Cattail Pond

Restoring Cattail Pond

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

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

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

Mountain mint

Summer is the season of meadows

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Mountain mintTo me, summer has always been the season of meadows.  While in spring the light fills the forest, bringing flowers, ferns, and understory plants to life; by summer, the forest is a cool, dim respite, a darker, more peaceful place to escape the burning heat of the sun.  So it is the meadow that seems to properly represent this season of blazing hot days: steaming humid afternoons, rain storms that blast out of the late afternoon and early evening to drench the world and leave things glistening and green.  Meadows this time of year are bursting with life.

You sit down, lie down, fall back into the grass and above, see only sky, bits of grasses and shrubs just coloring the edges of your vision.  Looking up, a few clouds float past, perhaps a hawk or a vulture circles high above, the horizon expanded by the lack of trees.  In the meadow, the world is all waist-high.  Continue reading

toads in a hand - Alaina Mabaso_20130603_1359727442

Just how small is a toadlet?

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Just what size are these tiny toad babies that make their way, by the thousands, from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve to the Schuylkill Center each June?

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19.Hagan (51)

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

The Sixth Extinction, Book Review

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
Book review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a print version of this review appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, March 30, 2014.

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth KolbertWe inhabit an extraordinary planet overflowing with an abundance of life: massive coral reefs built by billions of tiny invertebrates, rain forests teeming with uncountable plants and animals, frogs and toads singing in vernal ponds, bats flitting over summer meadows.

But we also live at an extraordinary moment when all of the creatures named above, and millions more, might disappear in our lifetime. And while climate change gets all the attention as an environmental game-changer, the loss of biological diversity, the burning of the Tree of Life, has too quietly slipped below the cultural radar screen.

Until now. Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the acclaimed Field Notes From a Catastrophe about climate change, has just published the definitive book on the biodiversity crisis. It is a must-read for every citizen of this planet. Continue reading


Winter in the Forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship


Winter provides a simplified, yet inspiring version of the forest we know so well in other seasons.  I welcome its cool, calm colors after many weeks of the unrelenting holiday glitz and chaotic pace.  In many ways, it is so much easier to proverbially, “see the forest for the trees” in this season.  Uncovering the beauty and details of this place during winter is magical.  Especially after a snow, the silence paired with the subdued greys and whites removes the sensory overload that can distract in other seasons.  Texture, pattern, and form come alive and draw us into the intricacy of our forest.

To me, winter presents a perfect time for observation and curiosity:  Many of our wildlife friends have retired or relocated for the season, although evidence suggests that a few remain nearby.  I am delighted by spotting tracks on new snow, pondering where they were headed and who they met along the way.  Winter birds flitter from one shrub to another to gossip and look for their next meal.

ImageThe complex bark patterns and stoic silhouettes of leafless trees stand out against the muted background.  Crooked, twisting, and bending lines of Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) create a mysterious landscape, as if they were pulled from the Wizard of Oz forest. Beech and oak trees (Fagus grandifolia, Quercus spp.) are easily identified too as they are the ones still holding on to their persistent leaves.  Branches creak and groan and scrape against each other in the wind – sometimes at a startling volume.  Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) slyly vines its way around trees, displaying its showy red berries while quietly choking and adding unwelcome weight to its host.  Brown, dead remains of Mile-a-Minute (Persicaria perfoliata) covering shrubs in open fields remind me of our future springtime battles.  One of the few plants providing green color through the winter, the distinctive American Holly (Ilex opaca), seems to be thriving in our forest, as I spot many new seedlings and young trees along the trails.

ImageThe last of the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) fruit, a cone or cup-shaped collection of samaras, are a delicate discovery resting on the snow.   As we welcome the New Year, consider donning a few more layers and exploring the underappreciated winter landscape.  I guarantee moments of peacefulness and wonder.


Making Room for Rain – Stacy Levy

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is working to investigate the intersection of nature and the city. The role of rain in the landscape is being actively explored in programs and planning around its buildings. As a nature center, SCEE is at the forefront of solving site issues through art based intervention. On May 31, 2013 a conference on New Environmental Art will be held at SCEE to look at ways that art and science can collaborate to solve ecological problems in urban nature, and enlighten citizens to find new solutions in their own lives.

Rain is usually given a long narrow space to inhabit: gutters, downspouts, underground pipes. People can walk practically anywhere in a building and on the surrounding landscape. What if this paradigm got turned on its head? Give people a more narrow path of movement around a site while rain gets plenty of space to spread out and linger? How would our built environments change? And how would it change our relationship to rain?As an eco-artist, I want art to be an advocate of rain. Art is good at giving meaning to the leftover or abandoned aspects of the world—and rain is one of those abandoned elements. Though a yardstick worth of rain falls every yearin this region, we hardly register rain’s presence. In urban settings, architecture and engineering have generally kept rain invisible to us. The relationship between rain and the built environment needs to be changed, and art is well positioned to alter that relationship.At SCEE, I am working with ecologists, engineers and educators to create an artwork that gives the rain room to spread out while keeping people in a defined space. But people do not lose out in this design— both rain and visitors get a dynamic space to co-exist.Rain Gardens create spaces that can get wet and stay wet while the water infiltrates into the soil.

Instead of becoming a muddy soup, the rain garden holds the rain within the permeable soil and the roots of a diverse community of native plants . These plants also make good habitat for other species like insects and food for birds and other small mammals.

This new artwork deals with two types of visitors to the site: rain and humans. A grated metal catwalk prevents the plants from being trampled while also keeping people’s feet dry. ‘Staying dry’ and ‘soaking in’ are two incongruent activities—one of the reasons that rain has no place to go in the built world is the hierarchy of the dry human foot!

We want to demonstrate ways to change rain’s journey in the built environment. We also want to give visitors a chance to test out the very materials of the city: the surfaces we spend our lives walking on like asphalt, concrete and grass. How do these materials work with or work against rain?

How this art works: Some of the rainwater will be diverted and stored in an above ground cistern. Then during dry days, our visitors can pump this contained water into 5 different troughs. Each trough contains a different familiar surface materials from the landscape: concrete, asphalt, gravel lawn and meadow. People can direct the rainwater onto these different surfaces to see how the water responds— by soaking in or running off.

At SCEE rainwater will be given both the time and the place to act the way rain should act. And people will be given a place to interact with the falling rain while staying out of its way as it soaks into the soil. The idea of rain needing a refuge is a new idea to most of us. We hope people learn about rain, and the surfaces it meets in our world. This piece gives people a new angle on rain and its relationship to our built environment.

The piece will be under construction over the early spring. Please come by and see it!

Want to know more about Rain Gardens?

The Philadelphia Water Department

The Rain Garden Network

The Groundwater Foundation

The Department of Environmental Conservation

Rain Garden Alliance

Want to see more of Stacy Levy’s work?

The Race is on: Flowers vs. Trees!

The delicately pink-striped Spring Beauty

It’s springtime in a forest: an ancient race between trees and flowers.

Here’s the deal: as spring comes to a forest, the trees are still naked and bare-branched, allowing streaming sunlight to strike—and warm!—the forest floor.  Warmed by the sun’s rays, underground roots send up this year’s shoots and flowers, the fresh flowers giving pollinators like native bees, also waking up just now, their first taste of nectar in the new season.

Virginia Bluebells, three colors in one flower!

And as the flower is pollinated, it makes the seeds it needs to spread its species.

Then, as spring quickly progresses (especially in this year’s fast-forward edition of spring), trees leaf out, their buds opening to spread an umbrella of leaves across the forest canopy, effectively blocking out almost all sunlight, a cloak of darkness spreading across the forest.  

Without blessed sunlight, these flowers have a tough time photosynthesizing—making and storing the sugars they need to survive—so the flowers not only shut down but cast off their unneeded leaves, storing sugars as starches in their roots, ready and waiting for next year, when they’ll open and make flowers again.

So the flower vanishes completely—until next year.

Bloodroot, among the first flowers of spring

But the good news is there is a parade of wildflowers progressing through the season.  So on my walk, I noticed the mottled leaves of trout lily just poking their heads up out of the soil, and several stands of black cohosh rapidly unfurling.  The next wave of forest flowers on it way.

But come see them—incredibly lovely, remarkably quick-vanishing beauties.

A ‘Grate’ Day: Steel & The Schuylkill Center

Last week, I got to do something few people are given the opportunity to do. I got to see the guts of a steel plant up close and personal! Our friends at ArcelorMittal provided us with a  guided tour of the international corporation’s Conshohocken facility – just down river from our own organization. I was there with two similarly giddy co-workers, our Director of Land & Facilities and his Assistant, to pick up a custom machined well cover from the plant’s fabrication shop.

What in the world, you ask, does ArcelorMittal and the international steel industry have to do with the Schuylkill Center? As it turns out, an awful lot!

ArcelorMittal has been a recent, loyal donor of ours. As part of its commitment to supporting conservation and environmental education in operating communities like Conshohocken, it has donated over $12,000 in grants to us in the last two years. What’s more: local employees at the plant have also contributed their time at volunteer Land Restoration events, which they’ve attended with their children and grandchildren!

Last week, ArcelorMittal responded to our need for a cover for an old, 19thcentury well on our property in just a day’s time! (For those unfamiliar, we have lots of reminders of the land’s early history still peppering the woods. Some are old wells, some are the ruins of barns, buildings, and pump houses designed to bring water up to farms that used to dot Ridge Road. (That’s right!)) Yesterday, we were able to safely cover the well through a generous in-kind contribution orchestrated by Ian Mair, the plant’s Environmental Manager, and Lee, a Fabricator who made the grate.

Lee explains how he fabricated the well cover.

During our tour of the plant, on the way to pick up the well cover, we toured the cavernous buildings that make up America’s largest supplier of steel plate to our military, and the biggest steel producer on the globe. Hard-hatted and be-safety-spectacled, we saw raw steel from ArcelorMittal’s nearby Coatesville facility heat forged, cooled from over a thousand degrees by water on massive conveyors that appeared to be football fields long:

Red Hot Steel

Here’s a photo of the water evaporating from the surface of the steel:

Water cools Steel Plate heated to over 1,000 degrees.

 We also saw the inspection floor, where the steel is painted for use by the military and industry, and the yard where steel coil is set to cool for three days after being tempered. In a word: it was awesome.

The visit made me realize, like most relationship-building moments, why our mission is so important to our stakeholders like ArcelorMittal – and why it’s vital to support Environmental Education in general.

On our field trip, I learned not just about the unique material properties of steel (sometimes it’s magnetized, sometimes it’s not), but also about the ways that the plant uses and works to save energy, as well as precious water. Like many other corporations, ArcelorMittal works to model sustainable practices in a resource-intensive, but also necessary, industry. Water used in the process of making steel undergoes a rigorous purification and filtration process that exceeds industry requirements and re-uses the resource. The steel sludge filtered from water used in the tempering process is an asphalt extender.

Utilizing natural resources with minimal environmental impact is both necessary and challenging. And the ability to do both is predicated on a student’s ability to first grasp basic scientific concepts – the kind we begin to touch upon when we discuss water ecology at the Schuylkill Center, for example. We happen to undertake those investigations in unimpaired streams that feed the Schuylkill River – the same big blue ribbon of water that ArcelorMittal calls home.

The employees at ArcelorMittal understand this. It’s why they choose to support our work. We’re connected through philanthropy, but also through an understanding that it takes exposure to new ideas and experiences in nature to put a child on the path of caring for the environment – or a career in a STEM field that also works to protect the environment. They value the resource we protect: the largest remaining privately owned open space in Philadelphia.

If you or someone you know wants to make a difference, come visit us! We’ve got a couple of ways you could help. We won’t be able to show you how steel is made, but we can show you the end product sitting on top of our historic stone well – and we’ve got some young minds we’re intent on forging, too.

A very special thanks to our friends at ArcelorMittal!

Mike, Ian, Sean, and Joanne stand safely atop the well.


Emily, Director of Resource Development