Monday, March 31, 2008

Gone fishing

Magargee Dam, Saturday morning, opening day of trout season. See Fishin' the Wissahickon.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Not a dinosaur's foot

The roots of a gigantic beech, late Saturday morning, March 29, on the west side of the Wissahickon, near Summit Avenue.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A walk on the north side

Passing by Kitchen's Lane Bridge, the eastern side of the Wissahickon, Easter Sunday.
And a little further on, the trail north toward the Baptism marker.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Through thin ice

This plaque is on the eastern side of the Wissahickon, just north of Kitchen's Lane Bridge.
In 1722 Johannes Gumre and Peter Becker, leaders in the Germantown Baptist community, made a pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to find and reunite about 20 families who had arrived on this continent together in 1719 but had become separated. Their successful reunion as celebrated by a creek-side service where six new members, including three former Hermits of the Ridge, were baptized. The group had walker first through Germantown to a member's house to take their noon meal together and then along an Indian trail (probably where Carpenter's Lane is now) to the creek arriving very close to sunset. Elder Peter Becker led each candidate separately into the water through thin ice. The solemn rite ended after sundown.
-- Sarah West, Rediscovering the Wissahickon

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Serene reminder of a troubled time

This guardhouse, which stands near the intersection of Kitchen's Lane and Forbidden Drive, was built in 1938 by the WPA. In the late 1930s, during the height of the Depression, workers participating in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a number of similar buildings throughout the Wissahickon.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Forsythia, wherever I may find her

Forsythia, celandine, daffodils, dandelions. All the first blooms are yellow. I wonder why.

Forsythia, my front porch, Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Buds and berries

Near Kitchen's Lane Bridge, Sunday afternoon.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Lesser Celandine

Easter Sunday, early afternoon, going down Kitchen's Lane toward the bridge.
The Lesser Celandine
by William Wordsworth

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, 'tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
"It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

"The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue."
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal's Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser's Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wissahickon Transfer Center

You come out of the Wissahickon suddenly, and the energy changes. Doesn’t matter if you are on foot, bike, or car. Hurry. Choose. Horns are honking. Is it Manayunk or Center City? Kelly Drive or City Line Avenue?

This is not a place for the indecisive. It is where old paths end and new one’s must be chosen. Bus passengers are disgorged on one side of Ridge Avenue and must scurry dangerously through traffic to the other side to pick up the next connection.

Exposed. Raw. Bright. The volume is suddenly turned to eleven. The monstrous rush of water over the dam contends with the equally monstrous rush of traffic and the stink of diesel.

A hundred yard from here, quietly and unnoticed, the Wissahickon dissolves itself into the Schuylkill.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Waiting for the 65

The railroad bridge and falls where Ridge Avenue crosses the Wissahickon, Friday afternoon, around 5:30, on my way home.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On hummingbird feeders

Here it is, the first full day of spring already, and the ruby-throated hummingbirds have gotten as far as North Carolina in their northward migration. They will arrive in these parts around the third week in April. By the middle of the month -- just in case they decide to come a bit early -- I will have hung up my nectar feeders in the backyard and from the front porch.

Because I have been doing this for the better part of ten years, I have the reputation among my neighbors as something of an expert on hummingbird feeders. Here's the advice I give them.

Cheaper is better than expensive. There are many beautiful feeders available on the market, often of hand blown glass, with gorgeous colors and interesting shapes and textures. They look great in the backyard. Unfortunately, in addition to costing a lot, they are fragile, awkward to hang, and most important, hard to clean. Instead, I opt for cheaper plastic models, and after years of experimentation, I have arrived at a favorite -- the fellow pictured above.

Here's why:
  • It's cheap. And because it is I can afford to buy several of them and hang them in various locations around my yard. Hummingbirds are notoriously territorial, and will fight each other for feeder access. More feeders mean more hummers accommodated, and fewer skirmishes. (As much as possible, try to hang them out of sight of each other so aggressive hummers don't try to guard more than one at a time.)

  • It's easy to clean. I just stick a bottle brush in the tube and twist it around a few times when washing. This is important with hummingbird feeders -- if they are not kept clean mold can grow inside, which can be harmful to the hummingbirds.

  • They need to be refilled often. This is a good thing. It is important that the nectar not go bad. A change every three to four days -- especially during the hotter summer months -- is a good rule of thumb.
Of course, you don't have to go for the same model I do. We all have our own preferences. Just make sure that you keep your feeders clean and refill them often to ensure that they will continue to attract hummingbirds throughout the season.

Visit for nectar recipes, tips, pretty much everything you need to know.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


St. Peter's Church, Sunday afternoon.
Although no official reported the number of Oneidas killed in the fight, some years afterward Pennsylvanians placed a plaque at St. Peter's Church Cemetery in Barren Hill that memorialized the SIX INDIAN SCOUTS WHO DIED IN BATTLE MAY 1778. According to the church's official history, at least four of them had been buried there, their graves marked by ordinary headstones, all in a straight line.
-- Joseph T. Glatthaar, James Kirby Martin, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Holy holly

St. Peters Church, Sunday.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Ancient tombstones, St. Peters Church, Lafayette Hill, Sunday afternoon.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Pat's

Irish flag, my front porch, Sunday afternoon.

Last year around this time, on a weblog I no longer update, I posted a piece about a St. Patrick's Day from twenty years ago. I'm adding it to Wissahickon Diary, since that is now where I keep my thoughts.

With or without you

Saint Patrick’s Day came and went a week or so ago. We passed it in a civilized manner by having dinner with some friends in an upscale Italian restaurant down in the city. We ate good pasta and drank fine wine and avoided the crowded bars, which these days flow with imported Guinness. That’s okay -- the Guinness isn’t what it used to be.

I can’t help thinking about another Saint Patrick’s Day, however, March 17, 1987, twenty years ago. Twenty years ago. That was the day U2 released The Joshua Tree in the U.S., and I couldn’t wait for work to be over so that I could rush out and buy it. I was living in a tiny, dark, third floor apartment at the edge of Philadelphia’s Art Museum neighborhood. I hated that apartment and the one good memory from the year I spent living there was listening to that album.

I had just returned from a week in Ireland visiting old friends and falling in love with the sister of one of them. Her name was Maeve, and we met in the kitchen of her parents’ home outside of Wexford. Her brother Eamonn had brought me down from Dublin for the night to meet his family and go out on the town. She was tiny, with long black hair and pale blue eyes, and too young for me, being eighteen to my twenty-five. But I couldn’t stop looking at her as she moved about the house.

Too soon, Eamonn hustled me out the door. We attended an amateur theater’s production of “Da,” and then had dinner at his boss’s home. The dinner was conducted with typical Irish hospitality, including many courses and many drinks before and afterwards with lots of conversation. I kept looking at my watch with growing despair, realizing that Maeve would be asleep by the time we got back, and that I would not see her again.

Eamonn and I rolled in at two a.m. He directed me to my room and went off to bed. I came out of the bathroom, toothpaste and brush in hand, and there she was, standing in the darkened hallway in her dressing gown.The conversation was whispered and short and not profound. How was your evening? How was the play? She returned to her room, and I went into mine and crawled under the blankets. I floated up into the darkness. She had waited up for me.

We needed to get up early to catch the bus back to Dublin, Eamonn and I. And Maeve got up early too. She and I ate buttered toast and played with the neighbor’s dog who had come into the kitchen to warm himself against the electric heater. We smiled at each other as Eamonn bustled about, sharing a secret, even though we didn’t know exactly what that secret was. There was a radio on the counter, tuned into the early morning pop music program. The host of the show announced that he was going to debut the first single off of U2’s as yet unreleased new album. Then he played “With or Without You.” We all got quiet. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

When The Joshua Tree was released on Saint Patrick’s Day I was still under the hangover of that vacation, still in Ireland more than in Philadelphia. I made two purchases that evening, the album, and a bottle of Black Bush, my favorite Irish whiskey. I remember sitting on the floor of my apartment next to the turntable. (This would be the last record I would buy before going digital.) I opened the bottle and poured myself a glass.

The music came tumbling out. And it was great! The first song, “Where the Street Have No Name,” set a rising momentum that went straight to the gut, introduced the album, and did not relent. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the second song in the opening trilogy, established themes of irresolvable longing and spiritual yearning, mature themes that still resonate with me today. “With or Without You” is a song I will always be too close to to render an objective opinion.

Time passed. I wrote letters to Maeve. She wrote letters to me. I quit my job in early 1989 and went back to Ireland to be with her. We had our love affair, intense, full-blown. She came to the States. I went back to Ireland. In the end, I was not brave enough to make the commitment she clearly wanted. When she told me over the phone that she was getting married in the spring of 1993, I jumped on a plane to Ireland with the gloriously stupid notion of stopping the wedding.

Ireland is not the same. By the early 1990’s, if the Celtic Tiger had not yet arrived, you could surely hear him coming. When Maeve pushed me into the cab on the last night I saw her, she implored me to not walk back to the house where I was staying, the crime rate in Dublin having increased hand in hand with the country’s growing prosperity.

U2 is still a great band. I still buy all their albums, still go to their concerts, just like in the old days. We have grown old together, I like to think. But they will not make another album like The Joshua Tree. Being a culmination of all of their work leading up to that moment, it was an album only young men could make, a final furious gesture before the onset of middle age and its required compromises, good or bad.

In the narrative that each of us constructs with our memories, there are certain watershed moments after which everything seems to change. On the night of March 17, 1987, I played the album all the way through. I flipped the record over and started again. I kept playing it all night, pouring more whiskey as I went.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mockingbird; church

We decided to take some photos of St. Peter's today and upon arriving were immediately serenaded by this mockingbird. Well, actually, we weren't being serenaded. He could not have been more indifferent to our presence. Instead, he was showing off for any potential mates who might have been within hearing range. Cardinal songs seem to be a favorite with mockingbirds, and that was the case with this fellow. He did every cardinal song he knew, even the obscure stuff.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Naomi Street, then and now

Naomi Street, separated by about a century. Are those the same trees? If so, it's rather humbling to think that they are still there, but not those people.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sycamore shadow

Sunday afternoon on Naomi Street.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Seeing stars, part two

A star hangs over Johnson Street.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Seeing stars

Closeup of ornamental grass in the Blue Bell Hill traffic circle, Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Two for one

I saw my first dandelion of the season on Kingsley Street, near Wissahickon Avenue, on Sunday afternoon. I rushed forward with my camera, lined it up in the view finder, and suddenly this guy showed up.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hangin' with my buds

Forsythia buds, off of my front porch, Sunday afternoon, March 9.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Six years ago

That's my Uncle Bernard. On the right, age fifteen, his high school graduation picture (he was the youngest in his class, having been advanced two years). On the left, age sixty-five, leaving for his fifty-year reunion in 1990. I took that one. My mother and I bought him those clothes, got him ready, and I drove him from his farm outside of the tiny village of Davidsburg, in York County, Pennsylvania, to the site of the reunion down in Emigsville.

Bernard died six years ago today in the fire that destroyed his house. When I went into the ruins of the house a day later, I found these photographs in the living room -- or parlor, as he would have called it -- the one room left mostly unscathed by the fire and the massive amounts of water poured onto the structure by the local fire department. They were sitting atop on old record cabinet. The rest of the house had been allowed to fall into an appalling condition over the years, but Bernard kept the parlor in relatively good shape. It was where he entertained visitors. The photographs must have represented something to him -- bookends, perhaps, of his life. In lieu of an open casket at his funeral, they sat on a table next to his coffin. Now they sit on the mantle in my living room in Philadelphia, a hundred miles away.

Two years ago I wrote a piece called Tom and Colleen for another weblog that I no longer update. Because it is largely about Bernard, I am including it here.

Tom and Colleen

Tom is fat. I tell him so all the time. He doesn’t care, having his own agendas. Colleen is not fat. She is Tom’s sister, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

“Go make the coffee,” I say to Tom in the mornings.

“He can’t,” Donna, my girlfriend says. “He doesn’t have opposable thumbs.” She’s right, of course. Tom doesn’t have opposable thumbs. He’s a cat. So is Colleen, for that matter.

“These are the neediest cats in the world,” Donna says, when Colleen wakes us up at 3:00 a.m. For a small cat, Colleen has a loud purr, sounding very much like a tractor with a couple of bad cylinders. She is also quite strong for her size, and drives her head shovel-like under your arms to wake you up. If you pull your arms under the covers to escape, she goes for the face.

“Cats are supposed to be aloof,” Donna says when Tom plops his considerable bulk between us on the sofa. “This cat acts like a dog.” Tom has always been of the belief that if you have time to watch television or read a book, you have time to lavish attention on him.

In the mornings I eat my oatmeal and stare at Tom luxuriously sprawled out on his back on the rug next to the table, his massive white belly thrust upwards as if it were his proudest achievement. “Tom, you are the fattest man who ever lived,” I say.

“He’s not a man,” Donna corrects for the hundredth time, “He’s a cat.”

“He’s a fat man who happens to be a cat,” I explain for the hundredth time. I can’t understand why this is so hard to understand.

Tom and Colleen have been living with me in Philadelphia for over ten years. There’s a photograph of the three of us somewhere, taken shortly after I got them -- a man in his mid thirties sitting on a wicker sofa, holding two gray and white kittens. I took the photo myself with a timer, so the three of us have that self-conscious posed look.

They were born where I grew up, on my Uncle Bernard’s farm in rural York County, though I had left the farm nearly fifteen years before they came along. Their mother was a stray who Bernard took pity on and allowed in the house one night when the weather was bad. He didn’t know she was pregnant.

The next morning he had four cats in the house, or rather, one cat and three kittens. He didn’t want cats, didn’t particularly like cats, but Bernard was a kind man and couldn’t put them out. Eventually, I took two of the kittens and my mother took the third, a tabby who she named Tabby.

Bernard died four years ago today, in the fire that destroyed his house. The farm, which had been in our family for over a hundred years, has been sold. And farming, which had been the family trade since our ancestors arrived in this country over two hundred and fifty years ago, is something none of us do anymore.

You could say that Tom and Colleen are my last connection to that life, but the truth is, I never was much of a farmer, and long ago I decided to choose another path.

The real connection is this: Bernard showed extraordinary kindness and patience toward me when I was growing up, despite the fact that his work never ceased, that he never got more than four or five hours of sleep at night, that the farm which he wanted with all his heart to be a success was sinking into ruin. He always made time for me. He also showed kindness when a stray cat gave birth to a litter of kittens in his house, making their welfare his responsibility.

That is our shared legacy. Bernard’s kindness, at least on my better days, has given me a way to be in the world. Tom and Colleen remind me of that.

“Now who is spoiling them,” I say to Donna. Tom and Colleen are swarming around her feet. (And yes, for those of you who don’t have cats, two is enough to constitute a swarm.) She places two not-particularly-well-emptied tuna cans on the floor for them to clean out, then referees to make sure that Tom doesn’t raid Colleen’s after finishing his own.

As I am completing this post, I find that Tom and Colleen have crept upstairs into the guestroom-cum-office where I keep my computer, and have fallen asleep on the bed next to my chair. They always want to be near me when I’m at home. After all, they are the neediest cats in the world.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Walnut Lane Bridge, late afternoon.

Taken from one of the upper trails on the eastern side of the valley, Thursday, March 6.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Root concerns

Late afternoon, Thursday, March 6, in the woods below Blue Bell Hill park. That's Flossy, my great friend and long time neighbor. I'm not sure what she's doing. She keeps her own agenda.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Borders and intersections

That's the Borders Book Shop at the top of Chestnut Hill, at the intersection of Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike. Borders has been there since the early to mid 1990s. Before that, a succession of two Gulf stations occupied this spot since 1947. Before the Gulf stations, the Maple Lawn Inn operated from this location, and before that, the Yeakel General Store. This takes us back to the 1870s. It is more than likely that some commercial establishment stood here for most, if not all, of Chestnut Hill's three hundred year history.

One could make the case that the history of Chestnut Hill is founded on that coming together of these two roads -- Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike -- originally two Native American trails.
For three centuries these two routes have served Chestnut Hill. Even in the late twentieth century, they provide the only direct road-ways through the center of the community. During the early decades, these roads allowed Chestnut Hill function as a what might be called a "gateway village." Like Charlestown and Cambridge outside Boston, and similar fringe communities near Baltimore and New York, Chestnut Hill sat astride a main road (in this case, two of them) that ran into the city and allowed the village to serve as a commercial gateway to the metropolis beyond.
-- David R. Contosta, Suburb in the City, 1992.
Although incorporated by Philadelphia in 1854, Chestnut Hill has maintained its village like character. This is in part because of its proximity to the Wissahickon Valley, which forms its western boundary and isolates it from the rest of the city.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Chestnut Hill: spiritual; municipal

Chestnut Hill Baptist Church, intersection of Bethlehem Pike and Germantown Avenue, Sunday, 1:45 in the afternoon. The belltower and clock, dating to 1847, are later additions to this structure built in 1835.

Chestnut Hill Firehouse, West Highland Avenue, Sunday afternoon, around 2:00. According to an article in the Chestnut Hill Local, this structure, built in 1894, is Philadelphia's oldest firehouse.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Window display at Robertson's Flowers, Chestnut Hill, Sunday afternoon, March 2.

Monday, March 3, 2008


These are those things they pass Christmas trees through to cover them in plastic netting.

Sunday, around 1:30 in the afternoon, by the market off of Evergreen Avenue, near the top of Chestnut Hill.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Catfish and waffles

Valley Green Inn, Saturday afternoon, around 2:30.

In the middle of the 1800s, as the Wissahickon became a popular destination for tourists and day trippers out from the city, several road houses sprang up to cater to their desires for a meal or a drink. Only two of these buildings exist today: Wissahickon Hall, which now serves as the headquarters for the 14th police district, and Valley Green Inn, which is still a restaurant. A favorite dinner of the day was something called "catfish and waffles."

Catfish and waffles began with fried catfish and a relish. A steak of beef followed, with fried potatoes, generally a simple form of what we know now as hashed brown. Then came stewed chicken and the waffles. And after the chicken and the waffles, the coffee. Dessert was served at some places, too, but not invariably. As a veteran of many bouts with catfish and waffles said to me, You more often had ‘catfish and waffles’ with a wink than with a dessert. For my part I liked beer with ‘catfish and waffles.’ Catfish is a rich fish. It is fried in butter. That makes it richer. Good steak has streaks of fat through it, and there is butter in hashed-brown potatoes. Stewed chicken with gravy is rich too, even if the waffles sop up a good deal of the gravy. Coffee is not enough to settle such a dinner. You need a good hoppy beer. I know those liked a sour wine, a Rhine wine or the like. The trouble with such was that it took too much of it, and it came high. You wouldn't want whiskey after ‘catfish and waffles.’ Beer was the thing to settle it. It would do the trick.
-- The Wissahickon Hills, Cornelius Weygandt, 1930

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Thomas Mill Bridge

Historic Thomas Mill Bridge is the last remaining covered bridge within the city limits of Philadelphia. You will find it along Forbidden Drive, near mile post 1, about a half mile below the parking lots at Bell's Mill.

I'm having difficulty finding a precise history of the bridge, but it most likely dates to the middle of the 1800's. The structure was restored in 1938 by the WPA, and in 1999 by the City of Philadelphia.

These photos were taken late Friday Morning.