Thursday, July 18, 2013


It’s a jungle out there.

The city is stewing.  The streets are roasting.  The roof is on fire. 

Baby, it’s hot outside, during these final days of the Strong Sun Moon.

Citybillies, take cover wherever you can.

This is not my weather of choice, this is not my season.  After all, I am an Elk of the Thunderbird Clan, born under the Long Snow Moon of mid-Decembertime, but I refuse to stay inside.

Can’t let this brutal heat wave keep me off these scorching streets and away from those steamy woods, still lots to catch and hunt.

Nice try, Coyote.

Windows down and sunglasses on, I’m going out, through the swelter and into the sizzle, head-first into the fever.

Gotta love the burn.

This might make me sound like a glutton for punishment but I’m going straight for it.  I’m going hunting for the highest, hottest totem of this season.

Set the controls for the heart of the sun.


Sorry, rose, but if I was ever elected Big Chief of Turtle Island, this would be our new national flower...

…the helioanthus, which translates to, of course, the sunflower.

This is one of the few flowers native only to this continent. 

Sure, nowadays, the largest populations of sunflowers live in Canada or Russia, farmed and harvested for their nutritious seeds full of rich oil, but the primitive sunflower was one of the very first crops raised by the Native Americans here on North and South Turtle Island.

The Incas, the Mayans, the Otomi tribe of Mexico, the Cherokee and the Lenape and the many more leagues of native Turtle Islanders…they were farming sunflowers even before they started cultivating corn.

And the Aztecs?  They worshipped the plant, their high priests wearing ceremonial sunflower headdresses while marching their fellow sun-worshippers towards their temples of the sun.

The sunflower and the sun…they’re eternally linked together, bridging the gap between earth and sky on one long, tight yoke…but not in the way most people believe.

According to most people, the sunflower tracks the sun during the day, its flower-head turning and facing the sun as it moves east to west across the long summer skies, a distinctive trait called heliotropism

It turns out that this story is bunk.

The sunflower stalk does twist and turn its top while it grows, chasing sunlight, but most sunflowers stop doing this once it blossoms…

…finally resting eastward.  Just about all sunflowers face east, the direction of the rising sun.

It comes from a big family, the Asteraceae family, which translates to star flowers

This is one of the largest plant families in the entire world, second only to the orchids for variety, and it includes such star-studded beauties as the aster, the dandelion, the black-eyed susan, the daisy and the zinnia and the dahlia, the yarrow and the marigold, the chrysanthemum and the Joe-Pye weed…and it even enters the vegetable world in the form of artichokes and lettuce.

The family has only two woody trees…the giant lobelia of east Africa…

…and the senecio, those shaggy groundsels that freak out the scenery while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

All these plants belong to the Star Flower Family but only Turtle Island got the sunflower.

My favorite part of the sunflower has got to be right there in the heart of its halo…

…that beautiful, rhythmic, twisted swirl of florets going to seed.

Behold the golden spiral, one of the most harmonious and most hypnotizing patterns found in nature, a symmetrically perfect mathematical weave, tight as a knit, each piece of the puzzle synchronized to an ever-expanding golden ratio…

…a marvel of design, a wonder of efficiency.

Engineers weep at such a sight.  Mathematicians bow down in reverence.  Architects go back to the drawing board.  Professional organizers just look the other way. 

Why?  Because that golden spiral is the most efficient way to pack all that fruit.  The space in between each dot in that matrix is room enough for one snug sunflower seed.

It is, botanically and mathematically speaking, perfect.

It’s funny.  The more primitive the plant, the more it succeeds in such distinctive traits as perfect and symmetrical, the more it edges closer to the fields of geometry and mathematics.

Only later do plants start veering towards chaos.

But that’s a thought for a different day.

It’s time…time to brave the blazing heat, time to go hunting for sunflowers…and yet, I tarry.

I can hear Coyote giggling away, high up there in the angry, boiling sky.

He knows.

He knows exactly where this hunt will end. 

He knows that you can’t go hunting sunflowers without running into a few gods and I don’t like messing with those kinds of people, especially those sun gods.

Call him Shapash or Malakbel or call him Ravi…

…call him Wala or call him Helios…

…or just call him Ra…

….whether he rides a fiery chariot or a solar ark, whether he comes in the form of a bird or a dragon, every culture and every people have some sort of god living behind that old, reliable Sol, the namesake of the sunflower. 

Just look at Xiuhtecuhtil, the Aztec god of the sun…

…not that friendly.

I really need a vacation.

But that’s another thought for another day.

Laugh it up, Coyote.  For now, it’s flame on!


Philadelphia actually has one of the most famous sunflowers in the entire world.

I was on my way to catch it, it was going to be my first sunflower of the hunt, but as I was leaving my neighborhood, out of the corner of my eye, I bumped into a sunflower right on the corner of 47th Street and Woodland Avenue…

…in the parking lot of the Gold Star Chicken Pizza restaurant.

Not part of the plan but this would be my first sunflower of the day…

…and I spared a moment to take in that golden ring of solid yellow petals and that fuzzy matrix of ripening seeds, ignoring that age-old advice about staring right into the sun.

Blooming in the same street-side patch, I found the sunflower’s sister, the black-eyed susan.

Wait just one second.  This was a little too coincidental, just a little too perfect.

What are the chances?  Two members of the Star Flower Family just sitting there, blazing away, under a sign that reads Gold Star…

…Coyote was already watching me closely.

 Not even a mile down the road and I was already falling for his tricks.

And then, as I was making a u-turn through the neighborhood to head back to the highway, I drove by this mural…

…Coyote breathing down my neck around every corner, sun gods everywhere I go.

There is a long, long tradition of planting sunflowers and suns in murals, paintings, architecture, furniture, pottery and graphic design.

It goes all the way back to the Aztecs, the Incas and the Mayans.

This mural wouldn’t be out of place in any of those cultures but it would find its most proper home among the Incas, who worshipped their king as a descendant of Sol, a child of the sun.

Philadelphia’s most famous sunflowers also follow the same tradition, locked up on the other side of the Schuylkill River in a golden palace that wouldn’t be out of place in Ancient Greece or Rome.

The entrance to this building gets all the fanfare but I always prefer going through the back door.

But even the Art Museum was no relief from the current heat wave.  Right there at the first stairs, just past the ticket desk, I was greeted by another monument to the sun god…

…Coyote with one more trick up his sleeve.

I was too close to turn around now.  Just around the corner, up the marble stairs and down the long corridor, it was time to catch the most famous, the most expensive sunflowers in the world.

Poor Vincent Van Gogh.  Now there’s a guy who really tests your sense of empathy.

On one hand, I wouldn’t wish his pain and his misery on anybody, friend or foe.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t want a world without his suffering soul.

In his letters to his brother Theo, he talked many times of chasing that high yellow note.

He became obsessed with the color yellow.  There is a popular modern theory that claims this obsession had a biological source, that Van Gogh was beset with a brain lesion that he self-medicated with absinthe, a wormwood concoction that contains the toxin thujone.

Thujone has a very strange side-effect.  It makes everything appear more yellow.

In another letter to Theo, he once wrote what could be the tree-hunter’s mantra: it is looking at things for a long time…

…that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.


I thought the Art Museum would be a good place to beat the heat for a few hours.  Outside, the temperatures were soaring, the air was thick with hot breath and the whole city seemed to be turning on a spit.

Inside the Art Museum, the climate was perfectly controlled, a pleasant day in May.  The ceilings were high, the walls were thick, the lighting cool and refreshing, the marble floors cold as ice.   

I even found a moon.

But, in the end, the sunflower finds a way to breach any wall and storm any castle.

Down every corridor and in every exhibit, I found a sunflower…

…there, right in the center of a Florentine dishware…or here, right on top of this fancy end-table…

…on glass vases or terra cotta platters…


…or hidden in the handiwork of a medieval fireplace…

…or a whole field of them running up the wall of a dusty old tapestry.

I even found sunflowers on a grandfather Swiss clock.

So let it be written: there is no relief from the sun, nowhere safe from the merciless, all-knowing watch of the sun kings.


There is no room that is beyond his realm, no place impervious to his command and no escape from his glare.

And if you think this sun-worship is only a relic of the past, found only in museums, then you are wrong.

You need to think again.

Because everywhere you go in this city, in every neighborhood, in every language, you can find some sort of temple of the sun…

…some sort of monument built to continue the cult.

Everywhere I turned, there was the sun…

…down every sweltering street, around every hot corner…

…some sort of sun beaming back at me.

On North Broad Street, I tried to duck into a pizza parlor, just for a little break, but there he was again.

Citybillies, resistance is futile.

You might as well just join the crowd and follow the flock.  No relief in sight.  There is no retreat, only surrender.

The sun gods see all.  We’ve put their ever-watchful eye all over this city…

…you can run, but you cannot hide…


…no break from the heat wave.

In no time at all, I was under their spell, seeing suns everywhere I went…



...and, no matter where I turned or how fast I ran, there he was too…

…that cunning Coyote, looking down from his high totem throne, laughing at me.

This means war.

Nobody makes a monkey out of old Jon Spruce.

And so, in a tradition that hearkens back to the hero adventures of Greek mythology, I decided to fight back against the gods, to storm head-first up Mount Olympus and to knock, ever so politely, on the gates of Philadelphia’s highest, hottest temple of the sun.

Think of me as a shorter, slightly plumper version of Perseus.


Sunflower Drive is only one of seven streets in the housing development known as Arbour’s Way, off Southampton Road, way way down the Roosevelt Boulevard.

Every street in this small neighborhood is named for a flower: Honeysuckle Lane, Foxglove Lane, Iris Lane, Dahlia, Marigold and Veronica.

It’s a community built for the 55 and over crowd but, since there was no gate and no admission needed, I drove right in and parked on Sunflower Drive.

A picture-perfect street, basking under the bright glare of the sun, I had the funny feeling that I’d been miniaturized…that this was some sort of full-scale toy model sitting in some real estate mogul’s board room.

The most popular tree on Sunflower Drive?

The goldenrains.  Just a few weeks after catching its flowers, this tree is already in full fruit mode…

…those papery capsules described in the field guides as Chinese lanterns.

Coyote’s at it again.   

Lanterns, another light source.  That means I was on the right track, despite the way that Sunflower Drive just unceremoniously ends with a bunch of parched concrete barriers.

It’s a feeble defense, meant to scare away the wimps and the cowards, and it’s nothing but temptation for a stout, elk-hearted tree-hunter like myself.

I simply stepped over, into the under-developed Blue Bell Court, took quick note of the wilds taking over the suburban infrastructure…

…and then headed down the trail towards the nearby run of woods.

On the way to the woods, I found another sister of the sunflower…

…that’s the yarrow.  I also took quick note of the dried plants, already gone to seed…

…their short season already completed in mid-summer.

Under the veil of sticky shade, I walked through the hot and steamy woods…

…catching the wild raspberry…

…and the black walnuts already falling to the ground…

…little green suns in the palm of my hand.

I found something that I think Van Gogh would’ve appreciated…

…wild rose leaves splattered with dried mud.

Whose woods these are I think I know, I chanted inside my head, although that is a poem for an entirely different season.

The air was speckled with cottony wisps and thin spiderwebs, as I stepped into deep patches of cool shade and warm pockets of hot belches. 

Creatures and critters rustled the long grass in front of me, always out of sight.  Paper moths and clumsy butterflies flitted in and out of the sunbeams breaking through the greeny crown.  I heard the whirring song of the cicadas, the curt shriek of unfriendly birds, the splash of frogs.

The trail took me right to the banks of the Poquessing Creek.

That’s the end of the line.  This creek marks the northeast boundary of Philadelphia, the city limits.

I took another trail back through the woods, back towards the civilized world...and there, humming away in a sunlit grove, I found exactly what I was meant to find…

…the modern day sunflower.

Citybillies, I’ve been all around this city, up and down and all around this urban grid.  I’ve hunted champion beech, champion ginkgo, champion Chinese scholar tree.  I went head to head against catalpa, toe to toe with the honey locust…

…but I never thought I’d find myself face to face with an actual sun god, may he have mercy on my rebellious heart.

Now I've seen it all.

I’ve walked these mean streets alone and unafraid.  Eraserhood, Feltonville, down the back-alleys of Olde City and West Philly and North Philly.  I went head-first into the Cave of Kelpius and lived to tell the tale.  I climbed to the top of Philly Mountain…but I never thought I’d be here…

…stumbling into the sacred grove of the sun god right at the edge of the city limits.

I’ve got to be careful.  I’ve got curious hands, a hungry gut and a questioning mind, not the kind of qualities a god looks for in a believer.

But, then, amid the chatter of birds and wind, I could hear old Coyote laughing in the shadows.

By Jove, he’s right.  The laugh’s on me.

Citybillies, I have met the new Lord of Light, the new Big Chief of Power, the new Boss.

But there is no need to rebel just yet.  Put down those stones.  Put those rotten tomatoes back in your pocket.

The golden spiral spins but it always returns to the center.

It’s the same old god, same old story, same as the old boss.


  1. All hail CookBookery with Jon Spruce, Travel Channel, Food Network, PBS, National Geographic, Primetime!!!!!

  2. I reiterate , you need a show... but definitely a book... all hail the master of spruce