Thursday, January 31, 2013


People are always asking me: Hey, Jon Spruce, when you gonna settle down?

Yo, baby, it’s not your fault.  It’s not from lack of trying. 

But I got to do it my way…settling down without settling at all.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what settling down even means.

I guess I was absent the day they handed out the long list of society’s benchmarks.

Does it mean just coming home to a list of errands?  Does it mean spinning the chore wheel?

Does it mean just staying at home and saving the money and saving the gas and fidgeting with the thermostat while, out there beyond the front door, the snow is melting or the acorns are falling or the rivers are rising or the magnolia is budding?

I mean, you don’t want to give up a good parking spot, do you?

A few weeks ago, I got a good taste of settling down and I ended up stuck in a snuggie, addicted to bad TV, moss growing under my rump, asleep at the wheel.

But now I was on the outside, looking in.  You can’t say I didn’t try.

A lot of times, I think settling down means staying put.  It means people can make a good guess where you are, at any given moment, and usually be right. 

On the grid.  At the desk.  On hold.  Inside.

It means being home…which means choosing a house...buying roots, building equity and nurturing moss.

Buying a house?  It can’t be as hard as I think and it can’t be as monumental as they want me to believe.

I’m smart.  I can do things.  I can make an appointment with some paper-pushing banker.  I can fill out the forms, let some lending company go through my personal purchasing history, sign on the dotted line and then spend the next thirty years paying for my own front door.

That’s a walk in the park.

It’s knowing what I want, forevermore.  It’s settling.  That’s the killer.


Because, just like the trees, new ideas and new flowers blossom with every season…there’s always new branching to be done…there’s always new fruit to taste and there’s always old fruit dropping by the curbside…the colors are always changing.

What if…what if I buy that old ramshackle of a house?  What then?   I move my stuff in.  I change my address.  I fix her up.  I learn about water heaters and garbage disposals and septic tanks, if applicable.

I lay me some roots.

I hang up my hat.

But what if…what if I change my mind?  What if my mood swings?  What if my weather changes?

It’s bound to happen.

I mean, you can always leave.  You can always give up the interior occupation, sell the house and then go back to the reckless, heedless lifestyle of a tree-hunter. 

But not really.

You can always come back…sure…but you can’t come back all the way.

Trust me.  I know me better than myself.

There will come a night…an inevitable evening…when I am warm and settled in the confines of my own house…gently drowsing to the rhythms of some old adventure novel…and I will rise from my Lay-Z-Boy, startled by the sound of someone tapping, of someone gently rapping, at my city door.

I will swing the door open wide and there he’ll be…my old younger self…hat in hand…asking if Jon Spruce can come out and play.

I don’t know if I can handle that kind of rejection.


And yet, that is the course of, what appears to be, everybody else.

Or maybe it just seemed that way, in that moment, walking through the neighborhoods bordering the outskirts of Gina’s farm…Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill and North Manayunk.

I was surrounded by great trees…

…and, yet, every one of those great trees was owned by some house and anchored to some lawn.

Someday, I’m going to write a whole post on lawns.  It is a fascinating subject.

The modern lawn first started appearing on the home-scape in the 1500s.  It evolved from a type of land called the commons.

The commons was a patch of flat, unwooded land, usually somewhere between the wilds and the farmsteads, and it was shared by the townsfolk as a place to graze small animals and to pick the medicinal herbs that usually grow on the edge of the woods.  Nobody was supposed to use it more than most or take more than needed.  The commons survive today in the form of parks, although parks are regulated by committees, instead of the unwritten gentleman’s agreement that governed the original commons.

Then came lawns…like moss, it was a game-changer when you think about the landscapes here on Spaceship Earth.

The original lawns were privately owned patches of land, attached to a homestead and, so as not to confuse the people looking for the town commons, usually enclosed with a fence.

Or box-hedges.

Or a wall.

This was a sign of equity and luxury…a bit of land that didn’t have to be worked and weeded…mowed down each day by chickens and turkeys, goats and rabbits, sheep and carriage-horses.

By the 1600s, it became fashionable for home-owners to turn a part of their lawn into farms of inedible perennials and decorative annuals…and a new kind of landscape started showing up on Spaceship Earth...the garden…and a new kind of human appeared too…the professional landscaper.

Here on Turtle Island, lawns became big in the 1800s.  At this time, city comptrollers started really digging the idea of a public waterworks system, funded by income tax, that would be used by both the families living in row homes right on the city streets and the other families living away from the city in big houses on open lawns.

By then, it was too late to turn back the clock.
In 1856, the first official rulebook for croquet was published.

In 1868, Frederick Law Olmstead was commissioned to design Riverside, a planned community outside Chicago.  In his original plan, Olmstead decreed that all houses had to be set back 30 feet from the street.

And each house would also be equipped with an area reserved for a private transportation vehicle.


In 1871, the first lawn sprinkler was patented.


North Manayunk, Mt Airy and Chestnut Hill…these are great neighborhoods for a good, old fashioned lawn-hunt.

And it got me a-thinking.  What would I do with a lawn?  What would I do with such a blank canvas?

Which trees would I plant?  How would I landscape?

If I had a large enough lawn, I’d want to reserve one small section for one big tree, somewhere on the lawn, that could just grab hold of the earth and vault up to the sky.

Behind the fence of this one big house, there’s a silver maple that does just that.

But, really, all things considered, the right tree for this kind of space would be a beech tree.  Not many trees stand alone like a beech tree.

In this case, you do lose a little grass because of the shallow roots of the beech…and I’m sure this is just murder on the lawn mower…

...but, yeah, I’d put a beech tree somewhere near my house.

I’d also want some smaller understory trees dotting my lawn…trees like the serviceberry or the dogwood or maybe even a sour cherry tree.

I passed one lawn that had a saucer magnolia planted right near the fence, right near the sidewalk...

…and, leaping lizards, even the magnolia buds are booming on this lawn.

The only problem with a magnolia?  It’s a spring tree, early spring too.  One of the first trees to flower for the year, one of the first trees to leaf out and then that’s about it.  It kind of stands still for most of the year.

I’d want my lawn to put on a show all year long, which is why I really appreciated the trees growing along this fenceline.

Here’s a dogwood, which is known for early spring flowers, right next to a holly tree, which will keep color all winter long…then, right next to the holly, there is a spruce...and then there are two river birches, trees that have a very rich color in the fall…the last tree is a Japanese cypress, which has a much fluffier, much snuggier winter nature compared to the crispy, prickly leaves of the holly just a few trees down the fenceline.



Now that’s a line-up that would keep me watching all year long.

But I guess all this daydreaming about my future lawn doesn’t mean much without a house in mind.   

The trees selected for a lawn should depend on the house itself…its shape, its colors, its size.

That’s why I particularly liked this house-scape…

…and the way the cone shape of the holly tree is mirrored in the steeple shapes of the roofs.  A good tree trimming would bring it out even more.

And then there was this view from the wrong side of the fence…

…just love the yin and yang of that thick, wide stone of a house and those thin, wiry river birch trunks...just love the balance between all those grays and silvers.

And then I was just thrilled to see this very thoughtful bit of landscape…a blue spruce that perfectly matches that blue trim.

And, yes, somewhere on my future lawn, there will be a spot for spruce tree.


The spruce tree can fit anywhere on a lawn.
I especially like the way a spruce tree guards a driveway…


…I think that’s a terrific way to come home.

If I had a corner house, I’d plant a spruce tree right on the edge of the lawn…

…that straight, vertical spruce spire makes a perfect counter-point to any bend in the road.


It’s also a great tree to plant in between houses…


…it creates a natural commons, a shady place to meet the neighbors and to…I don’t know what neighbors do…compare sedans, swap sugar, brag about lawnmower specs?

And yet, the spruce can also be used for the exact opposite of purposes…to hide away from the neighbors…

…a properly planted spruce can be the perfect tree to block the rest of the world from view.

Walking through that neighborhood hunting for lawns and gazing at homes, I was getting more and more drawn to the kinds of homes hidden by the trees.

Usually a spruce or two was involved.

Homes that nobody sees.

Maybe I still had moss on my mind.  Maybe I was still freeing myself from the comfort of the snuggie.  Maybe it was because I was walking around a neighborhood full of houses, full of families and joggers and dog-walkers, snapping photos up and down the residential grid and, yet, no one was paying attention to me.

A stranger that nobody sees.

And, after a while, it was like stepping through the looking glass. 

It seemed, more and more, that it was the houses that were planted, not the trees…

…that, in this frontier suburb of Center City, hard-working pioneer families settled down out here, staking claims in this boreal forest, building homes right up against their favorite spruce.


I felt like that fish…plucked from his home and able to see, just for a brief moment, the other side of the thin surface of his small world.

The natural order of the lawn-scape had flipped.

I was just another prospector looking for the right plot of trees to lay down some foundation.

Yeah.  Settle down myself?  I don’t think that will happen until I can see past all those trees.


But, like the seasons, that homeless feeling wouldn’t last long.

I was already running late.

I drove out of the lawn-scapes of these neighborhoods and weaved my way to the big highway, through Center City and towards Fishtown.

My buddy Dave had invited me over.

He said he had a big pot of gravy going…and a fridge full of beer.

Over there in Davetown, compared to the neighborhood I had just left, there is a stark difference to the kinds of houses and front yards that can be found…

…houses with no lawns at all…doors that open right out on the sidewalks…


…not a driveway in sight…

…no set back rules here.

Actually, you can see by the shadows, every once in a while, there are a few homes with a little bit of lawn…

…and, wouldn’t you know, there’s usually a spruce right near the door.

The rich man, the poor man, the just-getting-by man…they’ve all settled down on the other side of the spruce.

But I guess the question still remains: Hey, Jon Spruce, when you gonna settle down?

Not right now.

Unless you count Dave’s couch.

No worries.  This won’t be like before.  I won’t get stuck this time.

This time?  I was going to catch up with a good friend, drink his beer and eat lots of gravy, try to make his pregnant wife laugh at our shenanigans, take his dog out for a walk, and basically waste the rest of the beautiful afternoon enjoying the daylights out of exciting championship football.

Settled down?

Not quite…but close enough for now.

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