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.

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.

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

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Winter in the Forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

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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.

StacyLevy_SCEE_9

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?

http://www.stacylevy.com/