Cathedral Village

Natural Selections: COVID at Cathedral Village

As COVID-19 deaths in America hit the 100,000 mark, there has been a lot of attention– TV news stories and front-page newspaper accounts– on senior centers and nursing homes, and rightfully so, as fully one-third of those deaths have occurred at these sites.

So as Roxborough wrestles with the virus, it seemed especially important to talk with Charles Gergits, who for the last five years has been the executive director of Cathedral Village, the continuing care retirement community off Ridge Avenue by the Andorra Shopping Center. How has Cathedral Village fared?

“We’re holding our own,” Charles told me last week, “we’ve been very fortunate so far. With 400 residents and a staff of 300, we’ve had a total of five residents and three staff contracting the virus, and there currently is one active case on staff and one active case with residents.” Sadly, he reports, “there have been two deaths here.”

But that’s– to me, neither skilled in journalism nor medicine– a remarkably low number compared to how the virus has ravaged so many nursing homes. How have they avoided what has happened elsewhere? “Our staff has talked about that a lot,” he told me, “ and we think it starts with a lot of little things. For one, our team is very experienced at infection control. This virus is more deadly than the flu, but we have not had a flu case in our skilled nursing facility in the last two years. We were also the first skilled nursing area to close to visitors.” They closed on March 8, almost a week earlier than many other centers. “We were proactive, which helped keep numbers down.”

He does worry about the reporting on his peers. “Senior centers have been villainized as far as reporting,” he offered, “because those who are elderly and those whose health is compromised are the ones hit hardest by the virus, and that’s who resides in skilled nursing facilities.” He feels that perspective has not been communicated in these pieces. Point taken.

For both residents and staff, there has been “a lot of anxiety” over the unknown path of the disease. “I feel bad and sorry for the residents and their families,” he continued. “It’s hard for the residents not to visit and socialize; hard for the families not to see them. I feel bad for what’s going on.”

But it has also “made the community stronger,” he told me. With the dining rooms closed, staff delivers food to each resident’s room, and one staff member’s job is to go shopping for three or four hundred people. When the deliveries were being made recently, “every door and window had a thank-you sign on it. Our residents are increasingly appreciative of the little things and very supportive of our staff– we’ve been flooded with letters and signs.

“And our staff,” he continued, “has a renewed sense of pride. It’s been good to see the emphasis nationwide on staff as frontline heroes– it’s good to see the pride. At the same time, there is this anxiety of not knowing whether you might contract it, of bringing it home to your family, or bringing it to one of the residents– and they couldn’t live with that.”

Knowing this has been unbelievably stressful on staff, he says they have tried very hard to be flexible with their staff, accommodating to adjustments like childcare, which collapsed for many in the pandemic. “We also have apartments we can put staff up in when we need to,” he said.

I called him from my home, where I am working, but Charles was at Cathedral Village. “Everything we do is hands-on,” he volunteered, “we’ve all been still at work, haven’t been able to work from home at all. And we’re all working long days, staying here when needed.” I joked about his frontline staff earning combat pay, and he quickly said, “yes, we’ve made adjustments to pay at times.”

His parent company, Presbyterian Senior Living, for whom Charles has worked for 20 years now, “has been very supportive, getting us the PPE we need. We have enough for our residents now. But if something happens, kike if there is a mad rush, getting more equipment worries me.”

Charles says “we are very thankful for the support we’re received from the Roxborough community– people have volunteered to make masks and shields for us, and there have been lots of posts online.” He’s thrilled at the outpouring of support from our community. As the hospital sign notes, we are #RoxyStrong.

Moving forward, he says “state and federal governments need to make sure skilled nursing staff have more support faster. People were really focusing on hospitals at first– they were not really focusing on skilled nursing facilities.” That needs to change.

And he confesses that “like everyone else in the United States, we’re getting a little tired of being inside, coming up on three months now. But I do believe that some of the guidelines have prevented the spread of the disease– social distancing and wearing masks have helped. And I’m nervous, as most people are, as things start opening up– will COVID rebound? Will there be an increase?”

He hopes not; we all agree. But here’s some love and prayers to the entire Cathedral Village community, staff and residents. We look forward to seeing you outside again soon.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Earth Day 1970 Changed American History

At 1983's Earthfest, the center's celebration of Earth Day, participants played with a 6-foot Earthball, one of the many activities at the event. Mike Weilbacher, then a  member of the education staff, organized the festival for the center.

At 1983’s Earthfest, the center’s celebration of Earth Day, participants played with a 6-foot Earthball, one of the many activities at the event. Mike Weilbacher, then a member of the education staff, organized the festival for the center.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Wednesday, April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a watershed moment in American history, and a day that continues to change with the times. While this is not the Earth Day anyone expected, as one billion people from almost 200 countries are NOT, as originally expected, gathering in large protests and celebrations, millions of people worldwide are instead taking to social media to produce an outpouring of hashtags and tweets; 2020 is a decidedly digital Earth Day.

It is worth remembering what happened 50 years ago, because it changed the course of the country.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans–almost one in 10 of us at the time at the time–gathered in what was decidedly a protest, then the largest mass demonstration in American history. People paraded down main streets in gas masks to plead for cleaner air and less smog, buried cars in mock funerals for the internal combustion engine, and held innumerable teach-ins, a phrase borrowed from the antiwar movement, at 2,000 colleges and 10,000 schools across the country.

The day catapulted the environment onto the front pages of newspapers and the lead story for national news shows, and words like “pollution” and “ecology” became quickly embedded in pop culture lingo.

A tidal wave of activism swept through Congress, which soon passed a bipartisan raft of legislation, addressing clean air and water, endangered species, toxic substances, pesticides, surface mining, and much more. They created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the National Environmental Policy Act that required the creation of environmental impact statements. Republican President Nixon signed all of these bills into law, as his people wanted him to better appeal to younger voters for his 1972 reelection; Nixon and his wife even helped plant an Earth Day tree on the White House lawn in 1970.

For me, few peacetime events in our history have had the legislative track record of Earth Day 1970. And it embedded environmental issues in American politics. “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970,” wrote Jack Lewis in a 1990 EPA blog. “When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2500 percent increase over 1969.”

Another child of Earth Day 1970 is the numerous environmental nonprofits that sprang up across the country like mushrooms after a rainstorm, so many tracing their roots to the first Earth Day.

The careers of innumerable scientists, activists, and nonprofit leaders was born as a result of the day; I was a seventh grader on Long Island, became captivated by the event, led a litter cleanup in my town’s park, and knew at ripe the age of 13 that I’d be doing environmental work. This story is not unique to me.

 

Belmont Plateau in 1970

Belmont Plateau in 1970

Philadelphia, by the way, rocked the first Earth Day, holding an Earth Week of events that included a huge demonstration at Belmont Plateau (image above) and a reading of a “Declaration of Interdependence” at Independence Hall. The Broadway cast of “Hair” left New York City to sing here, beat poet Allen Ginsberg read his acclaimed “Howl,” Maine Senator Edmund Muskie–then a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president–headlined at Belmont Plateau; the week’s speakers were a who’s who of American culture at the time: population writer Paul Ehrlich, landscape architect Ian McHarg, science fiction writer Frank Herbert of “Dune” fame, and more. When Walter Cronkite reported about the Earth Day phenomenon on his CBS news show, the image behind the iconic anchor was Philadelphia’s Earth Day logo.

So while COVID-19 has forced us to retreat into a digital Earth Day, radically reducing the visual impact of a billion people protesting around the planet, it is important to acknowledge what that first Earth Day was back in 1970:

A transcendent event that left an indelible mark on the American landscape. It literally changed the course of history–for the better.

Come See the Flowers Race the Trees

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.  Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.
Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. In fact, you can, if you simply walk down our Ravine Loop.

Like the red trillium in the accompanying photograph, an elusive and rare plant that New Englanders dubbed “wake robin,” as it bloomed there about when robins return north from their migrations (robins are year-round residents here in Roxborough). 

Or the Virginia bluebells in the other photo– one of everyone’s favorites, as it is taller than many of the spring ephemerals and one of the bluest of them all. You can find it on our Ravine Loop and elsewhere across the property, and is happily one of our harder-to-miss wildflowers. I love its pink buds that open to blue flowers– two colors for the price of one.

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.  Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.
Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

But that’s just the beginning of the parade. There are bright yellow trout lilies, named for the spotting on their mottled leaves that resembles a trout’s back. And shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Jacob’s ladder, a complicated lilac-colored flower with ladder-ish leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside what looks like his mottled purple lectern. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Spring beauties, each petal a tiny white surfboard with a pink racing stripe down its middle. 

And that’s just a start.

What’s amazing about these plants is the narrow window of time through which they slide. A forest in spring features trees without yet any leaves, so sunlight shines through and caresses the forest floor. Warmed by the sun, long-dormant roots and rhizomes suddenly come alive and send sprigs of growth up above the ground. These leaves photosynthesize– remember that from high school biology?– using sunlight to make sugars and send starches down into the rootstocks so they grow larger. When those rootstocks are large enough and have the resources, the plants send flowers into the world, often brightly colored to dazzle pollinating bees and butterflies.

And they coincidentally dazzle us too. 

But the flowers are in a race against time– and the trees. As trees leaf out, those leaves block sunlight, form a sun-proof umbrella across the forest, and block those flowers from growing. So there is a small window of opportunity for the flowers to warm up, grow, make leaves, make flowers, get pollinated, drop seeds– and disappear for another year– before the trees leaf out.

We’ve already missed the earliest bloomers like bloodroot and skunk cabbage. But every day or every week you visit, new and different flowers will appear.

While our Visitor Center is closed, our forest is still open– park in the Hagy’s Mill parking lot if there is room (if not, park at the ballfields and walk in). Hike past our Visitor Center and head downhill through the butterfly meadow, following Ravine Loop until it curves at Smith Run; the best wildflowers are on the section of trail that parallels the stream.

When we reopen (please, God, soon!), we’ll be selling these plants for you to place in your own yard. My yard, I am happy to report, is beginning to fill with both bluebells and Solomon’s seal, and a healthy stand of May apple– it looks like a little bright green umbrella– is spreading happily. These flowers require little water or chemicals, come back stronger every year, and provide vital pollen, nectar, and food for the small critters that hold up the world, especially those pollinators you read so much about.

Spring wildflowers are racing the trees right now– come walk down our Ravine Loop, while of course practicing the required physical distancing, and see them for yourself.

 

gear-up-sept-20-27

A Climate Striker Laments, “We Had to Stop our Education to Teach you a Lesson”

By Mike Weilbacher and Cyan Cuthbert ’23

gear-up-sept-20-27 On September 20, 2019, millions of people– most of them school-age children– engaged in a climate strike, leaving work or school to protest the lack of adult action on climate change. Looking for a student’s perspective on the issue, I approached Roxborough’s acclaimed Saul High School to find a student who might have participated in the climate strike at City Hall. 

Assistant principal Gabriel Tuffs steered me to Cyan Cuthbert, a 14-year-old freshman who lives in Germantown. She elected to leave school that day to join the millions of kids across the planet who climate-striked. I offered her a chance to write to tell you why she is worried about climate change.

Her reference to 12 years comes from a widely reported UN study that gives that number as the timetable to significantly lower carbon emissions– missing that window of opportunity would be hugely problematic, say the authors. But that number is now often used in discussions of climate change as a benchmark, like in the Democratic debates. The reference to Lil Dicky will likely pass most readers by. A Cheltenham native, Lil Dicky is a comic-rapper who released a video, “We Love the Earth,” featuring many prominent entertainers– Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Hart, to name a few– as animated animals in an ear-wormy song that steers kids like Cyan to a website with additional information. Not a fan of the weirdly R-rated song, but whatever it takes.

So with very little editing and in her own voice, here is a Saul freshman writing about her future.  Thank you, Cyan– and thank you Gabe.

I was born in Germany November 26, 2004 at 8:28 a.m. That’s when the world started. Endless Possibilities, the world revolved around me. I had my whole life ahead of me dot-dot-dot now I only have 12 more years.

Both my parents were in the Army. My mom did 13 years, my dad did 10. During this time, my parents did a lot of traveling. They’ve been to Hawaii, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and tons more. I’ve been to a few of those places with them when I was younger but I can barely remember; that’s why I want to travel the world when I get older and graduate college. If I’m doing my math right and I only do four years in college, I’ll be out when I’m 24 or 25. In 12 years I’ll be 26.

I’m pretty sure Lil Dicky said it best in his “We Love the Earth” website when he said, “Everything we do on Earth is having a chain reaction.” Everything we do affects the world in a cycle of things. Once you realize how bad it is you’ll see the sadness behind it too. When the world gets warmer, which is happening, the polar ice caps melt and the water goes into the ocean, then the ocean level rises, then floods occur and people die. The people that survived lose shelter and food. Meanwhile things in the ocean stop working right and people that rely on the ocean for fishing can’t get to it. The reality is they will die of starvation too.

Something crazy I learned throughout this whole thing was that if we let the temperature get only 1 degree Celsius hotter than it is right now there will be no turning back, because if we do, the damage is done.

  The reason I joined this movement and a thing that pushes me to do better is knowing that I am able to save people. We are able to save each other, ourselves, and our beautiful Earth.

September 20, 2019 was the climate strike. I saw so many kids, adults, and elderly people there. It felt so good to know I was a part of the change. It still isn’t right though. It doesn’t make sense, how come we had to stop our education to teach you guys a lesson. I want everybody to know that not all heroes wear capes. You can help and do your part. Every Saturday at 12 p.m. go outside to a nearby park or on your block and just pick up trash. Take a bus or ride your bike to school or work to save gas and help stop polluting our air. That’s what some of my teachers do at W.B. Saul High School.

I’m going to use Lil Dicky’s basketball analogy. We’re in the 4th quarter, a timeout has been called and we have the ball. We need a plan because we only have one more shot, if we make it we win (survival), but if we miss the shot we lose (death). We can win the game if we change three things; how we create our food energy and nature watch all of the welovetheearth.org videos to find out how.

 

Jo Ann Desper: Clinic Volunteer, RDC President

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

desper

 

Jo Ann is our hero, demonstrating a level of leadership and dedication that is uncommon in volunteerism.

James Harry Calamia, RDC Executive Director

Jo Ann Desper lives in the Wissahickon section of Roxborough, not far from that mystical hermit’s cave off Hermit Lane. The retired marketing executive is deeply rooted in our community: having lived in Roxborough-Manayunk for more than 30 years, she now wears two very important hats. Not only is she one of the fabulous volunteers at the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center, helping return injured, sick, and orphaned animals into the wild, but she is president of the Roxborough Development Corporation, the group charged with enlivening our business district. 

“As a volunteer for the RDC,” says James Harry Calamia, the RDC’s executive director, “Jo Ann is our hero, demonstrating a level of leadership and dedication that is uncommon in volunteerism. The contributions of nonprofit volunteers like Jo Ann embody the best in our community.” We at the Schuylkill Center second that emotion.

Volunteering at the Wildlife Clinic “is something I’ve been wanting to do for years,” she told me recently. She’s been there for most of this year, starting when the clinic held its wildlife-themed festival on Groundhog’s Day in February. After beginning with laundry and food preparation, she said, “I’ve learned how to feed baby birds, squirrels, all kinds of creatures. She likes the birds in general, “but the squirrels are adorable.” She’s especially attached to one she calls a “teenager,” soon ready for release.

And she’s had the pleasure of releasing three squirrels recently near hermit’s cave, former patients who have been sent back into the wild.

“Jo Ann is a much appreciated and essential part of our volunteer team,” said the clinic’s director, Rebececa Michelin. “She not only takes special care with the animals, she also gives her time to orient new volunteers and train them on daily tasks. It’s wonderful having such a compassionate person working with us to achieve our mission.”

An animal person, “one of my first jobs out of high school was as a veterinary assistant in a small vet hospital.” After a long career in what she calls “a Fortune Five healthcare company,” she laughs that she is “starting and ending my career with animals.” While she used to own five cats and a dog at her home, “I’m down to one dog and one cat,” so the clinic takes care of her need to be buried in animals.

Volunteering at the clinic “is hard work but very rewarding. It’s a way to help heal the earth– most of the animals we see are there because of some interaction with humans,” like birds currently at the clinic there because they were migrating south and struck glazed windows, unable to see the glass. “We owe it to them to get them back where they belong,” she offered.

She’s been on the board of the Roxborough Development Corporation for the last seven years, three as president, where the board oversees staff management of the Business Improvement District. “James and his staff do a lot to make the Ridge a place to shop, have fun, and be safe.” In the fun department, RDC has been the lead on the still-new pocket park on Ridge Avenue, which also smartly contributes to stormwater management. That fun is being kicked up a notch as a brewery, New Ridge, will soon open a brewpub alongside the park– this writer at least is greatly looking forward to tasting a New Ridge beer.

“We need more nighttime businesses,” Jo Ann continued, “to enliven the Ridge.” Manayunk has a very different nightlife than Roxborough, as Roxborough’s restaurants tend to attract locals to dine, but Manayunk is a destination for people across the region. While Roxborough might never be Manayunk– that’s a high hurdle– it has been taking some steps in that direction. In addition to New Ridge, Jo Ann noted the recent opening of the White Yak, a Tibetan restaurant, and the Philadelphia Folksong Socety’s move to the Ridge as well.

The RDC board is “all volunteers; we try to draw from the community: business owners, builders, realtors, residents like me, so all areas are represented.”

She also noted that the RDC is coming to the end of its Roxborough 2020 five-year plan, where residents filled out a questionnaire asking for their vision of Roxborough. When they tabulated the results, she said “everybody wanted two things, a Target and a Trader Joe’s. We got the Target,” she laughed, as there is a mini-Target in the old Superfresh at Ridge and Domino Lane. Let’s see if they can score a Trader Joe’s!

“We’re also trying to promote the green spaces,” she said, and noted that in their beautiful full-color folder the RDC hands out to new residents and businesses is a two-page spread denoting the open space attractions of Roxborough, including the River Trail, Andorra Meadows, the Wissahickon Valley Park, the Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, and yes, the Schuylkill Center. “So many people who move to Roxborough talk about the green spaces,” she said, an important commodity that disappears almost daily due to subdivision and development.

She’s also hoping the Roxborough Historic District will “help maintain the character of the neighborhood. We want a small-town vibe in the big city.”

The Schuylkill Center thanks Jo Ann for joining the core of volunteers who support our critical mission of wildlife rehabilitation. If you’d like to join Jo Ann on the wildlife crew, please email the clinic’s assistant director and volunteer coordinator Chris Strub at chris@schuylkillcenter.org.

 

Hotter, Wetter, Weirder: Philadelphia’s Already-Changing Climate

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Climate change remains in the headlines, as wildfires, flooding, heat waves, ice cap melting, and more dominate the news. But what will happen here in Philly? How will we fare in a rapidly heating world?
As the city’s Office of Sustainability notes in “Growing Stronger: Toward a Climate-Ready Philadelphia,” we have weathered “the snowiest winter, the two warmest summers, the wettest day, the two wettest years, as well as two hurricanes and a derecho” since 2010, the latter an unusual, high-energy storm system. Climate change is teaching us new language.
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And we’re getting hotter. Climate Central reports that Philadelphia’s average annual temperature has increased more than 3° since 1970, higher than the state as a whole (2.4°) or even the U.S. (2.5°). Since 2000, Philadelphia has suffered 58 record high temperatures, but only five record lows. A 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that our temperatures rarely hit 90° more than 40 times in one year (this happened only twice prior to 1987). But between 1987 and 2017, these severe heat spikes happened seven times and in 2010, the thermometer hit the 90° mark an astonishing 55 times. Climate Central’s data indicates Philadelphia now has 16.8 days of above-normal summer temps. By 2050, our weather will resemble Richmond. By 2100, Brownsville, Texas.
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And wetter. Philadelphia has also seen a 360 percent spike in heavy downpours since 1950. The city received over 61 inches in 2018 and 2019 is already absurdly wet, with a downpour almost daily.
Climate has changed winter, too. Climate Central reports that winters have warmed an average of four degrees since 1970, putting the average winter temperature at about 37°, the highest in our history. Our four largest snowfalls since we began keeping weather records have all been since 1999, including that year’s record 30.7-inch avalanche.
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Five of the largest 10 snowfalls have been in that span as well. A warming climate means more evaporation and with more water in the atmosphere, it sometimes drops as snow.
This warming, weirding climate will impact our health. A 10-day heat wave in 1993 resulted in 118 deaths in our city. Extreme heat is now responsible for more deaths in Pennsylvania than all other natural disasters combined. An average of 50 Pennsylvanians already die annually from the effects of extreme heat, a number that will only increase in a climate-challenged world.
Older adults are especially susceptible to heat waves, as are very young children and low-income people without access to air conditioning. In an aging city with a high poverty rate, heat-related deaths will impact these populations more than the rest.
The Office of Sustainability reports, “hot weather encourages the formation of ground-level ozone, which reduces air quality and poses risks to individuals with respiratory conditions such as asthma. In 2010, nearly a quarter of children in Philadelphia had asthma, among the highest rates in the nation.” Our children will have a harder time breathing in a hotter world.
The crime rate climbs with heat, as does the murder rate—and the suicide rate. A 2018 study published in Nature Climate Change measured the suicide rate against temperature, noting that “unmitigated climate change” could cause between 9,000 and 40,000 additional suicides in the United States by 2050.
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Then there is flooding. The tidal Delaware River has already been rising 0.11 inches per year since 1900. So conservative estimates say that with moderate cutting back of greenhouse gases, the city will see an increase in sea levels of two feet by 2050 and four feet by 2100. With so much of the city built around two rising rivers—the airport, the stadiums, Penn’s Landing, Fishtown, and so much more—a projected rise of four feet essentially drowns all of this.
Changing climate has already impacted our quality of life. As we continue debating long-established facts, we lose something invaluable: time. We continue doing so at our peril.
Port Royal flooded at low point3

Eduardo Duenas Reflects on Caravans and Life in Honduras

By Mike Weilbacher

While the Federal government remains mired in the longest shutdown ever (I am writing this on Sunday, so the fluid situation may change dramatically by the time you read this), a new caravan was scheduled to leave Honduras this week, thousands more beginning the long trek north to Mexico and the U.S.

This sad, hard, complex situation brought me to Eduardo Duenas, the Schuylkill Center’s Manager of School Programs, an educator on our staff who oversees a cadre of educators that help him teach school children on their visits here. A native Honduran, Eduardo has been in America for most of the last four years, the Schuylkill Center for the last two, and has permanent resident status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He’s married to an American citizen, and they are raising twin infant sons.

And  he’s easily the biggest– or at least the most vocal– Eagles fan on our staff, bleeding Eagles green.

Eduardo Duenas

Of the caravans, Eduardo, who knows some of the people assembling in the current caravan, says, “I feel sad. These people don’t want to leave. They don’t want a car or a pool– they just want to eat, they just want their kids to eat. Seven out of 10 Hondurans,” he continued, “are eating only once a day, and foreign aid from countries like the U.S. is not getting to the people. They rather die trying to get into the U.S. than watch their kids starve. If they had most of the basic things they need, they would not come.” Joining a caravan, he says, for many is “pure necessity.”

He visited Honduras with his family over the Christmas break, some of his kin meeting his sons for the first time, and came back devastated– his home city of La Ceiba on the Caribbean coast “has never been so dirty,” and was surprisingly empty, almost a ghost town, as many of the Hondurans once there have left for elsewhere.

Like Eduardo himself. Born in Honduras’ capital and largest city, Tegucigalpa, he was mostly raised by his grandmother in a region called Valle del Aguán, literally, the valley of the Aguán River, a river Eduardo knew intimately. “I was happy there,” as a child, he told me. “I’d run to the river almost every day; I loved to fish, loved to swim. I caught snakes, I caught butterflies.” Like so many youngsters his age, he learned  how to make slingshots, spending endless hours aiming at poor unsuspecting lizards, an activity he now rues a little. Above him were the mountains, so between river and mountains were “animals of all shapes and sizes, birds of all kinds. I always knew I loved nature study down there.” (Today, as an adult on our staff, he has a great nose for finding turtles, snakes, toads and more on group walks.)

Eduardo Duenas

Valle del Aguán is also one of the most fertile regions in Honduras, its rich soil growing coffee, bananas, mangos, pineapples, and more. “But we made deals, stupid deals, with foreign companies for like 100 years for one dollar,” one of the reasons the economy is bankrupt– people don’t control land or agriculture.

He left Valle del Aguán after high school, moving to the larger coastal city of La Ceiba so he could attend university. After an ill-fated stint in law school, he finished a degree in ecotourism, where he could be closer to the animals he loves. He tried making a life in Honduras– he has been a tour guide for ecotourism companies, a fisherman (snorkeling with a spear to catch fish), a landscaper pulling weeds and planting trees, even a street musician and artist; he has tried many things. But after he was pulled over by the police and detained in jail for a full day for no reason, he decided to leave Honduras. “I had to explain to my mother in 2012 that I didn’t have any opportunities in Honduras,” he said.

He went to Costa Rica, where he enrolled in a La Salle University program that led to dual  degrees in environmental management and sustainable development. There, he met his wife, a native of Villanova who worked for a company that had offices in Costa Rica. They married in Honduras in 2013, and she soon pushed to live in the U.S., as she thought their chances of making a life were better here.

“But I don’t want to go to a place that doesn’t like me,” he said about his first reaction to America, but ultimately agreed. “I applied for a visa,” he remembered, “but it took more than two years to get an answer.” To his great relief, he has only received support for his being in the United States.

In 2015, he and he wife spotted a pair of baby owls in the middle of a road. Using cell phones, they discovered that the Schuylkill Center ran a wildlife clinic, and were able to rescue one– the second was sadly struck by a passing vehicle as they were getting out of their car. He volunteered for the Toad Detour program, became a Trail Steward, and is now a full-time educator.

So while his journey is uniquely his own, it echoes the tragedy of the current situation in Central America, that thousands of people from Honduras feel their best chance for survival is a dangerous trek north. As the latest caravan starts its long walk north, my thoughts are with Eduardo, his family, his friends, and all Hondurans.

 

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

Terry Willard_5

Photographing faces in the forest

When I go for a nature walk in a local forest, I see trees, birds, flowers, deer.

Not photographer Willard Terry.

When he goes for a walk — which he does a lot — he sees faces, lots of faces, incredible faces. Gnomes, ghosts, demons, animals, dinosaurs, people, aliens, all staring at him from tree trunks, tree roots, broken branches, gnarly bark, rock walls, even fence posts and barn siding.

Amazingly, once you start looking for them, there are faces everywhere.

And Terry has been photographing them.

He just published a book, “Pareidolia: Spirits and Faces of the Wissahickon and Schuylkill Valleys,” which will soon be available in the Schuylkill Center’s gift shop (and on Terry’s website as soon as he sets one up). The book’s title, pronounced parr-i-DOH-li-ah, while a mouthful, is the phenomenon in psychology whereby people see patterns in inanimate objects — like trees — and turn them into things they are not. The Man in the Moon is perhaps the best known example of pareidolia.

I visited Terry in his Port Royal Avenue home just before the winter solstice, where the retired school teacher — he taught at Germantown Friends for 30 years — was preparing for his annual solstice party. His wife, Holly, also a retired school teacher, also a veteran of Quaker schools (she at Plymouth Meeting Friends), were preparing for a celebration with their three sons, all of whom work in the arts.

They’ve lived in their 1840s-era home for more than 30 years and have been careful and conscious stewards of their historic home and barn. But they’ve brought that home into a greener future, their front porch including a portable hoop garden bed where the couple is growing salad greens — in December — and their wood stove reduces their reliance on fossil fuels, which is admirable.

Terry walks “seven or eight miles a day, consistently over 50 miles a week,” he told me, much of it at the Schuylkill Center’s sprawling property across the street and along the Wissahickon.

“Years before I retired, I used to run,” he said, but after an injury forced him to reconsider that activity, “now I walk a lot, and walking has made me more observant.”

He took me and his dog, Lily, to visit a maple tree at the Schuylkill Center just off Port Royal, where he had his “aha moment.” He had walked past this tree many times, but one day, the wizened face of a gnome frowning at him “just popped out at me,” as the bark’s bumps and gnarls formed a cranky face. He’s since photographed the maple many times and in the book includes a photo of the tree in winter, a dusting of snow giving his gnome a bad case of dandruff. The book’s bio page features an action shot his son took of Terry photographing the gnome.

Photographer Terry Willard pauses on his walk next to the maple tree that started it all, the one with the gnarly gnomish face

Photographer Willard Terry pauses on his walk next to the maple tree that started it all, the one with the gnarly gnomish face

Willard Terry sees an anteater in this branch

Willard Terry sees an anteater in this branch

Where Terry sees a unicorn, the author sees a camel. What do you see?

Where Terry sees a unicorn, the author sees a camel. What do you see?

 

 

“Once I started photographing faces,” he reflected, “I became more aware of them. You’re sort of half looking, but then they jump out at you like a guy is suddenly staring at you.”

For example, he points to a Tyrannosaurus-shaped branch he’s walked by hundreds of times on the opposite side of Port Royal from his gnome tree — and suddenly he saw it, T. rex in profile.

When I asked him about the Freudian nature of seeing faces where none existed, he laughed.

“I looked this up on the internet,” he offered, always a dangerous thing to do, “and saw that while some people see this as a sign of instability, others see a more creative mind at work.”

(For the record, I’m going with the latter.)

He also noted it’s a bit of a Rorschach, like a photo he calls “Duck Dinner,” where two mallards on a pond look to me like they’re about to be eaten by a plesiosaur, an extinct reptile, but others see the branch emerging ominously from the water as just another duck. Not sure what this says about me … a sign of my own instability?

His photography embraces more than pareidolia.

“I’m interested in portraits and landscapes,” he said, “where I like to look for patterns,” like a photo he showed me of sycamore bark, its jigsaw puzzle-patterned bark always a favorite of mine.

He also loves to add a sense of humor to his work, like a framed color landscape photo in his home of a Mail Pouch tobacco ad painted on the side of a Pennsylvania barn, smoke rising from the barn as if it were a giant chimney — which it clearly is not. But hidden behind the barn is the cooling tower of the Limerick nuclear power plant, steam rising from it creating the optical illusion of the barn as a chimney.

While he first taught a sixth-grade class and then seventh-grade English, in retirement, he’s teaching a black-and-white film photography course back at Germantown Friends.

“The kids have never seen film before,” he chuckled. “They have no idea what it is.”

His pareidolia photographs have been displayed before and will appear in the Schuylkill Center’s upcoming “Community” exhibition later this winter. We hope you come see them then.

Meanwhile, Willard Terry will continue walking 50 miles a week in natural areas, finding faces where less creative people like me simply see bark and branches.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets@SCEEMike and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.