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

Hidden Life of a Toad Cover

Book Review: The Hidden Life of a Toad

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator

Doug Wechsler’s children’s book The Hidden Life of a Toad (Charlesbridge, hardcover, 2017), released just this week, explores what happens in this mysterious process called metamorphosis – from eggs to tadpoles, tadpoles to toads. Amazing photos and descriptions walk you through this phenomenon day-by-day. Doug has witnessed the annual event of toad migration that takes place each spring at the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, across the street from the Schuylkill Center, where they spend the winter in the forest. Each year volunteers gather for Toad Detour, a citizen scientists program to help the toads to safety cross the road, at Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue, to get to their spring breeding grounds. It is not unusual to see Doug on the ground focusing his camera and waiting for the perfect photo of the American Toad as they cross the road. As volunteer coordinator, I’ve spent the past six springs helping toads cross Port Royal Ave – and educating volunteers and the public about this Roxborough phenomenon. Still, I learned lots of things about the American Toad by reading this book!

We always knew some of the basics from watching toads come out of the woods and cross the road to get to the other side, which in this case was the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve. We knew they loved that shallow water in which to lay their eggs. We knew the males would often follow the females toward the breeding ground and sometimes catch a ride along the way by finding the female of their choice before crossing the road. Continue reading

Offshoot trail to Winddance Pond

A Natural Way to Start the Day

By Donna M. Struck, Director of Finance and Administration

In my eight and a half years as a staff member at the Center, I have seen a great deal of positive change.  One of my favorite changes of recent past is the addition of what we call the “Hagy’s Mill Parking Lot.”

Hagys Mill TrailheadThe lot’s primary purpose is to provide parking for visitors during times when the main entrance gate is locked, such as on Sundays when the Visitor Center is closed.  One day soon after the lot was finished, my colleague, Anna Lehr Mueser, suggested that we could park our cars there in the morning and walk the trails for the half-mile stroll to our Visitor Center.  As someone who drives just shy of one hour to get to the Center, I thought this was a brilliant idea!  What better way to decompress from a traffic-ridden commute than to experience the calm and peace of a forest that has only recently woken up for the day.  Hearing the roosters crow at the Urban Girls farm, listening to the sound of your own footsteps on the forest floor, and feeling the crisp winter air in your lungs are just a few of the sensory delights of this stroll.   As someone who loves looking up into the sky, observing the sun through the trees on bright days and the gray clouds above the forest during overcast skies is always a source of inspiration and wonder.  But a personal highlight is inhaling the scent of the Pine Grove as I saunter by.  The Pine Grove is probably my favorite place in our 340 acres; it is peaceful and welcoming and always makes me want to take deep inhales.  What a way to start the day! Continue reading

Bill Botzow

Combating a Natural Enemy

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

P1020138Restoring, protecting, and preserving nature is no small task, and when that land is comprised of worn-out farmland overwhelmed with invasive species, the job becomes even more of a challenge. Artist Bill Botzow realized this when he visited the Schuylkill Center in 2002, stating, “The Center’s commitment to restoring the land while educating the public is impressive and I would like to contribute to support that effort by highlighting some of the Center’s environmental restoration practices and strategies.”

Botzow observed and quickly learned about the main challenge the Center faces; invasive species. He decided to create three wooden structures, titled En, In, Ex-Closure.  Comprised of natural and native materials, each served different ecosystems and addressed this large problem. Continue reading

Wildlife clinic peregrine falcon

Wildlife clinic at 30: 80,000 wild animals later

Baby redtail hawk with parent puppet

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy

In an unassuming building on Port Royal Avenue, our Wildlife Clinic treats over 3,000 animals each year, from hundreds of baby squirrels to injured raptors like peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks. In this building life-saving treatments save opossums, mend broken wings on Canada geese, suture the shells of turtles hit while crossing the road, and nourish tiny mammals brought in when they are too young to feed for themselves. This year, our clinic celebrates its 30th anniversary. Continue reading

Crochet mushroom

Foraging for Art

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar. Calendars are still available, now 50% off – only $10 each!

What started out as an amateur attempt to forage for mushrooms led to 20 years of exploration, mycology enthusiasm, and art for Philadelphia artist Melissa Maddonni Haims and her husband, Josh Haims.

Josh’s curiosity was initially peaked after noticing mushroom foragers during his early morning bike rides along the Wissahickon when visiting Melissa’s parents in Norristown, while Melissa’s curiosity was sparked after inquiring about a morel mushroom dish at a Manhattan restaurant. Their curiosity grew, and Josh presented the idea of foraging to Melissa. Soon, the two were in Fairmount Park stumbling over rocks and deep into the woods in search of fungi.

Josh began stopping on his bike rides to photograph the mushrooms, and developed quite a collection of fungi photos over time. Blending her creative crocheting with an interest in biomimicry, Melissa was inspired to crochet made-to-scale mushrooms mimicking Josh’s photographs, which were then attached to found wood.

Melissa Maddonni Haims Cold Comfort 1Melissa had previously exhibited at the Schuylkill Center in 2012. Her work, Cold Comfort, involved crocheted yarn-bombed trees along the Widener Trail and main driveway, enlivening the brown and grey winter landscape.  At a visit to the Schuylkill Center in 2015 to discuss a possible biomimicry show, discussions with Director of Environmental Art, Christina Catanese wandered to the morel mushroom and her husband’s collection of mushroom photography, and the concept for The Foragers was born.

Melissa and Josh brought fungi life into the Schuylkill Center in the form of crocheted mushrooms and photographs in their joint exhibition in early 2016. Melissa’s crocheted tableaus were given a setting by Josh’s photographs, creating an overall feel of being immersed in a forest.

The artists chose to focus on local fungi for the show. “These are mushrooms that you could go outside here [at the Schuylkill Center] and anywhere in this area. Something that is amazing about mushrooms is just the sheer diversity of them,” Catanese said in a conversation. “I think what’s great about Melissa’s work is that it’s like these little windows into the forest floor that celebrate this diversity.”

SCEE4813In addition to their work being displayed in the gallery, Melissa tapped back into yarn bombing and expanded her work onto trees along trails at the Schuylkill Center. Visitors could discover 9 crocheted mushrooms on their travels, staged as they might be found along the trail and on trees. In addition to the show, Melissa held a mushroom crocheting workshop, inviting participants to explore the creative and earthly processes.

A show shedding light and celebrating the forest ecosystem, Melissa explained that, like mushrooms, The Foragers exhibit represented just the fruit of something with roots stretching back 20 years.