Friday, May 16, 2014


Here in Philadelphia, there are trees and then there are trees.

On this particular day, I was hunting for the first kind of tree.

It goes by the name of mountain laurel.  It’ll never be the biggest tree in the woods.  It’ll never be the kind of tree that shows up on the nightly news but I’ve been on the lookout for mountain laurel for weeks now.

I’ve been trying to catch its flowering, which I’ve heard is spectacular.

I already knew where they were growing.  They were up there, off the trail…

…typical of the mountain laurel, sprouting up on a steep and rocky hillside called a ravine.

That’s French for a violent rush of water and it describes the type of land that makes the shape of a vee, the landscape that forms around a narrow valley cut deep with a running stream.

That’s exactly where I was, on a trail called the Ravine Loop.

Away from the path, up the sharp banks of the stream?

That’s mountain laurel country.

That’s why they’re so hard to find.  They’re off the trail.

They’re way up here…

…growing on the pitched and slanted shores of the Ravine Loop.

It’s hard to get up here, rough going and slippery with rotting compost.   I had to keep my eyes to the ground and so I noticed the small leaves popping out of the woodland carpet.

These are the other kinds of trees.  Big trees.

Here’s a chestnut oak…

…and here’s a tulip poplar.

The big trees, they are a-coming.  Some of them are already staking out their claim.

Once they take over, they can choke out whole fields of sunshine, drowning out the understory with their high green canopy.  They don’t leave much room for the smaller trees like the dogwood and the redbud, the crabapple and the hawthorn.

And, of course, my prey for this afternoon…

…the mountain laurel…

…that small tree with the dark evergreen leaves and the crooked trunk.

Its bark has a very stringy and shaggy texture, like an old frayed rope that’s been too many days out to sea.

Its flower would be a real boon to my blog.  For starters, it’s the state flower of Pennsylvania…

…usually depicted next to our state bird, the ruffled grouse.

Their flowers grow in groups of twelve or more, they say, at the terminal ends of the branches, upright above the leathery leaves.

From what I’ve seen in the field guides, the flowers are bright and showy, resembling little cups.  Something found in a child’s tea party.  They’re white or pink and each flower has ten long pistils, purple at the tips, that clamp down on the petals and push the flower open.

Even more remarkable, they’re supposed to be a very action-packed bloom.

They are spring-loaded, wrote John Eastman in his field guide for forests and thickets, and they actively bombard an alighting insect with pollen.

You can test this mechanism yourself with a pin or grass blade.  The slightest touch…

..and he goes on and on.  I wanted very badly to test this mechanism myself…

…but I was too early.  They were just barely budding.

I’ll come back here next week to catch them in bloom but, by that time, this whole story called Philly Trees will be over.

This is the final post, the last adventure.  This is the big finish and this is exactly where I want to end this blog…

off the trail.

I’ve just got to be careful. 

Off the trail is not for the squeamish or the faint-hearted.  Some people call it lost or astray or adrift but those are all judgment calls.  Really, it just means that you’re on your own…

…and now you’re trailblazing, using the map that’s being written in your own head…

…step by step, turn by turn, ways lead on to ways.

A couple tricks to walking off the trail.  First, no shorts.  Only a bumpkin wears shorts in the woods.  Same goes for flip-flops.  Good boots are a must.  Expect them to get muddy.

When you’re trailblazing, it’s also best if you talk to yourself but I would caution against idle conversation and meaningless chit-chat.

Better to talk about what you’re seeing.  Me?  I like to name-drop the trees and plants that I pass along the way.

When spoken aloud in the wilds, my monologue becomes an invaluable tool.  The names that I’ve dropped along the pathless woods become my best landmarks when trying to retrace my steps…

…when heading back to the trail.

And make sure you bring a good snack.


People are always asking me, Hey, Jon Spruce, can you recommend a good snack for a long hike?

There are many good choices.  Fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables will never do you wrong.  I lean towards local produce but I wouldn’t want to deny anybody the citrus, the banana or the macadamia nut.  Edward Abbey always brought oranges when wandering the American desert.

Some people prefer trail mix and I have no problem with trail mix.  Trail mix will never steer you off course.

But I’d like to take this opportunity to fervently champion my absolute favorite trail snack, one of Turtle Island’s greatest contributions to world cuisine…

…that handy, groovy gyre of a sandwich we call the burrito.

By far, this is my favorite way to fuel up for a hike.

It’s a sandwich for both the body and the mind.

Its name is Spanish for little donkey and it’s called a burrito for the way it resembles those bedrolls tied to the backs of saddles…

…swaying to the rhythm of a swinging tail and a dusty rump.

Now, a good burrito will have many different ingredients wrapped up inside that tortilla.  Each ingredient comes from its own time zone.

It’s true.

There are foods inside the burrito that take a long time to cook, like the rice and the beans. 

Then, there are the ingredients that take even longer to make, foods that need to be tended and cultured, like the sour cream and the cheese.

And then there are the ingredients that are meant to be cut and diced, mixed and smashed fresh and spontaneously, things like salsa and guacamole, the shredded lettuce and the plucked cilantro.

Roll it all up.  All those different time zones, coiled together for every single bite, it’s the old versus the new, the cooked versus the raw, the cultivated versus the spontaneous, assembled into a spiral, just layers and layers of tasty goodness.

Perfect snack for hiking through the palimpsest.

I picked up this particular burrito just around the corner from the Ravine Loop trail, at the Machismo Burrito Bar…

…in the Andorra Shopping Center at the westward terminus of Henry Avenue.

Andorra?  It’s Spanish for shrub-covered land, although it could also mean a female traveling companion.

I come here often, and not just because it’s near one of my favorite wild places in Philly.  I come here when I feel off-kilter and out-of-whack.  This place soothes me, sets me straight. 

This little mall, this Andorra Shopping Center…

…this is one of the most spiritual, most harmonious places I’ve ever found in the city.

No, no, no, you don’t understand.  You think I’m joking.

I’m telling you.  This shopping center is overflowing with balance and concord…

…the champion of the wind-water dance we call feng-shui.

Every shop here has its own opposite.  Or its own counterpart, its own foil.

There’s a Radio Shack next to a Game Stop.  There’s a Kolhs department store and a Dollar Express.  There’s a branch of the library but there’s also a Bargain Book Warehouse.

There are post office mailboxes…

…right in front of a Parcel Plus.

For food, I have almost the entire globe: Italian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, a McDonald’s and a Saladworks, plus a frozen yogurt confectionary and an Acme grocery store.

There’s an Applebee’s here, which advertises itself coast-to-coast, hemisphere-to-hemisphere as a Neighborhood Grill and Bar.

On this particular day, standing outside its committee-colored awning, they are blaring Kashmir.

By the hammer of the gods, I love this song.  I should listen to this song every day.  I am a traveler of both time and space.

This Applebee’s?  They’re such a kind council, like the song says: elders of a gentle race.

They just want to please me. 

All the research and development they put into their menu, it’s because they respect my need for familiarity and rhythm, my fear of risk, my anxiety of the unknown. 

Nothing untested, nothing too sour or too crabby will ever slip by them, not on their watch, and yet they still give me an opportunity to satisfy that very human need to try something new, like pineapple on a pizza.

There’s a place to groom your pets…

…right down the sidewalk from a nail salon and right across the parking lot from a human hair-do factory, a Hair Cuttery franchise.

There’s a dojo here, called AmeriKick…

…and, just down the sidewalk, there is something called Mathnasium…

…the classic battle still raging strong, brains versus brawn, jocks versus nerds.

And that Jenny Craig store?  Right across the parking lot, there’s a GNC Live Well outlet, nutrition and diet for both men and women in the same shopping center.

This is the epitome of the town square, the global hearth, my Shangri-La beneath the summer moon.

I just hope it doesn’t stop here.  This is not the best way to end anything.

That’s the danger of reaching the epitome.  That’s the worst part about standing at the acme.

It could all be downhill from here and then this place would just be a sad reminder of our past glories.  No repeat championship.

If something goes terribly wrong, then this will become a ghost town.  Each store would turn into a memorial of the human contributions: the invention of numbers, coin and paper…

…the way we domesticated the zoo…

…first animal to walk upright.

This is the human niche and people come here just to sit in its center.

It’s true.  I’ve seen it. 

If you walk into the center of this parking lot, you’ll see people sitting in their cars, hooked up to their cell-phones with papers spread out on the passenger seats...

…or they’re sitting in their white vans or police cruisers catching up on silence and solitude,  munching away in their school buses or Water Department trucks, being very human.

Perhaps they come here because they can feel its balance, can feel the way this place harnesses both the yin and the yang, but me?

I prefer a different kind of balance.  I prefer the kind of order found in the wilds.

People are always asking me, Hey, Jon Spruce, where are you?

If I use that old map, then I am way out there, man…

…all the way at the back of the map, almost at the very limits of its horizon.

Actually, I’m more to the left, more to the south, of that black bear family…

…there it is.

This is south of the Wissahickon but still at the northwest border of Philadelphia, where Ridge Avenue turns into Ridge Pike.
According to the map, it’s just rolling meadows.  It’s lazy country.

But that’s in the past.

Right now, it’s working hard.

This part of the map was kept as meadows and farms and pastures from the time of William Penn until 1965, within living memory.

This is the Schuylkill Center.   In the sixties, it was given the title of wilderness

…given permission to go to seed, gone to woods.

This is where I can see the wilds taking over, the future of the Philly woods. 

This is where I can hunt down Thoreau and his preservation of the world.

Here, I can see how the palimpsest is written.

I can get here by taking highway 76 but I prefer taking the back roads, snaking my way through the west Philly neighborhoods past the zoo, through Fairmount Park and the west-side of the Laurel Hill Cemetery.

On this particular day, in between the Shofuso Japanese House and Centennial Lake, while waiting in line for the green light…

…a seed landed on my windshield.

That might be an elm but it’s probably a zelkova.

I continued down Belmont Avenue, turning left at the cliffs of Manayunk and up Umbria Avenue.

That’s my favorite Deer Crossing sign in the entire city.

No, no, no, you don’t understand.  You think I’m joking.

It’s true.  This is the way to the wilds.  That’s the sign you pass on your way to the young woods of the Schuylkill Center.

Exactly opposite of this sign, on the same road, in the direction back towards town, there is this sign.

I don’t know about you but I don’t get many signs like that in my life.  I’d like to think I’ll notice these things, with or without the blog.


Contrary to popular belief, trails can also be seasonal.

Out there in the wilds, there are some paths that open up only at certain times of the years, under the right kind of moon.

There is a trail like that here in the Schuylkill Center.  I can only find it in mid-spring.

I call it a maytrail.

It begins right near that weird sassafras.

No, not that one.  The one right next to it.

There it is.

It’s impossible to find this trail in the summer. 

By the Strong Sun Moon of July, this whole place is choked up with multiflora rose and devil’s walkingstick…

…no sign of the trail.

I can’t find it in the winter either.   

Besides, all the trees look weird here in the winter.

I actually need just a little bit of bushes and briars in order to see this trail…

…not enough to block the path…

…but just enough to show the way.

At this time of year, the devil’s walkingstick is leafing out.

Pay close attention to this now because, in just a few months, this will be the largest leaf in North America.

Not bad for a little stick.

This is still such a young woods.

There are big trees here, and more big trees coming, and soon these woods will look like the crowded and cultured forest of the Wissahickon instead of like this.

This will happen in less time than it took Coaquannock to disappear off the face of the map.

Soon the big trees will dominate, the staple species that have already mapped out their claims, trees like the sugar maple and the tulip poplar…

…the oak, the beech and the sycamore…

…the black walnut and the cherry.

There is one type of tree that is conspicuously absent from these woods.

No evergreens.  No conifers.

No hemlocks or spruces, no firs or cedars.  There is white pine but it was obviously farmed here…

…never escaping its stand on the other side of the maytrail.

Maybe it was planted here for lumber…

…or to attract the right kind of wildlife but this white pine never leaves this plantation.

It makes sense.  Pines and spruces, hemlocks and firs, they belong to an older kind of woods…

…the first kind of forest that settled Turtle Island.

You can feel that here in the white pine stand.  It’s a place that feels older than the rest of the woods...

…from a time out of mind.

Here at the Schuylkill Center, a different kind of woods is taking over, the forest of flowers and fleshy fruit, the deciduous treescape meant for all four seasons.

Fifty years into its spring, it’s the smaller and more reckless trees that are getting these woods going, their turn in the sun…

…and so the Schuylkill Center is currently dominated by the redbud and the dogwood…

…the crabapple and the hawthorn.

What was it John Muir said?

Culture is an orchard…

…nature is a crab.

Down this path, I can find distinctive features of a young woods, things like a glade.

The word comes from the Norse, by way of bright, and it means an open passage in the woods.

Typical of a glade, I find a colony of mandrakes.

This plant has such a short season.  It shoots out of the ground in early April.  It has to be out and open before the upper canopy leafs out. 

By the end of summer, it’s gone.  It’ll be eaten and swallowed whole, those thick leaves and juicy stalks a favorite food for the caterpillars, the centipedes, the beetles and the moths.

In the meantime, it produces a super-sweet fruit called the mayapple.

There’s one.

Who eats the mayapple?  Browsers like the deer and the grackle, scurriers like the mouse and the squirrel but, mostly, the mayapple is turtle food.

If I look even closer at the glade floor, I can see the unfurling of the ferns.

These are some of the oldest surviving plants still found on Spaceship Earth…

…bubbling up onto the surface of the primordial soup over 360 million years ago when the fishes first started crawling out of the sea, wiggling on the empty shores, the unmapped continents.

These ferns are still in their fiddlehead phase…

…but, in less than a month, they will be completely unfurled and this whole glade will turn into a field of fronds.

Here in the glade, I can also find these vigorous thickets creeping across the grass…

…these little whipper-snappers of multiflora rose.  At the very center of these scrubs, I could probably find the remains of some poor tree that tried to grow up in this glade.

Tenacious vines like the rose protect these open spaces from the big trees.  Anything that might suck up all that precious brightness, even far away in the future, better be prepared to fight...

...all year round.

Sometimes though, there is no tree in the center.  It might be something like this…

…the last remaining post of an old fence.

As I approached, a big crow darted out of this thicket and flew fast out of sight.

Maybe this is where he was planning to mate…

…or maybe this is her nest.

I peer inside, hoping to find some eggs. 

I can feel the crow looking at me…

…watching me from afar.  There’s no need yet to start a fight.  After all, I’m probably just a loud, blind bumpkin that won’t be able to see the eggs anyway, not through all that jungle.

And I can’t.  I can’t see anything in there.

Who knows?  Come back here in another fifty years and this could be a mound or a knoll.

In a hundred years, this could be a hill…

…and who would know that there’s a fence post buried in its center.

This is still such a tender woods.

Down this trail, I can still see the scars…

…can still see the growing pains to get even this far.

This is the work of the wild grape and the poison ivy.  Some of the trees have been able to shake off these vicious vines…

…while other trees have just managed to cope…

…stronger trees that can carry the weight of a parasite.

Every now and then in these woods, I can actually walk right into the middle of these struggles, the battle for the upper canopy still raging.

There is a tree missing from that small colony, a tree that wasn’t able to shake off the moocher.

All that’s left of the tree is the hardy vine that took it away.

And now the vine has jumped to the next tree in the group…

…a race to the sun as the ceiling of the canopy rises higher and higher.

Meanwhile, the other trees remain standing for now, refusing to give up the ground where their brother has fallen.

 The maytrail ends here.

I can’t keep going.  It’s all briar.  There are little breaks that might be the continuation of the path but they don’t last long at all.   

The trail is lost…

…although maybe this was always the end.  Maybe this was always meant to be the final destination.

I could end the blog right here, let the summer woods close up the trail behind me. 

I’ll be shipwrecked in the woods, locked up in the wilds, lingering here at the edge until the winter moons let me out.

For sustenance, I could wean my body to eat the land, teach my stomach to digest the crabapple, the dogwood berry, the black cherry, the wild grape now flowering…

…or I could learn how to forage for wild tubers, how to dig for drinkable water.   

But, in the end, this is not my niche.  I am a traveler here.  No matter how familiar I become with these woods, I will always be a tourist, a guest and, worst of all, a freeloader.

All I would do is take, pillage and plunder.  And this woods, in the spring of its wilding, is way too busy for that kind of bumming around.

Down the path from the maytrail, just past the white pine stand and on the way towards the Ravine Loop, I can find my favorite puddle in the entire city.

This puddle is one of the most insightful and most astounding places in all of Philadelphia.

No, no, no, you don’t understand.  You think I’m joking.

It’s true.

First of all, it’s always here.  There is always some sort of standing water at this part of the trail. 

It might be iced over in the winter, it might be parched in the summer, but there is always some sort of puddle here.

In the spring, if I look closely at its reflection, I can see the trees growing overhead.

One of those trees is standing just to my left…

…a black walnut.

If I come back here in late October during the Ducks Fly Moon, this puddle will be full of those black walnuts,  rotting away in the greatest puddle this city's ever seen.

I’m under no delusions here.  I know the tree doesn't have any eyes but that doesn’t stop my own mind from imagining the story…

…the way the tree looks at its reflection all year long, watching itself leafing, flowering and then fruiting…

…and, just at the end of the growing season, it fills the puddle up with its own falling leaves and ripe fruit.

Now that’s a great ending.

It takes a whole season to tell the full story.

To me, it feels like one long sentence, a slow and steady chant of a song that keeps rising and rising until it reaches this climatic ending, walnuts bobbing in a puddle…

…worthy of a John Bonham drum-fill.

It’s natural, for some people, to think this way when staring at a puddle.

It makes sense to turn these observations into a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Thoreau called it the tawny grammar.  It’s a language based on observation, a wild and dusky knowledge that puts some sort of order to this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around…

…with such beauty.

In the world of champion tree-hunting, the tawny grammar begins with identification.  The story begins with the name.

This wasn’t always the case.  In Turtle Island mythology, there are very few names.  In the very earliest of times, the earth was just darkness and ocean, called ocean.   

All fish are called fish and all people are called the people.  Even the trees went by one name.


I guess, in the beginning, there was enough time to get specific later although, if I was around back then, I’d be the guy telling them to hurry up.

Before you know it, the season is done.  The minutes?  They turn into hours.  The hours?  They’re really days and, before you can even bat an eye, the beginning is over, the tale near its end.

It’s natural, for some people, to think this way when walking through the woods.

That’s the sassafras.  It’s flowering now.

The sassafras grow in wide colonies, full of clones.  It helps colonize the woods as it grows from pasture to forest.

It’s just big enough to dominate over the dogwood and the crabapple and the redbud but not nearly tall enough or strong enough to keep at bay the big trees due to come.

I love walking in the woods with the sassafras. 

It finds such crooked ways to reach the sun.

Now watch this.  This is how I can see the wilds, this is how I can read the tawny grammar. 

I got the sassafras groves creeping right up to the trail…

…and then I see these grayish trees, elderberry trees I think.

Their trunks always seem to split in two.

Once a few species are identified, now it’s the hard part.

Now I have to watch, keep a look out, hunt the tree. 

There is one rule.  I’m only allowed to see what’s really there.

Groves of sassafras, rows of elderberry trees, arches of wild roses but right there, right in the middle of the patch, growing tall and straight...

…that’s tulip poplar.

Look at the way the sassafras and elderberries are moving away from the big tree…

…the way they’re bending and dancing around the tulip poplar.  They know their spots are doomed, soon to be shade.

That’s how you see the forest for the trees.

There’s no better tree for these kinds of stories than the actual book-tree itself…

…and my favorite one in the entire city is located here at the Schuylkill Center.

At the highest point of the Ravine Loop, there is this tree that goes by the name of beech.

I swear, it seems to follow me…

…every time I pass it on the trail.

People are always asking me, Hey, Jon Spruce, what’s your next blog going to be about?

It might just be this, reading beech trees.

I wish I had kept track of this somehow because it’s hard to believe.  There’s not enough time to go back and document it but, in the last two years spent tree-hunting in Philly, I always see two things written on every big beech.

One is my brother’s name…

…and the other is Led Zeppelin.

The beech tree is one of the foundations of the eastern Turtle Island forests.  It is the mother species of the chestnuts and the oaks and, together with the sugar maple, it can reach what foresters call a climatic climax community.

That’s when the spring wilding ends, the work is done and the forest is finished.  

It happens when there is equilibrium between soil, fungus and vegetation…

…an endpoint of succession.  The epitome of the woods, sometimes they’re called old growth

According to the foresters, when William Penn’s flock landed at the Dock in Old City, the Philadelphia woods was a closed canopy hardwood forest primarily composed of American beech and sugar maple trees which tend to co-dominate the forest and which are the pinnacle of plant succession in their range.

Here it comes again.

This particular beech is already headed in that direction.

Even the wildlife puts this tree on the map.

Everything uses the beech. 

Its trunk, on its northern side, is a habitat for moss and seasonal mushrooms.  Caterpillars and other insects eat its leaves.  In the fall, the beech nuts attract the songbirds and the ducks, the pigeons and the flycatchers, the chipmunk and the fox, even the black bear.

In the winter, the porcupine is known to chew on its bark.

On this particular day, I found a slug…

…and, as I popped my head into the next cranny, I saw a frog dart into the depths of the tree.

The inside of a beech is famous for mice nests.  It’s also common to see owls.  

The top of the tree is a favorite nesting site for the red-tailed hawk.
Squirrels use the beech to hoard their acorns and nuts.

This particular beech has a root system poised to take over the world.

All around this turn of the trail, I can find its roots bursting out of the ground…

…launching tree after tree…

…sometimes even crawling under and through the tree next door.

Every little exposed piece of wood has the potential to reach for the canopy.

It’ll take your breath away…

…the way this tree grows more trees.

They’re prehensile, another French word but this one means capable of grasping

…the way it forms that organ-pipe lattice over the bended trail, the way it’s pulling the earth into the air.
That’s where a tree like this comes from.

Up there.

No, no, no, you think I’m joking but it’s true.

When the earth was nothing but darkness and ocean, there was a tree like this growing in the center of Earthmaker’s kingdom, high above the watery world.

One day, so the legend goes, he cut it down.

Something to do with a bad dream.  Something to do with a raven.

The tree fell through the boundary that separated that higher world from ours.

It fell through the arc of a lone eagle in flight.

It fell through a flock of swans, friendly birds who realized that the tree would need a safe place to land.

Like I said…

…back then, the world was all ocean.

So the swans called upon the animals of the world to raise the bottom of the ocean to create the continent.

But none of them could do it.  Not the bear, not the deer, not the beaver or the frog.

It’s unclear, if there was no land, where these animals actually lived.

Perhaps they were all just there, something the shamans called a life force.

You might think that such a fantastic story, such a dreamy past, could never survive in this modern age, this big city.

You might think that this kind of tawny grammar is lost now.

But it’s not true.

This middle part of the story can actually be found in the Andorra Shopping Center…

…on the walls of Petco.

There they are…

…all my brothers and sisters, the whole hysterical menagerie…

…watching the tree fall to its doom.

Luckily, one of the animals stepped forward into the center of the zoo.  He had a great plan.

It was fool-proof but risky, simple but crafty, so crazy that it just might work.

Ain’t that just like Coyote?

And this final part, the ending to this story?

That can be found here in Philly too, all the way on the other side of town, near The Dock…

…at the Tamanend statue.

The ending of the story, which is the beginning of everything else, is right there.

You have to look at it from different angles.

They snapped into action, all those paws and hoofs, claws and talons, trunks and tails.  According to some accounts, even the opposable thumb was there.

They made a great circle and each animal pinched a corner of the ocean floor and they lifted it…

…just high enough for turtle to crawl underneath.

Balancing the land on his shell, he swam to the surface and breached the endless ocean.

Turtle Island.


  1. Very nice Mr. Spruce. We enjoy a lot of the same patches of woods and meadows around Philly. I'll be looking at the Andorra shopping center in a different way from now on. I very much enjoy your blogging. Thanks for it.

  2. Thank you, Jay. Very appreciative of the kind words. It means the world to me.

  3. I've only recently found your blog and see that it has come to an end. Even so i look forward to looking back to your previous posts and exploring the city with newly opened eyes. Thank you!

    1. I hope you enjoy reading the Philly Trees blog. I had the best time tree-hunting, exploring and writing about the city and its trees. Think of it as a first-person field guide for the trees and for Philadelphia. I hope it leads to your own adventures.