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.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Of all the many things that Henry David Thoreau once said aloud or wrote down, there is one particular quote that has tormented and spooked the generations of nature-writers and tree-hunters to come.

In Wildness is the preservation of the world.

He wrote that down about halfway through his lecture, Walking.

A few paragraphs later, he wrote: I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows…Give me a Wildness whose glance no civilization can endure.

Just the other day, I was driving towards Center City and I passed by the same idea, shouting to be heard.

It’s an opinion that is and always will be a little outlawed.

Many people are quick to note that Thoreau uses the word wildness and not the common term of the day, wilderness.  He did it deliberately.  He was being stubborn.  He was stubborn, and deliberate, for a lot of his life.

To Thoreau, wilderness was something invented by the Law, governed by a Mayor, a piece of land under ownership of the State.  The modern day wilderness is paved and permitted, gated up for seasons, open only from dawn to dusk, guarded by a Police.

The boundaries of a wilderness are always in dispute.  Its title is something that can be repealed, rescinded or revoked.  Its map is something that can be taken away, written over.

But wildness?

No chance, no dice.

You cannot stop the wilds.

Even here in Philly?

Yes, even here in the big city.

To prove it though, I’ll need to discover and explore Philadelphia for the palimpsest that it really is.

What’s a palimpsest?  It’s a manuscript or a document that has been scraped clean and erased, then replaced with something more modern but that still bears the traces of the earlier work. 

Sometimes in order to read the earlier work, historians and archaeologists need to flash the palimpsest through ultra-violet light, the only way to see what was written before.

I don’t need that kind of technology.

I just need the right kind of map.

I’ll use this map.

It was made by the City Planning Commission in 1934.  Using historical texts and field guides, colonial journals and living memories, it’s meant to depict this city as first seen by the White Men...

…when Philadelphia was known as Coaquannock, the Grove of Tall Pines.


According to the map, Coaquannock was one of four circular villages of the Turtle Clan, all located within the watershed between the Schuylkill and the Delaware River.

There’s no record, no description of the pine grove that it was named for. 

But, by the coming of the white men, the Lenni-Lenape had already been living here for thousands of years.  It’s quite possible that they named the town in memorial of the pines, a dedication to the grove that was standing in some distant bygone era, same as we do now.

What was it like?