Monday, June 24, 2013


There I was, enjoying the daylights out of these long, long days of June, reading the local paper in the backyard of my urban cabin, when a headline caught my eye:

It’s been a while but here we have our first sighting of the Wildman for 2013, timed perfectly to the first super-moon of summer.

Ain’t that just like Coyote?

The Wildman has been lurking on the outskirts of our civilization since the very beginning of tamed society, usually appearing as figments and fancies of the imagination: centaurs, minotaurs, mermaids and werewolves, shamans turning into eagles, hunters becoming the hunted, husbands waking up as buffalo, bear or antelope…

…doomed souls who answer too frequently the call of the wild: Merlin and the Green Knight, Tarzan and Mogwai, Santa Claus, the shipwrecked kids from The Lord of the Flies and, my favorite, the half-man half-plant superhero called Swamp Thing.

But it’s wrong to pigeonhole the Wildman as pure fiction.  Sometimes, he is as real as you and me, right there in black and white.

That’s Joseph Knowles, one of the most famous Wildmen in American history.  That’s a publicity shot, when he made his triumphant return to Mother, and civilization, after spending two months, living like a primitive, in the Maine Woods near Bear Lake.

He turned wild in August 1913. 

Surrounded by the New England mass media of the day, he stripped down to his jockstrap, took a few drags of a cigarette, said a hearty “See you later, boys!” and jumped, head-first and barefoot, into the wilds.

According to his memoirs, he constructed a little lean-to shelter in the pine woods, learned how to forage and hunt and fish, how to build fire, carve weapons and make clothing.

Before leaving the rat-race, he was an illustrator and cartoonist, so he also spent the free days observing the College of Nature, as he liked to call it, drawing the placid, pastoral scenes on the backsides of birch bark.

It was a story that captivated the nation back in 1913.

Have you ever noticed that stories of the Wildman, no matter what’s happening in the bigger world, always make it through the scuttlebutt, always seem to get some sort of headline?

According to the press, Wildman has legs.

Now, let’s see what he’s doing over there in California.

A 56-year old man with long wild hair and beard tossed a spear at a passing vehicle in Sacramento, California.

A caller told police that a man standing on the road had hurled the spear at the vehicle.  The spear then became stuck in the vehicle’s front fender.

It was not clear why the wild man threw the spear.

Ha!  Not clear why?  Open your eyes, Reuters!  The answer is very clear.

It’s called traffic, man.

And sometimes it’s a doozy. 

Cars and more cars everywhere you turn, major roadways closed, construction around every corner, watching out for bicyclists and pedestrians and jaywalkers, bumper to bumper all along the highways, nothing but volume up and down the Roosevelt Boulevard all the way from Academy to the Blue Route…

…it ain’t easy being cooped up in a sweltering car, inching forward to the next detour or the next red light.

If you got any bit of Wildman in you, it’s horrible…just a bunch of expensive cages sitting still on the hot asphalt, pumping exhaust and burning fuel, going nowhere.

And as far as trees go, there’s not much to see along most highways…

…frigging ailanthus.

It’s enough to make anyone batty.

That’s why I keep a few road-side trees on my mental map, just a few notable and rare trees always on my radar, sturdy and dependable landmarks right along the roads and highways that make the slog through traffic just a little more bearable.

Like this tree, right before Ridge Avenue turns into Ridge Pike, near the northwest edge of the city limits…

…that’s an osage orange.

This is a tree for all seasons of highway travel.

On foggy winter mornings, it leans over the road in all its spooky, crabby glory…

…but, here in the beginning of summer, it’s worth a quick pit-stop to catch its strange, prehistoric fruit…

…ripening and bearding on the branches.

I tried to find some old fruit from last season still lying on the ground near the tree but no such luck. 

That doesn’t make any sense to me.  Where did they go?

There wasn't even a trace of them, not even one rotting rind.  Nothing but mystery.

According to my Dendrology Library, these green oranges aren’t part of any modern wildlife diet. 

It was once a staple food for the wooly mammoths but, unless I missed some big news, they aren’t roaming around Philadelphia anymore.

Still, this was a good time to catch the osage orange bark…

...all those wrinkles and furrows running like a river across its gnarled trunk, all those weird branches bending at impossible angles.

This tree is never caught idling, every inch full of action.

Trees like this, trees growing right along the roads, keep me calm and sane while fighting my way through traffic.

Road-side tree hunting keeps the Wildman at bay.

Like here...if you’re traveling towards Center City over the Grays Ferry Bridge, take a quick look to the right and catch the flowering mimosa creeping over the railings.

There is an even more spectacular mimosa right off Delaware Avenue, across from Penn Treaty Park…

…spontaneously growing behind a permanent rent-a-fence.

The mimosa, also known as the silk tree, is a common sight along most highways, taking over the edges of the grassy shoulders or sprouting out of the concrete islands, even more noticeable now, thanks to those dazzling pink tassels bursting over its tropical comb-toothed leaves.

It’s too bad that the mimosa is known, around the world, as an invasive weed tree. 

If only it wasn’t so successful, if only it wasn’t so good at surviving against all that exhaust and noise, all that trash and salt, then we would know it as one of the most fragrant and radiant of our trees…

…and we would look forward to seeing those shimmering pompoms as one of the first signs of summer.

But I guess that’s a thought for a less crowded, less driven, less paved kind of world.

As it stands now, most people only get this close to a flowering mimosa for one of two reasons.

Either they’re writing an urban tree blog or they’re broke down on the highway.
Ain’t that just like Coyote?

There is another tree flowering right now, commonly used as a street tree, that has a more respectable, more dignified reputation…

…these are the goldenrain trees along Frankford Avenue.

This urban-friendly tree comes to us courtesy of Southeast Asia where it is a signature tree planted near the entrances of temples, palaces, tombs and royal gardens.

There is something graceful and thoughtful, maybe even a little sensual, about its slinky, curvy growth pattern.

It’s a survivor of a tree, like the mimosa, escaping its natural home of dense forests in China and Korea where it's become an invasive weed tree, flourishing quite well in the salty, rocky flats of massive construction projects and deforestation sites.

That’s why it’s become such a popular street tree here in Philadelphia.

There’s a fantastic, flamboyant stand of goldenrain trees on 8th Avenue, right before the junction of Highway 676 on the outskirts of Chinatown.

Here, I can get a closer look at those small, tight flowers blooming now…

…bright yellow flames with orange centers, a constellation of little suns that, when taken in one glance across the entire crown…

…gives this tree its fitting name…goldenrain.

My favorite goldenrain tree in the entire city?

I found it, one day, while sitting in traffic on the Roosevelt Boulevard.

I love the way it stands on the strip mall lawn, alone, leaning towards the highway like it’s sailing on the wind.

Drive two more miles down the highway, make the U-turn at Levick Street and there, neighbor to the Dunkin Donuts, there is another one of my favorite road-side trees…

…a Chinese chestnut, caught at the moment of its astonishing summer flowering.

This is a rare tree, uncommonly planted, although it’s hard to imagine why it's so rare when you see it like this, in late June, rupturing the blue sky with those fingers of flowers.
The Chinese chestnut has a bark that is complex and labyrinthe.


On the ground, on the sidewalk, I found a lot of fruit, split open but still full of nut.

I don’t get it.  This is supposed to be edible, even savored, by the native wildlife, right up there with beech nuts and acorns.

This, the squirrels and the birds leave untouched and uneaten?   

So what, then, is eating all those osage oranges?

Maybe it’s a Coyote.

But it was hard to concentrate on that mystery standing underneath the fireworks of those flowers.

The master of the haiku himself, Basho, once wrote a poem about the same kind of flower:

                        a traveler’s heart
            it also should look like
                        chinquapin flowers

Well, the chestnut and the chinquapin are cousins on the evolutionary line and, judging by the pictures, the flowers of the chinquapin and the chestnut are very similar.

According to Basho, this is a traveler’s heart.

What was he trying to say? 

A closer look, and a metaphorical mind, reveals the similarities…

…the way these flowers burst forth into the open air...

…fine and precise but loose and random too...a pleasing jumble of light and color and fragrance.

So this is the traveler’s heart, spreading its fingers outward in all directions…


Perhaps this is what the Wildman’s heart looks like too.

Which makes me wonder: could this also describe the heart of Joseph Knowles?


Not at all.

Because Joseph Knowles was a hoaxer.  He was a trickster, a fake, and his adventure in the wilds was a sham.

It turns out that he spent most of his two months in the woods living in the log cabin of his friend, who was in on the hoax.

He did it to sell more newspapers for his struggling employer, the Boston Post

Even after he was defrauded, Knowles kept insisting that his stunt was real, publishing a book of the misadventure called Alone in the Wilderness, even wrote a screenplay that he tried to sell to Hollywood.

When that fizzled, he tried to become a vaudeville star but, eventually, he spent the rest of his civilized days exactly the same way as he did before the big hoax.  He died as a fairly successful cartoonist.

Ain’t that just like Coyote?

Later that night, with Wildman on my mind, I went out to observe the super-moon…

…nearer to this planet than it will ever be again in my lifetime, mirrored on Earth this night by the street light across from my urban cabin.
The full moon is known around the world as a trigger for all manners of lunacy and love. 

I wonder if the lunatics and lovers are also enjoying this super-moon, wonder what kind of super-trouble they’re causing on these first nights of summer.

I hope no one gets hurt.  I hope no one gets hit by a random spear and I really hope it doesn’t involve any hoaxes.

In his unpublished memoirs, Knowles wrote as a final summation: Life is a queer game.  Cheat a little here, bluff a little there, smile when it hurts, hide the truth, grab what you can while the grabbing is good, hold what you have.

Poor Joseph Knowles. 

After a full day of tree-hunting, his hoax seems more and more ridiculous, completely based on a false notion.

You don't need a costume to be a Wildman.  

He is here, always here.

Maybe he only flowers during the full moon but it's impossible to keep him caged up all the time. 

If you have the right kind of heart, you don't need to run away from polite society when he erupts and rages.  

In fact, usually, the Wildman is the one who gets invited to the most parties.

Poor Joseph Knowles.  He saw a distinct barrier between his city life and the wilderness.  Only people who see that kind of wall could even cook up such a stupid fraud.

There’s no reason to escape into the wilds because there is no escape from the wilds. 

It is here, always here.

Even if you’re stuck in traffic.

Even living in the city grid, we are surrounded by things beautiful and super and, at the same time, completely common and ordinary.

There’s no reason to fake it.  

Something out there is still eating all those osage oranges.


  1. great work this week Jon Spruce

  2. Thanks, Bert Stern. Appreciate it. Happy Super-Moon, don't get into too much super-trouble.