CanalSense

#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:

 

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Botanical Weaving with WE THE WEEDS

Weaving detailsBy LandLab Resident Artists Zya Levy and Kaitlin Pomerantz, WE THE WEEDS

For our Landlab Residency project, the process of its creation is of great importance. As we work towards the installation of a large-scale sculpture created from woven plant material in Spring 2015, we invite Schuylkill Center visitors to participate right now in creating the tapestry panels which will comprise it. In this way, the exploration of global plant migration, and the ecological and cultural roles of non-native plants, becomes a hands-on, engaging experience, with a cumulative, archival result. The following photos show some moments in the process– from the building and stringing of the looms, to their on-site installation, to actual weaving. The looms will be up all fall– we hope these photos encourage you to come up and try your hand at weaving with invasive vines!

Loom construction

With the help of Philadelphia Woodworks we built two large, free standing, cedar tapestry looms.

Setting up looms

For the warp, we are using colorful braided mason line. For the weft we are using invasive plants such as oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, Japanese honeysuckle, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass and bush honeysuckle harvested from the Schuylkill Center.

5.1 - collecting materials

A group volunteers help remove invasives and collect materials.

5.3 - collecting materials

We process the material by cutting it into workable lengths and stripping off the leaves revealing the colors and textures of the plant material, the silvery-grey of the oriental bittersweet and the rusty brown of the mile-a-minute.

Weaving on loomsWeaving on looms 2

With the looms strung up and material collected we are ready to weave. Friends, volunteers and students pitch in!

IMG_5827 Copy of photo 5

IMG_5634We contributed some process weavings, photos, and a vine installation to a beautiful show at  the Schuylkill Center called Progress & Process, and also included an indoor loom for this show. The show is up through December 13.

9.0 - invitation to join us!

The outdoor looms will be installed at  the Schuylkill Center through the end of November. Please come join us!

 

Do you think you can weave as fast as Zya?

Soil-Making in the forest_October 2014

Talking with Jake Beckman about LandLab

 By Guest Contributor Angel R. Graham

I had the pleasure of speaking with LandLab artist Jake Beckman over the telephone recently.  Jake explained that he is enjoying being a LandLab artist.  His LandLab experience allows him to engage himself more with the outdoors, he says, conning him more deeply to the land.

Science and art are really similar in a lot of ways.  You have to imagine the unknown.

A.G: What inspires your indoor/outdoor art pieces?
J.B: I think the thread that ties most of them together is an interest in how things work.  What are the processes that cause things to come into existence – things that we use, or part of our built environment, or things that we depend and rely on in society?  A lot of [my art] looks at materials and industrial ingredients.

A.G: Who inspires you artistically?
J.B: That’s a tough question.  I read a lot.  I am really interested in a wide range of things, popular science to scientific journals to sociological studies…I like work that engages in kind of a dialogue that is accessible.  [I like] public work that is playful but also has some sort of critical sense to it.  I like work that reaches beyond art and engages with people.

A.G: How did you connect with LandLab?
Jake explained that he received a fellowship through the Center for Emerging and Visual Artists (CFEVA).  Since they were aware of his science background, CFEVA let him know about the opportunity to work with LandLab.

J.B: I had been to the Center a couple of times before I ever even heard about LandLab.  I just enjoyed the grounds.  My wife and I had a garden plot [at the Center].

A.G: What does it mean to you to be a LandLab artist?

J.B: It’s wonderful to be outside, to be thinking about making work in an outdoor environment.  You know, I’m really hoping to honor this kind of spirit of engagement with the outdoors that I think the Center is trying to foster by making art that feels like it’s part of that dialogue and part of a process.  It is part of this ecosystem, bringing it to life in a different way.  I think it’s really been a wonderful change of perspective for me in thinking about my work and I’m really grateful for that.  When you make work that lives in this white box of a gallery, things sometimes feel a little claustrophobic.  This has been a nice experience to help to balance that and be engaged a little bit more.

A.G: What inspired your LandLab piece?
J.B: The whole overview of the project that I am working on and that I proposed is really based on my investigation into research about soil formation: the way that soils are so important for the ecology of any natural system.  They are really unique in a lot of ways.  They are not like normal ecosystems that we think of … because everything is happening at such a different scale and a different time period.  So you think of geological processes.  The project encompasses a lot of those ideas.  Two or three pieces that I am thinking of installing over the course of the fall, the winter, and into next spring really look at soil formation through these lenses of time-periods, if you will.  One of them is really going to look at the way stone dissolves over time and that is obviously going to be on a different time scale than the one I am making out of wood which will happen over the course of decades or less than that.

A.G: What is your definition of art?  What is art to you?
J.B: In some way, it is sort of philosophy made material…and you know art is many things to many different people.  What it means to me?  [laughs]  I don’t know; I think it’s play, it’s serious play.  I think some of it is convention and some of it people understand when you call something art, you are giving them license to think beyond what is it, what does it do, how does it work.  I think when you call something art, even though it is this nebulous term, it allows for some loosening of boundaries.  …It’s kind of frustrating but also freeing, and really fun, how many different disciplines I can borrow from… and then incorporate into [my art].

A.G: What you want people to take away from your work?
J.B: I guess I’m interested in drawing connections between things that we don’t necessarily connect.  In my life, I’m not really connected to the land in a way that I feel like I want to be.  I live in a city, in a place that is humming with activity, but it is a lot of human activity and a lot of infrastructure and I feel somewhat disconnected [from the land].  I don’t know that my work actually reconnects people or anything like that but I am hoping at some one point it’ll get to that stage where it forms those connections for other people as well as me.

A.G: How does your artwork connect to science?
J.B: Not as much as I would like.  I think that science is the process of asking questions, posing questions, and imagining ways to answer to them.  It is dealing with … mystery or exploring unknowns.  I think frequently my work strives to some small degree, to pose interesting questions and elicit that sense mystery and wonder that I think science has.  But I don’t think I’ve gotten there [laughs].  But I think science and art are really similar in a lot of ways.  You have to imagine the unknown.  You have to be really creative and come up with possible ideas; in science you then go on and test and [in] art you go on and make.

 

Angel Graham headshotAbout Angel R. Graham
Angel is currently a student at Mitchell College in New London, CT majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in Communications.  After completing her undergrad studies, she wants to continue on to grad school where she plans to complete a Master’s degree in Public Health.  Angel hopes to become a public policy writer for the EPA or FDA.

Introducing #StormSnakes – A LandLab Project

Leslie BirchBy LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

For my LandLab residency, I’m working on the issue of storm water run-off here at the Center.  Part of being a LandLab artist means working to re-mediate a problem using art, which is harder than just creating an installation that provides education.  My hope is not only to have an artistic intervention, but also a scientific device to measure the amount of storm water run-off. In the past month, I’ve been in conversation with Sean Duffy, Director of Facilities, and Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art, about how the run-off  from surrounding roads and neighborhoods impacts Wind Dance Pond, on the eastern side of the Center’s property.  I’ve also been reading about the work of Stroud Water Research Center, because they’ve been constructing inexpensive water monitoring equipment that may be useful for my project. With art and science in mind, I came up with an idea – Storm Snakes.

stormsnakesStorm Snakes is inspired by the sandbags often seen in flooding relief or construction sites.  For the art intervention, burlap bags will be stitched together to create giant snakes that can be positioned in certain areas to divert water.  The bags can be filled with natural materials like stones, wood chips, and cocoa matting.  The exterior of the bags can be decorated to look like real snakes found in our region, through natural dye or cut out pieces of organic cotton.  For the science part, a water monitoring device will be built and then mounted near the stream. It will use a sensor to detect changes in water depth and then relay the data back to a computer at the Center.  This would help the Center learn more about how much runoff reaches their pond.  The monitor can also be decorated to resemble a snake, so it is friendly looking and camouflaged with the environment.

When I shared my idea with Sean and Christina, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  Their reactions were partly surprise, as the solution was more fun than traditional ones used in the field, but there was also excitement.  Sean explained that Storm Snakes would actually improve the soil.  Their wood chips will break down, increasing the fungal community – it’s what they feed on.  I may not know much about soil chemistry, but this tidbit about fungus quickly made me a Storm Snake advocate! Plus, having data about storm water run-off could help the Center obtain funding for future remediation projects. It seemed like a win-win – Storm Snakes was official.

Recently I secured Stroud Water Research Center as a partner, which is awesome!  They’re very interested in adding data about the Center’s stream to their database and in tackling another water monitoring set-up.  In this case, I’m looking for the monitor to be as inexpensive as possible, while yielding science-worthy data. I hope to help Stroud by documenting my build of the water monitoring system—a tutorial will enable other citizen scientists around the world to create stream monitoring systems.

Exploring the runoffHowever, before I build anything, I first have to do more investigation of the storm water run-off. So, I went back to the Center this week for a hike with Sean and Christina. Although I already knew about one channel that had formed from the run-off on the hill, Sean took me to another area that showed an even larger channel.  I’ve nick-named it the “Schuylkill Grand Canyon” as it was large enough to hold multiple people. Christina, who has a background in hydrology, was astounded by its size. Is the run-off still moving down this large channel? Is the smaller channel formed from this larger one? Where exactly is water entering from the road? These are the questions I have now, and my next step is to film a rain storm. So, stay tuned as my rain mystery continues.

Until next time,

Leslie Birch

Gazing upwards to see backwards: A look at local vines and their origins

By LandLab Resident Artists WE THE WEEDS, Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya S. Levy

Vines in parking lotLook up on any summer day and your eyes are bound to come into contact with climbing, clambering vines.  Clinging to treetops and fences, tumbling across buildings, these robust and intrepid climbers adventure always upwards, using structures natural and manmade to achieve great heights and lengths.

On the Schuylkill Center premises alone there are dozens of vine varieties.  Natives include moonseed, wild yam, grape, green briar, and poison ivy.  Even more abundant are the invasives: oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, Japanese honeysuckle, porcelain berry, and wisteria.  Where did these travelers come from?  What are they doing here?  What can be done about, or better yet, with them?

Our botanical arts collaboration, WE THE WEEDS (comprised of botanist Zya S. Levy and artist Kaitlin Pomerantz), will explore the answers to these questions during our summer-fall LandLab residency.  We have begun identifying local vines, and our next step will be to research the histories of their global transmigrations– where they came from, how they got here, and why they are thriving.  Later in the summer, we will harvest numerous invasive vines for use in a woven sculpture that communicates our findings.  Our installation will be a visual interpretation of the complex and interwoven migratory trajectories of these trailing plants.

woman with vinesThe relationship between vines and humans extends far beyond Tarzan – throughout history humans have used vines as building, binding, food, and medicinal materials (and much more), and vines have used humans (or human structures, rather) to reach astounding new heights.  Really, unlike many plants that have been displaced by the growth of human industry, vines thrive on it– winding over human infrastructure to advance their main biological imperative: to spend minimal energy investing in support tissue so as to spend more energy on reaching sunlight.  More infrastructure for vines means faster-growing, more abundant vines!  Beyond this, many invasive vine species thrive in disturbed, even toxic soils– indicating that human pollution may be encouraging the propagation of invasives.  This complicated, yet fascinating, relationship, antipathy, and perhaps symbiosis, is what we wish to look into more closely through our research.  We believe that a better understanding of how and why foreign vines got here and how we may have been involved,  could lead to more fruitful interpretations for how to manage, and appreciate, these most scandalous, scandent plants.

Want to get involved?

Join WE THE WEEDS for a hands-on vine identification and harvesting workshop on Saturday, July 12 from 10 am to 12 pm, highlighting the characteristics, uses, and lore surrounding different local and invasive vines on the SCEE premises.  Please wear sturdy shoes and protective clothing.

Zya on site at the Schuylkill CenterAbout WE THE WEEDS

WE THE WEEDS is a botanical arts and outreach initiative aimed at raising awareness about urban ecology, headed by artist Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy.  Past projects include ethnobotanical tours, art installations, plant identification workshops and visualizations, culinary and sensory plant experiences, participatory science experiments, school and public outreach— all aimed at highlighting the presence of the natural world within the manmade landscape, and illuminating the uses, historical and cultural significances of spontaneous wild urban flora.

Kaitlin Pomerantz is a Philadelphia artist whose practice spans a variety of media and materials to explore the relationship between art and sustainability.  She has worked in farming, aquaculture (oyster farming) and Quaker and urban education.  Her most recent projects were completed with the support of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and RAIR – Recycled Artist in Residency.

Zya S. Levy, a field botanist with the USDA, has over ten years of experience working with flora of North America.  In love with plants since her earliest recollection, she is inspired by the resiliency and beauty of nature within the city ecosystem.  Zya is the founder of the Collecting Collective and the Philadelphia Investigative Institute of the Wild which hosts plant walks, identification workshops, botanical cocktail parties, urban research projects, and herbal study groups.

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What’s the bbuzzz?

By LandLab Resident Artists Maggie Mills, B.H. Mills, and Marguerita Hagan

Colony Collapse Disorder
The LandLab installation by Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills addresses colony collapse disorder and the devastating global loss of honeybees.  At present in the United States alone, 1/3 of the honeybee population has been lost to this disorder. These mini, mighty pollinators make every third bite of food we take possible.  Ironically, it is human behavior that is responsible for the honeybees’ catastrophic disappearance. Our installation provides a chemical free, native pollinator garden for the bee population on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center. We will be spreading the word about ways that we all can contribute to positive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial outcomes through education and community partnering in the coming months. Continue reading

Trail

First Day as a LandLab Resident

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

MeLesI’m Leslie Birch, and I’m very curious about Philadelphia’s water. Last Thursday, I felt a bit nervous as I headed my car down the long driveway towards the Schuylkill Center. Having looked at records online for water quality in this watershed, I’ve seen mixed reports. We are located downstream from some heavy-duty coal and energy industries and also share our waters with many manufacturing industries. What hope can there be? Well, after meeting Sean Duffy, Director of Land and Facilities, I was assured there actually is a shining star – apparently the Center has some of the best water quality around because it is spring fed. Originally the land was made up of farms, and in those days you had to have a well to get your water, so this makes a lot of sense. Now, most people are connected to a community source of water through pipes, so the fact that the Center still has its original clean water source is good news.

WindDancePondThe tricky news is the issue of storm water runoff. Sean said that in the last six years, he’s never seen it so bad, and certainly this is a result of what’s going on with the climate. I don’t want to argue about what to call this global warming, but I do want to understand the resulting chaotic weather and natural disasters that are occurring.  Storm water runoff is one of those disasters. I’m sure some of you have seen this damage first hand at the shore with hurricane Sandy or even here in Philadelphia with the recent flooding. This year I had a friend who was preparing to evacuate as her garage became flooded. Many people’s cars were considered “totaled” after this recent storm, along with furniture and sentimental items. I’ve also assisted in flood preparation and clean-up at the historic Canoe Club on the Schuylkill. I’ve seen first-hand the marks left by the water level on the first floor ceiling of the building, as well as the inches of thick silt left behind by the storm. I’ve even seen injured birds and a displaced baby heron desperately looking for its mother. Recently I was reminded that even people’s pets are later found as victims of these storms. So, this rushing water is something we need to face.

PortRoyalSo, how does storm water run-off translate here at the Center? Sean was able to pinpoint the main areas of runoff on a map for me, and one of the major culprits is Port Royal Avenue.  Often, roads have stormdrains that funnel rainwater away underground to be discharged into a larger waterbody during a storm – you’ve probably seen them around cities or even your neighborhood.  But on Port Royal, there are no storm drains, and when it rains, the water still needs somewhere to go.

TrailInstead, where Port Royal borders the Schuylkill Center property, there is a curb cut – the lower burm is removed to allow the water to leave the road surface.  That moves the water straight off the road, leading it to travel above the ground’s surface down the hill towards Wind Dance Pond, causing erosion of the soils. You can see evidence of this in the picture.  The pond soon overflows and causes water to divert towards the stream. Before you know it, you’ve got damage to the stream bed and possible trail damage and downed trees. This is cause for concern and really where my journey as an artist begins.

As a LandLab Resident, my goal was first to question the quality of the water, but that has now changed to question the movement of the water, specifically what happens before and after it enters Wind Dance Pond. Some things to consider may be the change in the height of water in the pond, the speed of the flow of water, and even the path the water takes as it exits the pond.

To gather information, I’ll need to do more scouts with Sean to see other forms of damage on the trails. I’ll also have to start researching equipment used to monitor these changes in water and figure out a way to keep it tethered under tough conditions. Finally, I’ll need to determine a way to make this information visual in a way people can understand, especially children.

So, what can I do about the trickle that I see leading to the pond, knowing it has the potential to become a torrent or flood with each major rainstorm? I’m not sure yet, but I know my answer will include community. Water is a powerful agent, and it will take more than one to tame it.

 

About the Author:

Leslie Birch is a tech artist with a love of Arduino microcontrollers. She lives near the Schuylkill River in the Art Museum area and loves birding.   She also blogs at Geisha Teku.  She can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.