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LandLab: Introducing our artists in residence

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Even though I haven’t myself had a first day of school for a few years, in the fall, I still get a back-to-school-esque twinge of anticipation.  In this season, you can feel something new coming in the air – something to be learned, something to gear up for – and I find it to be the most exciting time of year. This year, one of the most exciting new things for the environmental art program is the beginning of the second offering of our LandLab residency at the Schuylkill Center.

LandLab is a unique artist residency program that integrates artistic creation, ecological restoration, and education.  A joint project of the Schuylkill Center and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), LandLab offers resources and space here at the Schuylkill Center, on our 340-acres of woods and meadows for visual artists to engage audiences in ecological stewardship through scientific investigation and artistic creation. LandLab residencies will create innovative installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about local ecology. It’s a way that we bring different parts of our mission work together – artists working with people to engage with our land in a meaningful and restorative way. Continue reading

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).

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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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How to Be Like the Glaciers Melting

Guest contributor Leslie Birch, 2014-2015 LandLab Resident Artist

A few years ago I sat at my computer reading the latest on the demise of the glaciers in the Arctic. I was angry with the polluting corporations, fed up with the greed of the oil industry, disgusted by people’s consumption, and alienated by a government ruled by lobbyists. I felt frozen, as if calamity had already happened; some days I was even bleak about the future. My home thermostat was set to 69, two of my computers were on, I was surrounded by electronic parts for a project and I was getting ready to drive to Whole Foods in a Honda Element wearing a puffy NorthFace jacket picturing a tall Chai Latte. Feel free to laugh, as I’m certainly laughing now as I write this. How long did it take me to figure out that I was the problem?

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Luckily for me a a few years ago I also discovered the Schuylkill Center’s LandLab program and started an investigation of a gully that had formed from stormwater runoff on the southeastern side of the Center’s property near Port Royal Ave. This water finds its way down to Wind Dance Pond, where it eventually overflows into the stream. With the help of Stroud Water Research Center I was able to develop a monitoring system to measure the changing depths of the stream. While this was an interesting project, what is pertinent is the fact that I was forced to face climate change head on. Philly is getting hotter and wetter, and while the Center can’t stop mother nature’s waters it can encourage artists like me to communicate the problem and get involved.

ClimateDisrupted

After the project was over, the Center asked me to collaborate on two other art/education projects dealing with water issues, thanks to a grant from CUSP (Climate & Urban Systems Partnership). CUSP is working on preparing Philadelphia for the future issues brought by climate change and they work locally getting neighborhoods on board using friendly techniques. I decided to join their efforts and have become part of a team of organizations and individuals starting conversations, offering education and demonstrating mitigation techniques.Thanks to their workshops I’ve learned how to discuss this topic without scaring people, have discovered what other partner cities are doing to face the same issues and have attended lectures by experts in the field. I should mention that I don’t have a science background, but I do consider myself a citizen scientist. CUSP’s strength is its ability to bring all types of people together, and later in the year I worked with another member artist to create the first climate change art festival under their umbrella in Fishtown. It was exciting to create my own art on the topic of corn and weather, and fascinating to see how people expressed their climate concerns using mixed media, including spoken word and music. The Schuylkill Center’s fall 2016 exhibition on climate change was part of the same grant and has brought together even more artists and enabled more people to join the conversation.

PublicLab

As you can see, what started as a small project has snowballed, and I find myself looking for other ways to combine my interests to work on the problems of climate change. One of my strengths is working with electronics, so I recently joined Public Lab, a grassroots movement using DIY techniques to address environmental concerns. I attended their LeafFest gathering, which was a weekend camping trip where members demonstrated their latest environmental work including solar balloons, an Arduino modem style device and a trail cam. I learned about a project they are developing which uses a houseplant and aquarium pump to help reduce toxins in the air. They sent me home with those materials and soon I’ll be creating a tutorial for the project that can be shared around the world. It’s all part of the mission to offer open source methods to monitor and mitigate environmental issues.

So, having come from a state of being frozen like a glacier, I too am melting. There are many small changes that can help this planet,and I’m starting to make them part of my life. Nowadays I’m walking to the grocery store with my husband. It’s great exercise, less stressful and certainly kinder to the environment. I recently learned just how important it is to give feedback to our government officials about environmental matters. So, I’ve returned to my old ways of calling legislators and writing emails. Now I’m learning how to combine art and activism through free webinars from The Center for Artistic Activism. Someday I hope to engage other groups and artists in work that goes beyond education and actually encourages others to make changes.

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My story isn’t “yea, me” because there is probably a lot more I can do to serve this world. However, it is a huge thank you to the Schuylkill Center for helping me to realize that by working on one small problem I would gather the courage to do more. There is a reason for the Center’s commitment to the arts and it goes beyond appreciation for beauty; it’s another strategy for voice and change. We all have the ability to do more, whether it be to add water-loving plants to our yard, to make a roof reflective, to buy our food locally or to just have a conversation about the environment with our neighbor. Doing one small thing makes all the difference. What kind of strategy or skill can you offer to help Philadelphia prepare for the changes that are already beginning?

Native Pollinator Garden art installation changes over time

Art + Time at the Schuylkill Center: a 2017 wall calendar

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

One of the most important aspects of environmental art is leaving time for nature to respond to an art work.  Change is a constant in the natural world, and when artists venture outside the controlled setting of the studio or gallery, art must be responsive to change, time, and seasons.

Indeed, many environmental art works are not complete until nature has had time to respond and artists have had time to understand and reconcile change in the work.  Stacy Levy’s Rain Yard needs rain to fall for the collaboration with water to happen; Jake Beckman’s Future Non-Object #1: Sol’s Reprise needs fungus and other soil organisms to grow, and the piece won’t truly be complete until it becomes soil, many years from now.

Many environmental art works are invitations to nature, which nature will respond to in its own time.  WE THE WEEDS, for instance, installed their woven tapestry of invasive vines in a vine-filled meadow, hoping that the living vines would contribute to the artwork by growing and weaving themselves onto and into the work, that the vines heartily accepted this invitation.

Environmental art can itself even become a calendar of sorts, revealing the change in seasons and cycles. I know spring has sprung when the columbine sprouts in our Native Pollinator Garden, and that fall has arrived when the asters bloom in Welcome Home.

We present environmental art on various timescales – some is temporary, disappearing from our forests after a just few weeks’ time, while other works are with us indefinitely.

So, this year we decided to put together a 2017 wall calendar, celebrating cutting edge, contemporary environmental art in our fields and forests. Founded in 2000 as an opportunity for artists and audiences to explore and interpret the natural world and current ecological issues, our program has brought 277 artists to our site. This calendar highlights works here from across 17 years; three of the works are still with us today, continuing to evolve with our site and with time.

We hope this calendar is more than a time marking tool, but something that activates your imagination throughout this year, perhaps inspiring you to notice time and change in your own environment.

So, take a look, support our art program, and order your 2017 calendar today!

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Time + Art, Part 2: As an Anniversary Approaches

By Catalina Lassen, Art + PR Intern

As spring bounds in again, another year has come and gone, and almost a year has passed since our LandLab artists in residence installed a variety of exciting environmentally minded artworks last April. This cycle of a year signifies not only an anniversary, but is also a reminder of the changes that have occurred during the time in-between. As far as the art of LandLab goes, the works have been activated by nature, shifting as the seasons do. Back in November we took a look at the progress of one of these installations, but it’s now time to turn our attention to Interwoven, a project created by artist-botanist duo WE THE WEEDS. Woven from invasive vines, this installation is an exploration of invasive plants, examining the history, perception, and impact of such species on local environments, while working to remove and recycle this flora. As the year has passed, there has been exciting movement among Interwoven, as the natural cycles of the earth activate the framework of this large sculptural work.

(Before Photographs): If you’re interested in more discussion of this project, or of the ecological and cultural roles of native and non-native plants, please join us on April 14th for a Botanical Cocktail Hour with artist Zya S. Levy.

 

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It’s not about the bees, it’s about the we

By Marguerita Hagan 2014 – 2015 LandLab Resident Artist, for the Native Pollinator Garden Residency with Maggie Mills and Ben Mills

Bee foraging Purple Hyssop: Native Pollinator Garden

Bee foraging Purple Hyssop: Native Pollinator Garden

“In the village, a sage should go about like a bee, which, not harming flower, color scent, flies off with the nectar.”  – Anonymous, Dhammapada

Native Pollinator Garden: blue mistflower zinc etched plate by Maggie Mills, handcrafted chemical-free Douglas fir post by Ben Mills & pit fired ceramic bees by Marguerita Hagan & the community

Native Pollinator Garden: blue mistflower zinc etched plate by Maggie Mills, handcrafted chemical-free Douglas fir post by Ben Mills & pit fired ceramic bees by Marguerita Hagan & the community

One year has circled around completing our complex LandLab residency.  We launched out of the gate enthusiastically to address Colony Collapse Disorder, the devastating loss of 1/3 of our honey bees with the Native Pollinator Garden.  Our discoveries informed our process while simultaneously bringing to light simple truths, more questions, our collective opportunity, and the gravity of our choices.

Thank you to our guide, the Bee and to you for following our journey.

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“We stand now where two roads diverge.  But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair.  The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.  The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”  – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Maggie Mills & Ben Mills as we start the Native Pollinator Garden along the Widener Trail

Maggie Mills & Ben Mills as we start the Native Pollinator Garden along the Widener Trail

What’s Essential?

Monoculture, tilling, GMOs/genetically modified organisms and chemical methods are standard conventional farming practices in the U.S. today and the belief is that chemicals are essential to growing food.  The conventional systems often means that farmers need to buy and use only modified seeds, rather than saving seeds from their crops – in fact, farmers growing GMO seeds are legally prohibited from saving and planting any seeds from those plants.  With the prevalence of GMO seeds, many wild plants are being pushed out of even the narrow margins alongside fields.  Healthy forage is essential to bees, all pollinators, and to us.

Bee gathering pollen.

Bee gathering pollen.

Finding Our Way Home

When bees and other pollinators come into contact with chemically treated flowering plants, their finely tuned nervous system and brain suffers dramatically.  The chemicals destroy the bees’ GPS system, a lethal move for a bee who cannot survive outside the hive over 24 hours.  This is just one piece of the complex issue.

Honeybees are something of an ambassador for other pollinators and their environment as they are the ones most intrinsically linked to humans through pollination of essential crops and wild plants.  For the bees, their life mission is mutual benefit for the hive community.

This puts them in a powerful position to get our much-needed attention.  And people are taking notice of the plight of the bees; and it’s about time since bees provide every 3rd bite we take.  Farming that is dependent on honeybee pollination sees bees as a source of profit or loss, rather than a living part of the ecosystem.  For example, almonds, California’s largest export are 100% pollinated by honeybees.  Without bees to naturally pollinate crops to meet industry demands, a new tier of stress has been put into motion.  To meet that demand, 90% of the bees in the U.S. are used as pollinating migrant workers, trucked from crop to crop around the country.  Consider the fuel and costs required to keep this unhealthy cycle rolling.

Homesick

One of the first articles addressing the concern for our own health in regards to CCD: Our Bees, Ourselves- What Colony collapse says about chemicals and disease, New York Times, Tues, July 15, 2014, by Mark Winston.

One of the first articles addressing the concern for our own health in regards to CCD: Our Bees, Ourselves- What Colony collapse says about chemicals and disease, New York Times, Tues, July 15, 2014, by Mark Winston.

Genetic seed modifying began in the U.S. in the early sixties, over 50 years ago.  Since then it’s grown exponentially.  Today, it is often considered one of the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder.  Our tiny eco ambassadors seem to be the Ghost of Christmas Future shaking us to wake up.  The resilient honeybee has thrived for over 40 million years, until now.

The widespread collapse presents a clear message.  In the long run, how will it affect us?  We have Rachel Carson to thank for her decades of perseverance in making DDT illegal.  The insecticide sprayed openly from trucks through neighborhoods with children playing in the fumigated fog was originally developed for chemical warfare in WWII.

As Rachel Carson put it, “How could intelligent beings seek to control few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

Positive Shifts under our Feet

Native Pollinator Garden: Purple Hyssop zinc etched plates by Maggie Mills, hand crafted chemical-free Douglas fir post by Ben Mills, and Pit fired ceramic bees by Marguerita Hagan & the community

Native Pollinator Garden: Purple Hyssop zinc etched plates by Maggie Mills, hand crafted chemical-free Douglas fir post by Ben Mills, and Pit fired ceramic bees by Marguerita Hagan & the community

Good News!

We are in an Agrarian Renaissance and holistic practices are on the rise with no till, chemical-free, and organic farming.  These principles are alive in our own practices.  Innovative farmers have stepped off the chemical wagon of conventional practices to weather the transition and investment in sustainable farming.  I’ve recently come across a few examples to share:

The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlsen is an exciting work sharing the journey of those listening and responding to our environment successfully.  It is a thrilling return.  Organic farmers working this way for decades are producing even during drought.  Their reciprocal-minded process is enriching crops with carbon rich soil.

The Farm to Table concept is being delivered to more tables both at home and commercially.  My LandLab teammates Ben and Maggie Mills have a year-round organic chemical-free garden- yes, even foraging in winter.  As a master craftsman, one aspect of Ben Mills’ practice includes custom built chemical free raised beds.

Gotham Greens in Brooklyn is the world’s largest urban farm and expanding.  Produce is harvested and served in restaurants within a few hours.  Nell Thorn Restaurant in La Conner, WA has held the torch for years and is joined by sprouting conscious restauranteurs.  The present Hand-Crafted Movement is in step with its Agrarian Partner utilizing a material from earth to fire to table: CLAY.  It is my main means for sculpture and my line of Farm to Tableware.  Chefs classically have sous chefs and now some have personal ceramicists creating works for their original cuisine.

Farm to Tableware by Margueritaworks with Harvest Scene Petroglyph (Canyonlands National Park) - planting & watering seeds

Farm to Tableware by Margueritaworks with Harvest Scene Petroglyph (Canyonlands National Park) – planting & watering seeds

Forward Movement

Our immediate focus on the bees grew with the Native Pollinator Garden.  The problem is complex but solutions are often simple and best ones start at home.  The honeybee showed us it is not about the bees – it’s about the we.  We are a part of the bee’s lives and they are a part of ours.

The mini messengers that brought us to this residency speak loud and clear: We are in this together.

Our Native Pollinator Garden provided forage and food for thought- starting with healthy seeds, native plants, and organic soil in chemical-free Douglas fir raised beds.  As we wrap up our residency, we ceremoniously handed off the watering can to the Schuylkill Center.  Like ongoing adventures, it’s a beginning. As the Native Pollinator Garden embarks on a new season, we leave you with an invitation to pollinate awareness.

 

Thank you!

Marguerita Hagan

For the Native Pollinator Garden:

Maggie Mills, Ben Mills, and Marguerita Hagan

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#StormSnakes – The Experiment Continues

By Leslie Birch, 2014-2015 LandLab Resident Artist

My LandLab project started with the idea of examining water quality and morphed into understanding and mitigating stormwater run-off, the primary water quality concern facing the Schuylkill Center’s streams. It’s been interesting to see the changes along the way, much like a meandering stream. There’s been discovery in understanding how storms are affecting the land at the Center, brainstorming around ideas to deter the run-off, and definitely a period of inventing. Last we left off, I had been in discussion with Steve at Stroud Water Research Center about the sensors for my stream monitor. I learned that Steve was going to pay a visit to a canal community in Delaware for a monitor installation, and knowing it would involve boats, I was all in!

BoatCanal

This community was going to experiment with oyster colonies to reduce the amount of algae in the water. As you can imagine, algae can build up and make it difficult for boats, so they were looking for a solution. They would need to test the water before and during the experiment in order to see if the oysters were successful. So, monitoring devices that could detect oxygen levels would be just the thing. Of course, the monitors would have to be installed in canals which were filled with saltwater–unlike the freshwater at our Center. It was interesting to see how the monitors were placed using a pole driver, which caused a bit of clanging. One family was particularly curious about the project, so I actually went ashore to explain it to them. They were so amazed and happy to hear about this possible sustainable solution for their community. All was going well with the monitors until we started testing. We got a negative read on conductivity–what??. Apparently the briny water caused a different affect on the sensor and had to be accounted for in the programming. It was a great lesson in coding, and Steve was able to tweak it to get the correct reading.

CanalSense

Back home, it was time to make some decisions on parts for my monitor. Steve knew I needed a water depth sensor to measure the amount of stormwater coming in, as well as something to do temperature and conductivity.  For water depth, a specific ultrasonic sensor did well upon testing at Stroud, so Steve was excited about using it. Also, a new combination sensor for temperature and conductivity had come to market, and based on past sensors from the company, there was a sense that it would work well for my application. So, surrounded by some fun parts, I got started soldering.

Solder

I started with the main boards that would be used for the monitoring device. Since one little mistake in solder can cause a short circuit, I had Steve inspect each connection. Two opinions are better than one–especially late at night! Later I worked on soldering the parts for the XBee communication, which would allow the monitor to talk to another unit which would transmit the data to the internet. Besides soldering, there were also the project boxes that needed holes to be drilled. The drill will always be my favorite tool on the workbench :). It was a happy moment to be finished the assembly, but it was short lived when I moved onto testing. The ultrasonic sensor was definitely getting a reading, but the information was not transmitting properly. The data is supposed to get stored on an SD card on the unit and also transmitted to a website where it is formatted into a table. After double checking the hardware, Steve figured out that there was an issue with the Arduino code that had been uploaded. So, by tweaking one line, it was quickly repaired and we were back to testing. It’s so darn exciting when things work!

Video: https://youtu.be/1lkr7QeqoEU

While Steve and I awaited a good-weather installation date for the monitor, I got together with Brenna to continue work on the larger Storm Snakes made of burlap. I remembered that the proportions had looked off on our small version, so I googled the dimensions of one of the largest snakes in the world for the new version. It seemed like each snake worked well with five coffee bean bags for length. Then, it was just a matter of trimming off the sides to create a skinnier snake. After I was finished stitching, I worked on stuffing the long casings of burlap with the mixture of coir, wood chips and stones. It took so long to shovel the materials into those casings, so my husband helped design a funnel out of a plastic plant pot to make the job easier.  I successfully filled three large snakes, and they were looking quite plump. For decoration, you may recall I was interested in having plant material growing on the outside of the snakes. Well, I learned about moss graffiti and talked to a moss supplier in the Poconos, Moss Acres, to be sure this would be viable. A few days later I received a box of moss and after getting some large containers of yogurt, I was ready to roll.

SnakeBuild

On the day of installation, it took a team of us on a utility vehicle to place each of the three snakes–they were heavy! Christina Catanese (the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Environmental Art) had surveyed the team at the Center to determine the areas of the path that were most in need of stormwater protection. One ended up in the meadow to deal with parking lot run-off, another was located on a steep curve of a popular path where water often gathered and the final was placed on a path near Wind Dance Pond to slow down the water coming off Port Royal Ave– the inspiration point for the entire project. The next step was decorating the snakes. I mixed a moss yogurt slurry and attempted to paint it. It was tricky to apply, and in the end, I gave up on a brush and just used my bare fingers. It was fun creating the patterns, and I found that simple shapes worked best, as the mixture would easily crumble with intricate lines. The families passing by on the trail found them quite interesting.

SnakeBeauty

As for the monitor installation, Steve and I finally found a good day to get it situated. I helped to hold parts as Steve hammered a mounting pole in the stream bottom. Now that things are in place, it is time for my favorite part–gathering data. So far the stream monitor seems to be collecting data fine. In its first week or so, it transmitted to the spreadsheet sporadically. This was due to the fact that the receiving station is set up in a metal building, and having problems getting a signal. Steve is currently testing different antennas that might be more suitable for this location. For now, we fetch the SD card and periodically upload, so there is some historical data currently on Stroud’s site to view, if you click on the table. Right now it is not transmitting at all, so Steve is also checking the code as it might have something to do with the way the system resets. No matter what, the data is still going to the SD card, so we will definitely have it.

One of the interesting things I’ve already learned from the data is that the conductivity is almost identical to a stream behind Stroud. I would have thought that our stream would have been more polluted as it stands near the bottom of the chain of watersheds leading to the Delaware River. Also, I thought that when a storm would come that there would be a big change in depth for quite a while, but apparently with urban streams, storm water comes in rapidly, but also dissipates quickly. So, you really have to look at each day’s numbers in order to view a difference. My hope is that these figures will be used as evidence of stormwater run-off so that future funding can be obtained to really mitigate the water coming off Port Royal Ave.

 

It has certainly bStreamMonitoreen an interesting adventure and I’ve learned so much about stormwater run-off. I’ve also had an opportunity to get more involved with science, and use my electronic skills for sustainability. I don’t think I could have found a better match for my interests, and I’m so thankful that our Center makes environmental art a priority. Getting to meet other like-minded artists has also given me hope that there is still the possibility of change in this world. It’s not going to be from corporations or governments, it’s going to have to come from people like you and me. My next step will be to create a tutorial that will be posted on Stroud’s website for creating the storm monitor. Thanks to open source solutions and the web, we can all share information and build our own solutions for environmental problems. This all ties into the idea of being a citizen scientist, which organizations like Public Lab and NASA are embracing. So, don’t be scared to be the scientist or the innovator. At the end of the day it isn’t necessarily who has the degree, it’s who is doing the work. There’s a place for all of us here on this planet, so be bold.

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Terranean drama

By LandLab Resident Artist Jake Beckman

DSCN0333Spring is just around the corner and with its arrival comes the fragrant, earthy smells of thawing soil.  As my residency investigating the myriad aspects of soil formation at the Schuylkill Center enters its final phases, I ‘m finding myself reflecting on the terranean dramas that will begin unfolding in earnest as the temperatures rise.

The rock cliffs on the southern border of the property will shed their icy tentacles, exposing to sun and rain new fissures pried apart during the winter months.  After a long winter of freezing and thawing, boulders will have transitioned one tiny step closer to becoming rocks, rocks to becoming pebbles, pebbles to sand, and so on as the mechanical and chemical processes of weathering slowly and gradually make the minerals of solid rock accessible to plant and animal alike.  The mechanical weathering of the relatively soft mica schist so prevalent in the area will be particularly in evidence as its glittery particles catch the light in the rivulets of spring snowmelt.

DSCN0328Likewise, spring is a time for the beginning of a much different drama- one that involves the long-awaited fruiting of vast underground networks of fungal organisms.  These decomposers have been hard at work throughout the year digesting all manner of otherwise hard-to-digest soil components (cellulose, lignin, even rock!).  In one of nature’s amazing instances of cooperation, the fungi and nearby plant roots exchange their metabolic by-products in specialized structures call mycorrhizae.  This exchange provides fungi with sugars they need to continue growing and enter the next phase of their life-cycle: fruiting.  If we’re observant and in the right place at the right time, we can often witness this step in the cycle through the emergence of mushrooms, toadstools, bracket fungi, and the like.  Spring is the beginning of this phase for these organisms and is such an exciting time to bear witness to life re-emerging into view!

If you’ve never given much thought to soil (or even if you have and love all of its complexity!), please join us at the Schuylkill Center for a fun evening of soil related speakers, vendors, wine and dessert.  I’ll be speaking more about my residency project and the various sources of inspiration (artistic and otherwise) that have influenced my process.  Others speakers will flesh out the science of soil, fungal interaction and the role soil plays in food production.  It would be great to see you there.  In the meantime, go give a big welcome to spring and hug some dirt!

Leslie making StormSnake

#StormSnakes Update – Wriggling Through Change

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

Water flowRight now I’ve been experiencing some interesting emotional connection to my LandLab project. This may seem odd, as my project is probably the most tech oriented of the bunch! I can only describe it as this feeling of letting go of attached ideas and really just observing and listening, both to nature and the people that know it well. That is different for me, because most of the time my projects are conceived ahead of time so they can be “pitched” to the people that may green-light them. The process for LandLab is very different because the Schuylkill Center is trusting from past work that I have the ability to produce something interesting. They are looking for ideas, but they are not holding you to them. In fact if anything, they are excited by process and evolution, and the show in the gallery really speaks to that idea. The staff at the Center has been really great in encouraging my work, and allowing it to unfold. It is no different from allowing seasons to change, and I’m really experiencing that in my whole body. That’s it for the fuzzy stuff — let’s get back to the science!

You may remember that I wanted to get a glimpse of Port Royale Ave. and the Center’s property in the rain. It has been difficult to do this because this fall the rain storms have been coming at night, which would not be the best time for video. However, there was a morning when it was raining, and I rushed out of the house to record. Check out the video.

Steve in the woodsAlthough this was not a heavy storm, at least I saw the puddling on Port Royal Ave., and I can imagine in a larger storm what the situation might be. In fact, seeing how difficult it is to actually record a storm makes the idea of a stream monitor even more valuable. So, I made a visit to Stroud to check out their monitoring equipment, as well as Steve’s workspace.  The property has nets for insects, buckets for leaves and other organic matter, and monitors for the stream — it’s a Disney World for scientists.

Steve's officeThe tech space is full of controllers, sensors, cables, cases, batteries and canisters of water. It was encouraging that I was able to identify some of the parts in the bins, and Steve and I probably could have spent even more hours than we did just talking shop.

 

After seeing what was needed, Steve helped me to order some parts. So, now I have a datalogger and an ultrasonic rangefinder at my house. The datalogger is the main board in the circuit which will give instructions and allow for data to be collected. The ultrasonic sensor will measure the water depth throughout the day. So far this is a cost-effective set-up and there may be some room for another sensor. Right now I’m favoring conductivity, which looks at metals in the water. However, the sensor has to be able to withstand freezing temperatures, and Steve is currently testing a new one to see if it will be accurate. So, we will see which sensor wins. Steve has been testing equipment like this for years and is an expert on sensors and conditions.

One of the frustrating things about the field is that a good part may be discontinued, which leads to more testing of new products. Also, just because the paperwork says a part will operate in a certain way under certain conditions does not always mean this is true. So, the process is never-ending.

Leslie and Brenna sewing StormSnakeThe next step in the process was to work on building a snake from burlap, and luckily I found someone interested in assisting me — Brenna Leary. Brenna recently graduated with a degree in environmental education and also has a love of plants. So, we’ve been having a lot of fun bouncing ideas back and forth. We spent an afternoon at the Center stuffing a casing of burlap with stones, wood chips, and coir. Then, we stitched the fabric shut and created the features of a tail, head and tongue with some tucks and scraps. It was a lot of fun and the resulting piece reminds me of the corn husk dolls I used to make as a child in Girl Scouts. They were featureless, but they had a beauty none-the-less, and so it is the same with the snake.Leslie making StormSnake

I started this post with this idea of change, and it may be apparent with electrical parts, but it is even more so with art. I first imagined my burlap StormSnakes to be painted with environmentally safe paint. However, someone reminded me that even natural things can react badly when put in touch with chemicals in stormwater run-off. So, you never know what kind of brew you are going to get running into the stream. I know there are all sorts of compromises we make daily, however, I didn’t want any risk in this, no matter how small. So, one day I was having lunch with another artist friend and we got into talking about the cool plant holders made of felt and other natural ways people deal with urban plantings. I suddenly remembered those crazy Chia Pets with the bad commercials. They were ceramic objects with a seed goop smeared onto them which would eventually sprout into odd topiaries. What an interesting idea to make snakes that had growing material on them. So, I talked to Melissa at the Center about the possibility of incorporating seeds or plugs onto my stuffed burlap snacks. She definitely had some recommendations and was excited since plants are her expertise. So, I hope to now perform a test in the greenhouse to see what emerges. Can I do stripes? Would I work with different plants and textures? I don’t know and I like that answer.

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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: