Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ahhhh! -- new sneakers

I have no idea what BOWERMANSERIES means, but I am glad to finally get some fresh running shoes.

The Broad Street Run is this Sunday, and should you be participating too, my bib number is 13032.

Afterwards, we're heading to the General Lafayette Inn for chicken wings and beer -- say around 1:00 P.M. So if you're in the neighborhood, please stop by. (I'll be the balding, somewhat red-complected, middle-aged guy wearing a Broad Street Run t-shirt.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Yellow flag

Blurry yellow flag on Walnut Lane Golf Course.Walnut Lane Golf Course, early Sunday evening.

Monday, April 28, 2008

It's all about the hummingbirds

Planting columbine.Although I've no photo to prove it, we finally saw our first hummingbird this morning (Sunday) hitting the feeder in one of the front porch flower boxes. I read somewhere that the spring migration of ruby throated hummingbirds coincides with the blooming of columbine, so this afternoon we planted this fellow by the sidewalk in front of the house. (Thanks, Donna, for taking the photographs.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rinker's Rock

Mom Rinker's Rock and Toleration Statue.
During [Edgar Allen] Poe's years in Philadelphia, 1839-1844, he often visited the Wissahickon. He advises those who would see the best of the creek to go out the Ridge Road to Roxborough, and, "taking the second lane beyond the sixth milestone, to follow this lane to its terminus." This route would bring him down to the creek almost opposite the Monastery. It was just below here, on Mom Rinker's rock, he saw the elk, that he wrote about in "Morning on the Wissahiccon," in The Opal for 1844.
-- The Wissahickon Hills, Cornelius Weygandt, 1930

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Blue Stone Bridge

Blue Stone BridgeBuilt in 1896, the Blue Stone Bridge, and before that, an earlier structure which it replaced, was the only way to cross the Wissahickon when traveling to and from Germantown and Roxborough. When conditions were bad -- think rain and mud, snow and ice -- it was not an easy journey. One had to travel up or down the steep trail through the gorge on the Roxborough side. In 1908 that changed with the opening of the Walnut Lane Bridge. Suddenly a day's journey became a journey of a minute or two.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Not hummingbirds

Pine cones, Blue Bell Hill Meadow.

The hummingbirds are Back. I haven't seen them, but my next door neighbors, who started putting out feeders a few years ago after seeing the success I was having with mine, have. They were all excited when I got home tonight to tell me. I sat out on the front porch with them for a while and waited, watching. Then the noise and motion on Johnson Street became too much for me, and I retreated to the backyard.

I had a beer and read my book and looked up from time to time to see if anyone was hitting the feeders. No hummingbirds, but lots of cardinals and lots of sparrows were coming in. It was the first evening since last fall that I sat out back like this. The cardinals were singing, other birds were singing. Further off dogs were barking, car doors were slamming, voices of people coming and going -- I didn't mind, their noise making the seclusion of the backyard all the more precious.

No hummingbirds tonight, but that's okay. Good to know they're back. Good to sit in the backyard again. And good to realize that it is one of my favorite places to be.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Maple leaves

Young maple leaf, Blue Bell Hill Meadow, Saturday, April 19.

My first home on Naomi Street had a giant maple tree growing up through the middle of the back deck. (A hole had been cut out to accommodate it.) From the window in the back bedroom I could watch the buds swell in late March, and then over the course of a few days in mid April, open into leaves. I used to wonder when, exactly, does a bud stop being a bud and become a leaf?

But to ask that question was missing the point. "Bud" and "leaf" are nouns, and that tree at that time of the year was all verb.

The movement of spring is never more evident than right now, late April. Pass through the Wissahickon in the morning, and then take the same route home in the afternoon, and you will see growth in just those few hours. The weeds and flowers that line the trails will be taller against the measure of your leg or the height of your bicycle wheel. The leaves overhead will have thickened. The woods seem deeper. It's almost scary.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Pink blossoms, Blue Bell Hill meadow.Pink blossoms, Blue Bell Hill Meadow, Saturday afternoon.

Last night I brought four cups of water to a boil on the stove, and then stirred in a cup of sugar. A ritual I haven't performed since last September. The hummingbirds will be back sometime in the next few days. I'll be ready.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Today it matters

Obama signs in front yards.I first voted in a Pennsylvania Democratic primary in the spring of 1980. It was, in fact, the first time I ever voted. As I recall, I cast my vote for Ted Kennedy, who was challenging then President Jimmy Carter. That’s not the choice I would make today. But my vote didn’t matter anyway. By the time the Pennsylvania primary rolled around the contest had already been decided.

Since then, in the nearly thirty years that have followed, I’ve never missed an opportunity to vote in the primary. And since then, it’s never really mattered. The contests are always decided by the time they get to Pennsylvania. Except this year. Except today.

Today I get to cast my vote in a contest that very much does matter. As anyone who has paid any attention to the news in the last six weeks knows, the outcome of today’s vote in Pennsylvania could profoundly affect the race for the Democratic nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It could even, for all intents and purposes, decide it.

My neighborhood in the northwest section of Philadelphia is prime country for the senator from Illinois. Obama signs are as prevalent in front yards as daffodils and dandelions.

Down in west Philly, at the university where I work, the students have been campaigning mostly for Obama as well. (Though Hillary Clinton has her contingent of ardent supporters too.)

It is great to see so much enthusiasm for the election – and how cool that it comes hand-in-hand with the onset of spring. But what is most encouraging to me is the energy and dedication of these kids who were not even born yet when I first got to vote. I have a lot of faith in their generation. They are far more open-minded, and accepting of differences than any of the generations that preceded them. And they are willing to step up and take charge. I think it bodes well for the future of this country.

Monday, April 21, 2008

That haze of green

Tulip Poplars, coming into their leaves.Tulip poplars, near Rinker's Rock, Saturday afternoon. A sharp contrast from January.
Tulip poplars in winter.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A day off

That's Tom. He's fat. I know.

He and I are going fishing tomorrow, so I won't be posting again until Monday.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ten Box Shelter

It's known as Ten Box Shelter. Built by the WPA in 1940, it served as the location of the last of a line of ten locked phone boxes used by park guards.

In August of 1986, two of my best friends from high school, Chris Brown and Brian Bowers, visited me in Philadelphia. I was living in the Art Museum area then, but had already fallen in love with the Wissahickon. I thought it would be a great idea for us to take the R8 train line all the way out to Chestnut Hill, hike the mile or so to the northern most entrance to the park, and then walk the ten or twelve miles back to my apartment.

It was a typical day in August for Pennsylvania, hot and humid, cranking up to the inevitable climax, a horrendous thunderstorm, which hit us exactly as we rounded the bend toward Ten Box Shelter. We dove inside to wait it out. As soon as we got inside the rain came down in torrents. Gusts of wind bent the surrounding trees. At the height of it all we couldn't see more than fifteen or twenty feet beyond the shelter. Then it all broke as suddenly as it had started. The sun was out. Birds sang. We kept going.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Three bridges, late afternoon

Henry Avenue Bridge, Hermit Lane Bridge, Bicycle Path Bridge.The railing on the right belongs to the bicycle path bridge, built in the early 1980s, the small stone bridge in the of middle of the photo is Hermit's Lane, built in 1794, and the big fellow overarching it all is the Henry Avenue Bridge, completed in 1931. Gotta love those layers of history.

If you've ever seen the John Travolta film Blow Out, these bridges might look familiar to you. Some, or all of them, appear near the beginning. I haven't seen the film in years, nor do I intend to see it again. I remember it being filled with gratuitous violence, bordering on misogyny.

But hey, the bridges are still cool.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Not a charm bracelet

Bleeding hearts, Blue Bell Hill.Bleeding hearts, rather. The backyard, Tuesday evening, April 15, a little after six.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

White blossoms

White blossoms, RittenhouseTown, Wednesday evening.

Monday, April 14, 2008

My blue bell theory

Blue Bells at RittenhouseTown.Blue bells -- yes, blue bells -- Historic RittenhouseTown, Wednesday evening.

Blue bells we called them on the farm were I grew up in York County, Pennsylvania, and blue bells they were called by the old timers in Blue Bell Hill when I first moved here fifteen years ago. A botanist would tell you no, that they are grape hyacinths, and I have neighbors who grow true blue bells as a show of pride for their neighborhood. But my theory is that these are the blue bells for which Blue Bell Hill was named.

Blue Bell Hill has been known by that name since at least 1877. A record exists somewhere showing that the local church then was called Blue Bell Hill Mission. But why that name? Well, the hill leading up from Historic RittenhouseTown to the neighborhood today is covered with thick woods, but not too long ago it was pasture. Clem Rittenhouse, who used to stop by the visitor center at RittenhouseTown when I was a volunteer there in the early 1990s remembered when it was pasture. His memories would have gone back to at least the 1920s, and I have seen old photographs from well before then showing a bare hill.

On the farm where I grew up the blue bells loved exposed hillsides, especially if they got a lot of sun. In April they would turn the hill in the lower pasture on our farm deep blue. As they did on the sun drenched hills of neighboring farms.

I imagine the hill that leads up from RittenhouseTown a hundred years ago painted blue in April -- the conditions would have been perfect -- and travelers along Lincoln Drive and Rittenhouse Street remarking on that sight. Surely it would become know as Blue Bell Hill.

Thanks to Wayfaring Wanderer, whose post inspired this post.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Bakehouse, Historic RittenhouseTown.The old bakehouse at Historic RittenhouseTown. Built, I believe, in the early 1700s.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Historic RittenhouseTown, spring evening

Historic RittenhouseTown. Historic RittenhouseTown, located along Lincoln Drive between Rittenhouse Street and Wissahickon Avenue, is the site of America’s first paper mill. It was the perfect place when William Rittenhouse and his family established their business in 1690 – the Monoshone Creek, also known as Paper Mill Run, supplied the power to run the mill, and the proximity to Germantown meant that there would be an ample supply of cast off linens, the raw material for making paper back then. Over the next century and a half, the Wissahickon Valley became a major center of industry, with mills of many types drawing their energy from the Wissahickon, Monoshone and Cresheim Creeks. Many of the older homes in my neighborhood, Blue Bell Hill, housed workers who made their living in the valley.

When I first moved to Blue Bell Hill -- fifteen years ago this April 29 -- I lived in a tiny house on Naomi Street, and RittenhouseTown was just a short walk down the hill through the woods. I soon became a volunteer tour guide for the site. Getting a sense of the area’s history helped me to feel more of a connection to my new community. Back then there were many families who had been in Blue Bell Hill for generations, including Rittenhouses. Clem Rittenhouse, in his eighties and a direct descendent of William, used to come down to the Visitor Center on Saturday afternoons and spend a few hours talking to the volunteers and the visitors. He had many memories and was a natural story teller, and having him there reminded us that history is, after all, always a story about people.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Blossoms and benches, and vice versa

Historic RittenhouseTown, Wednesday evening, around 6:30.

These benches are surely not more than five or ten years old. But most of the man made structures here are much, much older. Spring in RittenhouseTown is a mixture of the very new with the very old.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bike trail

Bike trail, lower Wissahickon Park.I decided to walk the two and a half miles from the Transfer Center to my home this evening, taking the bike trail along the Wissahickon Creek. Spring has definitely established itself in the park. A green bloom is growing over everything, from the crowns of the trees to the depths of the creek banks.
Bike trail, Wissahickon Park, near Henry Avenue Bridge.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Butterfly bushes are aptly named

Butterfly on butterfly bush.I'm cheating today. As you've probably guessed, these photos were not taken in Philadelphia in April. Instead, they were taken last August in front of my house.

I've been busy lately, but in the next day or two I'll be back to publishing current photos.
Butterfly and house.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dewee's Rock

Dewee's RockDewee's Rock, just off of Germantown Avenue where it crosses the Wissahickon.
In 1710 a group of local men, all with German or Dutch surnames, established the Whitemarsh Reformed Church in Chestnut Hill. It met in the two-story house of mill owner William Dewees, a structure (now demolished) that stood on Germantown Avenue opposite the present Chestnut Hill College grounds. The congregation broke apart, however, following Dewees's death in 1745.
-- David R. Contosta, Suburb in the City
A number of mills operated in this area. Below, probably the remains of an old mill race, built to better manage the flow of water that powered the mill's wheel.
Mill race.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Ground level

The bicycle path bridge at ground level, early morning, February 4. That's Lincoln Drive with the cars whizzing by. And below, both the bicycle path bridge and the Henry Avenue Bridge, a few minutes later on the same drizzly morning.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The morning commute

February 4, a miserable and wet Monday morning, around 8:00 a.m. Not counting a very short stint as an English teacher in the Philadelphia Public Schools, it had been a year and a day since I'd left my previous employer. My prospects for finding a job soon did not seem good. I walked out to the middle of the Henry Avenue Bridge and took first the above photo of the bicycle path where it crosses the Wissahickon, and then the one below, Lincoln Drive already becoming crowded with the early morning rush hour. The first made me nostalgic for the days when I worked in Center City, and rode my bike to the office. The second just reminded me that everyone else in the world had a job to go to.

How quickly things change. Tomorrow it will be four weeks, nearly a month, since I started my new job. I've already ridden my bike into work once, and will do so regularly once my training for, and running of the Broad Street Run is over. Which is another story.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Wind in the Willows

I am going to visit my mother today, and thinking of her led me to think of this piece, which I wrote last year for another weblog.

The first book to excite my imagination in a lasting and profound way was Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows. I was three or four when it first came into my hands, too young to read it myself, and too young to have it read to me, its language and themes pitched beyond my understanding. But I still loved having it in my possession. All of my other books were thin, with bright colorful pictures and simple declarative sentences. The Wind in the Willows was thick and heavy. The sentences were dense, the print tiny. I even loved the smell of it – dusty, like the attic of my grandmother’s farmhouse, which my mother and I had moved to when I was two years old. That meant to my child’s imagination that it was old, and like the artifacts I would explore when I snuck into the attic, mysterious and of a nature I couldn’t completely comprehend.

What intrigued me most about the book were the Arthur Rackham illustrations. Unlike the smiling, uncomplicated animals in my other books, these creatures were dark, even morose, with furrowed brows and hunched shoulders. Even when they were smiling, or engaged in some enjoyable activity, such as unpacking a picnic basket, there was a wistfulness in their expressions. In the background, gnarled trees appeared to be coming to life, and to lean in close to each other in secret conversation. I didn’t know the word subtext then, but I understood that under the surface lurked hidden meaning.

My mother read The Wind in the Willows to me over a succession of summer nights when I was five or six. This was before I went to school, so my scope and understanding of the world was gathered from my explorations of the farm – adventures that took me along the deep and winding banks of the Davidsburg Run which ran the length of the property, or to secret hideaways in hay mows, or the woods that crowded the margins of fields. The landscapes encountered by the characters in the book were similar in their strangeness and in the wonder they inspired, and soon the two worlds – the fictional one of the story and the real one of the farm – began to merge in my imagination, informing each other.

I felt that I knew the characters long before my mother began to read the book to me. For a year or two I had been turning through the pages and studying the illustrations. The well-fed, twinkley-eyed Rat reminded me of my Uncle Ed, good natured and mischievous. Toad looked like an old rascal from the neighborhood who used to buy eggs from my grandmother, loud, braggadocios, and not to be entirely trusted. And Mole, with his dark and foreign looks, and disheveled, out-of-place clothing, reminded me of myself – accepted and loved by the others, but always a little at odds with his surroundings.

My mother, a schoolteacher, read wonderfully out loud. She read slowly and deliberately, loving the language of the book. Early on in the first chapter, Mole decides to abandon his spring-cleaning in favor of adventure, and scrambles from his underground home.
So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last pop! His snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the grass of a great meadow.
“I just love those words,” my mother said. “Listen to them,” and she read the passage again.

At twelve chapters and 190 pages, The Wind in the Willows was not to be rushed, and in my memory the reading of it, every night before bed, required the better part of that summer’s evenings. In my recollection, the main plot of the novel, which involves the adventures of the nefarious Toad, does not assert itself until well along in the book. The first chapters take their time establishing setting and letting the reader get to know the characters. Even after the plot takes off, there are wonderful moments of stillness where the main narrative is, for a time, suspended, and the reader feels as though he can recline with the characters and wonder at the world around them and him.

In the years that followed, my mother read The Wind in the Willows to me again once or twice, and then I was old enough to read it to myself. When I left the farm to go to college in Philadelphia, I took the book with me, and read it in its entirety for a final time when I was eighteen or nineteen. I thought that I would discover new meanings that had eluded me when I was younger. I was right. There was, for example, in rhetorical asides during the Toad adventures, a subversive subtext to the goings on, a critique of modern culture and institutional authority that appealed to my young man’s sensibilities.

In the twenty plus years since then, I have picked the book up from time to time to read a passage or even a whole chapter. But I have not read it from beginning to end. This year I will read it again from cover to cover.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Heading out

The trail back to Summit Avenue, Saturday afternoon.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


If their relationship lasts as long as the scar they've put into the trunk of this beech they'll be doing well.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


The skeleton of a leaf, resting on white fungus, Saturday aftern0on, just down from Summit Avenue.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Green lanterns

Not really green lanterns -- spore pods, rather, shooting up from a clump of moss. Saturday afternoon, heading up the path towards Summit Avenue, west side of the Wissahickon.