IMG_2108

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.

20040940005s_0

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

Tuliptree (2)

Giants of the Forest: Reading the forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

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

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

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

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

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

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.

leaf

The Biggest Day in 50 Years

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

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

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

One big day.

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

Farmsand

Local Food Culture in Philadelphia: A look at a growing movement

By Daphne Churchill, Intern and Educator

FarmsandA bright sunny Saturday draws you out for a morning walk.  You look up the street and see the white tents with tables of fresh products: red radishes, leafy green lettuce, freshly cut flower bouquets, free-range eggs, fresh goat cheeses, liquid amber honeys.  The tables are bountiful and the tents abundant.  Neighbors chat with one another as they nibble free samples and discuss their purchases.  You overhear growers converse about sustainable practices and their business with the consumers as they debate and make their purchases.  This typical scene of a farmer’s market has become ever more common in Philadelphia during the last decade.  The local economy has seen an increase in the number of farmer’s markets and a diversification of what’s being sold.  Local goods are no longer coming only from Lancaster but from Philadelphia’s own neighborhoods.  City dwellers are increasingly advocating for the use of green space for gardening and are collaborating with a growing number of organizations for food, environmental, and health education initiatives supporting local food culture.

So what is it about local food culture that attracts so many people?  What exactly does it mean for a city like Philadelphia to be described as having a great local food culture?  Is local food viable for long-term sustainability, not just for some but for everyone?  How does growing and buying food locally change one’s relationship with food and with one’s social and economic community?  What are the benefits of growing and buying local foods? Continue reading

Find Nature – Philadelphia: Guest Post from Lauren Ferri

By Lauren Ferri, posted from Finding Nature Philadelphia

Finding Nature Phildelphia

Growing up in the suburbs of New York, I had a huge yard with plenty of space to roam and explore. I remember playing outdoors for hours as a child, unearthing rocks and breaking them open hoping to find gems. I would dig through the dirt, pretending to be an archaeologist looking for lost cities and treasures. We had a garden where I would help my mother harvest lettuce, cucumbers, eggplants and tomatoes. Fortunately I didn’t have to leave my property to experience the beauty and wonder of nature. These experiences left a lasting impression, and began my love and fascination with the natural world.

As an adult, I moved from New York to Florida, met my husband and had a child. Early on I could tell my son also had a love of the outdoors. When he was a baby I would bring him out to the grass behind our home with blocks, bubbles and books. I would read, sing and play with him. There was something about being outside in the sunshine that made us both relaxed and happy. He loved to crawl through the grass and would always smile when a breeze picked up and touched his face. I would carry him around and point out all the different trees, bushes and flowers. We would listen to the birds and walk in the grass. We would sit for hours, and just take it all in. I truly believe these experiences were helping my son become aware of the natural world around us. This was confirmed while playing indoors: he heard a bird-call from outside and suddenly stopped playing and began pointing to the ceiling. He was excited and wanted to investigate. I took him out on the patio to find the sound, and he happily sat watching the bird singing in the palm tree. Although he was unable to talk, I could see the curiosity that nature was inspiring in his life, and his desire to learn more. Continue reading

???????????????????????????????

How do you see nature? Schuylkill Center photo contest 2014

birch in snowIn celebration of the opening of Frost in the Environmental Art Gallery, the Schuylkill Center invites community members to send photos to our Winter 2014 Photo Contest.

Submit your winter photos by February 27!

More about Frost:

It is safe to say, this has been a winter of surprises, with temperatures plummeting well below what we usually expect for this region and snowfall far above.  This cold is actually at the heart of our upcoming exhibition, Frost.  We’re thrilled to welcome two Philadelphia artists to take on winter with a show that runs from February 15 – April 18.  Amie Potsic and Nancy Agati delve into the meaning of winter through a mixture of photography, sculpture, and drawing.  An opening reception on March 1 at 4 pm offers a chance for the public to see the artwork and meet the artists.

In winter, patterns emerge from the harsh relief of cold temperatures and heavy snow which illuminate the relationship between us and the changing environment we live in.  Potsic explains, “I find winter to be particularly seductive as it simultaneously highlights the stark beauty of our environment’s dormant cycle while hinting at the potential growth of spring.”  Agati’s work, exploring the ephemeral through use of natural materials, emphasizes the cyclical patterns of the natural world.  Agati writes eloquently about the details that are highlighted by winter: “Working in the studio while the snow falls – again. Linear patterns are further defined as I notice the stark contrast of branches against a pallid backdrop.”

Now, it’s your turn to be a part of it: Take your camera outdoors and capture this remarkable winter!

???????????????????????????????See nature through the eyes of your community

Come out to the Opening Reception for Frost, on March 1 at 4 pm, to see photos submitted to the contest.  The three photo contest winners will each receive a special handmade Schuylkill Center mug.

Guidelines

The rules are simple:

      • The photo must have been taken this winter
      • The photo must be taken in the Philadelphia area
      • The photo must be outdoors or feature the outdoors
      • The photo must be your own creation and its publication may not violate the rights of any third party
      • Photos must be submitted by 5pm on February 27.

Please note:

  • No explicit or offensive photos.  The Schuylkill Center reserves the right to determine whether a photo is explicit or offensive.
  • By submitting a photo, you grant the Schuylkill Center non-exclusive rights to reproduce your image.  You maintain copyright and you will be credited.
  • Winners will be chosen by a panel of Schuylkill Center staff.

How to Submit a Photo:

We look forward to finding out how you see nature – submit a photo now!

Sassafras

Of Sassafras & Spirits

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

SassafrasBeer, wine, scotch, tequila, even sake all have at least this in common: they come from plants.  In her wonderful book The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart explores the dizzying array of flowers, trees, and fungi that we have transformed into alcohol over the centuries.

Join us at the Schuylkill Center on Thursday, January 16 at 7:30 p.m. for a special chat-and-sip event. We’ll talk about and read from the book, and Olivia Carb from Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that extraordinary Philadelphia distiller, shares their drinks like Root, Snap, and Rhubarb Tea, all from plants.  Snap, for example, comes from at least six plants: sugarcane, clove, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, and tea.

Sassafras Grove3

And Root, inspired by old birch beer and sarsaparilla soda recipes, includes almost a dozen different plants, including lemons, oranges, allspice, anise, cloves, mints, and nutmeg. But no sassafras—and we’ll tell you why in a moment.

Sassafras grows in abundance here, its snake-like trunks wiggling through the understory.  About sassafras, Amy Stewart writes, “Imagine the situation that European colonists found themselves in when they arrived in North America.  They brought what food and medicine they could, but much of it was already consumed, or spoiled, by the time they came ashore.  They encountered plants and animals they’d never seen before and had no choice but to find out what they could eat or drink. Any berry, leaf, or root could either save them or kill them.

“One such plant was sassafras,” she continues, “a small and highly aromatic tree… The leaves and root bark were put to use as a medical remedy right away… to promote perspiration, to attenuate thick and viscous humours, to remove obstructions, (and) to cure the gout and palsy.”

Old-time sarsaparilla, a precursor of root beer, was made with sassafras, birch bark and other flavors.  But in 1960, after discovering that a major ingredient of the plant was carcinogenic and toxic to the liver, sassafras was banned.  That’s why there’s no sassafras in Root, but tons of other good stuff.

Come and enjoy a spirited conversation about drinking plants—while sipping the fruits of the harvest.

monarch1-goldenrod

Goldenrod and Asters in the Last Chance Cafe

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

monarch1-goldenrod

Autumn is notable for so many things: crisp weather, colorful trees, birds and butterflies migrating south, and my favorite sign of the season, fields overflowing with goldenrod and aster.

Yes, goldenrod, scourge of those hay fever commercials, the ones with some poor sneezing schmuck standing shoulder-deep in a field of stunning yellow goldenrod, waving the white flag of surrender.  Trouble is, goldenrod doesn’t give you hay fever.  Its pollen is too heavy, dense, sticky—we don’t breathe it.

But goldenrod unfortunately blooms at the same time as ragweed, a wind-pollinated nightmare that pumps trillions of pollen spores into the sky, praying one lands on another ragweed. Instead, it lands in your nose, and ACHOO!  So ragweed is the culprit, its nondescript flowers allowing it to float under the radar screen—and goldenrod gets the bad press.

It’s a shame, because goldenrod just happens to be one of the most important plants of the seasonal year.  As the growing season begins to wind down, insect life is at its peak—butterflies and bees, aphids and ants, the creatures that literally hold up ecosystems as the base of food chains, have had the entire spring and summer to go through multiple generations.  Just as they are at their population’s peak, summer wildflowers begin winding down, and these insects need food for their last hurrah before winter.

Enter goldenrod.  Like the wild version of the crocus evolved to be the sole source of nectar and pollen for Eurasian insects in the first moments of spring, goldenrod has evolved to take up the rear of the floral parade, among the very last wildflowers to bloom.  So when you enter a goldenrod field in early fall, you will see the flowers literally abuzz with activity.  Butterflies of all kinds will be nectaring on the flowers, including Monarchs heading south to Mexico.  On a stop at Morris Arboretum in September to check out the goldenrod meadow, at least six butterfly species could be seen nectaring at one time, including two different kinds of swallowtails.  A hummingbird moth, a beautiful butterfly cousin—a day-active moth that hovers over flowers like a hummingbird—trolled one corner of the meadow.  Many beetles were crawling all over the floral heads to nibble on pollen grains, a great source of protein.  Honeybees, bumblebees, flies of all kinds were working the blooms; spiders and praying mantises were stalking the other insects.  Dragonflies cruised above the field, picking off any of the flying insects they could.  Sparrows worked the field for seeds; kingbirds patrolled the edge for flying insects.

This is a goldenrod field at this time of year: a critical feeding station for literally thousands of species.

But it’s also the last chance café.  Goldenrods and their other fall collaborators like asters and ironweeds will bloom deep into the autumn—and then the flower season is over.  No more pollen; no more nectar.  Oh, there will be seeds available for seedeaters in a meadow throughout the winter, and there are no shortage of seed-eating critters, but for butterflies and bees, this is it, their golden moment in the sun.

Goldenrods and their kin are especially adapted for this season.  Insects are intensely cold-blooded (listen, for example, to katydids calling their name loudly at night in big three-syllable chirps; the frequency of their song is directly correlated to the temperature).  As the days cool down, it becomes harder and harder for big-bodied bumblebees to work the field searching for pollen and nectar.  So the goldenrods have compensated by evolving clustered floral bouquets, bunching their flowers closely together into groups, giving bees a target-rich energy-efficient pollen-collecting experience—a bee simply walks along a goldenrod stalk and encounters dozens and dozens of flowers.   In turn, the bees oblige the goldenrod by making sure they are happily pollinated to produce next year’s seeds—a great exchange for both.

There’s even a fly that lays its egg in the stem of the goldenrod, chemicals in its ovipositor causing the stem to swell and grow an almost cancer-like ball.  The fly’s larva sits inside that stem’s swelling ball, hiding during the cold winter while eating the walls of its home.  But chickadees and downy woodpeckers have discovered this secret, and peck open goldenrod ball galls to get at the little maggot hiding inside.

There are six million stories in the goldenrod city.  And none involve hay fever.

Happily, goldenrod has begun to rise in public opinion: I’ve seen it included in fall bouquets at flowers shops, and garden centers often include cultivars in their native plant sections.  In your garden, it can be tall and it can take over, but it does extend your blooming season as late as Thanksgiving—not a bad run.  And it is one critically life-saving plant in the fall season.

Just ask the nearest honeybee.

Mike leads a goldenrod workshop and field trip for Morris Arboretum on Saturday, October 19; visit morrisarboretum.org for more information.  A version of this essay originally appeared in The Main Line Times.