the sweetgum fruit was designed to cling to hairy animals…an evolutionary tactic to spread its seed far and wide through the forest.

But actually, the sweetgum fruit’s mystery is revealed here in the winter.  This is a water-loving tree.  Its native habitat is the banks of rivers and ponds and lakes.  That fruit…that spiky asteroid…it’s not some fur-clinging machine.

It’s actually a functional floating device, perfect for the watery world where it lives, something I never noticed before.

These are winter observations…first snow, first ice, persistent fruit…cold thoughts on a winter saunter.

Where was I? 

I was in the northeast, off State Road, in the Holmesburg neighborhood, where the Pennypack Creek flows into the muddy Delaware River.

What was I doing?

Hunting spruce.


People are always asking me: Hey, Jon Spruce, what’s your favorite mural here in Philadelphia?

There are a lot of contenders.

I like the murals around Bainbridge, the ones that depict the same scene in the fall and the winter. 

Whenever I cruise north up Delaware Avenue, I always like that giant mural on the firehouse, that big American flag.

The way it’s draped…it’s very mournful, very elegiac.

And, of course, I like the Larry Fine on South Street, the Eraserhead and the Edgar Allan Poe off Spring Garden, the Frank Rizzo in the Italian Market, the Mario Lanza in South Philly, the Jackie Robinson on North Broad and, the best portrait of all…

…the Doctor J.

But, without question, my favorite mural in the entire city is located right off Interstate Highway I-95, on the corner of Cottman Avenue and State Road.

It’s hard to see this mural in of all its splendor and glory…thanks to the shadows cast down by the billboards and thanks to that high, tight fence…but, if I get a little closer and if I sneak my iPhone through the clinks of the fence...

...then I can see what’s been lovingly painted on the cinderblock walls.

This is the boreal forest….

…also known as the taiga…the forest that covers the northern rim of this Spaceship Earth…covering more area than any other type of forest in the entire world...

…from Alaska across the grand swath of the Yukon all the way to the islands of Newfoundland…jumping across the ocean and covering the high latitudes of Scandinavia and Siberia right up to the coast of the Bering Sea and into Alaska again…

…this is the boreal…home of the wolf and the lynx, the black fly and the raven, the caribou and the moose…

…and the number one tree of the entire boreal forest-scape…that great tree of the wintering world…

…the name-maker, the spruce.


For many, many miles of the boreal forest, there is but one tree.

The spruce.

It’s one of the few instances in the natural world where one species just takes control, takes the throne and lays claim to every inch of ground. 

Right up to the treeline…right up to the cold, arctic edge where no trees can survive…the tree at the end of the world…that’s spruce.

And I don’t know about you but for me…

…the colder it looks, the hotter I burn.

And yet, here in Philly, the spruce is not known as a forest tree.

Walking through the Holmesburg neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia, in that narrow tract of land between I-95 and the Delaware River, it’s apparent.

The spruce is a yard tree.

Riding around this neighborhood, you can't go two blocks without seeing a white spruce or a norway spruce...


...or the blue spruce.


Instantly recognizable thanks to its straight, columnar trunk and those drooping, swooping branches...

...the Philadelphia spruce can usually be found planted in between houses…

…and its magnificent spires can be spotted blocks away…

…soaring above the tall telephone poles and towering over the roof-scapes of Philly homes.

The Holmesburg neighborhood...up and down Cottman and Torresdale Avenue, all along State Road, and all the little streets in betweenit's one remarkable spruce after another.

Philly's own boreal forest...this is spruce country.

It's a tree that actually receives a lot of criticism.  Most complaints center around its sharp needles, its dense growth, its unwelcoming appearance.

This is not a very huggable tree.

That's okay with me.

You're not meant to get close to this tree.  You're meant to watch it from a distance...

...the only way to take in its great shape all in one breath.

And it is entirely appropriate to find it here, in Philly, curling up next to all those homes.

January, February, March...this is the season of the home, the hearth, the safe shelter from the winter weather. 

Time to nest.

Time for long nights indoors...time for big blankets and hot cocoa...time for great novels and epic movies...the season of the shutter, the season of the spruce.

But winter won't stop meI cannot get enough spruce.

It is a wonder of a tree.

It is magnificent and awesome…terrifying and friendly all at the same time…

…those plunging branches and those fawn-colored cones hidden in the high branches.

Each spruce tree is a landmark, whether it’s growing solitary in some parking lot…

…or solitary in a front yard…

…or, best of all, if it’s growing in rows in, say, some back parking lot of a street-side bank.

I stand under its wide awning and I am immediately in winter.

All of sudden, the air tightens…the wind cuts…the ice cracks...January in my bones.

Take a deep breath.  Take it in.

That piney, arctic, sharp rank?  That wintergreen flavor that tingles the nostrils, that hardens the heart, that bucks up the soul?

That’s spruce.

And under the spruce tree?

That’s my country.  This is my season.

You want a New Year’s resolution?

How about this?

Somewhere in this cold city, there is a champion spruce...the biggest, tallest, greatest Philly spruce...and I'm gonna hunt it down.

It could be right here in Holmesburg.

Wherever that champion spruce might be, let it know right now, right here.

The hunter has become the hunted.

I am going to find it...the champion spruce tree of Philadelphia…I’m on the look-out.

So let it be written, so let it be done.

Not a quest for the faint-hearted, not a resolution for the warm-blooded.

Not a problem.
I am Jon Spruce.

According to the Medicine Wheel, I am an Elk of the Thunderbird Clan.

I was born under the Long Snow Moon.

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