Citizen Science: at the Schuylkill Center and Beyond

By Guest contributor Anna Forrester

Seven years ago, my partner and I became the enthusiastic owners of an abandoned farm in central Pennsylvania. The property included an early 20th century bank barn, complete with a resident colony of bats. Reports of white nose syndrome and its devastating effects on the area’s bat populations had recently begun appearing in the media and – though we hadn’t had any up-close, intimate experience with our bats — we soon found ourselves working to help track the spread of the disease and the fate of our bats by participating in the Appalachian Bat Count (ABC).

Barn 1

Our barn is a maternity colony, meaning a group of female bats congregate there during the warm months to birth, wean, and raise their pups. Doing counts involves regularly laying on our backs next to a campfire at dusk counting as the bats emerge from the cracks and crevices of the barn’s siding.

Each year we follow the ABC researchers’ bat counting protocols, doing both pre-volant counts (before pups begin flying) and post-volant counts (after they’ve begun to fly out alongside their mothers). We fill out forms as we go and, at the end of the season, send our data off.

Laying there next to the fire with my husband, daughters and various other friends is soothing and peaceful – it’s a great way to end a day. We are watchful and present, full of anticipation and hope. I emphasize the word hope, here, because hope is the balloon I find myself gripping ever more tightly as my worries about the impacts on our planet of unbridled human activity and of climate change keep growing – and as our current administration turns a blind eye.

Big Brown Bat with Fishing Tackle

 

When we started the counts, I had never heard of “citizen science,” a term which has been showing up more and more lately. It has been redefined and massaged repeatedly in recent years — the 2014 Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘citizen science’ as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” I quickly realized that our counts qualified.

Citizen science is distinct from nature study, science-related advocacy, and environmental activism, in that it focuses on generating or gathering data. But it overlaps with and is integrally connected to all these other endeavors too.  Henry David Thoreau noted the bloom times of plants around Walden Pond in the 1850 in his journal – creating what today is often cited as an example of early (if unintentional) citizen science — as have similar notes taken by members of the Smiley family at the Mohonk Preserve in the Catskills. The information gathered in the name of ‘nature study’, then, have proven to be invaluable ‘data’, today, for scientists studying climate change.

There are all sorts of ways to get involved in citizen science on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center: the Toad Detour (through the end of the month), the winter and spring bird census and the annual butterfly count (July 6 this year) all offer great hands-on ways to engage in citizen science, as do the Senior Environmental Corps’ water quality testing program and various of the art installations and art programs on site.

In January, LandLab artist Leslie Birch wrote about related arts-oriented practices and organizations that she connected with through work she did at the Center: PublicLab and The Center for Artistic Activism .

And the SciStarter website, brainchild of Philadelphian and science cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, offers hundreds of projects that let lay people help practicing scientists do their work. A sort of clearinghouse for projects that are looking for help, SciStarter has something for every age, interest area, location and activity level (there is plenty of citizen science you can even do without ever leaving your home).

Technology – thanks to the internet’s hyper-connectivity and to the advent of less expensive  equipment — has exponentially increased the possibilities and potential for us to do citizen science. Data can be transferred quickly and easily from anyplace — and anyone — with a cell phone and cellular reception; the same data is easily tagged with locational information through GIS systems; and digital photographic images cost little to produce and are more easily shared then print photography. And the astronomical amount of data generated, once received, can be managed and analyzed with complex and fast computer programs.

A four part series, The Crowd and the Cloud recently aired on PBS, offering a great introduction to the field and to technology’s role in it. (You can stream all four episodes; the second one is especially topical, focusing as it does on Philadelphia’s drinking water.)

CROWD & CLOUD screenshot

If you’re interested in bats, please: track down a bat roost and start a count. Wildlife Biologist Nate Zalik, who coordinates the Appalachian Bat Count, tells me that they have data from every county in Pennsylvania except Philadelphia County. I know for a fact that we have bats here – so let’s take this as a challenge! For information on how to find a location and when to count, go here.

For me, and for many practitioners of citizen science, getting involved to help scientists understand problems and come up with solutions is very much an act of hope and of imagining better possibilities and futures. We Schuylkill Center supporters, frequenters and volunteers all love the natural world. By taking action – finding small (and large) ways to help scientists find solutions to the myriad, complex problems we are facing – we actively hold onto and nurture hope — which, I think, is one of the most important thing we can do right now.

headshot straightAbout the Author
Anna Forrester sits on the Schuylkill Center’s Art Advisory Committee. She is trained as a landscape architect, and also writes children’s books. Her picture book, BAT COUNT  (Arbordale, 2017), is a story about bats, white nose syndrome, citizen science and hope. It is available in the Schuylkill Center Gift Shop, on Amazon or through your local independent bookseller.

See, Saw, Sau… Playing with History in the Pine Grove

Guest contributor Aaron Asis, 2017 Making in Place Artist

Last month, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education launched, Making in Place, a creative collaboration featuring the work of 14 different Art in the Open artists invited to create (or update) work to be displayed within the Schuylkill Center’s art gallery and/or at choice locations throughout the Schuylkill Center’s grounds and trails.

As one of the selected artists invited to participate in Making in Place, I was invited to walk the grounds back in September to explore potential project sites and site-specific concepts. Easier said than done, but we found our spot! Seeing as my work tends to focus on access and awareness in urban environments, it came as no surprise that I immediately gravitated towards Pine Grove to develop an interactive installation celebrating the Pine Grove as an anomaly within the Center’s trail systems, entitled Sau Pines.

The Pine Grove was planted by Schuylkill Center staff and volunteers in the 1970s, where each of the pines that populate the Pine Grove was originally intended for timber harvesting but has become a treasured play area and plant and wildlife habitat. In fact, the project title Sau Pines is actually play on the word ‘Saw’ Pines, related to a visual experience in the Pine Grove and/or that the Pines were once planned to be sawed to the ground and sold as timber. Saw Pines. Saw Pines. Sau Pines.

The installation itself consists of a series of corded wraps to colorize a selection of pines within the grove — both at eye level as well as around the base of the trees, to show where they would have been cut. The resultant visual field is intended to prompt curiosity into both the historic and horticultural significance of the Pine Grove. A series of color matching dimensional timbers have also been situated within this banded zone for public use and relocation — as symbol of an avoided fate, and a dimensional timber complement to the natural material already widely used throughout the Pine Grove.

All that said, Sau Pines was created with the historically playful spirit of the Pine Groves in mind, and invites you to follow these simple steps to build your own art…!!

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Step 1: Wander through the Pine Grove and observe some of it’s unique characteristics
Step 2: Wander back to the Sau Pines area and admire other visitor created sculptures.
Step 3: Use these timbers to create your own unique Sau Pines sculpture in the Pine Grove!
Step 4: Photograph your sculpture and share it on Social Media and with Schuylkill Center Staff!
Step 5: Leave your new Sau Pines sculpture in the Pine Grove for others to appreciate!
Step 6: Enjoy the rest of the Schuylkill Center’s pristine trail system and natural vegetation.

Please visit the Pine Grove, feel free to play with the art, and enjoy all of the work created for Making in Place!!

rainbow trail

Celebrating LGBTQ Environmental Leaders

by Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy and Jenny Ryder, Communications Coordinator

There’s been plenty of discussion, and some research, about the overlap between LGBTQ people (and activists) and environmentally conscious people (and activists). So, today we’re talking especially about environmental leadership – about people from the LGBTQ community who have stood up to be leaders for climate justice, for environmental science, even the woman who gave modern American environmentalism its birth.

The people who worked to ban DDT and protect nesting birds, who helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency, who help communities find the resources to relocate before rising seas take their homes, share something with the people who fought to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association list of mental disorders, who lobbied and marched for recognition and legal protection, who stood up for pride, rather than shame.

What they share is a vision of a better world, a world where people can lead their lives safely and in community. Today, we’re celebrating a handful of LGBTQ environmental leaders. So, in honor of Pride Month, a few LGBTQ environmental leaders of note:

Ceci Pineda is a gender non-conforming organizer with the Audre Lorde Project in New York City, “a community organizing center run for and by lesbian, gay, bisexual, two spirit, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color.” On behalf of the project, they drafted a letter of solidarity with the climate justice movement, drawing attention to the less-talked-about environmental justice movement led by people of color most disproportionately affected by climate change. They are a graduate of Brown University and founder of RADIKO, which “envisions an inclusive climate justice movement led for and by those who are most impacted by climate change, rooted on a shared value system that honors life,” and provides tools for educators to run climate justice workshops specifically for communities of queer and trans people of color living on the frontlines of climate violence.

Source: http://gchd.us/primary-care-clinic/

Source: http://gchd.us/primary-care-clinic/

In Flint, Michigan, a LGBTQ organizaiton, Wellness AIDS Services, is responding to the water crisis that has left residents with no clean drinking water for the last three years by offering a safe place for people to pick up clean bottled water. CEO Stevi Atkins, who runs the only HIV center in the county, works with many LGBTQ people with compromised immune systems and wanted to give the queer community barrier-free access to drinking water. Nayyirah Shariff , director of Flint Rising, says being LGBTQ is so stigmatized in Flint that there is a need for a safe space where residents can pick up clean water. Many transgender residents feel vulnerable or targeted when asked to show ID (oftentimes, one’s gender presentation doesn’t match the marker on their driver’s license), answer the door, or enter churches, out of which most crisis-response water distribution centers are running. Wellness AIDS is addressing environmental injustice head-on in one of the most marginalized cities in the country by securing not only responding to basic health and wellness, but making safe space amid crisis to do so. They handed out 1,000 cases of water last year.

From FUTURE FEMINISM, a 2014 exhibition by ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady and Sierra Casady (pulled from ANHONI’s Facebook page)

From FUTURE FEMINISM, a 2014 exhibition by ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady and Sierra Casady (pulled from ANHONI’s Facebook page)

From FUTURE FEMINISM, a 2014 exhibition by ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady and Sierra Casady (pulled from ANHONI’s Facebook page)

Same as above

In November 2016, transgender musician and artist Anhoni Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons fame) released “4 Degrees,” a single off her debut solo album, Hopelessness,  on the day before the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in Paris. The title of the track references a study that revealed the consequences of a predicted 4C degree global temperature increase by the end of the century. In a Facebook post accompanying the release, she stated: “In solidarity with the climate conference in Paris, giving myself a good hard look, not my aspirations but my behaviors, revealing my insidious complicity. It’s a whole new world. Let’s be brave and tell the truth as much as we can.”

Paul Gestos, National Coodinator for People’s Climate Movement, and co-author of Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in your Community is a queer New York-based climate activist. Gestos is a graduate of Rutgers University, and teaches Community Organizing at the Columbia University School of Social Work. He was one of the folks behind  both the People’s Climate March on the eve of the UN Climate Summit in 2014 and the April 29th March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice in DC. Follow him on Twitter here.

Source: Google images, Alfred Eisenstaedt

Source: Google images, Alfred Eisenstaedt

Lastly, this post couldn’t go without a shout-out to the marine biologist who kickstarted the modern environmental movement, Rachel Carson, with her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring in 1962. Although she was never officially “out,” much of the critical backlash she got from speaking her truth called her a “spinster”– a subtle derogatory way of insinuating homosexuality. With so many attacks from the pesticide industry, among others following her controversial publication, it’s no wonder she stayed closeted. Shortly before her death of breast cancer, Carson and her longtime friend and neighbor, Dorothy Freeman, destroyed hundreds of letters between them. They had an intimate 11-year relationship, and the remaining correspondence paints a picture of their private lives in a book released by Freeman in 1996, Always, Rachel. Although Dorothy Freeman was married, these letters have led us to conclude that the mother of the modern American environmental movement was probably gay.

The stigma of being queer necessitates an ability to nourish a safe and loving environment in social, home, and work spaces. It’s no wonder why so many LGBTQ people have extended this understanding and way of life to environmental activism, where the goal is to create safe and sustainable spaces for all forms of life. Sustainability is who we are, to survive– not a whole separate thing.

Schuylkill Center’s Statement on the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

SCEE visitors added their climate stories at 2016's Naturepalooza Earth Day Festival.

SCEE visitors added their climate stories at 2016’s Naturepalooza Earth Day Festival.

A big environmental shoe dropped yesterday when President Trump announced, not unexpectedly, his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.   

The Schuylkill Center, along with not only the global environmental community but also, surprisingly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, oil giant ExxonMobil, the World Coal Association, Pope Francis, Goldman Sachs, Apple, GE, Weather.com, and the majority of American people,  expresses our disappointment in this decision.

We also note our commitment not only to fact-based climate change education, but to high-quality science education so children mature into adults who understand, and can apply, the scientific process.

As a science education facility, we understand and teach about the avalanche of measurable data like carbon dioxide concentrations already approaching 410 parts per million—from the pre-Industrial Revolution level of only 280, a 46% increase in 200 years.  Also observable: each year is incrementally warmer than the one before, glaciers are measurably receding worldwide, polar ice is measurably thinning, sea levels are measurably rising, coral reefs are measurably bleaching and dying, spring is measurably arriving earlier each year, and species are observably disappearing from pristine habitats as weather changes.

We firmly believe in continuing the transition to a renewable, sustainable future, and will strive to share that vision with the thousands of people, especially young students, who participate in our programming.

As pioneering science fiction writer H. G. Wells noted presciently more than a century ago in his science writing, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

We believe in leveraging the power of education to avoid the climate catastrophe that the Paris Climate Accord was hoping to sidestep.

As a member, friend, and supporter, we trust you will continue to look to us for the good science and detailed knowledge you need to make decisions about the signature environmental issue of our time.

 

WE THE WEEDS LandLab sculpture

Weaving Good and Bad

IMG_1982-925x1387By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & PR Intern

When you think of weeds, you probably think of unwanted, unsightly plants invading and stealing vital nutrients from your lawn or garden. While this may be true for some species, further thought about weeds brings up interesting questions. What is it about a plant that categorizes it as being invasive, and could these pesky plants be of any benefit?

Artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya S. Levy explored ideas such as this at the Schuylkill Center as part of their LandLab Residency, an environmental art residency program that integrates art, ecological restoration, and public engagement in conjunction with a joint project with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA).

DSC_0650-925x612
Pomerantz, an artist, and Levy, a botanist, work together in their botanical arts initiative WE THE WEEDS, which aims to expand knowledge of wild plants in Philadelphia. Their installation at the Schuylkill Center, titled Interwoven, is a sculpture made from invasive vines that explores the interwoven histories of humans and plants, and their mutual global migrations.

The duo began this project by investigating the flora on Schuylkill Center property. Botanical surveys in the spring and early summer resulted in a list of common plants, including natives like the Mayapple and Black Cohosh, and non-natives like Wineberry and Oriental Bittersweet.

Observation of these plants provided an interesting historical snapshot. While the re-establishment of many native species spoke of a renewed interest in being responsible stewards of the land, the presence the invasive species told of habitat fragmentation, pollution, and the material desires of humankind.

While they learned a lot during their exploration, more questions were raised. How long had the plants been there? Where did they come from? How and with whom did they travel? What ecological roles do they play on this land, and what did the flora of the property look like in other times?

Interwoven was originally woven on two large hand-built looms, using dead, invasive vines harvested from the Schuylkill Center to create the base. During the growing season, the piece is overwhelmed and covered by newly growing invasive vines, constantly changing in appearance depending on the time of year, weather, and hardiness of live, invasive vines in the surrounding area. Interwoven provided a function of removing some invasive material at the Schuylkill Center, and also served as a platform to involve visitors with hands on experiences, opening up dialogue and raising questions in the debate over invasive plants.

In conjunction with this installation, a number of coordinating programs were created, including a vine identification and harvesting workshop, facilitated weaving sessions, summer camp and afterschool programs, and even a botanical cocktail hour. Visitors at the Schuylkill Center were also welcomed to participate in the weaving of Interwoven at stations along the trails. Continue reading

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Nature: Fostering children’s social interactions

Children Need NatureBy Rachel Baltuch, Nature Preschool Teacher

Children Need Nature is a monthly blog column from our nature preschool program. Read more posts here.

While researching the effects of unstructured play time in nature for young children, I discovered that the benefits are vast and encompass most aspects of children’s development. Play time in nature tends to affect children’s cognitive development, which includes intellectual learning, problem solving skills, and creative inquiry, and can lead to increased concentration, greater attention capacities and higher academic performance.[1]  These children also demonstrate “more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often.[2]

Additionally, the benefits of free play time in nature include reduced stress and symptom relief for some children with Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.[3] Lastly, unstructured free time in nature can improve children’s social skills, ranging from increasing children’s positive feeling towards one another, decreasing the amount of bullying and violence between children, increasing children’s imagination and creativity, and increasing their communication and language skills.[4] Continue reading

Rain Yard by Stacy Levy at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Maintenance as Art

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy

SCEE6891Every week or so one of us (usually our Director of Environmental Art or one of our art interns) heads out to Rain Yard, an interactive environmental art installation by Stacy Levy, for a regular check up. Rain Yard is designed to be education, art, and intervention. The steel sculpture, painted a rich blue-purple, collects stormwater runoff from our Visitor Center roof, slowing the movement of nearly 100,000 gallons of water a year. Some of the water flows through a rain garden, over which visitors walk, and some goes into a cistern from which it is pumped through the sculpture by visors of all ages.  

That’s where these regular cleaning visits come in. The sculpture allows water to pool and drain through various hoses. The little openings for the drainage hoses seem to invite children to fill them – with sticks, pebbles, and other treasures found around Rain Yard. When it’s not curious visitors, the wind is carrying leaves and grasses into these openings. The result is that we regularly have to go out and clean them, making sure that water will continue to flow through the artwork. In the three and a half years since Rain Yard was installed we’ve also had to repaint the yellow strip thin the basin representing asphalt; a lesson in maintenance indeed.

Continue reading

Making in Place work by Oki Fukunaga

Making in Place: Art in the Open exhibition

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy and Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & PR Intern

This summer 14 artists will extend the Schuylkill Center’s art gallery onto our trails, with art that explores concepts in placemaking, reused materials, and natural-unnatural sound. These works were forged as part of Art in the Open, a public art event which brings art-making into public, along Schuylkill Banks in May. Dozens of artists participate in the biannual Art in the Open event and afterward, each brings their work to a gallery or art site around the City of Philadelphia, reinventing their artwork in a new context and drawing on their experience in Art in the Open.

This summer, the we are pleased to be hosting 14 of the Art in the Open 2016 artists, offering them the opportunity to bring their work into a natural context and adapt their work to our spaces. We’ll be featuring Aaron Asis, Jane Carver, Oki Fukunaga, Mary Olin Geiger, Elizabeth Hoy, Cayla Lockwood, C. Pazia Mannella, Heather McMordie, Angela McQuillan, Sarah Peoples, Leah Reynolds, Marian (Stasiorowski) Howard, and Katie VanVlient and Samuel Cusumano. An opening reception for Making in Place will be held on May 24th at 6 pm.

At the opening, artists will talk about their property and Director of Environmental Art Christina Catanese will lead a guided walk to explore the outdoor installations, ending with a performance developed by experimental accordion and vocal performer Jane Carver.

The show’s title, Making in Place, elegantly evokes one of the central components of Art in the Open: art that responds to and is part of the place where it is made. In this case, artists adapt their work and create new works to respond to the unique feel of the place where it is both created and installed. Poet Cayla Lockwood writes her poetry in reused scrap fabric woven into structures – both natural and built – to embed her words with the landscape. Sound and sculpture artists Katie VanVlient and Samuel Cusumano, of DataGarden, bring their “biodata sonification” device, which collects real-time data from plants and translates it into sound and graphic printouts as the plants respond to external stimuli. Continue reading

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Hollow Perspective

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

Katie Murken Debtors Inheritance imagesPerched on tree stumps, floating on water, hidden in the reeds – artist Katie Murken’s painted gourds were scattered across the  land at the Schuylkill Center in 2007. Debtor’s Inheritance was created as part of Green Machine, a multi-media exhibition on our grounds. The project was formed in collaboration with P’unk Ave, a Philadelphia based design studio with a focus on non-profit organizations, that helped Murken create her site specific and interactive work at the Schuylkill Center.

Murken described the Schuylkill Center as a place that exemplifies habitat that was once native to this region, but as a space that is still infringed upon by surrounding roadways, urban dwellings, and commercial and industrial spaces of the city. “The air, even, that pervades its empty spaces and is consumed by its organisms is manufactured by the city. In symbiosis, the fumes that we exhale are drawn in by this land.” Murken goes on to say the Schuylkill Center is visited by city dwellers as a familiar, but distant friend.

Debtor’s Inheritance aimed to visualize our conflicting relationship to the natural world. It invited viewers to consider the inverse of this scenario— a vast, wild and uninhabited landscape. Murken described Wind Dance Pond at the Schuylkill Center as being hugged by the hillsides, appearing as a bowl of water within a bowl of land. Murken took inspiration from these configurations and extrapolated and rescaled the form of the bowl. The artist used dried and hollowed gourds to convey this idea; the gourds were cut, shaped, painted, and piled together to create an installation to float on the surface of Wind Dance Pond.

Gourds also were scattered around the pond and placed throughout the Schuylkill Center, such as lining paths, set between tree limbs, and dispersed in streams. During the exhibition, visitors exploring the grounds of the Center encountered a series of stations demarcated by site-specific arrangements of the gourds. At each station, the gourds prompted participants to use their cellphones to initiate a series of narrative text-messages, a system setup with the help of P’unk Ave. The messages layered local history and ecology with residual dialogue from project collaborators.

Debtor’s Inheritance created a portrait of the Schuylkill Center as a living site that embodied the struggle between progress and preservation. As opposed to seeing the natural world as it stands today, Debtor’s Inheritance invited visitors at the Schuylkill Center to reverse that perspective, and imagine the landscape as it was centuries ago – vast and uninhabited.

Steve Goin and Andrew Kirkpatrick remove landscaping fabric

Introducing Fox Glen: a new chapter in land stewardship

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Where our Grey Fox Loop and Wind Dance Pond Trail meet, just uphill from our beloved 19th-century springhouse and its pond, is a section of our forest that has been overrun with invasive plants. But on May 20 we’re turning it around, planting over 200 new trees and shrubs to stabilize the land and reforest the area. We’re calling it Fox Glen.

I hope you’ll transform it with us. Continue reading