Four Black-led Initiatives Nourishing a Greener Philadelphia

Happy Black History Month! This February, we’ve been honoring Black leaders in the environmental movement.

Here are four of the many Philadelphia-based environmental initiatives led by Black educators, healers, scientists and activists you can support not just this month, but all year round.

Continue reading

headphones with nature

End of Summer Podcast Round-Up

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

It’s been a summer of good listening and I wanted to share a few nature and science podcasts we listened to this summer that offered new insights, entertained us, and opened our eyes. Whether you’re a serious nature nerd, somebody who likes a good science podcast, or someone looking for a thoughtful take on the everyday world, there is something here to mull on.  Happy listening!

Radiolab logoRadiolab
From Tree to Shining Tree, July 30, 2016

“It’s as if the individual trees were somehow thinking ahead to the needs of the whole forest.”

In this Radiolab Podcast Short, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich go into the root systems of the forest, revealing the hidden world beneath the trees, and the strange, and sometimes inexplicable, activities of the trees.

Listen here.
35 minutes long.

Code Switch logoCode Switch
Made for You and Me, June 8, 2016

“What I have learned over years is that the natural story is connected to our cultural story and that national parks are actually a really incredible way to get both in one place.”

The NPR Code Switch team celebrated the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service by jumping into stereotypes and truths about people of color and the great outdoors.

Listen here.
20 minutes.

99 percent invisible logo99% Invisible
Unseen City: Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, April 26, 2016

“[Reading from book] ‘Ginko toxin is similar in structure to vitamin B6, and eating too much of it interferes with our ability to synthesize the vitamin.  That can provoke a biochemical cascaded that, especially in children, may lead to seizures and even death. This sounds alarming, but it wasn’t enough to deter me.’

 What does deter you from eating things?”

99% Invisible host Roman Mars interviews Nathanael Johnson about his recent book, Unseen City, chatting about the noble origins of the pigeon and Johnson’s adventures foraging in the city.

Listen here.
30 minutes.

hiddenbrainHidden Brain
Episode 27: Losing Alaska, April 19, 2016

“I realized at that moment that the debate over climate change is no longer really about science, unless the science you are talking about is human behavior.”

Shankar Vedantam’s Losing Alaska episode of his NPR Hidden Brain podcast offers a poignant view of our vanishing glaciers and why it is that we simply don’t act on climate change.

Listen here (scroll down to Episode 27).
25 minutes.

Meigs Award Winners 2013-2015

Searching for the Delaware Valley’s Green Giants

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director, @SCEEMike 

Almost 50 years after her too-soon death from cancer, Rachel Carson still inspires the environmental community.  Pennsylvania’s gift to environmental thinking, Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring jumpstarted the modern environmental movement—and every green book published since has been compared (unfavorably) to it.

In fact, she casts such a long shadow that most environmental centers still talk about programming that “produces the next Rachel Carson.”  That is our highest goal; she is our Holy Grail.

Every year, the Schuylkill Center honors an environmental leader with our Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award, named for one of our founders, a delightful gentlemen who, just after Silent Spring came out, envisioned a nature center on these hundreds of acres—and shepherded the organization through its growth pains over the next 30 years as a board member.

Without Henry, odds are high we would not exist.  Continue reading


Earth Day: Become 1 of the 1 Billion Participants

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

This Friday, April 22, marks the return of Earth Day—and check this out—on that day, estimates are that one billion people from 200 nations will mark the day.  Earth Day has quietly emerged as the largest secular holiday worldwide with the exception of New Year’s Day.

And this year’s edition will be even more newsworthy, as many countries will begin signing the groundbreaking Paris climate change treaty that day at the UN in New York.

As big as it is, Philadelphia played a key role in Earth Day’s birth. Continue reading

The Water Crisis in Flint Focuses Attention on Lead Poisoning Here

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The unfolding tragedy of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water has riveted the world’s attention on the issue, and even as I write this last Friday, the story continues to evolve, as hundreds of Michiganders were then marching on the statehouse demanding that Governor Rick Snyder resign.

And it makes all of us think twice before we turn on our own taps. Continue reading


The Hidden History of Groundhog Day

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

At 7:25 This morning, a portly aging man in top hat and tails unceremoniously yanked a grumpy groundhog from his winter den and presented it to a roaring crowd numbering in the tens of thousands.  The man whispered to the groundhog in their secret, shared language, what he calls “Groundhogese”…

And, for the 130th year since 1886, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous rodent this side of a certain mouse named Mickey, predicted the weather.

Happy Groundhog Day.  With today’s temperatures soaring into the 50s and tomorrow’s into the 60s, Phil did not see his shadow—no surprise there—predicting an early spring. (But remember, the National Climatic Data Center calculated that Phil only gets his predictions right 39% of the time, worse than a coin flip.)

As a naturalist, I love a holiday named for an animal, and I’m tickled that the national media just might have made room amongst that day’s Iowa caucus results to squeeze this story in.

And I love that it’s based in some natural history.  Groundhogs—also called woodchucks—are in fact hibernators, sleeping the entire winter away in underground burrows, their heart rate plummeting from summer’s 80 beats per minute to winter’s five.  In February, males arouse themselves from this slumber to scout their territory, searching for the dens of potential mates.  Finished scouting, they go back to sleep for another month or so.

Pennsylvania Dutch farmers settling in the New World brought their German tradition of seeking out a hibernating animal—for them it was badgers, while Brits used hedgehogs—on February 2 for weather prognostications.  Coming here and seeing groundhogs roaming in February likely began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

But the choice of February 2 is no accident.  Those same German settlers also commemorated the Christian Candlemas, the day when clergy blessed and distributed candles to combat the dark of winter, and lighted candles were placed in windows.  Candlemas comes at the exact mid-point between winter solstice and spring equinox, and superstition held that if the weather was fair this day, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy. “If Candlemas be fair and bright,” said the superstition, “winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.”

Candlemas itself has an origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc, one of four cross-quarter days, the halfway marks of seasons.  Echoes of ancient cross-quarter holidays have stayed with us through the ages in May Day, Halloween, and Groundhog Day.

Today, we are halfway through winter, as farmers used to remind themselves by repeating the adage, “Groundhog Day, half your hay.”  Pace yourself; make sure you’ve got enough for winter’s second half.

Seems there was a long-ago tug of war over which calendar would mark the seasons, one where cross-quarter days begin them, the other where solstices and equinoxes do.  Midsummer’s Eve, another pre-Christian holiday captured so wonderfully by Shakespeare, occurs on the summer solstice, now the beginning of summer.  But way back when, the solstice was the midway point of the season.

Portions of that ancient calendar have stayed with us, embedded in our cultural DNA.  When that top-hatted gentleman pulled Phil out of his burrow up there on Gobbler’s Knob, he reminded us of olden days when a completely different calendar ruled—and today is suddenly Imbolc, the very first day of Spring.

And let’s be honest: he had better chances of getting his prediction right than Martin O’Malley did of winning Iowa.  Paws down.

Image: Jeffrey Kontur


14,000 hours & counting

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator, and Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Throughout our now 50-plus years of educating thousands of people, volunteers have been central to our mission. In fact, we could have accomplished surprisingly little without volunteers. Claire Morgan, our volunteer coordinator, calculates that in the 12-month period ending July 1, volunteers poured 14,000 hours of service into the Center, planting trees, feeding baby birds, measuring water temperatures in streams, hanging gallery exhibitions, even tallying supermarket receipts for dividends.

In this season of giving, we’d like to thank our volunteers for giving us so much.

Like at the wildlife clinic. There, some 70 volunteers in the clinic greatly extend the reach of clinic staff, taking regular weekly shifts cleaning cages, feeding animals, even helping administer medicine. In 2015, about 3,300 wild creatures were brought to the clinic, a record for one year—and without volunteers, rehabilitators Rick Schubert and Michele Wellard would be unable to provide this critical level of service.

Here’s one measure of the importance of clinic volunteers: 10,000 of the hours of volunteer service come from the wildlife clinic alone.

SCEE3477Dan Featherston is one of those volunteers. Helping us for 2½ years now, he “deeply cares” about rehabilitating wild animals, and has a special fondness for pigeons, a bird usually overlooked.

We capped off the recent jubilee year of celebrations with the planting of Jubilee Grove, 200 new trees planted mostly by volunteers and interns. Year round, land stewardship volunteers help stewardship manager Melissa Nase propagate native plants in our greenhouse and nursery. As our native plant sales have been growing in importance, our volunteers are invaluable here, potting plants, caring for the nursery and greenhouse, and even advising customers during the sales as to what plants to use in their own gardens.

Monthly, restoration volunteers join us on the front lines of ecological restoration, removing noxious invasive species that choke out native plants while planting new trees and wildflowers as well.

And then there’s Toad Detour. Unique to Roxborough, every year thousands of toads cross Port Royal Avenue to mate in the reservoir. Instead of getting squashed on the road by passing cars these toads are ushered across by volunteers. This spring, some 1,400 adult toads made the journey through the help of many volunteers, including Scout troops.

The Senior Environment Corps run by Claire leans on a core of wonderful retired adults who, this year, have been monitoring the stream along Wises’ Mill Road to measure the impact of storms on water quality. They share this data with Philadelphia Water and the statewide program Nature Abounds.

We also have a small but dedicated group of volunteers who help us with office skills including data entry, shredding, mailing, organizing, etc. And a new volunteer has just started helping our facilities staff with carpentry and handyman jobs.

Last but not least, an incredible board of 18 volunteer trustees has supported and guided us this year, offering their gifts of time and talent.
Henry Geyer, one of the SEC volunteers, summarizes the experience for many. “Volunteering is my way to say thank you and to give something of myself back to my community. It’s a chance to be with caring people who have your same interests, and hope to make a difference , no matter how slight, in our world. I hope that what little I have contributed will be of some significance.”

Henry, it is. And we are deeply indebted to Henry, and all our extraordinary volunteers.

With a New Year just around the corner, perhaps you’ll make a resolution to give back both to the environment and the community through volunteering.


Schuylkill Center Old Fashioned Recipe

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

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

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

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

  1. Pour the syrups and add a few dashes of bitters
  2. Add bourbon and mix
  3. Add sparkling water and stir again
  4. Serve over ice and enjoy in the beauty of the forest
21_Our first school program was a bird walk with Chestnut Hill Academy

50 Facts, 50 Days

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

As we wrap up celebrations for our 50th anniversary, we’re posting one fact each day for the 50 days leading up to final celebratory event of the year: Jubilee in the Grove.  Each week, we’ll update this post with the most recently posted facts, as well as extra details.  Follow all the posts on Facebook or Twitter with #50years

50 Facts, 50 Days

1. On average, our Nature Preschoolers spend 3 hours/day playing outdoors, 42 times more than the average American child.

2. In one year, the Schuylkill Center’s forest absorbs 10,200,000 lbs of CO2, producing 7, 480,000 lbs of oxygen. This is equivalent to taking 850 cars off the road for one year.

3. The Schuylkill Center celebrated its one-millionth visitor in 1987.

4. There are 1,000 ceramic bees in Native Pollinator Garden, Maggie Mills, Ben Mills, and Marguerita Hagan’s environmental art installation.

5. In 1988, we changed our name from the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center to the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

6. A short scene from the 1998 film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey was shot at the Schuylkill Center. No flowers blooming when crews came to shoot, so the background of the scene is filled with small white paper flowers.

7. The word Schuylkill comes from early Dutch explorers and translates to “hidden river.” Continue reading


History and Nature Intertwine at The Wagner Free Institute of Science

Originally written by David Hewitt on the blog Growing History; adapted by Wagner’s Cara Scharf

North Philadelphia, with its closely packed houses and shops, cracked sidewalks and streets, and vacant lots and overgrown parks, is not necessarily where you’d expect to find a historic landscape.

London PlaneIt’s there, however, in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Though there are many historic plants in the yard, some of the most noticeable are the large trees such as London planes (Platanus x acerifolia) and silver maples (Acer saccharinum) that ring the yard. Their size alone suggests they have been here for a while, but how long and where did they come from?

The first question is reasonably straightforward to answer.  To find out how old a tree is, you either cut it down and count its rings or you take a core sample and count the rings that way.  The latter leaves the tree standing, so Wagner faculty member David Hewitt, Ned Barnard, a fellow historic tree enthusiast and author of New York City Trees, and a few others used an 18” corer to take a long, narrow piece out of both a London plane and a silver maple in the Wagner’s yard in October 2011. Both trees were found to be in the range of 110 or 115 years old.

WOnce the age was narrowed down, Hewitt went to the Wagner’s archives to see if he could find record of the Wagner acquiring the trees. He found that they likely came from a nursery owned by Thomas Meehan in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and were added around the turn of the 20th century. Meehan was a significant figure in 19th century botany and horticulture, founding two horticultural publications and working for Bartram’s Garden before he founded his own nursery business which planned many notable gardens including the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, and the English Garden at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida. In a letter from Thomas Meehan (dated February 22, 1900) he mentioned that he had been ill. He died in 1901, so the Wagner yard may well be the last landscape he worked on.

History is everywhere, and so are plants.  The two are intertwined, and even in the middle of the city they tangle together, and the one can tell us about the other, the trees can tell us what was there before, and what was there before tells us about the trees that are there today – and even though they may be layered over and it may take some digging and coring, they all have something to say, and they all can say it, if you just look.

In addition to the Wagner, Philadelphia is rich with examples of historic plants and gardens such as Bartram’s, Wyck Historic House and Garden, the Schuylkill Center, Fairmount Park, etc. Take some time, while the weather is still conducive to outdoor activity, to check some of these sites out!

About the Growing History blog: This is the blog of “Growing History: The Philadelphia Historic Plants Consortium”. The consortium links institutions, creating a network of gardens and historic plants with materials propagated from the sites themselves.  Plants exchanged will serve as material for education in their shared history, in science, and conservation. The blog disseminates the stories behind the plants and the landscapes they occupy.

About the Wagner Free Institute of Science: The Wagner is a Victorian-era natural history museum and has been a provider of free science education since 1855. Visitors are welcome Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 4 pm, though please note the museum will be on a summer break and closed to the public the last two weeks in August (17th through the 28th). If you’re interested in spending time in our historic yard, join us for the Honey Happy Hour, part of the 6th Annual Philadelphia Honey Festival, on Friday, September 11th from 5 to 7 pm. More details on this event can be found here.