People are always asking me: Hey, Jon Spruce, enjoying the weather?
It sure is pretty to think so.
In all actuality, this is my busy season, not much time to enjoy the weather. This is the time of year when I need to rise up the ranks, get my name out there as a contender for champion tree-hunter.
Spring? That’s when I can really make my bones.
And it all comes down to flowers.
Funny, isn’t it?
Years and years of steady watching, months and months of mindful observations, miles and miles under my feet and on my car and yet my whole reputation rests on those bright, brief modified leaves we call flowers.
It’s almost too much for one set of eyes but, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to do it alone.
Like the old folk song says, help is on the way.
And the best help this time of year?
That’d be the truckers.
That’s right. The biggest help at this time of year is usually found high up in the cabs behind the big wheels of all those trucks making traffic here in the city.
I’m talking about Bakemark and Aramark, Samuels & Sons and J. Ambrogi, Cintas Uniforms and W.B. Mason, plus all the other gypsy pilots navigating the Philly grid and barreling down the highways.
Best set of eyes in the entire city.
There we go.
All set now.
This morning, I dug out my old short-wave radio and, using a bit of good old fashioned Yankee know-how, I added a state-of-the-arts wireless antenna, hooked it up to these new-fangled Bluetooth headphones…
…and then plugged in the two-way microphone.
Okay, all I got to do now is find the right station, adjust the squelch and speak clearly into the mike.
Jon Spruce is back on the CB.
Breaker, breaker, this is Jon Spruce over here in Phillytown. Need some assistance, boys. Who’s out there?
The next part is easy.
Just lean in and try to catch some chatter on the only free press left in the United States of America: the citizen’s band radio.
Spruce, you old scallywag. Is that really you?
Shiver me timbers, that voice is a real blast from the past. That’s Goldberg, my old co-pilot. I didn’t know he was in town.
Alive and kicking, Spruce. Surprised to hear you too. I always pictured you still keeled over in El Paso.
El Paso? Oh man, I spent a bad week there one night. Goldberg always did have a long memory.
Hard to forget, Jonny boy. What’s your emergency?
Need some flowers for the blog, chief. What are you seeing out there?
You’re a lucky son of a gun, always have been, Spruce. I just passed some willows blazing away in Penn Park by the river.
Willows? Goldberg always did have a soft spot for willows but I don’t know. I’ve already covered the willow. I need flowers, not willows.
Quit your griping, Spruce, and get down to the river before it’s too late. You’ll thank me later.
…thank you, Goldberg.
These are some fine willows and I’d never been to this park before.
Twenty-four acres big, Penn Park is a fairly new landscape here in Philadelphia and, walking its grounds on the beginning of a very blue spring day, it’s easy to pick out the willow as its most dominant tree.
It probably has something to do with drainage. The willow is an excellent tree to help control the high groundwater found in parks close to the river.
It’s a tree that flourishes in the mire, a tree that does its best rooted in soggy grass.
I’m sure the Penn landscapers knew something about this when selecting the trees.
Thoreau was a big willow-watcher, always marking its catkins as the first sign of spring. The yellow willow catkins pushing out, he wrote in his journal, begin to give the trees a misty, downy appearance, dimming them.
I see what he means now. At this time of year, there seems to be a fuzzy, yellow halo hovering above each willow.
From this distance, their crowns shine and glow but step closer…
…and then the top of each tree, like Thoreau once noticed, blends impossibly into the blue sky…
I step even closer to the slender branches, which in the wicker industry are called withies…
…and from somewhere deep inside my inner ear, I hear the lyrics of another folk song…
…the wind in the willows playing tea for two, the sky was yellow and the sun was blue.
I see what that means now. Standing in the wind, under the spring willow, the sun is clearly, undeniably blue.
On my way home, another voice broke through the CB static.
Breaker, breaker, did I hear Jon Spruce on this dial or are my rusty ears playing tricks again? You out there, Spruce?
It was my old partner-in-crime, J-Rose. I haven’t talked to him in years.
Ha, I knew it was you. Jon Spruce bending the needle, it’s been a long time coming. Wait till I tell old Bessie.
Oh my, that brings back some good memories. Bessie used to be our first baseman in our old softball league but it was her bat that took us all the way to the Kansas City Intramural Classic. Her stance alone used to bring the whole outfield in.
Like Bob Dylan once said, she had the biggest boat that I’ve ever seen.
J-Rose, you tell sweet Bessie that I’ll look her up next time I’m passing through Wichita. Right now, I need some flowers for the blog. What’s your ten-twenty?
You want flowers, Spruce-man? Get your lazy butt down to South Philly. The pears are shooting stars over here.
Pear trees? I’ve already done pear trees. Is anybody reading this blog?
People are really talking about them.
Of course they are, J-Rose.
People are always talking about the callery pears but it’s usually a series of ten-ones.
That’s CB for poor reception.
Regardless of cultivar, wrote the University of Connecticut, Pyrus calleryana is wholly overused in the landscape, leading to monotony and boredom.
That’s a true story but I don’t blame the pear.
It’s not that it’s a bad tree. It’s not that it doesn’t belong anywhere in our city, in our woods or in our hearts.
Actually, it’s our fault. We put it in the wrong place. We cast it in the wrong role.
The pear has no business being a street tree.
It has too many distinct characteristics that are now considered disadvantageous to its current role: prone to blight, weak branching structure, dangerously tottering limbs over our cars…
…and, worst of all, over-planted and overused.
But it’s hard to get anybody to listen to these complaints on days like this.
They were planted for days like this…
…even though days like this don’t last forever.
Enjoying the view, Spruce?
Hard not to.
You got a real pretty city here, Philly boy.
That’s a 10-4, good buddy, but please don’t tell me you sent me all the way to South Philly to catch a pear. What else you got?
Ah, I’m headed to the highway now, got to drag this wagon back to Norfolk before dark but I’ll tell you what. Go down to Marconi Park and send me a picture of that elm.
Here you go, J-Rose.
I actually almost missed it. At first glance, I thought this was an oak. It has a very stout and wide trunk and I’m used to elm-trunks being taller and thinner but then I saw that distinct ropy bark…
…and then I noticed that typical splash of branches…
…and finally I looked up to catch those clusters of young, flaky emeralds of fruit.
Now that’s an elm.
Surprised to see fruit?
Some trees are done flowering, already on a stampede towards fruit. That brutal winter, this late spring and this recent batch of hot sun and clear skies? That's a recipe for fruit.
If you're not quick enough, you can miss the spring all together.
It’s tricky, to catch a tree in season. It takes talent and it takes marksmanship and it takes more luck than I’d like to admit.
For most trees.
There are a few trees out there that bloom like clockwork, as reliable as the calendar, as dependable as old friends.
And no other tree illustrates this thought better than the amelanchier…
…a tree that flies into spring the same week as Easter, which is why most people call it the serviceberry…
…although some sources say the name serviceberry has a different connotation. Some say that the service refers to funerals since its flowering meant that the ground was finally thawed, time to dig the graves for the souls lost to winter.
The Cree Indians called it the saskatoon. The tree was so prevalent in their country, delighting the banks of their creeks, that the largest city in the prairie province of Saskatchewan took the name as its own.
It’s a member of the Rose family and, like all Rose trees, it has a five-petal flower.
...with enough room in between flowers to let in a lot more of that blue, blue sun.
It’s hard to believe but this little tree actually has more names.
It’s also called the juneberry and, in just a couple months, it will produce a dark purple berry about the size of a pea, famous among the wildlife and foragers for its cherry-like flavors.
According to Thoreau, around Cape Cod, the berries were also called the josh-pears which, he figures, was a corruption of the word juicy.
But by far, my favorite name for this tree has got to be the shadbush, so named because its flowering is perfectly timed to the great shad migration…
…which is why my favorite shadbush in the entire city is the small grove planted right along the Manayunk towpath between Main Street and the Schuylkill River.
It’s something quite near perfect to catch the flowering shadbush next to a river.
Contrary to popular belief, seafood is also meant to be seasonal and, in this part of Turtle Island, the shad was known as one of the first foods of spring.
After spending its summer in the northern reaches of the Bay of Fundy, the shad will spend the autumn and winter swimming and feeding down to the Chesapeake Bay.
In spring, as the shadbush blooms, they migrate back north.
During this migration, some of the older shads swim up the freshwater rivers to spawn. The Connecticut, the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Delaware and all of their major tributaries, all major routes of the shad run.
They are so plentiful, wrote William Penn in 1686, that Captain Smyth’s Overseer at the Skulkil drew 600 and odd at one Draught, 300 is no wonder, 100 familiarly…they are caught by net only.
That last statement was captured in two paintings by Philadephia's own Thomas Eakins.
So this is spring? By the wings of Wabun, it’s full of wheels.
Natural or unnatural or supernatural, it all comes down to wheels, wheels within wheels barreling down the highway of history, nothing standing still for one second.
The Easter weekend, the great shad run and the flowering of a little tree with too many names, all passing over at the same time, wheels within wheels.
This is not a new idea. It never was.
Resurrection, that’s a wheel. Herring migration? That’s a wheel too. The shadbush turning into the juneberry, that’s my favorite wheel of all.
Three calendar events on the same quick string of time and the ouroboros takes another small bite of its tail…
…a circuitous route that almost, just almost, can take us back to the very beginning...
...but I don't know if I even believe in beginnings anymore.
How does that folk song go?
How does that folk song go?
Small wheel turning by the fire and rod, big wheel turning by the grace of God…
…and every time that Wheel turn round…
…bound to cover just a little more ground.
And then, as if on cue, another voice from the past crackles through the radio.
Breaker, breaker, thought I heard a ghost on this station. Are you there, Jon Spruce, it’s me, Shelly.
Uh oh. This could be trouble.
I owe Shelly a whole bunch of phone calls and fancy dinners, plus one long, heartfelt explanation.
I look into the microphone for any sign of trouble but it’s no help. This microphone has the best poker face I’ve ever met.
Hey, Shelly, Jon Spruce here. You got me.
I hear her lips breaking into a smile.
I was just thinking about you, girl, thinking about all those evenings we spent wasting away the morning.
She swallows a sigh and laughs into the mike. Jon Spruce, you always did tell the sweetest lies.
I still got it, boys.
Shelly, if you got time to park your wheels, I know a noodle shop in Chinatown that’s always empty.
No time, tree-boy. I’m over at the stadium dropping off my load for the Flyers game, then hauling this big rig deadhead back to Bismark. Got to hit the road.
Some other time then.
You still need some flowers for the blog?
I’ll take what you got.
Then take your lying eyes over to Morris Park. Lot of chatter about the bloodroot over there.
Morris Park? That’s off City Avenue, in the middle of the Overbrook neighborhood, right near the city limits on the outskirts of town.
As far as native landscapes go, it’s one of the best kept secrets here in the city.
That’s where the two branches of the Indian Creek flow together…
…eventually becoming the Cobbs Creek that marks this western boundary of Philadelphia.
It’s full of beech and sycamore, ash and hickory, tulip poplar and spicebush…
…the sun-dappled tangles of lesser celandine…
…and gardens of skunk cabbage…
…and, oh my god, it’s full of stars.
Meet the bloodroot, one of our most fleeting and transient, our most wild of the wildflowers…
…one of our most perfect stars.
It blooms, on a good year, for a little more than a week…
…and, even then, you have to catch it at certain hours of a sunny day.
Its gory name is a translation of Sanguinaria canadensis, a reference to the red dye found in its roots, used mostly by the rivercane basketmakers of the Delaware River people.
The bloodroot only grows along steep and well-drained hillsides…
…under the crispy carpet of dried beech and oak leaves.
Catch them while you can…
…although they are already gone.
Their blooms begin the spinning of another wheel.
Once opened to the sun, the bloodroot flower attracts the very first bees and flies of spring…
…and, by the end of spring, it folds up into a pod that’s baked in the sun until it bulges opens with seeds that are carried away by the ants…
…into the nesting chambers of their subterranean colonies where they use the fleshy seed-covers as food for their larvae.
Once the new ants are born, the seeds themselves are left behind, deep in the ground, to germinate and root again.
On my way out of Morris Park, I stumbled upon a dead snake...
…fresh blood on the bloodroot trail.
How long had it been there? How did it die?
I do not know how to find these answers.
I try not to read too much into these things. I don’t believe in signs, don’t believe in omens, never had much faith in portents or coincidences. I never saw an albatross that wasn’t just a big bird.
But here’s something interesting. In most cultures, the snake is the symbol for rebirth and resurrection, something to do with the shedding of the skin.
For the Navajo, the snake was a member of the Lightning People Tribe that live in the clouds. Seeing a snake here on earth meant that rain and thunder was on the forecast.
In Philadelphia, a snake means get out of the woods, there are snakes in these hills.
In the end, no big deal, just another wheel spinning in spring.
Baby ants and dead snakes, little creeks and big rivers, new flowers and old friends, in the end, they’re all just wheels but, man oh man, I really like it when they give a holler every time they’re passing through.
Like I said in the morning, it’s all too much for one set of eyes. You’re bound to miss something doing it alone and there ain’t no shame in asking for directions, ain’t no shame in being shown the way.
How does that old folk song go?
Oh yeah. Every once in a while, you can get shown the light.
It’s always in the strangest of places…
…if you look at it right.
Jon Spruce, over and out.
Jon Spruce, over and out.