Tuesday, January 14, 2014


I woke up this morning and immediately checked my surroundings for any subtle, mysterious changes.


Same old urban cabin.

Same old Jon Spruce.

Crawling out of the warm blankets, I shivered over to the kitchen window.

Looked like the coast was clear and, although I wasn’t completely sure that the Code Blue had been lifted, it looked like it was safe to go outside again.

The polar vortex had passed.  Nothing had been shifted.  Nothing seemed to have moved around too much, nothing transferred or relocated to some other dimension, some other time.

For a vortex, this was a pretty weak one, by all accounts.

Everything the same.

That usually doesn’t happen after a good vortex.

Well then, it’s back to normal, back to school, back to the rat-race.

Lucky for me, it was a day-off but, day-off or not, I still had a long list to accomplish.

For starters, I needed a haircut.

I needed groceries too.

And I needed to return a gift.  Should I go for store credit or cash?

So, it was up and at ‘em, just enough time for one quick goat yogurt cup and one Gold Rush apple…then a quick freshening up in the bathroom…got to re-stock the toiletries too…then it was bundle up and boots on, grab the wallet and grab the keys and out the door.

That’s when I remembered…

…this was the most depressing trash day of the year.

You can’t let this kind of thing push your buttons.  Not today, Jon Spruce.  Too much to do.

Best advice?  Just walk right by and stick to the list…

…though that’s easier said than done.

You know, I was off to a good start.  It was still early morning and I was already…how do they say it?

That’s right.  I was making good time.

One little detour…to the other side of the city…right off the Roosevelt Boulevard…to this little hideaway spot that I know…

…just a quick pit-stop to watch the people clean up from their jolly holiday.

Hey, it is what it is.

That’s my new mantra when it comes to this kind of thing.

New year, new Jon Spruce and the new Jon Spruce isn’t going to get angry so easily. 

I’ll give the people their credit though.  If they were trying to fire up old Jon Spruce, they were on the right track, but not this time.

This time, this year?  I’m just going to stick to the schedule.

Not. Going. To. Get. Mad.

Hey, it worked.  I think I’m going to like 2014.

So it was back in the car, back on the road and, since I’m being such a good boy this year, I was going to treat myself to a new pair of sneakers.

Funny thing about shoe shopping?  I’m always looking for a new sneaker.

I never just replace the ones I have.  Even if I really like my old sneakers, I never go back and buy the same pair, don’t know why I do that.

On my way to the sneaker shop, I pulled over for another quick distraction, watching a tough group of weather-beaten men repair an elm tree.

Man, if I could do it all over again, this would be the job for me…

…high up in the urban canopy…

…just me and the tree, all the live-long day.

But things don’t always work out the way you want.  You got to be able to deal with that.  Sometimes, you don’t end up where you’re supposed to be.

Hey, it happens.

Like that poet from Vermont once said, there are two roads in a wooddiverging in the yellow wood…and then you go down one road and, when you look back, you can’t even remember where it was they diverged…way leads on to way…or something corny like that.

There’s a trick to not letting this kind of thing get you down.

It’s called moving on.  And that’s what I did, popping it back into first gear, back on the schedule, the busy busy schedule.

It wasn’t just me.  The whole city was busy.

That’s what happens after a deep freeze.

You can see it all around Philly, up and down the grid, just pouring out of every city block.

You see that steam?  That’s the good work of a company called Veolia Energy.

They’re the hardworking souls pulling the switches and managing the vast network of steam running just below the city’s surface…

…from the University to the Art Museum…

…thawing out the city from the bottom up.

Keep up the good work, boys.

Way to stay on schedule.

Speaking of which, it was almost the afternoon and there was still lots to do, still needed to return that gift, still needed to sit down for a hair-cut, still needed to find that new sneaker.

Right around the corner, I stumbled upon a CVS Pharmacy.  It isn’t hard to do here in the city.

I bit the bullet, put on my best grin and went inside.  Restocking the toiletries was on my list, I’ve done this chore a hundred times.

While I was in the CVS, I remembered another errand nagging my list.  Two weeks into the New Year and I still hadn’t bought a new calendar.

No time like the present.

Well, that must be nice.

Must be nice to have such beautiful nature right at your fingertips every day.

I shouldn’t be so hard on the calendar makers.  After all, they need to make a living and people do like to buy perfect photos of perfect scenery in the right season with the right light.

This is not something that should bother me.

So, no problem, it’s not going to bother me.

And, right across the aisle, I shouldn’t let myself get all worked up over the next big holiday.

Back in 2013, this kind of thing would really trigger a meltdown.  Not this time.  Not this year.

Hey, I’m as romantic as they come.  I believe in love.  For me, love comes in big, capital, goofy letters, glowing under a bright spotlight, and it doesn't matter if it's written in the skies or written on a greeting card or even written on the belly of a gigantic mass-produced teddy bear.

You just got to mean it when you say it.

Contrary to popular belief, I do think there’s a person out there for everybody although, sometimes I have to admit, I think mine got hit by a truck many, many moons ago.

Not going to let it get me down.

Can’t let that kind of thing take me off-course.

Can’t lose what you never had, that’s my motto.

Now where was that toothpaste?  And where was that razor blade?  I saw a razor blade commercial a couple weeks ago during the Wild Card game and I remember thinking, now that’s my kind of razor blade.

It’s got to be around here somewhere, maybe I should ask for help, or maybe I should just walk down every aisle, or I could just…hey, look at that…

…that’s funny.  I bet ice isn’t the biggest seller this time of year, eh?

Let’s see what we got here.

Arctic Glacier.  Man, that’s a great name for a bagged ice vendor.  The name alone sends shivers down my long johns.  These guys really know what they’re doing.  Who’s making this ice?

Oh.  Okay.  Ice is food!

I guess I never thought about it long enough to have an opinion on the subject, and I always did think of food as having some sort of connection to some sort of biological organism, at least something that can reproduce and respire, something that can eat as well, something that lives and, sad to say, dies.

But, sure, ice is food.  I’m a believer.  I shouldn’t just automatically reject a new idea.  That’s not what smart people do.

Ice is food, just as much as you and me.

Hey, this feels good.  New year, new idea.  Man, who are these guys?

Oh c’mon now.


Is it too much to ask for some local ice?

Is there no one in Philadelphia producing ice?

Ice is in season right now.  It’s everywhere.  We just survived a polar vortex for crying out loud and we’re still shipping ice half-way across the country?

I went on-line, I needed to get to the bottom of this.

It turns out that Arctic Glacier is part of the I.P.I.A., the International Packaged Ice Association.

And get this!  The location of the I.P.I.A.’s headquarters?  This, you’re not going to believe.

Florida.  The Sunshine State!

In fact, according to their website, they just had their big convention and trade show in Bonita Springs…

…well, that’s all I can stands, I can’t stand no more.

Not on your life.

They did it this time.  Only two weeks into the New Year and, despite the plummeting thermometer, Jon Spruce was fired up.

Steamed up and boiling over, I jumped back into the car and hit the road to the frozen grounds of the winter woods.

I was following in the shadow of the polar vortex, the artic hurricane that dropped temperatures to record lows, the likes of which we might never see again…

…watching my footsteps and looking over my shoulder the entire time. 

I was sure that somewhere, somehow, the polar vortex was still lingering here in these Wissahickon woods…

…still spinning somewhere near the cold-blooded Catfish Creek…

…waiting patiently for some errant fool with nothing better to do on a winter’s day than hunt for native ice.


I caught my first ice of the hunt a few yards down the trail that begins at the end of Livezy Lane, actually off the trail up a steep embankment into a beech grove…

…my first ice of the day.

In the world of cryospherology, this type of ice is called an icicle.

Its name comes from its resemblance to a farming tool, something between a pick and a sickle…

…something that can be used as a weapon, if need be.

The icicle is formed when melting water flows from a warm area into a space where the temperatures are below the freezing point.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of inches.

As the water hits the frozen temperatures, it chills and hardens in mid-current, although there’s usually just enough transference of heat to melt the surface right below it…

…and so, in a very slow and patient pattern, the water still flows…

…although, to the naked eye, it’s stuck in time.

Stuck in time?

Now that’s what winter feels like to me.

Now that’s my kind of vortex.


Further down the trail, I came to a place where one of the Wissahickon tributaries flowed into the main body of the Catfish Creek.

It was loud here, noisy with the sound of running water although, at first glance, nothing was running…

…everything as still as a snapshot…

…completely fixed and frozen.

Here, I found this kind of ice…

…thin as a dime and frosted with that misty white polish.

I love this kind of ice.  It makes a terrific noise when it shatters.

Why is this ice so white?

That’s air. 

Air caught in between the frozen water…

…trapped in the polar vortex.

Water and air…you don’t need much more than that, really, to begin an earth.

By Jove, this hunt for ice was really taking me back to the good old days, when life and science were much simpler.

Water, air and earth...I got three of the four original elements of the world right there, in my hands and below my feet.  All I’m missing is fire but I won’t find that here.

It was Aristotle who added the fifth element, what he called the aether.  The aether was like the air, he said, but unlike the air and the other elements out there, the aether could not get colder or hotter, wetter or drier.

It was the constant in the universe, that translucent and quintessential quality that you can sense happening all around you, affecting you, unable to deny and yet where was it, exactly?

From the Greek word for clear sky, the aether had no contrary or unnatural motion, always propelling forward in perfect circular motion.

In other words, it was a vortex.

I followed the icy trail, upstream and into higher ground.

Here, the creek was still running, hollowing out a path under the ice…

…flowing underneath the frozen temperatures.

It’s strange to think that a creek, or a river, or any moving body of water could actually freeze. 

A puddle, yes.  An ice cube tray, of course.  A lake, sure.  Even an ocean at the northernmost, coldest-most pole of the entire planet, okay.

But a creek?  A river?  Something that’s always in flow?

It’s hard to fathom.

But that’s because I’m forgetting one of water’s most mysterious and most perplexing qualities.

Warmer water sinks.

It’s always coldest right on the water’s surface.  That’s why the top of the ice cube always freezes first.  That’s also how the fishes survive.  They swim to the bottom.

It’s happening right here at the Catfish Creek…

…a winter kind of water cycle…

…a water factory, the polar air and wind creating a surface of ice and then the turbulent creek melting the ice from the bottom up…

…revealing the crystal nature of water itself, revealing the weird fractals inside the chemical bond that holds precious water together…

…the outlines of imaginary islands…

…water trapped in a vortex, caught in between two phases, ice melting into liquid, that liquid flowing down the stream right into a bigger patch of ice…

…behold!  The frozen Catfish Creek.

Frozen solid.

But it doesn’t stop there.  Ice still flows. 

And the frozen Catfish Creek is still flowing, still running, towards its destination river…

…the frozen Schuylkill River.

I never thought I’d see the day.


 I walked along the path of the frozen river…

…although it was slippery and muddy even on solid ground, still need new sneakers.

The day started out so busy, so full of little things to do, all the tiny details and upkeep that tend to fill up and complete an ordinary life: footwear, haircut, toiletries, groceries.

It takes a good patch of ice to bring me back down to earth.

Life must’ve been so much simpler when there were only five building blocks to the universe.  Earth, air, fire, water…

…and that mysterious aether, just to keep things interesting.

Now, just a few miles away, the Buddhists took those building blocks and added four more: color, smell, taste and nutriment.

Man, those Buddhists.  They always take it to the next level.  They were always concerned with adding the human experience to the physical world.

The other classical scientists and philosophers tried to understand the basic world as if we were separate from the elements…

…as if their own observations had no effect on the very nature of what they were observing…

…as if the eye, the ear, the hands and the mind could never alter the Thing itself.

Face to face with the biggest patch of ice I’ve ever seen, I guess I fall somewhere in between.

I do like figuring out the way the natural world works without any interference from the human experience…

…but I also thrill at the chance of getting dirty with it…

…even taking it home with me.

It’s too easy to think of ice as something frozen, something still and motionless.

Holding it in your hands, it becomes pretty clear.

Ice flows.

A lot of things become pretty clear when you’re confronted with native ice.

Face to face with ice, it’s very obvious which one of us in this room is the one that’s actually frozen.

I keep thinking that a busy schedule means I’m actually doing something.  I keep being fooled by Forward Momentum.

I cross things off the list and I keep thinking that I’ve done something, accomplished something.

Every time I wake up in the morning, I keep convincing myself it’s a new day.

Every time I fill up my gas tank, I keep thinking that I must’ve been somewhere.

Every time I find a new pair of sneakers, I’m under the illusion that I’m moving forward.

But really I am the one that’s frozen…

…frozen into a schedule, frozen into a calendar…

…stuck in such a large vortex that I cannot even fathom what it must be like on the other side…

…although I’d like to think it’s much more basic, much more elemental.

You would think it’d be easy, to just go with the flow, whether it’s a freeze or a thaw…

…but, brother, nothing’s easy.

Nothing’s ever easy, especially down here, way down here in the polar vortex.


  1. Another wonderfully written episode!!! Take it easy. And don't get mad.

  2. Amazing photos! This vortex has made for some beautiful ice formations.

  3. Thanks, Sarah. Appreciate the kind words. I've been loving your posts. I don't get around to writing about the trees of the world but I've always wanted to tackle the goats in the tree. And I like how you time your posts to the calendar and the holidays. Thanks for reading.