Tuliptree (2)

Giants of the Forest: Reading the forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Tuliptree (1)Every day at the Schuylkill Center I am reminded of the passing of time, the history of the land, and the immense power of plants to change our landscape.  Amazed at how the trees could grow so tall in just 50 years, I stand in awe of the towering tulip poplars (also called tuliptrees) which rise high above old fields once clear cut for agriculture.  As winter approaches and vegetation retreats, ruins and farm walls of old homesteads – signs of literally hundreds of years of human occupancy – reveal themselves as markers of the past.

Tuliptree (2)Trees can also be a source of information to us; they are simultaneously signs of resilience and indicators of land use patterns.  Some of our oldest, biggest trees are situated just at the edges of former farm fields, where they could stretch and branch in all directions due to unlimited sunlight.  In the forest, the same species would be taller and thinner, with branches reaching directly up toward the sun shining through a break in the forest canopy.  For many years, these remarkable old trees have drawn interest from visitors, staff, and volunteers at the Schuylkill Center.

In the summer of 1974, volunteer Gus Wiencke assembled an extensive report entitled “Biggest Trees at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center,” detailing land history and size, species, location, and even sketches of growth patterns of the property’s largest trees.  The original survey presents 57 trees that measure over 6 ½ feet in circumference, although many far exceed that now.  The survey was partially updated in 1986 and again in 2012, when eight more trees were added to the list.

It has been 40 years since Gus compiled this list of biggest trees, yet I’m experiencing his observations in a similar way these days.  He concludes, “Year after year, traces of the old farm fields grow dimmer and a forest spreads in the protected haven of the Nature Center.  Our biggest trees are the aristocrats in a unique, unviolated area of self-propagated woodland.”  These trees exist with little help from us, and in many cases, perhaps, in spite of us.  They are beautiful and vital beings in our ever-changing landscape.  Join us at the Giants of the Forest walk in January to see some of these big trees, learn about why they remained during the farm years, and find out what they can tell us about the past.

Note: an excerpt from this article appeared in the winter 2014-2015 Quill, the Schuylkill Center members newsletter.

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Weaving Art into Nature

By Ezra Tischler, Public Relations and Environmental Art Intern

LandLab resident artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya Levy, of WE THE WEEDS, have been busy collecting invasive plants like oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass, and bush honeysuckle at the Schuylkill Center. These gathered vines are then woven together using hand-built looms, creating beautiful tapestries of varying color and texture. Be sure to check out their guest blog post detailing the process and progress of their botanical weaving project.

Zya, taking full advantage of her resident artist title, recently spent some time exploring the Schuylkill Center’s property. Her exploration resulted in some impromptu land art capturing the transitory nature of autumn. Dried grasses and fallen vines clumped together in mounds may not catch the eye of most meadow visitors. Zya, however, saw the mounds as an opportunity to create temporary nests. Here is a gallery of some of the nests, but they won’t last long and are certainly worth seeing in person:

Zya also met with visiting groups from Nature Preschool, inviting the children to try their hand at botanical weaving:

 

Cattail Pond

Restoring Cattail Pond


By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Toad in Cattail PondCattail Pond sits in a serene, sunlit woodland opening at the edge of our forest, just a few quick steps outside our back door.  It is a special place, nestled into one of the few areas on the property that is free from undulating topography, naturally protected by a steep slope uphill from it and surrounding trees.  Taking all of this into consideration, it’s not surprising that there are also ruins of a barn near the pond, part of a former homestead and a reminder of the rich history of this land. Continue reading

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All About Apples

childrenneednature-01By Shannon Dryden, Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

The beginning of the year at preschool means apples!  For most preschools, this is also the case, but at Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool, an interest in apples developed from enjoying apples snacks to the preschoolers’ observations along the trails.  Playing and exploring outside led to a deeper association with apples.

10.1 RD6As both classes walked along various trails (getting to know our outdoor community), they started classifying the types of trees with their teachers’ help, by looking at the shape of the leaves, the bark, and branches.  Inspired by the changing colors and fall, the children have also been talking about activities like apple picking, visiting a farm, and going on nature hikes with their families.  We noticed children bringing in apples at lunch, which sparked conversations about where apples come from.  This gave the class an idea – let’s visit the orchard.  What you may not know is that the Schuylkill Center property includes a small intimate crab apple orchard that blossoms with color and fruit this time of year.

We asked the children what an orchard was and they shared many ideas including, “it’s a group of trees” or “I’ve been to an orchard.  There are apples there!” We continued to guide the children in critical thinking by asking, “Where do apples come from?”  Using this new interest in apples, we led the children through a special cooking activity for Back to School Night.  We followed a recipe and enjoyed measuring, scooping, pouring, and mixing the ingredients.  Each class used an apple peeler and corer and combined cinnamon and apples in a crock pot to create applesauce. Continue reading

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

Trick-or-Treating Through the Years

By Ezra Tischler, Arts and PR Intern

Halloween hikers gather before heading out on a night walk (1977).

Halloween hikers gather before heading out on a night walk (1977).

The forest can be a scary place at night. Its unfamiliar sounds reach out from the darkness, telling a nocturnal tale we humans seldom hear. However, the nighttime forest is full of much more than fright. By the light of moon, the forest comes alive.  Owls screech and hoot; frogs croak; skunks, raccoons, and opossums forage through the forest floor; bats flap about in search of something to eat. A wondrously active forest is born each night.

At the Schuylkill Center we explore just how amazing, and un-scary, the nighttime forest is with one of our most popular programs ever, Halloween Hikes and Hayrides. Established nearly 30 years ago, Halloween Hikes and Hayrides is now our longest running program ever! Families walk through our candlelit forest in search of educators dressed as nocturnal animals. Each animal—a skunk, raccoon, bat, fox, opossum, frog, and owl—tells their wild night-life story to our guests.

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

I spent some time last week looking through the Schuylkill Center’s extensive photo archive searching for evidence of the first Halloween Hikes and Hayrides. Though it was difficult to pinpoint the very first Halloween Hike, I was able to find some photos and negatives from hikes dating as far back as 1977. Mike, our director, says he doesn’t remember Halloween Hikes and Hayrides under that name from his first stint at the Schuylkill Center, but it’s clear the tradition is a long one.  Halloween Hikes & Hayrides has grown a lot since its inception. One photo shows about a dozen-or-so hikers gathering before heading to the forest. Last year we took to the forest with around 300 hikers in attendance!

Carving pumpkins (1977).

Carving pumpkins (1977).

Another photo from 1977 shows children enjoying a pumpkin carving session; we won’t have pumpkin carving at this year’s event, but there will be pumpkins for painting–a favorite in recent years. One of the earliest photos of anyone in costume shows our educators dressed as friendly nocturnal animals, it’s dated 1988. I was only a newborn in 1988, but I’m excited to join this year’s Halloween Hike as a costumed educator. More than anything, I can’t wait to see our forest trails dappled in candle light. I hear that alone is worth the price of admission.

Join us on October 24th and 25th for the Halloween Hikes and Hayrides, from 6:00—10:00 pm. Aside from the magical walk through our woods, enjoy a hayride along a woodland road, a campfire and s’mores, and pumpkin painting too. For more information click here.

Ezra joins the Schuylkill Center as an intern in the Environmental Art and Public Relations Department. He is pursuing a Master of Environmental Studies degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  Ezra enjoys riding his bike along the Schuylkill River Trail, exploring his South Philly neighborhood, and playing with his Beagle, Homer.

9.9 -1

Nature Preschool, Community-Building, and Responsibility Rocks!

By Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Lead Teacher

childrenneednature-01The first few weeks of Nature Preschool have started off with a busy buzz and hum as the two classrooms, Sweet Gum and Sycamore, have filled with children, conversations, artwork, lunch boxes, water bottles, and more.  It may seem silly but every September I am reminded how the beginning of the year reinvigorates teachers and classrooms as new personalities come together to build a community. It is loud (as it should be), it is busy (many moving bodies), it is messy (children’s hands at work), it is full of questions, thoughts, and ideas as the pieces of the classroom puzzle are beginning to fit together. Continue reading

leaf

The Biggest Day in 50 Years

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

This piece was originally published in the Roxborough Review on Thursday, September 10 in the column Natural Selections

Saturday, September 27 might just be the biggest day in the Schuylkill Center’s storied 50-year history.  On that day, we’re offering the first bird seed sale of the year, the last native plant sale of the year, and launching the University of Nature, a full day of outdoor learning for adults.  We’re beginning the day by presenting the ninth annual Henry Meigs Award for environmental leadership to Ann Fowler Rhoads, and ending the day by unveiling a new show in our environmental art gallery.

One big day.

The University of Nature is the latest in a series of new programming thrusts the Schuylkill Center is rolling out.  We’re offering university-level expertise in a one-day outdoor setting.  Over the course of the day there are nine workshops and walks from which to choose, and you’ll leave at day’s end graduating to a higher level of environmental understanding. Continue reading

Exploring Cattail Pond

Searching, Soaring, and Sifting with Summer Camp

childrenneednature-01By Shannon Dryden, Preschool Manager and Lead Teacher

“Look, Miss Shannon, when I turn it over, I found green. What do you think that is?”

“This piece is shiny, it must be polished.”

“I can see the sparkles…it’s the schist!”

Learning about a frogAs the Preschool Summer Campers dispersed among tables filled with rocks, minerals, magnifying glasses, dishes, paintbrushes, and water, they immediately began to inquire and connected their questioning and observations with the visit from a preschool science expert on rocks.  One little boy brushed both sides of his rock and was amazed as he turned it over to see the split rock and the imprint and colors become more clear.  He exclaimed, “Look, it’s the crystal, the geode!”  The Preschool Nature Ramblers have been engaged in activities enriching their outdoor connections and building upon those extended periods of exploration and play since the very beginning of the summer. Continue reading

photos on wall

Why Photography Camp?

 By Elisabeth Zafiris, Manager of Public Programs

dragonfly on waterWhen you think about sending your child to a nature-based summer camp, you probably picture them frolicking among trees, worms, and birds, but do you see photography as a way to build a relationship with the natural world?

At the Schuylkill Center, we do.  Last week we offered a nature photography camp for our eight- and nine-year-olds, culminating in their very own gallery show.

Engaging with nature through art offers a unique way to connect with the natural world, using all five senses.  It’s a direct, yet play-based, experience that encourages critical thinking and reflection on one’s own relationship to the environment.

From Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art:

In environmental education, art making can be a powerful way to explore, inquire, and experience our environment, helping to develop not only environmental literacy but deeper, more emotional connections with nature.

For our campers, the experience of being in nature becomes relevant and personal through photography: that photograph of a flower, or bug, or tree is seen through their eyes, and they create a personal connection to what they observe. It’s no longer a random object that kids pass on the trail.  They are now intimately connected to that object, turning it from something removed to something personal in their individual experience.

During middle childhood, kids are building their feelings of competency.  Creating things, and getting recognition for the work they create, allows them to build confidence within themselves. Going through the creative process of photography allows them to build their feelings of competency. It allows them to get first-hand experience with a multi-step process that culminates in a finished product that is put on display for recognition by their peers and community.

The creative process itself also builds skills that are important – creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.  Being able to look at the world with a creative eye challenges perceptions of the natural world; it allows one to focus observation skills and build close looking skills.

photos on wallFor the campers in the nature photography camp, going through the editing process helped kids to think critically – why pick this photo, what are we trying to communicate to the observer, what is the best way to go about that?  Creating the exhibition showed them that there is an ultimate goal for the work that they created, honoring and respecting their creativity and letting them communicate to a larger audience about their photographs and why they created took them.  The gallery show at the end of the photography camp was an opportunity for these campers to work together on a unified project that gave space and relevance to each individual’s work.

And, we all had a lot of fun taking photos, exploring the Schuylkill Center, and learning to see nature through art.