Susan Beard Photography

Roxborough’s Kay Sykora is the 2017 Meigs Leadership Awardee

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Thursday, November 16 at 7 pm, the Schuylkill Center presents our highest honor, the Henry Meigs Award for Environmental Leadership, to an old friend and Roxborough neighbor, Kay Sykora.

Susan Beard PhotographyFounder of the incredibly successful Manayunk Development Corporation in the early 1980s, Kay has over the last 30 years pioneered and tirelessly championed the Schuylkill River Trail through Manayunk and Roxborough, leading the effort to transform the canal towpath into the River Trail, now one of Manayunk’s most-loved amenities. She played a key role in the planning efforts that led to the Manayunk Bridge’s reinvention as a multi-modal trail beloved by thousands of bikers, runners, and walkers.

She also founded Destination Schuylkill River to re-connect Manayunk to its river, has been involved in restoring the canal, and is equally passionate about making the towpath a more vibrant and enticing community amenity. She has been a leader in the Central Roxborough Civic Association and co-founded Roxborough Green, a community tree planting and gardening project.

Susan Beard Photography“I am deeply honored by the recognition for the work we all have done,” Kay said.  “I say this because I feel that I am more a facilitator for the people who care about trails, nature, and greening.  If people didn’t care the work never would have succeeded.” Continue reading

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Plants and People Connect through Art

Photo courtesy of Vaughn Bell

Photo courtesy of Vaughn Bell

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Most people know that we rely on plants for the food we eat and the air we breathe, but the interconnections between plants and people actually go much deeper and are more nuanced. Scientists continue to discover the complexities of how plants take in and respond to information, even communicating with each other through underground networks and chemical signals.  Human systems powerfully influence plant communities, locations, and health – and they also exert a powerful influence over us.  

Yet, despite the intricacies of the plant-human relationship, plants are often overlooked, even compared to other aspects of the natural world. Studies have demonstrated and revealed the concept of “plant blindness,” in which many people literally don’t see plants at all, as they become the equivalent of ecological wallpaper.  We surround ourselves with representations of plants (they are all over our interior decorating, and certain kinds of plants are elevated in our traditions around holidays and significant milestones), yet we have little connection with the plants themselves, knowledge of their qualities, or their significance in our lives.

The Schuylkill Center’s fall gallery show features artists who explore the relationships between plants and people and the places they inhabit and move through – revealing and encouraging these oft overlooked anthro-botanical relationships.

Ellie Irons Invasive Pigments project investigates the origins and uses for plants that are often uncelebrated or even reviled – the plants we call weeds or invasive plants. Irons has been creating watercolor paint from the wild plants she finds near her studio in Brooklyn, and her watercolor maps help show the way these plants have moved globally in response to human systems.

Rachel Eng makes the connection of our reliance of plants not across space, but across geologic time. In unfired clay, Eng rendered plants from the Middle Devonian period in the Appalachian region that we know today as Marcellus Shale gas, then photographed them in Pennsylvania landscapes threatened by Marcellus Shale drilling. These foreign, extinct plants remain with us in the coveted form of natural gas, yet are rarely part of that highly politicized conversation.

Vaughn Bell’s Metropolis provides an immersive view of a representative sample of the Schuylkill Center forest, yet provides a wholly new perspective on these plant communities. Rather than looking down on the plants, or up to the tree tops, Metropolis puts the viewer at eye level with plants, equalizing this physical relationship. This shift in perspective allows for a more empathetic connection, seeing the world from a plant’s vantage point. The experience is multisensory, however – the dramatic smell and humidity change drives home just how much plants shape their own environments, and shape us.  Metropolis’ form alludes to a city skyline, further connecting the ecological and urban systems that tend to be considered as separate.

The Environmental Performance Agency (EPA) is a new artist collective named in response to the proposed defunding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Deploying yet subverting the trope of a government bureaucracy, the group engages in a variety of practices centered on plant/human relationships, with urban weeds as mentors, collaborators, and stewards.

The artists in Anthrobotanical help us to see plants more clearly, and more in connection with ourselves.  Scientists have discovered the mechanisms by which stands of trees merge their roots to share nutrients and resources,  to modulate and protect against extreme weather conditions –the community becomes the priority over individual competition.  We may do well to remember the extent to which our own roots are tied up with plants.

Please join us to celebrate the opening of Anthrobotanical with a reception on September 7th at 6 p.m. Enjoy light refreshments in the gallery and a guided tour of the exhibition. Anthrobotanical  will be on view through December 9th.

Artist Profile: Jane Carver

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Imagine the quiet of a grove of tall pine trees, the impressions of your footsteps barely audible on a cushion of pine needles, punctuated by the occasional bird or creaking limb.  Now, imagine the soundscape also includes an ethereal voice accompanied by the haunting notes of an accordion. You’ll have the opportunity to experience precisely these sounds this summer, as artist Jane Carver performs a special one night only concert in our Pine Grove.

Carver is a Philadelphia-based artist and musician who is part of our summer exhibition, Making in Place.  She started playing classical music when she was quite young, then branched out into folk music as a teenager.  She is primarily a vocalist and an accordionist, both of which she will share in her concert in July.

For Carver, performing is a way that she can connect with others.  “I love singing with other people,” she says, “That’s my joy.”  Carver now sings with Svitanya, a women’s vocal ensemble that specializes in Eastern European folk music.  Carver describes listening to folk music as the experience of “hearing something completely unfamiliar and feeling like you’re home.”  

At the opening reception for Making in Place in May, Carver performed a few songs in our amphitheater, and this idea truly resonated with me.  Most of the lyrics were in Bulgarian and so I could not directly understand the meaning, yet as I listened to Carver along with the wind in the trees of the Schuylkill Center and the sounds of playing children, I felt it. Carver says that the fundamental point of performing is to “create a moment that everybody can be part of,” and in the moment of her performance, we were.

In addition to her site-specific performances, Carver spent the past few months taking field recordings at the Schuylkill Center and blending them with her own music to develop a sound piece designed to be experienced as visitors walk along our trails. Signs in the gallery and at the entry points to the Widener Trail detail how to listen to it on your own device as you explore the Schuylkill Center property.

Carver says that it has been valuable to her to be an artist at the Schuylkill Center, with space to explore her ideas and respond to our site.  She reflects, “The Schuylkill Center is so important because it provides various means of access to incredibly important resources.  I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be an artist within this site and hopefully share these resources with a greater public through my work.”

As our environmental art program grows and develops, we hope to offer more performance events and multidisciplinary art experiences, expanding from environmental art to environmental arts.  If you couldn’t join us for the opening reception, I hope you won’t miss seeing Carver perform this summer – it’s sure to be a special night.

Editor’s Note: Quotations from this video were drawn from an interview with Jane Carver conducted by students from St. Joseph’s University’s Beautiful Social program in collaboration with the Schuylkill Center. An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

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Schuylkill Center Old Fashioned Recipe

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This past Saturday afternoon was idyllic: the early fall light streamed through the trees golden and green, the air was crisp, but not cold.  And 130 friends of the Schuylkill Center gathered in Jubilee Grove to celebrate our 50th anniversary, wrapping up the year of special events.  We dedicated Jubilee Grove and it’s new Binney Meigs sculpture, our Nature Preschoolers sang a delightful song for us (“Schuylkill Center Dream”), Judy Wicks and Maya van Rossum both read letters to 2040 (look out for their letters on the blog soon), and our education director Gail Farmer read a letter on behalf of Stacy Levy.

SCEE2906And, everyone enjoyed our new signature cocktail, Trees of the Schuylkill Center, or a Schuylkill Center Old Fashioned as it was quickly named.  So today, I’m sharing the recipe – enjoy – or come back and join us for another botanical cocktail hour.  Special thanks to Zya S. Levy of WE THE WEEDS for the inspiration.

Schuylkill Center Old Fashioned
0.5 ounce dark amber maple syrup
0.5 ounce black cherry syrup
Several dashes bitters
2 ounces bourbon
3 – 4 ounces sparkling water, as desired

  1. Pour the syrups and add a few dashes of bitters
  2. Add bourbon and mix
  3. Add sparkling water and stir again
  4. Serve over ice and enjoy in the beauty of the forest
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A Real Picnic: Celebrating 50 Years

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Editor’s Note: We celebrated our 50th anniversary with a public picnic on July 11, 2015. Below is an excerpt from Executive Director Mike Weilbacher’s remarks at the event.

On July 1st 1965, a young science teacher reported to his first day of work, and what was then called the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center opened its doors to the public. The science teacher’s name was Dick James, and Dick went on to build one of the country’s premier centers for environmental education, retiring almost 20 years ago in 1996. His widow Karin directed our Center’s library for many years, in its day one of the best libraries in a nature center anywhere, and his son Andy managed our property for about 15 years. Both are still great friends of the center, and always so glad to welcome them back to the house that Dick built.

But in 1965, there wasn’t yet even a definition of environmental education. Dick and his staff were helping invent a new field, merging outdoor education with nature study to teach about the new concepts that everyone was talking about then: pollution, ecology, smog, litter. There were not that many environmental nonprofits in the area in 1965, and no nature centers of this size in any major city anywhere—we were and are a first in this department.

Fast forward 50 years. We are still a pioneer in environmental education, still a leader in environmental education in the city, the region, and the state. Our new nature preschool is the first in Pennsylvania, and one of only a handful nationwide. Our wildlife clinic is the only one in a four-county region. Our environmental art program is the most ambitious of its kind in the country. Many of you might remember that we sold spring water back in the day, cars pulling up to fill their jugs with our water, which people trusted more than Schuylkill punch. So we can also claim that we invented bottle water!

The issues have changed dramatically—words like biodiversity and climate change are new. But what has not changed is that we have been connecting people to nature for 50 years now.

And that’s only because of you. You the staff assembled here. You who serve on the board of trustees. You who are volunteers—on the trails, in our gift shop and office, with our Senior Environmental Corps, with Toad Detour, with the wildlife clinic. You who are members or friends or supporters. Thank you.

Thank you for bringing us to this day, for giving us the privilege of connecting you to nature here in Philadelphia. Whether you’ve come on a walk, or volunteered counting birds, selling native plants, or healing damaged wildlife, thank you for your support. We are only here at this important juncture because of you.

And though we are celebrating our 50 years, we have our eyes firmly fixed on the future. In 25 years, in 2040, a group just like this will gather in Jubilee Grove, a new site we are planting this year, to open a time capsule that includes your predictions and thoughts about the future. What will the environment look like in 25 years? Add your voice to the time capsule so you can send a message to the year 2040.

We’re also ending our year of 50th anniversary celebrations in October with a forward-looking town meeting on the future of nature centers and environmental education. We helped invent and define the field in 1965; we’re going to help define what an environmental education center needs to be doing in the 21st century to solve the fierce environmental issues coming down the road.

We were pioneers then. Because of your support, we are still pioneering today.

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Natural Dyeing: from plant to fabric

By Guest Contributors Elissa Meyers and Mira Adornetto

After pulling out green cotton fabric from a naturally fermenting indigo vat, our workshop group watches excitedly as the green transitions into a dark indigo blue. This incredible process, which occurs as the indigo dye oxidizes has been used for thousands of years in numerous places and cultures. Throughout human history, color has been applied to fibers on every continent, starting as far back as 2,600 BCE. Plants, shellfish, and insects: wildflowers, trees, mollusks and bugs, have been used to dye fibers.

Since the industrial revolution dyeing went from natural colorants like plants and insects to synthesized petroleum based dyes, which are fairly damaging to the environment. The argument that modern “low-impact” dyes are less harmful to the environment than natural dyes has become a highly debated topic in the textile industry. Millions of tons of synthetic dye are still being dumped annually into waterways leaving textiles as one of the top ten worst polluted industries.  Natural dyes, however, offer an alternative.

marigoldssteepingNatural dyeing usually includes the use of a metallic salt, known as a “mordant,” from the French word “mordre” meaning “to bite.”  Mordants include alum, iron, tin, chrome, copper, and also tannic acid. Tannins are readily available in the environment: they’re in black tea, as well as in oak trees and many other plants.  Alum (sometimes used in food and cosmetics, though less often these days) is the most prevalent metal in the earth’s crust, followed by iron. These mordants can be used and disposed of safely. Although some of the other metals, tin and chrome for example, can produce more intense colors, they have a larger safety risk and environmental impact. These metals tend to give natural dyes a bad reputation as they are toxic to the environment. In fact, at BLUEREDYELLOW, we don’t even consider using them in our work.

Our society’s awareness of global environmental issues has increased substantially since the 60s. In today’s DIY culture more people want to use accessible and sustainable materials. People now are more concerned with where manufactured goods come from and what to use them for. When synthetic dyes hit the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution, natural dyes became nearly obsolete. However, craftspeople like William Morris, (known for his textile patterns) continued to work using the older, more craft-based, processes including natural dyeing. With today’s advancements in science and technology, we have a better understanding of the world around us.  Yet there is still so much to learn in the world of natural dyes. Philadelphia was once a powerhouse of the textile industry. Currently, it is a region with an active and abundant arts community, with an emphasis on craftsmanship.

Aside from the arts, Philadelphia is abundant with urban gardens and is a region where a long list of dye plants can be grown and found. Some of these include mugwort, goldenrod, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, mint, dock, and sorrel. There are several tannin bearing plants including black walnut and sumac. It is also possible to grow historical dye plants such as the Japanese variety of indigo dye (vibrant blue) as well as madder root (alizarin red). It is incredible how many options there are to produce color in this area and we hope the craft will continue to be explored in a local, as well as global, way.

About the Authors
Elissa Meyers and Mira Adornetto founded BLUEREDYELLOW, a design and natural dye house producing comfortable, chemical free textiles.  BLUEREDYELLOW was founded with support from The Corzo Center for the Creative Economy. Currently, they work with businesses offering an alternative dye service and do piece dyeing as well as dyeing by the yard.  Elissa and Mira also lead natural dyeing workshops around the Philadelphia area.  They will be leading a two-day workshop at the Schuylkill Center on July 17 and 18.

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Earth Day and the Green Tsunami

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, 45 years ago today, more than 20 million Americans participated in the largest mass demonstration in American history, some 1 million in New York City alone.  They marched wearing gas masks and buried cars in mock graves protesting polluted air, threw buckets of dead fish into the lobbies of corporate offices to protest polluted water, and carried signs with grim messages like “RIP: Earth.”

It was the first Earth Day.  Reflecting back, it’s too easy to forget how angry people were about a polluted planet back in 1970.

In Philadelphia, thousands gathered on Belmont Plateau for speakers like Edmund Muskie, then a leading presidential contender, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, honoring the intention of creating a “national environmental teach-in” as envisioned by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, father of the event.

As a middle schooler on Long Island, I organized a litter cleanup in my town’s park. Bitten by the environmental bug then, I knew I’d be doing environmental work now.

Fast forward 20 years. On Saturday, April 22, 1990, 120,000-plus people crammed into Fairmount Park under a picture-perfect day for a family-oriented festival of music, games, speeches, food and more.  Here’s an irony: Earth Day 1990 shut down the Schuylkill for hours, and the crowd left behind mountains of unrecyclable trash.  Oops.

But  more than 200 million people from 141 countries participated, the largest mass event in world history.

This year?  Thousands already joined Usher, will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on the Mall in DC last weekend, while 2,500 runners joined the Clean Air Council’s Run for Clean Air, our city’s longest running Earth Day event.  It’s the “Phillies Red Goes Green” event tonight in the stadium, and hundreds of groups are hosting Earth Day activities bookending these two weekends, like my Schuylkill Center’s Naturepalooza festival on Saturday.

And 1 billion people—1 in 7 worldwide—from 200 countries will participate.  Surprise: Earth Day is suddenly one of the world’s largest nonreligious observances.

Dismiss Earth Day if you will—and many do—you have to give it this: the day has staying power, and a heckuva track record.  1970’s massive demonstration jumpstarted the modern environmental movement, a raft of environmental groups like Friends of the Earth were founded, Nixon caved to mounting pressure and signed bills creating the EPA, impact statements, and the endangered species act, and thousands of kids like me went into environmental careers.  Almost every curbside recycling program is brought to you courtesy of 1990’s toned-down Earth Day, as are dolphin-safe tuna, recycled paper products, and Rio’s Earth Summit.

Since we are much better counter-punching than planning, 1970’s Earth Day was a reaction to the Santa Barbara oil spill, DDT and eggshell thinning, Lake Erie being declared biologically dead, lead from gasoline lowering people’s IQ.  1990 in turn was a counter-punch to medical waste washing up alongside dead dolphins, Yellowstone burning under a fierce drought, and NASA scientist James Hanson testifying in Congress that the world was warming, the first scientist to do so.

It’s easy to see what 2020 will be in reaction to: in the next five years, new data—not to mention, say, a giant iceberg calving off the Antarctic shelf—will likely end the 25-year debate on climate change, the disappearance of a charismatic species like the rhinoceros will call make biodiversity a top-tier issue, and horrific droughts here and floods there will signal the emergence of water as a central concern.

The environment likely surfaces—finally!—as a core issue in that year’s presidential election.

So Earth Day 2020’s confluence of big anniversary with monstrous problems will cause the day to explode, and more than 2 billion of us—double this year—will participate, easily a low-ball estimate.

For a green tsunami is coming, a tidal wave of concern for the fate of an imperiled planet.  And love it or loathe it, Earth Day will be at the heart of that tsunami.

The day is here to stay, and will only get bigger.  Happy Earth Day.

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Wetlands and WetLand in the city

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Often, when I fly into Philadelphia International Airport, I imagine what a bird’s eye view of the area must have looked like back before Philadelphia became the bustling metropolis it is today.  If I squint just the right way, I can almost see how the flat expanse of skyscrapers and rowhomes transforms to green, how South Philly and even the airport itself melt into the freshwater tidal wetlands that were once in their place (the last remnant of which is still visible at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge). Continue reading

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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.

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.