Foraged Flavor: Eat Your Weeds!

Visit almost any open space in Roxborough or Manayunk, and you’ll find a surprising cornucopia of wonderful taste sensations: dandelions and daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace and curly dock. That’s right, these are all weeds that simply taste great, and are free for the taking.

Wild plant forager Tama Matsuoka Wong has written a gorgeous cookbook, Foraged Flavor, featuring 88 recipes for the plants named above, and more. Recipes like chocolate-dipped wild spearmint leaves. Sumac and fig tart. Chilled mango soup with sweet spruce tips. Wild mustard greens and chorizo wild rice. Sound yummy? You bet.

Tama, a New Jersey resident and old friend of the Schuylkill Center, will take center stage in our next Thursday Night Live! series, set for July 9 at 7:00 p.m. The evening is free and takes place on Zoom; you can register on our website.

Many high-end restaurants offer foraged food sensations on their menu

And foraging is catching on big these days.  Tama supplies foraged plants to many, like Daniel in New York City, the acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant whose chef de cuisine, Eddy Leroux, co-wrote the book with Tama. I walked into Whole Foods recently, and cracked up when I saw dandelion leaves on sale for a surprising high price. Dandelions? For sale? Really?

But dandelions are edible in so many ways, and were actually brought to the New World from European settlers wishing to bring greens with them. You can find green dandelion leaves deep into December, and find them again as early as February. Rich in vitamins, these greens saved many winter-starved colonial settlers. In fact, its long scientific name translates roughly as “the official cure for everything.” Those settlers planted it outside the kitchen door, where the plant of course escaped, and is now the bane of most suburban lawn owners and the featured pest in too many lawn chemical commercials.

Not only are its leaves edible. The sauteed buds are really tasty, the taproot can be roasted for coffee, and its flowers have been turned into wine. Tama of course kicks it up a notch or two: she creates a dandelion flower tempura with savory dipping sauce. Whoa.

What sets Tama’s book and philosophy apart from so many other similar books is that the previous ones would exhort you to boil the tough weedy leaves of many plants with like three changes of water, turning them into mush. Or fry them with bacon and butter– where everything tastes good, even cardboard.

Tama’s search is for wild plants that are not just edible, but taste great.

In her book, she recalls hauling garbage bags filled with stinging nettles– stinging nettles! The bane of so many hikers as when you rub up against it wearing shorts, your legs start burning right away!– onto a NYC subway from her Jersey home, toting them to Restaurant Daniel where “Eddy immediately pounded on the nettles, turning them into a foam to partner with a hazelnut-encrusted scallop dish.”

Tama even eats devil’s walking stick, one of the most hated plants at the Schuylkill Center (we don’t hate many plants, not even poison ivy, but devil’s walking stick is hard on us). Not native to the America’s, this invasive fast-growing shrub sprouts long skinny trunks loaded with thorns, lending the plant its name. Heck, even its giant leaves are covered in thorns– if Klingons had vegetables, this would be them. But it crowds out native plants, and grows like a monoculture of one plant, which Tama notes are “clonal stands.”

In its native Japan, where it is better known as the angelica tree (Aralia elata), its buds are treasured as a delicacy called tara no me. So Tama forages for the buds, picking them at the exact right time of year, turning them into such treasures as tempura-fried Aralia buds and just-poached Aralia with mustard vinaigrette.

Intrigued? We’d love to introduce you to the charismatic Tama, one of the most dynamic people you’ll ever meet– just spending an hour with her is upbeat balm for the pandemic soul. Go to our website, look for the link, and join us on Thursday evening. When our gift shop reopens, which we pray is soon, Foraged Flavor is for sale; of course, you can purchase it online.

After the event, you’ll never buy dandelions at Whole Foods again. You’ll forage for them along Germany Hill and the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Reserve Park. And you’ll stop spraying your weeds– you’ll harvest them instead.

The Schuylkill Center’s Thursday Night Live! series includes additional events into the summer. Coming topics include the surprising lives of moths, climate change in Philadelphia, and the Green New Deal.

Love to have you join us.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Help us Restore our Damaged Pine Grove

P3 - Pine Grove_2Pine Grove is easily one of our most beloved features, kids climbing in its many branches, parents inhaling the calming scent, everyone grateful for its cooling shade. But the grove was devastated in early June from a derecho– a supercell thunderstorm– that slammed into the region, knocking down trees and branches everywhere, causing massive power outages, and killing several people. 

The storm sliced through Pine Grove like a knife cutting butter, a straight-line of trunks tumbling to the ground, more than 20 trunks snapping off and piled unceremoniously on the ground– and each other.

We closed our trails for a week to wrestle with downed trees and dangerous branches overhanging our trails. While our trails are now reopened, Pine Grove remains closed even now– our staff needs to pull down lots of hanging branches before we allow you back in.

Which is where you come in. We are starting a fund to restore the grove, as we need to both remove branches and trunks while planting new trees in the canopy gaps now present there. Please go online to donate to the grove’s restoration; please help us bring back this unique feature of our campus.

About that storm: a derecho is a line of intense, widespread, and fast-moving windstorms, often thunderstorms, that moves a great distance. This one rolled 250 miles to the Jersey shore, where a gust was clocked at 92 mph, hurricane force. From the Spanish for “straight ahead,” derechos are associated with warm weather– they need heat energy for fuel. While no one storm event can be pinned on climate change, a warming climate increases the chances for large storm events. What we saw that day was weird, excessive, and points to large amounts of heat in the atmosphere in only early June. For me, that derecho was spawned by climate change, a stark reminder that, with power outages, people killed, and houses, cars, and trees damaged, the price tag for ignoring the climate crisis is steep, and rising. We will continue this conversation in our programming, of course.

And I hope you will join me in donating to the Pine Grove Fund.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Schuylkill Center response to COVID-19 coronavirus situation

Photo Credit: Jerome Eno

Photo Credit: Jerome Eno

While the Visitor Center remains closed, awaiting that time when Philadelphia becomes green in state and city plans, the gates to our main parking lot are now open Monday-Friday, 9-5. Visitors may now drive into our main parking lot, and while you can walk our trails, we have no restroom facilities available for you. (Our main driveway remains closed on the weekends, and visitors can then park on the Hagy’s Mill Road parking lot and walk into our trails.) 

All on-site public programming is suspended until further notice, with the exception of Camp Schuylkill, which runs June 29 through August 21. To learn more about summer camp, as there still are spaces available, please click here.

We have several online opportunities for you to learn more about nature and the environment from our staff:

  • Thursday Night Live (adults): free weekly events/programs presented by Schuylkill Center staff with special guests. Topics of past events have included native plants, nature trivia and urban wildlife.
  • Virtual Schuylkill Saturdays (families): Saturday mornings at 10:30, families can join us on FaceBook Live and dive into a different topic followed by a nature exploration activity you can continue at home.
  • Ask-A-Naturalist (all ages): Mondays at 5:00, our environmental educator answers questions posed by you on Facebook Live. Past subjects have included poison ivy, spotted lanternflies and weird weather.

The Wildlife Clinic is currently accepting a limited number of new patients. If you have found a wild animal in distress, please call the Clinic’s 24-Hour Wildlife Hotline at 215-482-7300 option 2. If you have found an animal you believe to be orphaned, call the Wildlife Hotline before attempting to contain the animal, and we can help you determine what action to take. To help our staff maintain safety precautions and social distancing, please do not bring an animal to the clinic without speaking with a staff member.

Our trails are open dawn to dusk, every day. Enjoying sunshine and fresh air will help get us through this unusual time, as nature alleviates stress and anxiety. Please practice appropriate physical distancing while on the trails and give those around you at least 6 feet of space—one full stretched turkey vulture, to be exact! As per the governor’s and CDC’s recommendations, please wear a mask when walking our trails.

We ask you to keep the nearby roads safe by parking appropriately in designated lots and take all of your trash and belongings with you when you leave. Please also keep your pets at home.

Thank you again for enjoying the Schuylkill Center.

Natural Selections: COVID at Cathedral Village

As COVID-19 deaths in America hit the 100,000 mark, there has been a lot of attention– TV news stories and front-page newspaper accounts– on senior centers and nursing homes, and rightfully so, as fully one-third of those deaths have occurred at these sites.

So as Roxborough wrestles with the virus, it seemed especially important to talk with Charles Gergits, who for the last five years has been the executive director of Cathedral Village, the continuing care retirement community off Ridge Avenue by the Andorra Shopping Center. How has Cathedral Village fared?

“We’re holding our own,” Charles told me last week, “we’ve been very fortunate so far. With 400 residents and a staff of 300, we’ve had a total of five residents and three staff contracting the virus, and there currently is one active case on staff and one active case with residents.” Sadly, he reports, “there have been two deaths here.”

But that’s– to me, neither skilled in journalism nor medicine– a remarkably low number compared to how the virus has ravaged so many nursing homes. How have they avoided what has happened elsewhere? “Our staff has talked about that a lot,” he told me, “ and we think it starts with a lot of little things. For one, our team is very experienced at infection control. This virus is more deadly than the flu, but we have not had a flu case in our skilled nursing facility in the last two years. We were also the first skilled nursing area to close to visitors.” They closed on March 8, almost a week earlier than many other centers. “We were proactive, which helped keep numbers down.”

He does worry about the reporting on his peers. “Senior centers have been villainized as far as reporting,” he offered, “because those who are elderly and those whose health is compromised are the ones hit hardest by the virus, and that’s who resides in skilled nursing facilities.” He feels that perspective has not been communicated in these pieces. Point taken.

For both residents and staff, there has been “a lot of anxiety” over the unknown path of the disease. “I feel bad and sorry for the residents and their families,” he continued. “It’s hard for the residents not to visit and socialize; hard for the families not to see them. I feel bad for what’s going on.”

But it has also “made the community stronger,” he told me. With the dining rooms closed, staff delivers food to each resident’s room, and one staff member’s job is to go shopping for three or four hundred people. When the deliveries were being made recently, “every door and window had a thank-you sign on it. Our residents are increasingly appreciative of the little things and very supportive of our staff– we’ve been flooded with letters and signs.

“And our staff,” he continued, “has a renewed sense of pride. It’s been good to see the emphasis nationwide on staff as frontline heroes– it’s good to see the pride. At the same time, there is this anxiety of not knowing whether you might contract it, of bringing it home to your family, or bringing it to one of the residents– and they couldn’t live with that.”

Knowing this has been unbelievably stressful on staff, he says they have tried very hard to be flexible with their staff, accommodating to adjustments like childcare, which collapsed for many in the pandemic. “We also have apartments we can put staff up in when we need to,” he said.

I called him from my home, where I am working, but Charles was at Cathedral Village. “Everything we do is hands-on,” he volunteered, “we’ve all been still at work, haven’t been able to work from home at all. And we’re all working long days, staying here when needed.” I joked about his frontline staff earning combat pay, and he quickly said, “yes, we’ve made adjustments to pay at times.”

His parent company, Presbyterian Senior Living, for whom Charles has worked for 20 years now, “has been very supportive, getting us the PPE we need. We have enough for our residents now. But if something happens, kike if there is a mad rush, getting more equipment worries me.”

Charles says “we are very thankful for the support we’re received from the Roxborough community– people have volunteered to make masks and shields for us, and there have been lots of posts online.” He’s thrilled at the outpouring of support from our community. As the hospital sign notes, we are #RoxyStrong.

Moving forward, he says “state and federal governments need to make sure skilled nursing staff have more support faster. People were really focusing on hospitals at first– they were not really focusing on skilled nursing facilities.” That needs to change.

And he confesses that “like everyone else in the United States, we’re getting a little tired of being inside, coming up on three months now. But I do believe that some of the guidelines have prevented the spread of the disease– social distancing and wearing masks have helped. And I’m nervous, as most people are, as things start opening up– will COVID rebound? Will there be an increase?”

He hopes not; we all agree. But here’s some love and prayers to the entire Cathedral Village community, staff and residents. We look forward to seeing you outside again soon.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

How We’re Navigating the Pandemic’s Whitewaters

DSCN1172

Like all businesses, nonprofits, and even families, the Schuylkill Center has been struggling through the pandemic and the now-two-months-and-counting lockdown. While hikers and families have happily discovered the benefits of our 340 acres of forests and meadows, our staff is chafing to return, and we’re waiting for the science (and the governor) to tell us when this might happen.

It might surprise you to learn that we hire more than 50 employees: educators who lead school field trips on environmental science, rehabilitators who heal injured and sick wild animals, preschool teachers who use our forest as their classroom, artists who install exhibitions in our gallery and along our trails, and all the support staff this activity requires: a fundraising staff, a finance staff, a crew managing our land and facilities, and so much more.

On Friday, March 13th, a date seared forever into my memory, we sent everyone home, including staff and preschoolers. Schools stopped coming for visits; we cancelled programming initially through March, and now of course into April and May. Our finances fell off a cliff: one projection showed revenue dropping 70% in this quarter from budgeted expectations.

We carried those employees through the first month, paying them all and retaining their health benefits, whether or not they were able to perform their jobs remotely (it’s hard to mow virtual trails, for example). But we couldn’t continue this forever–the pandemic was outlasting everyone’s patience and our cash. So, on April 10 we furloughed most of the staff, retaining a skeleton crew of people to run the business: maintenance staff to make sure the buildings were secure and all systems operating; a finance crew to pay the bills; a fundraising crew to try to bring additional donations into the organization; a wildlife rehabilitation team to care for the animals in or Wildlife Clinic; and more. But not much more.

Here’s every executive director’s nightmare: to host a Zoom call for 50 people and tell most of them they are about to be furloughed. Neither easy nor fun, it was essential, as we simply ran out of the ability to retain our staff, and anyone who stayed on in the skeleton crew had either their salaries or hours reduced–the pain was shared among all 50 of us. But I was relieved that our Board of Trustees, the wonderful volunteers who make sure our organization is pointed in the right direction, agreed that we not only keep all furloughed employees on our group healthcare plan, but we foot the bill for the entire benefit, as there was no longer any salary to deduct the employee’s share from. We were not going to launch our staff into a pandemic without health coverage.

But then an extraordinary thing happened: during the first week of furlough, we got word from our bank, S&T Bank, the new name for the bank on Ridge Avenue not far from the new pocket park, that we had successfully secured one of the coveted but controversial Paycheck Protection Program grants from the Small Business Administration. It was Christmas in April: the furlough lasted only one week for the lion’s share of our staff.

There is a surprise here. One month later, both us and the bank are still wrestling with the program’s murky requirements, especially whether or not the loan is forgiven. (Just talked with our banker, and it is as clear as mud–no fault of the bank at all.) Still, while you might have read about controversies around this program, this one nonprofit at least greatly benefited: without the loan, our people would have remained on furlough and would have been tapping into the state’s overtaxed unemployment compensation program. Say what you will, it worked for us. In spades.

We are, of course, among the lucky ones, as we received the loan; so many sister nonprofits and businesses are still waiting to hear if their PPP ship has sailed in. I’d like to personally thank S&T Bank for being on top of this program–that has been a godsend.

Suddenly it is mid-May, and we are staring at two new hurdles in front of us. For one, our summer camp usually starts in early June, and a cohort of summer camp counselors still expect to show up to work with us this summer. We have exactly zero clarity on whether or not this happens right now, and our staff is doggedly trying to prepare for all scenarios at once, everything from a full summer of camp to a greatly reduced camp, whichever that virus throws at us.

Second, the PPP money runs out in June, which back in April read as tiding us over until summer camp revenue would kick in to support our operations and our staff. That is no longer a certainty. So a possibility exists that in mid-June we end up exactly where we were in mid-April: staring at an unending lockdown with cash again running low.

Like you, I’m waiting for this rollercoaster ride to end, urging our staff to be patient, and praying for something akin to a miracle, a summer free from the virus, one that allows families to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives.

That’s how the Schuylkill Center is doing.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Manayunk’s Falcons

Female peregrine falcon eating

Female peregrine falcon eating

Here’s a good news story for these COVID-consumed times.

For Philadelphia’s birding community, spring means many things, especially the return of migrating birds to famous haunts like Carpenters Woods in Mt. Airy. To Roxborough’s Judy Stepenaskie, spring means the return of a pair of peregrine falcons – famously the world’s fastest animal – to the nesting box tucked into the top of the steeple of St. John the Baptist Church, the tallest stone spire in Manayunk’s skyline.

As Judy has become the de facto adopted godmother of the peregrines that nest there, following them assiduously, photographing them, sharing their story with fellow birders, this year’s edition of the peregrine story would prove especially poignant. The pair residing in the steeple had been together since 2011, Judy christening the male “Manny” and the female “Yunk.” Last fall, as I shared in this column, Judy was stunned to learn that Manny was found dead, its leg cleanly severed, possibly in mid-flight. Judy suspected a drone she had seen buzzing the steeple, its owner likely only wanting to film a flyover around Manayunk. But Manny perhaps assumed the drone was another large bird, and being territorial, dove for the drone – and got its leg sliced off, the bird falling to the ground and perishing. This is only a theory, but it sadly reads as logical.

So would Yunk find a new mate? Surprisingly, Judy didn’t have to wait long.

Peregrines on christmas day

Peregrines on christmas day

“In December last year,” Judy told me, “the female was out on the nest box’s ledge every day for most of the day – I guess she was advertising her site.” On Christmas Eve last year, she continued, “I saw a male on the steeple, perched on one of the finials. On Dec. 25, they were sitting at the steeple together.” Such a great Christmas present!

“Both peregrines stayed around during the winter,” she offered. “And I did see them mate once,” she confided, “on one of the electrical towers over the train tracks. They mate multiple times.”

In mid-March, she knew from their behavior that they had laid eggs. Success!

“I saw them do a nest exchange,” she noted, “where the female comes out of the nest box and the male goes in,” taking his turn incubating the eggs, a process that takes a full month or so. “She was out for about an hour and a half, preening herself, as her feathers were all fluffed up.”

Also in mid-March another new male came by, checking out the site and possibly sizing up the male as a competitor.

“He perched on the steeple for quite a while, watching. The female came out and chased it off, and the male went up to the nest box.” The male cleverly let the much larger female – that’s one way Judy can tell the two apart, the female is significantly larger – handle the territorial chores. Our female stayed loyal to her suitor.

She recounted a similar 2015 story from Baltimore where one of the males raised in this nest – one of Manny’s boys – challenged an older male peregrine on a nest box that already had eggs in it.

“He successfully chased off the existing one in Baltimore,” Judy said, “so the female simply pushed the existing eggs off to the side, mated with the new male, and laid a new set of eggs.” They do mate for life, but it seems they are not sentimental.

That didn’t happen here – the newer male was chased off, and presumably is looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Sometime in mid-April, Judy thinks between the 16th and the 21st, the eggs will hatch.

“That’s when I’ll see the female come out on the ledge – she’ll be out a lot, and she’ll sit at the nest box opening while looking back.”

It is a bittersweet ending to the story.

“I’m sad,” Judy volunteered, “because I miss the old male. I’m not sure how the new one is going to perform as a dad, and the old one was great.” Manny did father almost 30 new peregrines over his nine-year reign, including the Baltimore one.

Has she named the new one?

“I was thinking of MM2, short for Manayunk Male 2.” And she has already renamed Yunk, as there is no Manny as her companion anymore. Its new name? “I call her Liz,” Judy said, “as in Elizabeth, because she was hatched from a nest up in Elizabeth, New Jersey.”

While the names Liz and MM2 don’t have quite the cache of Manny and Yunk, it’s great to have a pair of peregrines back atop the steeple at St. John’s, producing more of these extraordinary but still-endangered birds.

Continued thanks to Judy for serving as the loyal falcon godmother, and thanks to the church for so graciously hosting them all these years.

peregrine falcon 3.15.20

 

Written by Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Wildlife Clinic April update

Virtual happy hour for Wildlife Clinic staff and volunteers to stay in touch during the lockdown.

Virtual happy hour for Wildlife Clinic staff and volunteers to stay in touch during the lockdown.

While human society undergoes rapid changes and we all make necessary adjustments to our daily routines, local wildlife have been going about their usual spring activities of breeding and nesting. The important work of the Wildlife Clinic must go on and our staff are adapting to our new “normal” as best we can under the challenging current circumstances. 

“We are still coming in everyday to not only provide treatment for the animals that we already had in care when this all started, but we are also taking in more injured wildlife daily,” says rehab assistant Liz Ellmann. 

We are answering calls on our 24-hour wildlife hotline, and we are grateful for everyone that calls in looking for help with injured animals.

It’s true that the wildlife hotline has been ringing non-stop with regular calls about injured and orphaned wildlife, and staff have been doing everything they can to provide accurate and timely responses. We have seen some noticeable changes in the demographics of calls we have received lately; for example, we’ve gotten more than the usual number of reports of nests of squirrels and mice in cars that are sitting idle in driveways. At the same time, the number of baby opossums brought to the clinic that have been orphaned from mothers being struck by vehicles has gone down significantly from previous years since there are fewer cars on the roads as people work more from home.

With social distancing rules in place, the Wildlife Clinic has had to ask our dedicated volunteers to stay home, and only our staff members have been coming in to care for our patients. 

The clinic has had to significantly reduce the number of patients we can accept to ensure we are providing the highest quality of care for as many animals as we can.

We are staying in touch with our volunteers and supporters through social media and online meetings, because we know how much their work at the clinic means to our volunteers- they miss the feeling of contribution and their important connections with the animals.

“We understand that this is hard for everyone, and I personally want to thank everyone that has been so understanding and so willing to do whatever it takes to make sure all the injured and orphaned wildlife get the chance that they deserve.” Liz continued. Assistant director Chris Strub adds, “We have been so grateful for finders who can help us reunite mothers with their babies.  Not only does that help us reduce our numbers so that we can focus on animals who are truly in need, but mother animals know how to raise their babies best, so reuniting is always the first and best option for most young animals.”

The clinic is continuing to look forward, always keeping in mind that spring baby season has only just begun and we have several more months of increased intakes of baby birds and mammals to come. Like many organizations, we are turning to online interactions to substitute in-person activities. While we clearly can’t feed baby squirrels through an online meeting platform, we are producing virtual teaching modules and orientations for volunteers so that when we are given the go-ahead to reopen, we will have an eager crew of helpers ready and able to take on the important tasks of feeding many hungry little mouths.

 As daily life returns to normal, whatever and whenever that may be, one thing will always stay the same- there will be injured, orphaned, and sick wildlife that need our help. And with the continued support of our community, dedicated volunteers, and incredible staff, the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center will be there to provide professional, life-saving care to those in need.

 

Earth Day 1970 Changed American History

At 1983's Earthfest, the center's celebration of Earth Day, participants played with a 6-foot Earthball, one of the many activities at the event. Mike Weilbacher, then a  member of the education staff, organized the festival for the center.

At 1983’s Earthfest, the center’s celebration of Earth Day, participants played with a 6-foot Earthball, one of the many activities at the event. Mike Weilbacher, then a member of the education staff, organized the festival for the center.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Wednesday, April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a watershed moment in American history, and a day that continues to change with the times. While this is not the Earth Day anyone expected, as one billion people from almost 200 countries are NOT, as originally expected, gathering in large protests and celebrations, millions of people worldwide are instead taking to social media to produce an outpouring of hashtags and tweets; 2020 is a decidedly digital Earth Day.

It is worth remembering what happened 50 years ago, because it changed the course of the country.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans–almost one in 10 of us at the time at the time–gathered in what was decidedly a protest, then the largest mass demonstration in American history. People paraded down main streets in gas masks to plead for cleaner air and less smog, buried cars in mock funerals for the internal combustion engine, and held innumerable teach-ins, a phrase borrowed from the antiwar movement, at 2,000 colleges and 10,000 schools across the country.

The day catapulted the environment onto the front pages of newspapers and the lead story for national news shows, and words like “pollution” and “ecology” became quickly embedded in pop culture lingo.

A tidal wave of activism swept through Congress, which soon passed a bipartisan raft of legislation, addressing clean air and water, endangered species, toxic substances, pesticides, surface mining, and much more. They created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the National Environmental Policy Act that required the creation of environmental impact statements. Republican President Nixon signed all of these bills into law, as his people wanted him to better appeal to younger voters for his 1972 reelection; Nixon and his wife even helped plant an Earth Day tree on the White House lawn in 1970.

For me, few peacetime events in our history have had the legislative track record of Earth Day 1970. And it embedded environmental issues in American politics. “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970,” wrote Jack Lewis in a 1990 EPA blog. “When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2500 percent increase over 1969.”

Another child of Earth Day 1970 is the numerous environmental nonprofits that sprang up across the country like mushrooms after a rainstorm, so many tracing their roots to the first Earth Day.

The careers of innumerable scientists, activists, and nonprofit leaders was born as a result of the day; I was a seventh grader on Long Island, became captivated by the event, led a litter cleanup in my town’s park, and knew at ripe the age of 13 that I’d be doing environmental work. This story is not unique to me.

 

Belmont Plateau in 1970

Belmont Plateau in 1970

Philadelphia, by the way, rocked the first Earth Day, holding an Earth Week of events that included a huge demonstration at Belmont Plateau (image above) and a reading of a “Declaration of Interdependence” at Independence Hall. The Broadway cast of “Hair” left New York City to sing here, beat poet Allen Ginsberg read his acclaimed “Howl,” Maine Senator Edmund Muskie–then a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president–headlined at Belmont Plateau; the week’s speakers were a who’s who of American culture at the time: population writer Paul Ehrlich, landscape architect Ian McHarg, science fiction writer Frank Herbert of “Dune” fame, and more. When Walter Cronkite reported about the Earth Day phenomenon on his CBS news show, the image behind the iconic anchor was Philadelphia’s Earth Day logo.

So while COVID-19 has forced us to retreat into a digital Earth Day, radically reducing the visual impact of a billion people protesting around the planet, it is important to acknowledge what that first Earth Day was back in 1970:

A transcendent event that left an indelible mark on the American landscape. It literally changed the course of history–for the better.

Come See the Flowers Race the Trees

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.  Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.
Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. In fact, you can, if you simply walk down our Ravine Loop.

Like the red trillium in the accompanying photograph, an elusive and rare plant that New Englanders dubbed “wake robin,” as it bloomed there about when robins return north from their migrations (robins are year-round residents here in Roxborough). 

Or the Virginia bluebells in the other photo– one of everyone’s favorites, as it is taller than many of the spring ephemerals and one of the bluest of them all. You can find it on our Ravine Loop and elsewhere across the property, and is happily one of our harder-to-miss wildflowers. I love its pink buds that open to blue flowers– two colors for the price of one.

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.  Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.
Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

But that’s just the beginning of the parade. There are bright yellow trout lilies, named for the spotting on their mottled leaves that resembles a trout’s back. And shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Jacob’s ladder, a complicated lilac-colored flower with ladder-ish leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside what looks like his mottled purple lectern. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Spring beauties, each petal a tiny white surfboard with a pink racing stripe down its middle. 

And that’s just a start.

What’s amazing about these plants is the narrow window of time through which they slide. A forest in spring features trees without yet any leaves, so sunlight shines through and caresses the forest floor. Warmed by the sun, long-dormant roots and rhizomes suddenly come alive and send sprigs of growth up above the ground. These leaves photosynthesize– remember that from high school biology?– using sunlight to make sugars and send starches down into the rootstocks so they grow larger. When those rootstocks are large enough and have the resources, the plants send flowers into the world, often brightly colored to dazzle pollinating bees and butterflies.

And they coincidentally dazzle us too. 

But the flowers are in a race against time– and the trees. As trees leaf out, those leaves block sunlight, form a sun-proof umbrella across the forest, and block those flowers from growing. So there is a small window of opportunity for the flowers to warm up, grow, make leaves, make flowers, get pollinated, drop seeds– and disappear for another year– before the trees leaf out.

We’ve already missed the earliest bloomers like bloodroot and skunk cabbage. But every day or every week you visit, new and different flowers will appear.

While our Visitor Center is closed, our forest is still open– park in the Hagy’s Mill parking lot if there is room (if not, park at the ballfields and walk in). Hike past our Visitor Center and head downhill through the butterfly meadow, following Ravine Loop until it curves at Smith Run; the best wildflowers are on the section of trail that parallels the stream.

When we reopen (please, God, soon!), we’ll be selling these plants for you to place in your own yard. My yard, I am happy to report, is beginning to fill with both bluebells and Solomon’s seal, and a healthy stand of May apple– it looks like a little bright green umbrella– is spreading happily. These flowers require little water or chemicals, come back stronger every year, and provide vital pollen, nectar, and food for the small critters that hold up the world, especially those pollinators you read so much about.

Spring wildflowers are racing the trees right now– come walk down our Ravine Loop, while of course practicing the required physical distancing, and see them for yourself.

 

Finch conjunctivitis requires isolation, too

A recent patient, an American Goldfinch, with conjunctivitis.

A recent patient, an American Goldfinch, with conjunctivitis.

Wildlife rehabilitators are well aware of the potential for disease transmission between humans and wildlife as well as between individual animals- it is a calculated risk we take in the course of our daily work.

For example, we routinely practice isolation and quarantine in the wildlife clinic when we admit an animal with a contagious disease such as finch conjunctivitis, as was the case with this female American goldfinch.  She arrived in early March with both her eyes so swollen and crusted she could hardly see. She needed to be isolated from all our other patients, and we changed gloves every time we treated her or cleaned her cage, and sanitized everything she came in contact with. Since she had to be isolated, we provided as much environmental enrichment for her as we could to keep her stress-free while she recovered. After three weeks of daily treatment, she was in excellent condition and was released in the same area she was originally found. 

We routinely practice isolation and quarantine in the wildlife clinic when we admit an animal with a contagious disease.

Finch conjunctivitis can be transferred by direct contact and from contaminated surfaces. You can help prevent the spread of this disease in wild birds by making sure your bird feeders are properly cleaned; discard old, wet or moldy seed, wash feeders with hot soapy water once a week and sanitize with a 10% bleach solution to help keep your backyard birds healthy.

She was released 3 weeks later in excellent condition.

She was released 3 weeks later in excellent condition.