Kate Farquhar’s Synestates: Art, Nature, and Humans

by Communications Intern Charlotte Roach 
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As you wander the trails of the Schuylkill Center, you may notice some objects that look a little out-of-place. What are those chains doing hanging from those tree branches? What are those white geometric shapes on the surface of Wind Dance Pond? Those objects are art installations, part of our LandLab environmental art residency, created by resident artist Kate Farquhar. Kate is a Philadelphia-based environmental artist and landscape architect with a passion for green design. Her series is called Synestates, and its purpose it to explore how human-made building materials can interact with nature.

pvines, located on Pine Grove Loop, is the first of two works Kate has installed so far. The piece is made out of steel chains, intertwined with capillary fabric and sunbursts of plastic straws, draped over the branches of an Amur cork tree. The purpose of pvines is to encourage a native vine, Virginia creeper, to climb up the chains. Capillary fabric has the special property of being able to wick water upwards against gravity. Thus, the fabric provides the vines with a source of water. 

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In landscape design, rain chains are often used as alternatives to downspouts. Capillary fabric can be used in the building of a plant-covered green wall, which can help insulate a building. Green walls and rain chains are functional, decorative, and artistic, and Kate has brought these materials unexpectedly into nature to help create new habitat. The plastic straws in pvines are arranged in an aesthetically appealing way, and have even become homes for various types of insects like spiders and earwigs. 

The second of Kate’s installations is called dolmbale, located on Wind Dance Pond. It is comprised of dense white foam cut into geometric cubes and pyramids. These shapes parallel the molecular structure of nitrogen, phosphorus, and salt. These three substances cause some of the most significant water pollution issues that Pennsylvania faces. An excess of nutrients in the water causes a huge spike in growth for bacteria and algae in a phenomenon known as an algal bloom. The bacteria and algae consume a lot of oxygen, leading to the water becoming depleted of oxygen for other organisms to use. This is known as hypoxia, and it’s lethal for aquatic life. dolmbale’s goal is to raise awareness of nutrient pollution in waterways. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and salt molecules are far, far too tiny to see, but their effects are massive, and clearly visible to the naked eye. Kate’s work imagines if we could see nutrient molecules themselves in a size that’s proportionate to their impact: huge. 

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To accompany the Styrofoam shapes, Kate collected water quality data on Smith Run (one of two streams on the Schuylkill Center property) as part of a larger citizen science initiative to gather information about water pollution in Pennsylvania. Under smaller versions of her floating cubes, Kate installed leaf packs, which gathered a community of aquatic macroinvertebrates over time. (Aquatic macroinvertebrates = little critters living in the water that you can see unaided, without a microscope). Then, Kate observed, counted, and identified the organisms she caught in the leaf packs. The basis of the method is that some little bugs are more pollution-tolerant than others. For example, leeches can handle just about anything. You may find leeches in filthy, heavily-polluted water, but also in clean water, so the presence of leeches doesn’t definitively indicate clean or dirty water. On the other side of the spectrum, mayflies are delicate little guys, and they need pure, clean water to survive. If you find mayfly larvae in your water, that’s a sure sign the water is relatively free of pollutants. This method is practically universal and can be used to compare pollution levels across regions. It’s not precise, but it’s far more accessible to citizen scientists than expensive machinery. All you need is a body of water, a net, and a key to identify critters. 

The data Kate gathered at the Schuylkill Center can be seen here if you zoom into Philadelphia on the interactive map: https://leafpacknetwork.org/data/ Happily, Smith Run received Good or Excellent scores at all three of her sample sites. Check out Stroud Water Research Center’s Leaf Pack Network to learn more about how you can set up your own leaf pack experiment.

Kate’s third Synestates piece, called urlog, will be installed in late summer 2019. urlog will be “a heap of undead wood manipulated to host new seedlings and native pollinators side-by-side”, in Kate’s words. Look forward to seeing urlog in a few weeks, and in the meantime, come observe pvines on Pine Grove Loop and dolmbale on Wind Dance Pond! Ponder the significance of humans and our by-products in the natural world as you enjoy lovely art and scenery. Also, check out this post for some concept art and behind-the-scenes of Synestates as well as some of Kate’s past work, including a spectacular green roof for Urban Outfitters’ Philly HQ! 

The Buzz on Lanternflies

By Executive Director Mike Weilbacher

A pair of concerned homeowners walked into the Schuylkill Center early last week in a bit of a panic. “We have lanternflies everywhere,” they told Steve Goin, our Director of Land and Facilities. “What do we do?” And many others have been calling our front desk with the same question.

What do we do indeed. Allow me to tell you.

Photo credit: Shawn Riley

Photo credit: Shawn Riley

The newest invasive creature in our backyards, spotted lanternflies were accidentally imported into Berks County from their native southeast Asia in 2014. And in the five years since, with no enemies, they have spread, decimating trees in a wide swath of southeastern Pennsylvania. Blessed with a hypodermic needle for a mouth, they suck the sap out of many different kinds of plants, including apple trees, grapevines, and hops, so farmers, brewers, and vintners, among others, are incredibly worried.

And it’s now that the adults have emerged from the cast-off skins of their baby selves, as insects do, the striking inch-long adults now sporting gray wings with black spots, and bright red underwings hiding beneath, easily seen when they fly—or typically hop—off.

So people are only noticing them now, and as they are still new to our yards, they are receiving a ton of attention. But what should you know about them?

First, they won’t harm you, as they don’t bite or sting.

Next, their host plant—the one they especially like to lay their eggs on, and upon which the flightless young stage pierces with its mouthparts to suck the sap from—is nicknamed “tree-of-heaven,” a fast-growing, widespread, and invasive tree introduced to the US from China in the 1700s; it is the title tree of  “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Caitlyn Johnstone wrote on that group’s website last year, “the plant’s presence creates a welcoming environment for the spread of the invasive bug.”

Here at the Schuylkill Center, we are seeing tree-of-heavens covered in lanternflies, thousands sucking out the sap, all the while excreting drops of “honeydew” from their rear ends, a very sweetened waste product (which can cover our cars, by the way). This honeydew then grows black sooty mold, the mold compromising the trees, which for us is actually doing something of a favor, killing the host plant. 

Photo credit: Shawn Riley

Photo credit: Shawn Riley

“All of our tree-of-heavens are covered in them,” says Andrew Kirkpatrick, our Center’s Manager of Land Stewardship. “These trees are all going to die.”

But if you have a tree-of-heaven in your yard, this might not be a good thing. Some, like the state, recommend killing the critters as you find them. Andrew worried that might be a waste of your time. “If you take the time to kill the ones in your backyard,” he told me, “they’ll soon be replaced by more from your neighbors’ yards.”

Instead, he continued, “if you have a tree-of-heaven in your yard, and you’re concerned about the lanternfly, the best thing to do is to have it removed, because the tree is going to become a hazard. And if you see a lanternfly sucking on a desirable species like oak, maple, or beech,” as the adults to do after they leave their tree-of-heaven home, “then it may be worth having the tree injected with a pesticide that will kill the lanternfly when it tries to feed.”

If you, like me, shy away from pesticides, some suggest attaching sticky bands to the tree bark, the glue grabbing the insects as they walk up the tree to become adults. But Rebecca Michelin, the Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation for our Wildlife Clinic, cautions you here. “We have gotten seven birds [coming to the clinic] from glue traps, the most recent a downy woodpecker. None of the birds survived more than 24 hours. Along with injuries like skin tears and fractures, the enormous stress the birds are subjected to when they are trapped often overwhelms them, despite being provided with supportive care when they are admitted.

“The important thing,” she noted, “is to reduce the chance of bycatch as much as possible by decreasing the surface area of the bands and using mesh or fencing to keep larger animals out. Penn State has a good guide on their website for doing this—but there’s always the risk you will catch something you didn’t intend.” In fact, the extension website shows a photo of the sticky band having caught a ring of young lanternflies, along with a host of other good insects stuck on the glue as well. Even if you avoid catching birds or reptiles, it’s not without risks to other animals. 

Last week, the Schuylkill Center’s summer camp held a new contest, a prize for the camp group that caught the most lanternflies. The winners—the Fantastic Foxes, by the way—caught 76 of the hoppers. In all, our kids caught and killed 120 of them.

The potential economic impact of this insect is still being assessed as it spreads into New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and surrounding states. Stay tuned. But there is yet another new invasive creature in our yards. And yet another ecological worry—as it there weren’t enough already. 

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@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.
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Illuminating the Plastic Crisis: Art from Waste at the Schuylkill Center

By: Christina Catanese

 

Recently, plastic has been the object of much attention – environmental news feels saturated with increasing calls for bans on plastic straws and grocery bags; images of dead albatrosses on beaches with stomachs full of bottle caps and other small pieces of plastics mistaken for food; an unfolding crisis in the recycling industry triggered by China’s ban on imports on many recyclables, where most of America’s waste had been shipped for years; and the resultant environmental justice crisis in Chester, where Philadelphia’s recycling was being burned for a time this year. Statistics like “8 million tons of plastics enter the ocean each year” or “240,000 plastic bags are used globally every ten seconds” or “only 10% of all plastics ever produced have been recycled to date” feel utterly overwhelming, and it can feel difficult to know what to do with or about this information.

What if there was a different way to think about plastic – through beauty, and through celebrating rather than lamenting its durability? If we saw this material as precious and valuable, rather than disposable, would we reduce how much plastic we are using and throwing away? This is part of the message of the artist behind the Schuylkill Center’s summer exhibition.

Aglow features artworks created by Aurora Robson from industrial plastic debris, illuminated from within by LED lights. Along with the immersive installation in our environmental art gallery, Robson presents three outdoor sculptures around the Visitor Center.

Intercepting her materials from the waste stream, Robson transforms discarded plastic into mesmerizing, bold sculptures that disguise and transcend their material. Drawing attention to the global challenge of single-use waste, Robson seeks to imbue these often overlooked materials with care and intention, encouraging a viewer to consider their own relationship with waste and the waterways where it so often is discarded.

“People are so confused about plastic,” says Robson. “They think of it as disposable when it is precisely the opposite.” Plastic’s resistance to weathering and decay means it can last hundreds to thousands of years in the environment. This quality, along with the extreme volume of our current consumption and disposal of plastic, makes it a nightmare for the planet, but at the same time an untapped resource for artists. Along with other valuable qualities for sculpture like translucence and pliability, it is durable and almost automatically archival – an art conservator’s dream material.

Robson is a leading voice advocating for artists to be more conscious of the environmental footprint left by their art making. Besides shipping, her work is close to carbon neutral, made only from discarded or difficult-to-recycle materials. Her inquiry into the potential of plastic as art material has extended beyond her own art practice; she also offers courses and workshops on safety and best practices in low-impact artwork, as well as leads stream clean up efforts to source materials for sculpture out of local waterways and shorelines.

Many of the works in this exhibition are made from decommissioned highway safety drums and industrial detergent barrels, which are almost always sent to a landfill after their use, but which Robson here has cleaned, cut, welded, and transformed. Though the warm-toned organic shapes are abstract, they call to mind creatures of the ocean, some of the most impacted organisms of the plastic crisis.

 

Robson’s work presents a way of looking at plastic that goes beyond simply recycling more. It is activist work, in that it is an active response to a global challenge which activates our imaginations around creative solutions. The work in Aglow (literally) illuminates and alerts, but also plays its part to stem the tide of plastic waste streaming into the environment, where it will stay for centuries, threatening our health, choking ecosystems, contributing to climate change, and marking our human presence in the geologic record.

Aglow is on view in the Schuylkill Center’s art gallery and trails now through August 27, 2019. Join us on June 6 from 7-9pm for a reception with the artist and a guided tour of the exhibition at dusk. This exhibition is supported by the Joseph Robert Foundation.

Christina Catanese directs the Schuylkill Center’s Environmental Art program and can be reached at christina@schulkillcenter.org. For more information on the environmental art program, visit www.schuylkillcenter.org.

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New Program Opens for Two-Year-Olds

Imagine witnessing a child’s love of nature unfurl through a series of moments: the first time they hold a wiggling earthworm, hear a warbler call, or watch frogs scurry into a pond. These experiences play into the sensory needs of young children and help to bolster their language, fine and gross motor skills, and cognitive abilities. For the first time this spring, we are offering this curriculum to children ages 25–36 months through Fledglings, a “watch-me-fly” program for children and caregivers.

This five-week series will use walks and wanders, songs, stories, and art to tap into children’s innate interest in the natural world. Each week will focus on a different theme as we explore meadows, ponds, and forests. We will also offer an optional Reader’s Club, which includes weekly books to encourage your child’s continued growth and curiosity. Through this program, we invite caregivers to join their children in creating nature-based memories or relax nearby as children develop a passion for and understanding of the natural world.

Since Nature Preschool started in 2013, we’ve connected over 700 children to the outdoors through child-centered, inquiry-based learning. We can’t wait to offer this opportunity to littler ones as well.

Elfant

A Valentine to Bob and Nancy Elfant

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

It’s Valentine’s Day, that day set aside to think about the things we love. Bob and Nancy Elfant, local residents and strong supporters of the Schuylkill Center’s Wildlife Clinic, love animals.

“We both have a soft spot in our heart for animals,” said Bob last week. “And needy animals,” chimed in Nancy, noting their adoption of two rescue dogs 11 years ago. The Elfants were making a visit to the Wildlife Clinic, being given a tour by Chris Strub, the clinic’s assistant director.

“If I pass an animal along the road that has been hurt, I tear up– it’s just so sad,” Bob said, continuing, “humankind does enough to destroy and harm the animal world that if there is something we can do to give back or make them better, that’s our obligation.”

Bob is a founding partner of both Elfant Pontz Properties and Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, the latter with its cheery yellow “For Sale” signs (note the squirrel logo– there’s that love of  animals again) visible across the region. Nancy, a former social worker, is recognized by many as a former owner of Germantown Avenue’s Trolley Car Diner, where she ran the front of the house for many years. In the fall, the couple make a generous leadership gift to the Schuylkill Center that helped us reopen our Wildlife Clinic, closed, as noted here many times, through much of 2018 while we searched for a new director.

“It’s nice for us to donate to something concrete,” Nancy noted, pointing to the clinic, a bricks-and-mortar place that rescues wildlife. “It makes a real difference.”

Their support for the Wildlife Clinic became even more concrete recently when the Elfants brought a cardinal there a few weeks back. Outside of their family room, they’ve long maintained a series of feeders where they watch chickadees nibbling on suet, blue jays noisily eating seeds, goldfinches working the thistle feeder, hummingbirds sipping nectar, and more. And yes, they have decals on their windows to lessen the odds of window strikes by birds mistaking reflections in the glass for sky.

Even with the decals, they recently heard a thud against the window, and Bob had “that feeling where your heart goes into your stomach. We ran to the window, and the cardinal was laying there outside, clearly alive, clearly stunned.” They carefully placed the bird in a box and brought it immediately to the Wildlife Clinic.

“The best part,” continued Bob, “was watching (new clinic director Rebecca Michelin) examine the bird. Her touch was amazing, the way she can hold the bird in just the right way and blow on its chest feathers looking for bruising on the skin underneath, checking out the legs to determine they were not broken. She shone a flashlight into its eyes– it was like a human medical exam on an animal.”

The cardinal stayed overnight for observation, and the next day Rebecca called the Elfants with the happy news to “come get your cardinal, you can bring her home.” Bob was especially excited that Rebecca referred to it as “your cardinal,” giving them ownership of the experience. They released it that day in their backyard, Nancy capturing a photo of the bird shooting out of the box, the cardinal a mid-air blur of red.

While the Elfants give to a variety of causes– Bob is president of Arden Theater’s board, for example, with Nancy also a fellow board member– this particular donation is “dear to our hearts.”

When Bob was asked what he might say to other potential donors about the Wildlife Clinic, he didn’t hesitate: “Open your checkbooks,” he said. “If people can find it in their hearts to support animals, this is a great way to do just that.”

“We encourage people to do something,” Nancy concluded.

There are innumerable ways to support the Wildlife Clinic’s mission to protect wildlife in Philadelphia. Donations to the clinic are welcome– and can be offered online– but donations of in-kind materials can also be made; check out our website’s list. Plus there is an Amazon wish list there as well, so you can purchase a needed amenity for the clinic and have it shipped there directly.

You can also volunteer for the Wildlife Clinic, as almost 100 people have already done since the clinic reopened in November. Call the Schuylkill Center at 215-482-7300 to begin the volunteering discussion.

On Valentine’s Day, we join the Elfants in declaring our love for animals, and invite you to join the Elfants in showing that love by donating to the Wildlife Clinic.

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

 

Community: Creative Connections at the Schuylkill Center

Lauren Bobyock, Environmental Art and Communications Intern

What does community mean to you? Here at the Schuylkill Center, community means connection. We offer a wide range of ways for humans of all ages and backgrounds to engage with nature—whether you are spending time with your family outside at our weekly Schuylkill Saturdays, or attending our Meigs Environmental Leadership Award ceremonies to learn about strides our community members take to further environmentalism. Our community contributes to the Schuylkill Center in a variety of ways, and we are excited to honor all friends, members, volunteers, and staff in an exciting and creative way this winter.

A crucial aspect of the Schuylkill Center is our Environmental Art department. Using art, we are able to seamlessly pair science with physical movement, history with inventive up-cycling, and math with textiles. Art bridges the gap between all facets of life, and we especially value how it is connected to the environment.

Our gallery has been the home for a vast number of environmental art projects since its expansion in 2013. We’ve incorporated animals, mythology, botany, kinetic energy, architecture, geology, fashion, local history, and the Schuylkill Center itself as topics for many environmental projects. But none of these projects were created alone. Contributions from nature and humans made each gallery piece possible.

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Hayley Crawford’s “Love leaves.” uses materials from nature to display a love for local surroundings. Displayed in Community, 2017.

 

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Laura’s “Un Cerf Magique” captures a moment in nature using illuminating colors highlighting the magic and fantastical scenes found outside. Displayed in Community, 2017.

Art connects people to each other and to the environment, and these connections contribute to creating the invaluable community that we are lucky enough to consider a Schuylkill Center family. For the second time (after an extraordinary success), we are excited to invite our community to fill the gallery with their own works this February as we celebrate your dedication to the Schuylkill Center and your creative works. Community, this unique upcoming exhibition, will feature artwork of anyone and everyone involved with the Schuylkill Center. We welcome all art mediums—clay, weaving, photography, woodwork, painting, dance—the possibilities are endless. Read more about our guidelines and how to submit work here (deadline January 6).

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Kelsey Wimmenaur’s “Water Series 2/3” uses bodies of water as inspiration to express the comfort received from water in nature. Displayed in Community, 2017.

When previously done in 2017, we saw this exhibit bring the Schuylkill Center community to life like never before. Barriers were broken and expectations exceeded, and we look forward to seeing what our community has in store for us this time around. Community will be on view in the gallery from February 21 through April 27, 2019. An opening reception will be held on February 21, 2019.

Autumnal Stream Walk

By Lauren Bobyock, Communications and Environmental Art Intern 

It was the perfect fall day to get a little lost in the woods. There are two parallel streams running through the valleys at the Schuylkill Center Meigs and Smith Runs and that day two teams of staff and volunteers set out to learn more about them. On an artistic and scientific mission, we began this journey to contribute to our latest environmental art gallery exhibit by Stacy Levy: Braided Channel.

Stream Water Gathering

Stream Water Gathering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stacy Levy is an environmental artist with installations all over the world including the Schuylkill Center (read more here). Levy’s vision for Braided Channel includes multiple video screens that display a sample of her site-based works in action. Additionally, she organized this gathering of water samples to construct a “water library” of sorts to tell the story of these local streams. Our findings unearthed details about Meigs and Smith Runs that we never would have understood without delving further into them.

Stream Gathering

We began near Hagy’s Mill road and followed both streams down to the Schuylkill River Trail, taking a water sample approximately every 130 feet. Both teams began this journey with a bit of bushwhacking to find our starting points. It quickly turned into a lot of bushwhacking with the realization that we literally had our skin in the game! Our spirits high, we sojourned on, delighted to spend several hours in the woods. The time passed quickly as we filled our backpacks with Ziploc bags of water samples as we drank in the splendor of the forest and stream.

Stream Gathering

Stream Gathering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With 340 acres to explore, it’s easy to overlook our two stream corridors. Especially since most of the streams are off limits except for two access points on Smith Run for educational purposes; a condition of the conservation easement on the property.  There is no trail to Meigs Run. Ravine Loop offers ample opportunity to enjoy a view of Smith Run, although we ask visitors to remain on the trail to avoid damaging these sensitive habitats.

With special permission from the Land and Facilities Department we were able explore these unique sections of the property for the exhibit.  Our walks led us to note some important discoveries about these streams and the land surrounding them. We found four-foot high clay banks, gravel bars, and massive bedrock carved by the continual flow of water. Old deer fencing from abandoned restoration projects lay upon beautiful open hillsides. We experienced changing elevations and temperatures as we moved from forested canopy to open clearings. We met crayfish, frogs, and even a snake along the way. Our discoveries included sites of mass erosion, crumbling stone foundations, lots of moss, dams, and boulder-sized quartz rocks. All of our findings led us to a deeper understanding of the hydrology of the forest and we documented it for Stacy Levy’s display.

Stream Water GatheringStream Water Gathering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stream Water Gathering

Stream Water GatheringStream Water Gathering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was much to note on our journey and our efforts were an important contribution to Levy’s exhibit. Braided Channel is open in the gallery now through February 2nd. Stop in to see the water samples and learn more about our discoveries!

Stream Water Gathering

Art as Environmental Leadership: Stacy Levy to receive the Meigs award

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Rain Yard

Every year, the Schuylkill Center gives the Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award to a deserving environmental professional for leaving a meaningful and lasting impact on their community and our region, and embodying a spirit of leadership, integrity, and vision.

In twelve years, we’ve never given this honor to an environmental artistbut that changes this year. On November 7th, Stacy Levy will be presented the Meigs award for her pioneering work joining the worlds of art and science throughout her career of creating compelling artwork, both site-specific and gallery-based.

In Levy’s words, she “use[s] art as a vehicle for translating the patterns and processes of the natural world.” Today, creating novel modes of revealing natural systems and solving ecological challenges have become critical, and artists have an important role to play in connecting people with nature. Levy is among the preeminent environmental artists working today, and is unmatched in the elegance with which her work reveals ecological processes that otherwise may go unnoticed.

She has broken new ground in working not just in but with the environment. Along with showing how nature works, Levy has created many projects that solve environmental issues in a place. For an example of this, we need look no further than out the back door of our Visitor Center, where we can experience Rain Yard, Levy’s 2013 artwork which manages stormwater runoff from our roof. Operating in this intersection, Levy has a spirit of collaboration and uncanny ability to galvanize community members and specialists across disciplines.

After being presented the award, Levy will be joined by a panel for a discussion on the intersection of art, science, and the environment particularly through the lens of water. Then, we’ll celebrate the opening of a new installation by Levy in our gallery with a reception.

We recognize that environmental leadership can take many forms, and in this year’s Meigs award, look forward to celebrating how artists can shine as environmental leaders.

 

 

Andorra’s Lance Butler grows mightly mussels

mike's mussel story

 

While Roxborough is famously home to numerous civil servants, especially cops and firemen, Andorra’s Lance Butler has among the most unusual city jobs.

He’s growing mussels. Thousands of mussels. To place back into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. And it’s surprisingly important work.

A senior scientist in Philadelphia Water’s Office of Watersheds, Lance was staring into a microscope last Thursday afternoon, measuring and assessing the health of baby mussels no larger than a grain of sand. He was sitting in a laboratory, what he calls “a living breathing laboratory,” tucked into the back of the Fairmount Water Works, Philly Water’s great museum of the city’s water history housed in the iconic building below the Art Museum. The lab doubles as the Mussel Hatchery, an exhibit in the Water Works where you can visit to learn about mussels too — and sometimes see Lance working.

The unassuming white plastic buckets that surrounded him on shelves, with a spaghetti tangle of clear plastic hoses running into and out of them, held thousands of baby mussels in various stages of their life cycles. Freshwater mussels are bivalves, two-shelled mollusks like clams and oysters, cousins of the marine versions you eat in marinara. Lance says these creatures are “bio-sentinels, the canaries in the river’s coal mine,” as they crave fresh, clean water, but have no ability to escape a pollution event — they can’t pick up and move away. If pollution strikes a river, mussels are doomed.

Consequently, over 70 percent of the world’s 700 mussel species are at risk of extinction, and freshwater mussels are among the most endangered American animals. Many were extirpated — made locally extinct — in the Delaware River basin, hence Lance’s project. But why does this matter? And why is the city spending money on this?

“Mussels have a huge impact on water quality,” Lance told me while unscrewing a jar containing baby yellow lamp mussels. As mussels anchor themselves in a river’s bottom and filter algae out of the water, “one mussel filters 10 to 20 gallons of water a day. With a million mussels in a river, that’s 20 million gallons of water. They remove nutrients, they remove solids, making the water more clear, and they remove harmful things like E. coli and other bacteria.”

Water is cleaner and safer for us because of the work of mussels.

That’s the key to why the city is investing in this. In addition to restoring to our rivers the plants and animals that belong there, Lance says, “mussels save money. If our water is cleaner going into our intake pipes, cleaning the water is easier and cheaper for the Water Department.” So spending money here saves money elsewhere.

And if you love to fish in the Schuylkill, you’ll especially love mussels. He says mussels practice “terraforming,” changing their habitat. “With mussels filtering the water, its clarity improves. Light can shine deeper into the water, so there is more submerged vegetation. And the plants hold sediment down, making better habitat for fish.” So the more mussels we have, the better the river is for fish (and fishing).

He also opened a larger lamp mussel for me, showing me a dark section inside the small soft body of what is a mother mussel. The dark spot was actually thousands of glochidia, larval mussels, hiding inside the mother. These larvae don’t have the bivalve shells and look like completely different organisms — but they are what hatches from mussel eggs. When the glochidia are ready for the next phase, some mama mussels have lures that attract the correct host fish over, and the female “spits” the glochidia at the fish, the larvae attaching themselves to the gills of the fish, “snapping like Pacman onto its gills.” And the larval mussels go for a ride.

“This is how they disperse themselves throughout a habitat,” he told me. “The fish are their Uber ride upriver.”

When ready, the glochidia transform again into small mussels and drop to the river bottom — where some species might live for as many as 100 years!

So the Mussel Hatchery also includes fish like yellow perch, the unwitting host in this extraordinary project. This week, Butler and other project scientists from the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and the Academy of Natural Sciences will be discussing what happens to the 15,000 baby mussels now stored in holding ponds at several locations in the region, all products of this process. Ultimately, they will begin releasing mussels back into the wild. And hope they take.

Lance is also senior scientist in the long-awaited restoration of the Manayunk Canal, a project which is moving ahead and “should go out to bid next year. The canal will turn into a beautiful amenity for the community.” One of the project’s goals is to get water flowing back into and out of the canal again, to reconnect it to the river from which it has been severed. And mussels will definitely be a part of the picture.

Philly Water maintains a website, “The Mighty Mussel,” to learn more about this project (mightymussel.com), and for school teachers intrigued by this, mussels can visit your classroom as well, and your school can help bring mussels back to our rivers.

Visit the Mussel Hatchery soon, and perhaps you’ll see Roxborough’s own Lance Butler performing his critical work, bringing mighty mussels back to Philadelphia rivers.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org This blog was originally published in the Montgomery News September 5.