Monday, April 7, 2014


Citybillies, it’s confession time.

The rumors are true.  I’ve sold out.

Jon Spruce has officially signed on the dotted line.

For two years now, I have meticulously and courageously hunted down and archived the kingdom of Philly trees but, behind the scenes, hidden from view, I’ve been bombarded and assaulted with endless requests for sponsorship.

Landscape crews and tree services, nurseries and greenhouses, fertilizer companies and seed catalogs, you name it.  Non-profits and charities, all good causes.  Philadelphia institutions like Aramark and Tastykake, Sunoco, Comcast, Action News and Lew Blum Towing, all knocking down my door.

All asking for a piece of the pie.

For the last two years, I’ve always had the same response.

Hold the gravy.

Until now.

I’ve finally found something that I can hang my hat on.

Citybillies, it’s hanami time and there’s no better way to spend it than participating in the Subaru™ Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia.

What is hanami?  It means flower viewing in Japanese and it refers to the annual blossoming of the cherry blossoms, the sakura.

This event is so anticipated that even the Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks and charts the sakura blooms throughout the whole island.

They call it the sakura zazen, loosely translated as the cherry blossom front.

According to the map, the sakura are currently flowering in the southern part of the island, blazing their way from Kagoshima through the old capital of Kyoto and, by the end of April, they will have reached the northern tip of the Aomori Prefecture, land of apples and wild horses.

Some people call it the pink tide.

I long to see it in person.

Hanami has been on the calendar for centuries now, observed and celebrated by emperors and farmers, royalty and peasants, city rats and country mice alike…

…immortalized throughout the ages by songsters, dancers, poets and painters, including the great 18th-century printmaker Katsushika Hokusai…

…who famously depicted the brief sakura in the foreground of Japan’s most exalted marvel…

…the ephemeral floating world of early spring balanced against the immovable permanence of Mount Fuji itself.

Now that’s my kind of yin-yang.

Here in Philadelphia, we’re less than one week away from our own hanami.

Hold on to your hats, citybillies, and get on up!  The sakura are marching, cherry blossoms about to set the city on fire. 

In anticipation of the event, I floated over to the Shofuso Japanese House…

…and then to the nearby cherry tree avenue that connects the House to the Mann Music Center.

I’m getting nervous.

Less than a week away from the big bash and the guest of honor is hardly making a peep.

Just my luck.

Man oh man, this kind of suspense is not good for my Restless Legs Syndrome.  I got the sushi making class on Thursday, the kaiseki dinner on Friday.

The Tamagawa Taiko Drum and Dance Troupe has been making thunder all week, getting ready for their big performance on the big Sunday coming up…

…and then there’s the Cherry Blossom 5K on Saturday.

There better be sakura by then or those big shots from Subaru™ are going to be pissed.

And, to be honest, I’m not so sure.

As they stand right now, the cherries are looking a little dormant.

This is not good.  I don’t know what I was thinking.

I’ve got strict orders to avoid this kind of stress.

I already got that restless feeling.  I’m going to be up all night long, all week long, with those jimmy legs kicking up a storm, tossing and turning, on pins and needles waiting for this…

…to turn into this.

I should’ve known better.


The ornamental cherries are a fickle and obstinate tree, a real trickster kind of plant.  Not the kind of tree to stake your reputation on.   

Dammit, every tree-hunter knows this.

Amateur mistake, Jon Spruce.  A real rookie error.

I should’ve signed my name to something like the forsythia.

Now that’s a reliable tree, a real team player.

Always the first to flower, the forsythia also hails from the eastern coast of Asia and the island of Japan, first discovered by Western tree-hunters in the late 1700s, although it was originally misidentified as a lilac.

Shipped over to Europe and the American colonies, through the global Dutch East India Conglomerate, the forsythia quickly took top favors in the Victorian gardens, thanks to its early bloom of stellar flowers.

Or what about the kintoki Japanese dogwood?  That's another first-to-flower favorite, seen more and more often on our mean streets and in our city parks.

Our own native dogwoods won't be blooming until early May but this popular Japanese cultivar is already cracking with color.

Named for the Japanese folk hero who was raised in the wilds by a mountain hag, the kintoki dogwood has become so popular here that it's escaped into the wilds.

I found one wild kintoki not too far from the Shofuso House, right on the banks of Centennial Lake in Fairmount Park.

Sure, it’s a charming bloom and it casts a radiant and golden branch in a still bare and gloomy woods…

…but it's not the kind of blossom that gets people out of the house.

Not the kind of flower that puts asses in the seats.

Maybe then the apricot.

Now that's a prompt tree, one of our most punctual first-to-flowers.

My favorite apricot in the entire city is located right down the road from my urban cabin, 49th Street and Baltimore Avenue.

I go there, this time of year, to see the herald of spring.

This apricot always shows up on time.  Sure, some of the flowers are still trapped in what my farmer friends call the popcorn stage

…but most of the tree is on full fire, completely operational, bouquets from top to bottom.

This little tree is one of our best early blossom flag-bearers...

...hanging tight to the limb, already advancing towards fruit, trying to marshal forth the other trees to awaken from winter’s spell and to, please, flower.

What are you waiting for?

Of course, I could’ve also sponsored the red maple.

Now that’s a tree that’s already beating its drum.  Now that’s a tree that deserves its own spring festival.

No matter the temperature, no matter the weather, no matter the previous winter, the maple is one of our most reliable flowering trees…

…always set to bloom during the initial risings of the Budding Trees Moon, the harbinger of the Philly first blossom front.

Or, better yet, I should’ve sponsored the willow.

You can set your clock to that tree.  You can set the whole dang calendar to the willow.

Where was I?

All the way up in the Northeast, right off State Road, walking the grounds of the Pennypack delta, where Philadelphia’s greatest creek flows into one of Turtle Island’s most celebrated rivers, the Delaware.

I go here when I need to walk off the stress.  When I need to tire the restless legs, I go to water.

When the suspense is too awful to bear, when the spring is behind schedule even though the invitations have been sent and the private Subaru™ jets are already up in the air, en route to Philly International…

…and when there’s nothing I can do about it, then I’m supposed to seek the solace and wisdom, the fortitude and patience, of local water.

That’s a direct order from my web-certified life coach.

And, lucky for me, this delta just happens to be the front line to Philly’s spring.


I caught up with the Pennypack right near its final run towards the Delaware River at the intersection of Frankford Avenue and Ashburner Street.

At this point, I'm about a mile away from the Delaware River, as the crow flies, although the creek takes a big bend after crossing State Road, curving around the Philadelphia prisons.

Here at Ashburner Street, this is the site of the King’s Highway Bridge, built in 1697, considered to be the oldest surviving roadway bridge in the United States.

East of the famous bridge, on the top of a small hill, there is a behemoth of a beech.

For all its might and for all its power, the beech has never been a great source of wood, the lumber industry finding better value in such trees like the white pine, the hickory and the walnut.

That’s why most eastern forests are still scattered with great beeches.

Fine with me.  Let the other trees do the work of the world, wrote Donald Culross Peattie.  Let the Beech stand, where still it holds its ground, a monument to past glories.

Here at the end of the Pennypack trail, there are many monumental trees, mostly beech and tulip poplars…

…and sycamores…

…although even monumental trees don’t last forever.

I get it now.  I’m figuring it all out.  So that’s how some big rocks end up in the creek.

How many of these other big rocks were once cradled by massive roots, wrenched from the earth by the toppling of a tree?

I continued down the paved trail, walking on a high ledge next to the creek.  Every bend seemed to be guarded by a sycamore…

…and I wondered if that was a distinct characteristic of the tree, to flourish in the swerve of a trail, or if the trail itself was paved around the mighty trees.

Which came first?  Which was older?

After crossing State Road, the most interesting feature was an old stone wall.

Here, the paved trail veered off towards the direction of the neighborhood park but I stayed close to the stone wall.  In this part of the woods, there were no more beeches or tulip poplars or sycamores.

Instead, the landscape was dominated by the honeylocust.

The wild honeylocust will usually have those three-pronged spikes shooting out of its trunk but those weapons were conspicuously missing from these thick trees.

Between the wall and the paved road, there were groves of slender trees, every one almost completely identical.

I walked over to identify.

More honeylocusts…

…and these younger trees were fully armed.

So this is how it happens.

I get it now.  I’m figuring it all out.  This is how the wilds take over.  You got the mother trees over here…

…and you got their cloned children over there.  In a few dozen years, this whole area will be taken over by the honeylocust.

They’re almost at the road.

And those spikes?  Those woody tridents protecting the younger trees?

They evolved as protection against the megafauna that took over the world after the destruction of the dinosaurs.

That means that this type of environment, this very landscape…

…was once the native home to such monsters as the saber-toothed tiger, the giant sloth, the dire wolf, the cave bear, the wooly rhino and the crocodile.

The ground here was all straw, dried and flattened rods of grass fanned out between the sparse trees.

It was impossible to be quiet, walking on such crinkly ground, and with every step, the birds fluttered and whipped from tree to tree.  There were robins and red-winged blackbirds and angry blue jays and, in the cloud-skimmed skies, seagulls gliding towards the city.

I was getting closer to the river.

To my right, there was a broken-down fence draped with wiry poison ivy.

The final stretch of wild was dominated by the sumac.

Some of these trees are called the staghorn sumac for the way the bare branches resemble antlers.

According to some maps, this end of the trail is called the Ten Mile Point, although I can’t find any information to explain why.

I guess, at some point, this was actually used.

Right now, it’s barren and weedy, eerie and unsettling.  The tree at the end of the pier?

That’s a sycamore.  I identified it by one of its roots.

I climbed down off the pier and walked along the Delaware shore.

Unlike the creek, these aren’t really rocks.  They’re more like wreckage…

…more like the artifacts and debris of a crumbling city…

…the ruins of a once bustling pier and a once sturdy wall.

Turning around, I saw a line of trees creeping up on the beach…

…found some native willows, their thin branches purring with gray flowers.

The tallest trees here were alders.

They’re normally found here, on the banks of slow and muddy waters, another tree that's first to flower and first to fruit in spring…

…although nobody in the entire world has a festival for the alder.

This was the end of the trail.  Not much hanami, right?

Rocks, roots, thorns, old trees, fallen trees, bare trees, historic bridges, abandoned piers, a great river.  I’d walked all the way to the end of the creek, all the way to the banks of the Delaware, and yet I had the funny feeling that I was still stuck in winter.

I remembered that Hokusai print.  I imagined myself walking through the painting itself and, if that was true, then I was trapped in the background, stuck on the Mount Fuji part of the canvas.

I had just walked with the yin, through the shady places on the north side of the mind…

…water and earth, moon and shadow...

...soft and slow, cold and wet.

But let’s back up and take the walk again, from the beginning of the trail.

This time around, it’ll be spring…

…the same trail, the same path, but this time, I’ll walk through the foreground of the painting.

This is the yang, the other half of the landscape right now, the part that temporarily blooms on the sunny side of this rocky world.

Down this same trail, I will find all that is hot and fiery…

…all that is transient and brief…

…the monuments of the world that aren’t built to last forever.

They were there on the trail the whole time…

…just barely breaching through the winter floor...

…just on the edge of view, out of the corner of the eye.

There is nothing that compares to this time of year.  Only during this time of year can I walk the divide between the seasons…

…skating the thin line that separates the yin from the yang.

There are two worlds here in the woods now, two worlds always in motion, circling each other.

One world is immovable and permanent and ancient, full of history.  

The other is new and fresh and novel, yet to be written.

One world comes into view as the other world fades away but, for one brief moment during the year, I can see them both at the same time. 

That time is now.

Are you waiting for the sakura?  Waiting for the full frontal assault of spring?

It’s time to enjoy the wait.

It’s the waiting, it’s the anticipation that makes it bloom brighter.

The Japanese poet Sogi understood this best of all.

From the 15th century, he was one of those wanderlust poet-monks who was always writing about minds, moons, boats and cherry blossoms...sometimes all at once.

On what I imagine must've been a very restless and impatient day, sometime in early, early spring, probably a week or so before his favorite part of the year, he let loose this poem:

                        Sakura –
            The longer we wait
                        The more our minds bloom!

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful, and how people are utilzing and preserving it is even more beautiful. I long to see these places personally. Its not everyday you get to appreciate nature.