Wednesday, April 3, 2013


I woke up this morning after another one of those fitful nights.

Tossing and turning, I just could not settle into a steady state of sleep, I don’t know why.

Going to sleep was never that easy but getting up never used to be this hard.

Walking outside, I stopped dead in my tracks.

It’s freezing and I’m not surprised but I’m tired of it. 

Where is spring?  Where’s the show?

Where have all the flowers gone?

This isn’t the spring that’s advertised, not the spring I was expecting.  This is not the spring that’s promised.

I don’t know about you but I’m not taking it lying down anymore.  I’m tired of waiting around for spring, waiting around for flowers.  They’re out there.  I’m sure of it.

Forget the errands and ditch the plans…I’m going hunting for spring flowers.

I went back inside the cabin and laced up my boots.  This winter might be hanging on longer than expected but it’s got to be spring somewhere in this fair and filthy city.  I grabbed my field guides and I grabbed my hat.  Then, I punched some buttons on my iPhone and I downloaded some apps.

I got a Thermometer App and I got an Altimeter App.

That’s right.  I’m going to start this hunt at the highest heights.  I’m climbing straight to the top of Philly Mountain and I’m not going to stop until I get to the lowest low.

I’m going to scour this city top to bottom.

Somewhere along the line, I’m going to find some spring flowers.

One quick look around my apartment in case I was forgetting anything.

That’s right.  I’ll need my mountain lookout journal and a good pen.  Now just need to fill up the canteen with some cider and I’m set…on my way to the top of the city…up, up and away…

Elevation 440 ft above sea level.  Temp 36°

Intersection of Germantown Avenue and Summit Street.  This is the highest point in the city, top of Philly Mountain.

Street-namers did a helluva job here.  Highland Avenue.  Hilltop Road.  Prospect Avenue.  Names fit for a peak.  I park on Summit Street, a few blocks down from Valley View.

First tree of the day has nothing to do with spring.

That’s birch.  White as the moon and just as hot.  The blank wall catches every little twig.

Up close, catkins. 

Technically, it’s a flower with no petals.  Not exactly what the poets have in mind when they gush and fuss over spring flowers but whatcha gonna do? 

You play the hand you’re dealt.

Where the buses turn around, witch hazel burning bright under leafless boughs.

I can’t help but think of its other name.  Winterbloom.  The field guides describe the yellow flowers as spidery


Sounds about right.  Spring 2013 snared in winterbloom’s web.  Still, good to see some color.

I walk to the front of the corporate park.  Look, Ma…

…Top of the Hill Plaza.

I duck into a small coffee shop.  Inside, it’s a balmy forty-three degrees, everybody in line bundled up in winter coats.  Even see a few scarves.  Everybody’s talking about the weather.  Or baseball.

Leave a little room for cream?

Just a little.

It’s hard to get a full cup of coffee in this city.

On the way out, I grab one of those cardboard cup holders.  This shop gives out the ones with breath mints attached.

On the way back to my car, I find a good luck totem…

…if the bears are out, it must be spring somewhere on this mountain.

Hey, I should invent mint-flavored coffee, make a fortune.

Elevation 133 ft above sea level.  Temp 36°

Two miles northwest of Philly Mountain’s peak, I drop over 300 feet in ten minutes and land on the westernmost corner of the city, 133 feet above sea level, stuck at the main gate of the Morris Arboretum, zero cash in my wallet.

Do you take debit?

Sure do.

Morris Arboretum is famous for its acres and acres of carefully planned and thoughtfully planted landscapes, nary a rough road in the whole place, and I’m sure every little weed and every little upstart is plucked from the ground as soon as it’s discovered during the daily mowing.

What did Edward Abbey say? 

For myself, I hold no preference among flowers so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.  Bricks to all greenhouses!  Black thumb and cutworm to every potted plant!

I park at the end of the long drive and run downhill to the only wild place left in the whole theme park, long sky sitting pretty in the lazy swamp.

Here it’s muddy and marshy, loud with goose and duck, the mountain wind bouncing off the still waters, bending every cattail reed.

Signs of spring are here, if you know where to look, or what you’re seeing.

That’s pussy willow…

…and, rising out of the waters, here’s the native alder tree…

…if I could get closer, I’d be able to see its catkins which, like birch, appear early in spring before the leaves.

Along the rim of the swamp, I also see some serviceberry trees and a redbud, two other muck-lovers known for early, early spring blossoms but they were just barely budding. 

I hike back up the hill to take a quick stroll around the garden grounds proper.  Not much spring here, witch hazel still the star of the show.


Outside the restroom, another sign of spring.

This is identified as the Rose of Sharon.

It’s pretty as a princess but too small and precious to scare away winter or herald spring.

Need big blossoms.  Need showy petals and big bursts of flowers, too many to catch and name.  It’s spring, sure, but need a spring day.  Need warm hands in the morning.

I drive out of the parking lot, down the long lane, back to Northwestern Avenue, make a promise to myself to return in a week or so.

By then, I’ll see the redbud in action, the serviceberry in bloom.  April come she will, as they sing.

And she always will.  That’s her promise.

Come again.

You betcha.

Elevation 410 ft above sea level.  Temp 37°

Back on the road, I turn on the talk radio.  Everybody’s chirping about tonight’s game.  Halladay’s start.  Everybody’s nervous about his velocity.

I’m not.  Spring training just don’t count. 

All the crazies are jumping ship because they lost the opener.  Half the teams around the league lose the opener. 

People forget.  It’s a long season.  You can’t start crying in April.  Not with that rotation.

I circle around to the other side of Philly Mountain, climbing my way up the eastern slope where Gina farms, back up in the air four hundred ten feet above sea level to catch one more sign of spring.

Dirt farmer planting onions.

I steal her away for an early lunch of greasy pizza.

You see all those onions?

I see you planting onions but I didn’t see any onions yet.

It’s a long season.

I drop her off back at the farm, she digs back into work while I take a quick jaunt into the woods, still on the lookout out for spring flowers.

Instead, I find a winter relic from the late snowfall a few weeks ago.

Giant snowball, middle of the path near the white pine stand.

Obviously the work of some trickster.

It’s funny.

It’s funny because it’s true.

Elevation 108 ft above sea level.  Temp 40°

Closer to the center of the city, eight miles away from Philly Mountain, dropping to one hundred and eight feet above sea level, a deliberate detour through the scenic roads that cut through the long fields of Fairmount Park.

I took a meandering way.  Like the poet says, I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills.

And, just like that poem promises, all at once, I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.

The famous poem talks about a field of ten thousand daffodils but I’m happy enough with the few clumps found here, deep set into the dried bracken, behind the horse chestnut tree.

The daffodil makes big bucks for the giant floral conglomerates, very popular decoration for the Easter table.  In Germany, its name translates to Easter bell.

Sounds about right, even if it sounds a little soft.

After this long, long winter, spring needs more than just a bell to ring in the season.

It needs a trumpet.

Elevation 100 ft above sea level.  Temp 38°

Ten miles away from the summit of Philly Mountain, I’m at a level of one hundred feet above the sea, standing tall and shivering slightly, watching the apricot on Baltimore Avenue.

This is a member of the Rose family, one of the most important families of trees worldwide, responsible for the peach and the nectarine, the plum and the cherry, the apple, the almond, the pear and the rose.

The cherry blossoms get all the hype during the early spring season but I’m partial to the apricot.

Slender branches criss-crossing back and forth around the entire crown, dizzy with those tight packets of flowers.

Step to the side, line up the flowers against the crack of blue sky in between the houses…

…and it’s a Chinese landscape painting come to life, west side of bustling Baltimore Avenue.

A teenager eating candy watches me.

What kind of tree is that?

It's an apricot.

Where's the apricots?  

Elevation 2 ft above sea level.  Temp 34°

Journey’s end.  The swamp near the airport at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, the bottom of Philly Mountain.
Here, my Altimeter App hits a measly two feet above sea level and, in some spots, it goes down to zero.

At the beginning of the trail, the only color is still the witch hazel, although this time the color is not coming from its winterbloom but from those marcescent leaves shining gold in the woody gloom.

Finally able to catch the native alder and its candelabra of catkins.


These catkins are much longer than the birch catkins.  They open earlier too.

Here in the very first days of spring, they are already colored and flared.

The alder is a water-lover, above all else.  Never found far from water. 

It is a pioneer tree for a bottomland like this.  Deep inside its chemistry, it transforms the bog and the marsh, pumps nitrogen into the mud, stabilizes the soil, helping to create the diverse arboretum of muck-loving and fen-friendly trees and plants that we call swamp.

Past the bridge, found an older alder near a grassy embankment…

…biggest alder in Philly, I bet.  Trunks for branches.  Still dropping its spring catkins on the wet duckworts and celandines.

The trail is crowded with bird-watchers.  Good people, great cameras.  I don’t know whether to make conversation for fear of spoiling their watch.

It’s quiet in here.

I say it to a few bird-watchers but I only get nods in return, as if they’re saying in reply: It was.

They’re right.

It’s only quiet until I start listening.  Lots of caws and trills and honks, duck wings splashing, reeds rustling.

Down the trail, red maple, another water-lover.

On the streets, this is a stately tree.  Here in the wild, it’s a gangly tangle.

Its flowers, tight on the branches, are in full spring.

Other side of the swamp, elevation at a clean zero, walk into a stand of birch.

Last tree of the day, same as the first tree of the day.

But these are old, old birch.

Can tell by their height.  Normally a medium-sized tree, these birches are the tallest trees in the sky.

The tops of these birches, still that familiar, frosted white…

…but closer to the ground, they turn spotty with age…

…going gray and furrowed...

...but still, once again, about to embark on another new spring season.

Back in the car, I catch the latest weather report.  Sounds like the weekend weather will break, might even hit sixty-five on Saturday, but that's just more promises.

Promises and expectations.  The only sure-fire way to find disappointment.

No promises, no expectations, that's the best way to see what's out there, best way to keep a lookout.

Anyway, spring isn't weather.  It's catkins, maple flowers, apricot blossoms.  It's the last blaze of witch hazel and the first flare of daffodils.  It's a farmer planting onions and a pitcher struggling to keep the ball down but in the strike zone.

It's bear on the mountain.

It's a long season because it takes so long to start.

Jon Spruce, over and out.

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