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At the Schuylkill Center, #NatureWelcomes everyone

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Across the country, debate is raging on a wide number of increasingly political issues: health care reform, immigration, foreign policy, nuclear deterrence, the role of social media in politics, energy policy, public lands, climate change, and endlessly on and on.  The stakes in these arguments only rise by the minute and by the tweet.

While these issues heat up, California is on fire, Houston (remember Houston?) still recovering from a flood, Florida coming back online after its hurricane, and Puerto Rico, well, Puerto Rico is a hellish nightmare of too many people having too little access to basics like water and electricity.  Puerto Rico looks to be a public health powder keg set to explode.

One thing is clear: we need nature. Now more than ever.

All of us need nature.  In these overstressed times, nature heals.  Literally.  Every day, new studies show that time spent in a forest walking, or even just even sitting, elevates our mood, calms our heart rate and breathing, and relaxes us.  Simply seeing green is restorative, but even better, trees release chemicals into the air that our brain is hardwired to respond to: a
Japanese researcher sprayed pine aerosols into a hospital nursery, and the blood pressure of newborn infants lowered immediately.  They’ve never even been in a forest before, and their bodies responded to pine scent.

Nature heals.

What is equally clear is that not all people have access to greenspaces like the Schuylkill Center.  Studies also show that parks are a public–health benefit to the neighborhoods near them—an entire neighborhood is healthier when a park is close by. No park nearby, and the community suffers. Continue reading

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Naturaleza por dentro

Por: Eduardo Dueñas, Lead Environmental Educator | For an English version of this blog post, see here.

Siempre me encantaron los olores, colores y sabores de los dias. Yo era un nino inquieto que le gustaba levantar piedras en el patio de mi casa para ver que sorpresa me esperaba. Ese mismo nino que corria afuera cada vez que llovia para poder oler la tierra mojada.

Un nino que durante los partido de futbol le gustaba chupar pedazos de cesped y tirar piedras al rio.

Desde muy temprana edad me interesaron las plantas y los animales, gustos que me llevaron a explorar muchos lugares y conocer personas increibles.

Despues de estudiar sobre los procesos de la vida, no me quedaron dudas que la naturaleza hay que respetarla y llevarla por dentro.

Es imperativo para el bienestar de todos que los jovenes crezcan sin barreras fisicas o mentales sobre la naturaleza. Asi se convertiran en sus protectores para siempre.

Durante el transcurso de mi maestria pude estudiar a fondo las repercusiones de las acciones humanas sobre la naturaleza, dejando en claro que nuestro estilo de vida no solo destruye nuestra salud sino tambien todo lo importante que nos rodea.

Es por eso que en mi tesis final plasme la necesidad de replantear la forma de como aprendemos y de como percibimos nuetro entorno.

La educacion por ende sera la unica esperanza para cambiar el mundo y poder dejar un verdadero legado para las generaciones futuras.

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education es una organizacion pionera con mas de 50 años de experiencia en la porteccion y conservacion ambiental.

Me siento feliz de trabajar en un lugar como The Schuylkill Center donde se comparten y desarrollan muchas ideas sobre la comprencion y proteccion de nuestro medio ambiente. Los programas incluyen jovenes y adultos de diferentes edades, procedencias, razgos etnicos y niveles educativos.

Mi oficina es en el bosque con los ninos donde ellos juegan y exploran libremente. Durante algunas caminatas dibujamos, recolectamos plantas, hojas, semillas, raicez y hacemos te de algunas de ellas, otras veces arte o  escribimos  observaciones en su hojas de trabajo. Me gusta sentir que soy bienvenido en este lugar y ver en mis estudiantes el curioso niño que solia ser.

Eduardo DuenasEduardo Duenas es un Educador Ambiental que trabaja para la organizacion ambiental,The Schuylkill Center. Primero se involucró con el Centro como voluntario antes de trabajar a tiempo completo en programas educativos como; lecciones para grupos guiados en el SCEE, al igual que programas después de la escuela y programas comunitarios. Eduardo Tiene una formación en estudios ambientales, con un máster en Gestión Ambiental y Desarrollo Sostenible. También tiene experiencia como maestro de aula y le encanta trabajar con niños de todas las edades.

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Nature from Within | Naturaleza por dentro

By Eduardo Dueñas, Lead Environmental Educator | Para una versión en Español de este post, por favor ver aquí. 

For as long as I can remember, I have always loved the scents, colors, and surprises of each day.  I was a curious child who always liked to pick up rocks in the yard of my house to see what surprise awaited me underneath- a colorful beetle, a squirmy worm, or a family of ants. That same curiosity drove me to run outside everytime it rained to feel the rain and smell wet earth.  I was the curious kid who would suck on blades of grass and throw stones into the river during a soccer game.  From a young age, I was interested in plants and animals- passions which led me to explore many new places and meet incredible people working for positive change, ecological awareness, and conservation of our fragile planet.

After studying biology, I was left with no doubt that we must respect nature and carry nature within us.

It is critical for the wellbeing of everyone that children are able to grow up without physical or mental barriers removing them from nature. For some children and communities, it can be difficult to access natural areas or to find ways to connect with nature on a daily basis.  When we help children to spend time in nature and understand the environment around them, they can become protectors and champions of our natural world.

In earning my master’s degree, I had the chance to study in depth the repercussions of human impact on nature – from unsustainable urban development to monoculture farming.  It became clear to me that many modern lifestyles impact our own health and the health of the natural world around us.  Because of this, I chose to focus my Master’s thesis on the need to readjust the way we learn about and perceive our surroundings- the natural world.  I believe that education is our strongest hope to change the world and leave a positive legacy for future generations. As Baba Dioum said “”In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

I feel lucky and inspired to work at a place like the Schuylkill Center, where every day we share and develop ideas about understanding and protecting our natural world. I love that our programs include children and adults of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities – like our after school programs with urban schools in Philadelphia, our outreach programs with Latino communities, and our family-friendly education and volunteer programs -like toad detour- for all ages.

Today, my office is the forest, where I work with children to guide them as they play and explore freely.  During hikes, we draw, collect plants, seeds, or roots to make teas, sometimes we make art, or make notes about what we see in workbooks.  It is fulfilling to me to be able to support a love of nature in my students, I see in them the curious kid I used to be.

Eduardo DuenasEduardo Duenas is an Environmental Educator at the Schuylkill Center. He first became involved with the Center as a volunteer before working full time with guided educational groups at the Schuylkill Center, after-school programs, and community outreach programs. He has a background in environmental studies, with a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development.  He also has experience as a classroom teacher and loves working with children of all ages.

Mom

Red-tailed Hawks at the Franklin Institute: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway as Wildlife Habitat

By guest contributor Christian Hunold, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Drexel University

In the spring of 2012 I stumbled across a community of amateur naturalists who were drawn to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway not by the museums or the cultural events, but by a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting on a second-story window ledge of the Franklin Institute. Grid Magazine had requested some pictures of the hawks, and so I spent one sunny afternoon in late May photographing the half-grown chicks huddled on the nest at the corner of 21st and Winter Street.

I recall feeling a little bored: where was the fun in shooting urban hawks? How could birds habituated to humans, like the city’s ubiquitous pigeons and geese, be at all interesting? And the noise and stink of the unrelenting traffic assaulting my senses from all sides made me think that Center City was the last place on Earth anyone should be asked to photograph wildlife. The only bright spot was the beautiful early evening light I had to work with: at least my images of the chicks weren’t going to be the worst anyone had ever taken, even if the awkward half downy/half feathered look they were sporting at this age did not scream “charismatic megafauna.”

fledglingsAnother year would pass before my previously separate lives as a wildlife photographer and as a scholar of environmental politics merged around the topic of urban wildlife. May had come around again, and I decided to visit the nest one afternoon. The hawks were once more raising three chicks. This time, I caught a glimpse of one of the adults trailing the Institute’s roofline along 21st Street before it was briefly obscured by the building. Moments later it cleared the roof and, set off against the golden glow of the late afternoon sandstone façade, delivered the bloody remains of a squirrel to the nest. While the other parent fed chunks of meat to the three hungry chicks, the successful hunter flew to a nearby plane tree, where it cleaned its beak and talons.

Now this was not boring! On subsequent outings I got to know the hawks as well as some of the people who watched them. I knew the Franklin Institute’s online “nest cam” had attracted a popular following around the world. But I did not at first appreciate the extent to which the hawks’ travels through the city were being monitored on the ground. The hawk watchers – middle-aged, more women than men – were not so much bird watchers as dyed-in-the-wool hawk fans, intimately familiar with the birds’ daily habits and life histories. I learned they had named the female bird “Mom” and the male “T2,” short for “Tiercel 2” (he was the female’s second mate since the hawks had nested at the Franklin Institute.) When the chicks fledged in June I was there with my camera to document their early forays to nearby trees, buildings, and monuments. I’d gotten hooked.T2_Hunold Continue reading

Naturalist’s Notebook: The Missing Sponge

By Andrew Kirkpatrick, Manager of Land Stewardship

If you take a walk along Smith Run, coming up Ravine Loop below Penn’s Native Acres, the hillsides where the beeches, oaks and maples grow show signs of distress.  The structural roots of the trees are visible at the soil line when they should be tucked away cozily wrapped in the warm blanket of leaf litter and organic rich soil.  Instead, because of exotic invasive earthworms, which can be observed by scraping away the thin layer of leaves on the ground, the roots are exposed and left to fend for themselves in all of the elements; freezing winter winds, driving rains, and blazing sun.  If you look up, the impact on the trees is apparent.  Bare branches and diminished canopy reveal their stresses.  The trees are dying.  

In healthy, undisturbed forest soil, we would discover a universe of fungus, microorganisms, bacteria, and insects thriving. All of these elements facilitate the healthy growth and development of plant roots. The vast root mat matrix of the organic horizon (the top layer of healthy soil) in the forest acts like a gigantic sponge that collects water when it rains and holds it in storage for trees to use in the drier months of the year.  

However, in highly disturbed areas like the Schuylkill Center, the organic horizon of the soil is absent. Soil horizon is a technical term for the classification of the cake-like layers of soil.  The organic horizon is missing here because hundreds of years of agricultural use have long since removed the original rich soil and left mostly thin, mineral soil at the top of the profile.  In fact, parts of our property were in farmland almost until the Center’s founding in 1965. The forest has not been able to redevelop the O horizon as it might have otherwise, largely due to the activity of invasive earthworms.

photo by Julia Aguilar

photo by Julia Aguilar

Invasive earthworm and castings

Invasive earthworm and castings

The invasive earthworms are much larger than our native ones, tunnel deeper into the earth and voraciously devour the leaf litter that would accumulate annually in the fall, break down over time to replenish the soil, and rebuild the O horizon.  So what is left is a loose accumulation of worm castings on a destabilized base that washes away into our streams every time it rains, carrying many nutrients with them.  And when the dry times of the year arrive, the trees have no reserve of nutrients to draw upon.  Instead our forest is stressed and vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases that it would otherwise be able to fend off.  

Planting Fox Glen_5-20-17 (10)20170516_115508We can address these problems by improving the soil and providing the roots of trees with a healthy environment to grow and develop.  In our Fox Glen restoration site, as we planted new trees we covered the ground around them with wood chips to help the roots retain moisture.  The wood chips will break down over time and add to the organic content of the soil.  

If we want our forest at the Schuylkill Center to survive climate change and the increasing stresses that come from an urban environment, we must help it to be as resilient as possible by replacing the missing sponge.

About the author

photo by Heather FowlerAndrew has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and ecological restoration from Temple University.  He hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2005-2006.

Photo by Heather Fowler, WHYY

An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

Citizen Science: at the Schuylkill Center and Beyond

By Guest contributor Anna Forrester

Seven years ago, my partner and I became the enthusiastic owners of an abandoned farm in central Pennsylvania. The property included an early 20th century bank barn, complete with a resident colony of bats. Reports of white nose syndrome and its devastating effects on the area’s bat populations had recently begun appearing in the media and – though we hadn’t had any up-close, intimate experience with our bats — we soon found ourselves working to help track the spread of the disease and the fate of our bats by participating in the Appalachian Bat Count (ABC).

Barn 1

Our barn is a maternity colony, meaning a group of female bats congregate there during the warm months to birth, wean, and raise their pups. Doing counts involves regularly laying on our backs next to a campfire at dusk counting as the bats emerge from the cracks and crevices of the barn’s siding.

Each year we follow the ABC researchers’ bat counting protocols, doing both pre-volant counts (before pups begin flying) and post-volant counts (after they’ve begun to fly out alongside their mothers). We fill out forms as we go and, at the end of the season, send our data off.

Laying there next to the fire with my husband, daughters and various other friends is soothing and peaceful – it’s a great way to end a day. We are watchful and present, full of anticipation and hope. I emphasize the word hope, here, because hope is the balloon I find myself gripping ever more tightly as my worries about the impacts on our planet of unbridled human activity and of climate change keep growing – and as our current administration turns a blind eye.

Big Brown Bat with Fishing Tackle

 

When we started the counts, I had never heard of “citizen science,” a term which has been showing up more and more lately. It has been redefined and massaged repeatedly in recent years — the 2014 Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘citizen science’ as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” I quickly realized that our counts qualified.

Citizen science is distinct from nature study, science-related advocacy, and environmental activism, in that it focuses on generating or gathering data. But it overlaps with and is integrally connected to all these other endeavors too.  Henry David Thoreau noted the bloom times of plants around Walden Pond in the 1850 in his journal – creating what today is often cited as an example of early (if unintentional) citizen science — as have similar notes taken by members of the Smiley family at the Mohonk Preserve in the Catskills. The information gathered in the name of ‘nature study’, then, have proven to be invaluable ‘data’, today, for scientists studying climate change.

There are all sorts of ways to get involved in citizen science on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center: the Toad Detour (through the end of the month), the winter and spring bird census and the annual butterfly count (July 6 this year) all offer great hands-on ways to engage in citizen science, as do the Senior Environmental Corps’ water quality testing program and various of the art installations and art programs on site.

In January, LandLab artist Leslie Birch wrote about related arts-oriented practices and organizations that she connected with through work she did at the Center: PublicLab and The Center for Artistic Activism .

And the SciStarter website, brainchild of Philadelphian and science cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, offers hundreds of projects that let lay people help practicing scientists do their work. A sort of clearinghouse for projects that are looking for help, SciStarter has something for every age, interest area, location and activity level (there is plenty of citizen science you can even do without ever leaving your home).

Technology – thanks to the internet’s hyper-connectivity and to the advent of less expensive  equipment — has exponentially increased the possibilities and potential for us to do citizen science. Data can be transferred quickly and easily from anyplace — and anyone — with a cell phone and cellular reception; the same data is easily tagged with locational information through GIS systems; and digital photographic images cost little to produce and are more easily shared then print photography. And the astronomical amount of data generated, once received, can be managed and analyzed with complex and fast computer programs.

A four part series, The Crowd and the Cloud recently aired on PBS, offering a great introduction to the field and to technology’s role in it. (You can stream all four episodes; the second one is especially topical, focusing as it does on Philadelphia’s drinking water.)

CROWD & CLOUD screenshot

If you’re interested in bats, please: track down a bat roost and start a count. Wildlife Biologist Nate Zalik, who coordinates the Appalachian Bat Count, tells me that they have data from every county in Pennsylvania except Philadelphia County. I know for a fact that we have bats here – so let’s take this as a challenge! For information on how to find a location and when to count, go here.

For me, and for many practitioners of citizen science, getting involved to help scientists understand problems and come up with solutions is very much an act of hope and of imagining better possibilities and futures. We Schuylkill Center supporters, frequenters and volunteers all love the natural world. By taking action – finding small (and large) ways to help scientists find solutions to the myriad, complex problems we are facing – we actively hold onto and nurture hope — which, I think, is one of the most important thing we can do right now.

headshot straightAbout the Author
Anna Forrester sits on the Schuylkill Center’s Art Advisory Committee. She is trained as a landscape architect, and also writes children’s books. Her picture book, BAT COUNT  (Arbordale, 2017), is a story about bats, white nose syndrome, citizen science and hope. It is available in the Schuylkill Center Gift Shop, on Amazon or through your local independent bookseller.

rainbow trail

Celebrating LGBTQ Environmental Leaders

by Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy and Jenny Ryder, Communications Coordinator

There’s been plenty of discussion, and some research, about the overlap between LGBTQ people (and activists) and environmentally conscious people (and activists). So, today we’re talking especially about environmental leadership – about people from the LGBTQ community who have stood up to be leaders for climate justice, for environmental science, even the woman who gave modern American environmentalism its birth.

The people who worked to ban DDT and protect nesting birds, who helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency, who help communities find the resources to relocate before rising seas take their homes, share something with the people who fought to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association list of mental disorders, who lobbied and marched for recognition and legal protection, who stood up for pride, rather than shame.

What they share is a vision of a better world, a world where people can lead their lives safely and in community. Today, we’re celebrating a handful of LGBTQ environmental leaders. So, in honor of Pride Month, a few LGBTQ environmental leaders of note:

Ceci Pineda is a gender non-conforming organizer with the Audre Lorde Project in New York City, “a community organizing center run for and by lesbian, gay, bisexual, two spirit, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color.” On behalf of the project, they drafted a letter of solidarity with the climate justice movement, drawing attention to the less-talked-about environmental justice movement led by people of color most disproportionately affected by climate change. They are a graduate of Brown University and founder of RADIKO, which “envisions an inclusive climate justice movement led for and by those who are most impacted by climate change, rooted on a shared value system that honors life,” and provides tools for educators to run climate justice workshops specifically for communities of queer and trans people of color living on the frontlines of climate violence.

Source: http://gchd.us/primary-care-clinic/

Source: http://gchd.us/primary-care-clinic/

In Flint, Michigan, a LGBTQ organizaiton, Wellness AIDS Services, is responding to the water crisis that has left residents with no clean drinking water for the last three years by offering a safe place for people to pick up clean bottled water. CEO Stevi Atkins, who runs the only HIV center in the county, works with many LGBTQ people with compromised immune systems and wanted to give the queer community barrier-free access to drinking water. Nayyirah Shariff , director of Flint Rising, says being LGBTQ is so stigmatized in Flint that there is a need for a safe space where residents can pick up clean water. Many transgender residents feel vulnerable or targeted when asked to show ID (oftentimes, one’s gender presentation doesn’t match the marker on their driver’s license), answer the door, or enter churches, out of which most crisis-response water distribution centers are running. Wellness AIDS is addressing environmental injustice head-on in one of the most marginalized cities in the country by securing not only responding to basic health and wellness, but making safe space amid crisis to do so. They handed out 1,000 cases of water last year.

From FUTURE FEMINISM, a 2014 exhibition by ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady and Sierra Casady (pulled from ANHONI’s Facebook page)

From FUTURE FEMINISM, a 2014 exhibition by ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady and Sierra Casady (pulled from ANHONI’s Facebook page)

From FUTURE FEMINISM, a 2014 exhibition by ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady and Sierra Casady (pulled from ANHONI’s Facebook page)

Same as above

In November 2016, transgender musician and artist Anhoni Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons fame) released “4 Degrees,” a single off her debut solo album, Hopelessness,  on the day before the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in Paris. The title of the track references a study that revealed the consequences of a predicted 4C degree global temperature increase by the end of the century. In a Facebook post accompanying the release, she stated: “In solidarity with the climate conference in Paris, giving myself a good hard look, not my aspirations but my behaviors, revealing my insidious complicity. It’s a whole new world. Let’s be brave and tell the truth as much as we can.”

Paul Gestos, National Coodinator for People’s Climate Movement, and co-author of Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in your Community is a queer New York-based climate activist. Gestos is a graduate of Rutgers University, and teaches Community Organizing at the Columbia University School of Social Work. He was one of the folks behind  both the People’s Climate March on the eve of the UN Climate Summit in 2014 and the April 29th March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice in DC. Follow him on Twitter here.

Source: Google images, Alfred Eisenstaedt

Source: Google images, Alfred Eisenstaedt

Lastly, this post couldn’t go without a shout-out to the marine biologist who kickstarted the modern environmental movement, Rachel Carson, with her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring in 1962. Although she was never officially “out,” much of the critical backlash she got from speaking her truth called her a “spinster”– a subtle derogatory way of insinuating homosexuality. With so many attacks from the pesticide industry, among others following her controversial publication, it’s no wonder she stayed closeted. Shortly before her death of breast cancer, Carson and her longtime friend and neighbor, Dorothy Freeman, destroyed hundreds of letters between them. They had an intimate 11-year relationship, and the remaining correspondence paints a picture of their private lives in a book released by Freeman in 1996, Always, Rachel. Although Dorothy Freeman was married, these letters have led us to conclude that the mother of the modern American environmental movement was probably gay.

The stigma of being queer necessitates an ability to nourish a safe and loving environment in social, home, and work spaces. It’s no wonder why so many LGBTQ people have extended this understanding and way of life to environmental activism, where the goal is to create safe and sustainable spaces for all forms of life. Sustainability is who we are, to survive– not a whole separate thing.

Steve Goin and Andrew Kirkpatrick remove landscaping fabric

Introducing Fox Glen: a new chapter in land stewardship

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Where our Grey Fox Loop and Wind Dance Pond Trail meet, just uphill from our beloved 19th-century springhouse and its pond, is a section of our forest that has been overrun with invasive plants. But on May 20 we’re turning it around, planting over 200 new trees and shrubs to stabilize the land and reforest the area. We’re calling it Fox Glen.

I hope you’ll transform it with us. Continue reading

coyote 1

Coyotes in Roxborough? Absolutely

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Early in my time here at the Schuylkill Center, a neighbor who lives close to our sweeping Upper Roxborough property gave me a call one day. It was not the phone conversation I expected.

“Mike,” he said with concern in his voice. “I spotted a coyote walking down my driveway the other night. “

“Wow,” I stupidly answered, “that’s great. I’m not sure anyone here has seen one yet.”

He wasn’t as excited as me. “What are you going to do about it?” he challenged.

Ah, of course. He’s worried about his dog, as I believe his pet is a smaller-sized animal that might be a tempting target for a hungry coyote.  I replied that we’d be on the lookout, but there was little else we could do. Keep the dog on a leash, and keep it near you. Continue reading

Children playing in field

My Path to Nature Education

By Nicole Brin, Sycamore Classroom Lead Teacher

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Pennsylvania Land Trust Association for their series on conserved lands, like the Schuylkill Center, in communities around the state.

Rows of stuffed animals- bears, bunnies, dogs, lions- all lined up in the grass of my suburban Connecticut backyard as they got ready to start their school day. Their teacher, eight-year-old me, prepared to teach them all the things that I already knew in the wisdom of my few childhood years. I made attendance sheets, created lesson, and planned field trips to the garden behind our shed. I knew that one day I’d be a real teacher, sharing all the cool things I loved about life. Continue reading