People are always asking me: Hey, Jon Spruce, do you wanna hang out?
Sometimes I take the bait.
Contrary to popular belief, sometimes I do enjoy the sights and sounds of polite society. It’s fun, sometimes, to take a break from the solitary sport of tree-hunting, to spend some precious moments, inside, deep in conversation and company.
Sometimes even the lone wolf comes in from the cold.
But not today.
No time, my friends.
Hold the calls and get out of my way, it’s that time of year again.
According to the scuttle bucket, the ballots are counted, the results are in and, sure enough, there it was, waiting for me when I got home.
The annual best-of issue of Tree Hunting Magazine.
No. Not again.
What kind of cruel joke is this?
Our 2013 champion? None other than my old nemesis, Giovanni Arboles, also known as Joey Trees, the self-proclaimed Master of Disguise…
…but, sometimes behind his back, we call him King of the Selfies.
It just ain’t fair.
He already won last year, for that time he caught both a champion ponderosa pine…
…and a bristlecone pine, what’s known as the oldest living thing on the planet.
All in the same hunt.
Boy, this magazine is really going south.
It used to really be about something. It used to really be about tree-hunting.
Now it’s all about selling more issues. It’s all about who you know. It’s all right place, right time.
Joey Trees? Two years in a row?
Say it ain’t so.
According to this issue, he won the 2013 title because he caught, all the way back in February, the biggest blizzard to hit southern Arizona in the last ten years…
…one full inch of snow.
And another thing, when was the last time an urban tree-hunter was named the champion? I can’t even remember, it’s been so long.
Every year, the title ends up going to some bumpkin in a Jeep.
It’s the same old story: the country mouse versus the city rat.
It’s not a fair fight.
Country yokels like Joey Trees already have the advantage.
It’s a simple matter of geography.
They get all that open space and all that open road. They get to go hunting in all that dramatic nature.
Every tree out there is at home and native, nothing planted by some City Planning Bureau or through some nameless Street Department, no trees selected by committee.
Nothing but country.
Look at that. No one-way streets. No parking tickets. No infrastructure. No traffic. No loud music or angry crowds scaring away all the good trees.
Well shiver me timbers, Joe, there sure are a lot of big trees out there in the country.
Whatever. Don’t stop the presses.
Man, I was fired up.
Normally, I’m calm and collective, cool as a cucumber, but at that moment, I was engulfed in fit and fury, that old mule kicking in my stall.
I had just about enough of all the Joey Trees out there, living it up on easy street, basking away in the wide open country life.
Bunch of peacocks.
It’s not hard to catch a good tree in the country. Takes about as much skill as catching a suntan.
Bunch of tenderfoots.
Only one thing left to do.
Get. Me. My. List.
Like most tree-hunters, I keep a list of trees handy…
…a wish list, really, of all the trees that I’d like to catch one day.
Let’s see what I haven’t crossed off yet.
There’s the hemlock and the holly, two evergreens that I’ve always pushed off till winter. Still got time for those.
There’s something called the bladdernut but I’ve never been able to track that one down.
There’s the black locust, but darn it, that’s always been a spring tree for me.
Palm trees? But are there any palm trees in Philadelphia?
Hold your horses…right there on the bottom of my list.
The largest edible fruit native to Turtle Island.
The only tropical fruit that grows this far north.
It goes by many names: the poor man’s banana, the prairie banana and, in some deep corners of the continent, it’s known as the banango…a favorite dessert of George Washington, a manna in the wilderness for Lewis & Clark, as they wrote in their journal: subsisting on poppaws.
The pawpaw is no stranger to these parts.
Supposedly there’s a pawpaw patch right here in Philadelphia, in the Northeast, right along the shores of the Pennypack Creek.
This is it…a tree-hunt that would rival any adventure out there in the country…fire up the engine and eat my dust…
…Jon Spruce is on the move, fame and fortune and all that jazz just one autumn afternoon away…to the largest, most storied stretch of woods in the entire city, to the Northeast, to the Pennypack Creek…
…like the old folk song says, way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!
GOING DOWN THE ROAD FEELIN’ BAD
It might not be the most popular opinion in the tree-hunting world but, man, I love a good street tree.
That’s an elm, soaring above the quickly falling skies of 38th Street and Powelton Avenue.
If you know that corner, then perhaps you’re a lot like me. It makes you like the tree even more.
Although I’m the first to admit it: you got to be pretty quick with the camera-phone to catch an unobstructed view.
Something there is that loves a good street tree…
…it’s something that tree-hunters like Joey Trees tend to forget.
Country trees are fine, don’t get me wrong, but they always seem so far away.
Not just in distance but in attitude too.
I like my trees to be near and neighborly, always within striking distance.
Here in the city, I walk side by side with trees…
…and they’re just like me, stuck on the mean streets, caught up in the rat race.
Maybe I get a little jealous of the easy life. I guess I could admit that, at least.
Or maybe it’s just the Philly in me. I like rooting for the underdog.
And as much as I champion the native trees, I must confess.
Without the Streets Department, I’d never get to see some of those exotic beauties…
…like this goldenrain tree, an invasive species that flourishes in the abandoned brownlots and construction zones of Korea, doing a fabulous job here in Philadelphia as your friendly neighborhood street tree.
Overlooked native species also get a chance to shine.
Like the little-leaf linden.
Out there in the woods, this tree is dwarfed by all those beeches and oaks, hidden away under the vault of all those sycamores and pines, but here in a city park…
…its golden coins get the whole sky all to their lonesome selves.
Leaping lizards do I like a good city park.
Unlike the country folk, I like people in my tree pictures.
I like the way the two interact.
And that’s something that those bozos over at Tree Hunting Magazine don’t seem to get. Here in the city, me and the trees?
We share the same streets, day in and day out, part and parcel of the same big city, just another cog and wheel in the same damn machine.
Nothing special. Despite our greatness, despite our might, nothing out of the ordinary.
But if it’s country they want, well, I got news for all those candy-asses at Tree Hunting Magazine.
We got country right here in Philly although, down here on the mean streets, we just call it the woods.
THE PENNYPACK WOODS
I was headed straight for the granddaddy of them all, on what turned out to be a spectacular autumn day, down the Roosevelt Expressway…
…to the Pennypack Woods, the largest watershed and largest stretch of forest in the entire city limits…sorry you had it hear it from me, Wissahickon.
It runs eight miles here in Philadelphia, from the border of Montgomery Township to the banks of the Delaware, barreling down the highway from city line to muddy river.
But, in total, the Pennypack covers twenty-four miles of pure eastern deciduous forest. Here on Turtle Island, that type of forest is second only to the northern boreal in size and scope, described in the field guides as stunningly diverse.
One of the few forests that go through all four seasons, it’s an amazing phenomenon here on Spaceship Earth, making its debut not too long after the last Ice Age.
When the glaciers receded back to their poles? That's when the trees took over.
The first forest to take over these parts? That'd be the boreal, the spruces.
But as the weather warmed and as the seas rose, when the tops of the mountains melted and the rivers started running to the sea, that’s when the deciduous trees dominated the story, creating the vast kingdom of fruit and flower and color that we see today.
Later, much later, the cities were built.
The deciduous forest has got it all: equal parts land and water, groves and creeks, not to mention highways and cities. Over 30 species of trees can be called dominant: oaks and pines, sugar maples and cherries, the sassafras, the walking fern, the Joe-Pye weed.
And the pawpaw.
So close I could taste it.
According to my notes, the pawpaw patch is somewhere here…
…between Ryan Avenue and Rhawn Street, south of Lexington Avenue.
On the other side of the street, I crept into the edge of the woods for a quick survey.
A little deeper and I saw that I was actually looking down on the real forest floor…
…separated from the road and from the neighborhood by a concrete wall.
This is an old wood. You can tell by the beeches…
…and you can tell by the sycamores, their distinct camouflage bark long past its peeling stage.
You can tell by the hollow logs.
The ground here was loose and soft, oozing with mud under the fresh, crinkled carpet.
That’s because of the sewers, built years ago to divert the Pennypack Creek underground, making room for the housing developments and the highways, the big box supermarkets and the corner gas stations.
Off to my left, I saw the creek itself, seeping through the sewer lines, returning to its course…
…bubbling back to the surface.
I was off.
Somewhere in these woods stands the largest patch of Philadelphia pawpaw.
I was late in the season, I know.
Late in the moon, as they say.
It was way past picking time and, with every step, more leaves fell from the sky, the forest folding up for the year. The chance of finding an actual prairie banana was slim to none but, gentlemen, never tell me the odds…
…I’ve heard all those reasons before.
TO BE CONTINUED…Jon Spruce is way down yonder in the pawpaw patch…spurned on by spite, gassed up with rage, no reckon of common sense in sight…into the storied woods of the Pennypack Creek...
...tramping under the bridges and through the sawmills, stomping into the once and future lands of the Lenni-Lenape nation, into the very heart of the Turtle Clan proving grounds…this might be his most daunting, most fruitful adventure yet!