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.

Schuylkill Center’s Statement on the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

SCEE visitors added their climate stories at 2016's Naturepalooza Earth Day Festival.

SCEE visitors added their climate stories at 2016’s Naturepalooza Earth Day Festival.

A big environmental shoe dropped yesterday when President Trump announced, not unexpectedly, his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.   

The Schuylkill Center, along with not only the global environmental community but also, surprisingly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, oil giant ExxonMobil, the World Coal Association, Pope Francis, Goldman Sachs, Apple, GE, Weather.com, and the majority of American people,  expresses our disappointment in this decision.

We also note our commitment not only to fact-based climate change education, but to high-quality science education so children mature into adults who understand, and can apply, the scientific process.

As a science education facility, we understand and teach about the avalanche of measurable data like carbon dioxide concentrations already approaching 410 parts per million—from the pre-Industrial Revolution level of only 280, a 46% increase in 200 years.  Also observable: each year is incrementally warmer than the one before, glaciers are measurably receding worldwide, polar ice is measurably thinning, sea levels are measurably rising, coral reefs are measurably bleaching and dying, spring is measurably arriving earlier each year, and species are observably disappearing from pristine habitats as weather changes.

We firmly believe in continuing the transition to a renewable, sustainable future, and will strive to share that vision with the thousands of people, especially young students, who participate in our programming.

As pioneering science fiction writer H. G. Wells noted presciently more than a century ago in his science writing, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

We believe in leveraging the power of education to avoid the climate catastrophe that the Paris Climate Accord was hoping to sidestep.

As a member, friend, and supporter, we trust you will continue to look to us for the good science and detailed knowledge you need to make decisions about the signature environmental issue of our time.

 

Going Up Gallery Wall

Climate Change Art Spotlight:  Jill Pelto

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Looking back over the year of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center, one of the highlights of 2016 was our gallery show, Going Up: Climate Change + Philadelphia. Along with the work of seven other artists exploring the various facets of climate change, this show included a new work by Maine artist Jill Pelto which was created specially for this exhibition, called Philadelphia Sea Level Rise Scenarios.

Pelto herself is both an artist and a scientist, and uses her watercolor paintings to communicate scientific data in a more visually compelling way.  Starting with data and charts as the framework for her paintings, she creates landscapes that enliven environmental information. For example, in Landscape of Change, Pelto uses the form of a line graph of declining glacier mass to depict a glacier, while a graph of rising sea levels is represented by deep blue water. Jagged red and orange imagery takes its shape from data on increasing forest fires, and increased atmospheric CO2 is shown as a gray sky. Continue reading

2016_4_23, kgronostajski@gmail.com, USA LBI NJ

Education, climate change, and the “fierce urgency of now”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

When a child graduates high school, the environmental education movement strives to make sure that student is environmentally literate—she understands how the world works, maybe even takes actions to improve environmental systems.

As the climate quickly changes, those graduates need to know about global warming.  Martin Luther King, Jr., in a completely different context, referred to “the fierce urgency of now,” and environmental educators feel that urgency, as weather is warming, seasons are shifting, oceans are rising, glaciers are shrinking, the icecaps are melting, wildfires are raging, and species are disappearing at rates faster than many models once predicted.

But hold on. Continue reading

The Pope and Climate Change

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Mike_9-4-15 (11)Before Pope Francis arrives in Philadelphia on Saturday, he will present groundbreaking speeches, one to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, the other to the United Nations on Friday.  He’s likely covering a number of hot-button topics, including immigration, poverty, homelessness…

…And climate change.  The pope, blessedly fearless, walks where angels fear to tread.  His June encyclical, Laudato Si’, or “Praise be to you,” rocked the world in its condemnation of how we treat the environment, using language no pope and too few world leaders have used before.  Humanity’s “reckless” behavior and “unfettered greed” have pushed the planet to a “breaking point.”

Quoting his namesake St. Francis of Assisi in his very first sentence, the pope writes that “the Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Doomsday predictions,” he warned, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Continue reading

IMG_2108

Earth Day and the Green Tsunami

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, 45 years ago today, more than 20 million Americans participated in the largest mass demonstration in American history, some 1 million in New York City alone.  They marched wearing gas masks and buried cars in mock graves protesting polluted air, threw buckets of dead fish into the lobbies of corporate offices to protest polluted water, and carried signs with grim messages like “RIP: Earth.”

It was the first Earth Day.  Reflecting back, it’s too easy to forget how angry people were about a polluted planet back in 1970.

In Philadelphia, thousands gathered on Belmont Plateau for speakers like Edmund Muskie, then a leading presidential contender, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, honoring the intention of creating a “national environmental teach-in” as envisioned by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, father of the event.

As a middle schooler on Long Island, I organized a litter cleanup in my town’s park. Bitten by the environmental bug then, I knew I’d be doing environmental work now.

Fast forward 20 years. On Saturday, April 22, 1990, 120,000-plus people crammed into Fairmount Park under a picture-perfect day for a family-oriented festival of music, games, speeches, food and more.  Here’s an irony: Earth Day 1990 shut down the Schuylkill for hours, and the crowd left behind mountains of unrecyclable trash.  Oops.

But  more than 200 million people from 141 countries participated, the largest mass event in world history.

This year?  Thousands already joined Usher, will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on the Mall in DC last weekend, while 2,500 runners joined the Clean Air Council’s Run for Clean Air, our city’s longest running Earth Day event.  It’s the “Phillies Red Goes Green” event tonight in the stadium, and hundreds of groups are hosting Earth Day activities bookending these two weekends, like my Schuylkill Center’s Naturepalooza festival on Saturday.

And 1 billion people—1 in 7 worldwide—from 200 countries will participate.  Surprise: Earth Day is suddenly one of the world’s largest nonreligious observances.

Dismiss Earth Day if you will—and many do—you have to give it this: the day has staying power, and a heckuva track record.  1970’s massive demonstration jumpstarted the modern environmental movement, a raft of environmental groups like Friends of the Earth were founded, Nixon caved to mounting pressure and signed bills creating the EPA, impact statements, and the endangered species act, and thousands of kids like me went into environmental careers.  Almost every curbside recycling program is brought to you courtesy of 1990’s toned-down Earth Day, as are dolphin-safe tuna, recycled paper products, and Rio’s Earth Summit.

Since we are much better counter-punching than planning, 1970’s Earth Day was a reaction to the Santa Barbara oil spill, DDT and eggshell thinning, Lake Erie being declared biologically dead, lead from gasoline lowering people’s IQ.  1990 in turn was a counter-punch to medical waste washing up alongside dead dolphins, Yellowstone burning under a fierce drought, and NASA scientist James Hanson testifying in Congress that the world was warming, the first scientist to do so.

It’s easy to see what 2020 will be in reaction to: in the next five years, new data—not to mention, say, a giant iceberg calving off the Antarctic shelf—will likely end the 25-year debate on climate change, the disappearance of a charismatic species like the rhinoceros will call make biodiversity a top-tier issue, and horrific droughts here and floods there will signal the emergence of water as a central concern.

The environment likely surfaces—finally!—as a core issue in that year’s presidential election.

So Earth Day 2020’s confluence of big anniversary with monstrous problems will cause the day to explode, and more than 2 billion of us—double this year—will participate, easily a low-ball estimate.

For a green tsunami is coming, a tidal wave of concern for the fate of an imperiled planet.  And love it or loathe it, Earth Day will be at the heart of that tsunami.

The day is here to stay, and will only get bigger.  Happy Earth Day.

Climate Change and the Two Toms

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

This piece will printed in the Roxborough Review on Thursday, June 19 in the column Natural Selections

“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change,” Washington State Governor Jay Inslee notably says in the new TV series, Years of Living Dangerously, “and we are the last generation that can do something about it.”

Inslee gets it—climate change will be the transcendent environmental issue of the coming decades.  Hard to know yet if either Governor Tom Corbett or his opponent, Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, gets it at quite this high level of concern.

For me, an environmental educator following the climate change debate for 25 years, I thought it a baby step forward that the Governor actually used the phrase “greenhouse gas emissions.”  Visionary?  Maybe not.  A step forward?  Absolutely.

In their first public appearance of the coming electoral season, the two Toms squared off in Center City last week at the annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.  They each presented their vision for the environment, and while sparks didn’t exactly fly, they presented some notable differences.

‘The governor, an avid kayaker, reminded us of a time—not that long ago—when you wouldn’t want to kayak in many of Pennsylvania’s rivers, especially Pittsburgh rivers where Corbett grew up.  Today, it’s notable “how much cleaner the rivers are, and not one day (he has kayaked) I haven’t seen an eagle.”

The word “balance” appeared in his remarks multiple times, and he noted that greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania were falling, that he has enforced environmental laws on the criminal side, that Pennsylvania has “the most progressive set of environmental laws in the nation,” and that “others states are coming (to Pennsylvania) to see how we did this.”

For me, an environmental educator following the climate change debate for 25 years, unnerved by how politically polarizing the debate has become, I thought it a baby step forward that the Governor actually used the phrase “greenhouse gas emissions.”  Visionary?  Maybe not.  A step forward?  Absolutely.

Challenger Tom Wolf then fired a warning shot across Corbett’s bow; with the governor bringing his secretaries of the Departments of Conservation and Natural Resources and Environmental Protection to the event, Wolf said he’d hire “qualified individuals” who used science and data to manage environmental concerns.

He also promised a “severance tax” on Marcellus shale; while Corbett levies an “impact fee” on drillers, many policy experts hoped for a tax, like other Marcellus states use, as the tax would generate much more than the $630 million that has come to Pennsylvania from the impact fee in the last three years.

Wolf, promising to put Pennsylvania on the “cutting edge” of a new clean energy economy, touted a seven point plan for the environment, noted that “one day, a carbon-based energy will be a thing of the past,” and said he wants Pennsylvania to consider joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an effort among nine states to reduce the types of pollution linked to global warming. That last point—given, mind you, to a room filled with environmental lawyers and green policy geeks—was the sole applause line of either Tom’s speeches. The only one.

What that told me is professionals within the environmental sphere—which, let’s be honest, will be a hugely important driver of jobs in the 21st century—get what Martin Luther King called, in a different context, “the fierce urgency of now.”

With carbon dioxide levels higher than they have been in millions of years, with ice caps in retreat, glaciers melting, sea levels rising, temperatures warming, the weather getting weird, Pennsylvania needs a full throated, complex discussion of our environmental future.

That conversation only began last week in a Center City banquet room between the battling Toms.  Let’s hope it continues among all of us.

Time Frames

by Sam Bower 2013


Standing in the woods near the pond at the Schuylkill Center, we can look out and see a range of time scales. The brown and golden leaves under our feet from the Fall- the leftovers of a year’s work by the trees above us. Perhaps there’s snow still on the ground from a recent storm, itself the result of the vast cycles of evaporation off the ground and from lakes and oceans into the atmosphere and clouds and back down again. Some of the trees around us are decades, maybe hundreds of years old. Frogs and fish and insects hidden underground or inside vegetation, birds in their nests chirping and flitting about, grasses, flowers each have their lifespans and carefully timed cycles to support, prey on or evade each other – evolved over thousands, even millions of years.


Changing urban land use patterns offer opportunities for shifts in paradigm, innovation and art: (http://www.takebackthetract.com/)

When we think of culture and public art, we have an opportunity to think along similar time scales. Humans also have their cycles of productivity, lifespans and fleeting passions. These interests also evolve over time to reflect our knowledge, context and the resources at hand.

Sometimes an artwork arrives with a bang and loud trumpets and just as quickly fades into the day or week or month only to live on in memory and documentation. Like sighting a rare Blue-winged Warbler in the forest, or waking up to an overnight dusting of snow that makes the line of every tree suddenly visible, or the miracle of a drop of dew on a leaf in the Summer that reflects a world upside down, these brief events delight and remind us of the preciousness of the present moment. Some things are simply best communicated ephemerally. A song. A performance. A rain shadow.

On the medium scale, we have most plants and animals and planted crops and, alas, most human projects. We tend to think in terms of months or years or at best decades. A hundred years without regular maintenance is long for a built structure, long for most outdoor sculptures, too, even those meant to be “permanent”. It’s the lifespan of an exhibition, a person, a raven, a grove of Sassafrass (albidum) and it serves to ground us in the familiar. We can see it and know it because it’s us. Within a century, with the strategic accumulation of such medium scale projects, we can make major improvements or changes to a place and set things in motion that can last a lot longer.

It’s the larger time frame that gets the least attention and is often more difficult to wrap our heads around. The scope of generations. Climate change. Geological time. Too often, these big shifts elude us. We claim not to know. A sudden revolution or a storm or an accident can thwart the best laid plans. Ultimately, we know that a focus on the specific is often too limiting a scale for something long lived and significant.

At the Schuylkill Center, the increasing flow of voracious and unmanaged deer over and across the land, and the invasive Asian earthworms (Amythas hilgendorfi and agrestis) under it, are regional and even continental challenges. To encourage specific changes here, we would need to plan and coordinate with those working within much larger areas to be effective. To set in motion a resilient set of processes that truly begin to nudge us and the natural areas under our trust towards a future that can address a world in flux is an enormous challenge. At a time of massive species extinction and global changes in climate, we need a flexible and directed multi-timescale approach to culture and ecological stewardship.

The environmental art advisory team at the Schuylkill Center in 2012.

This is the challenge ahead for the Schuylkill Center. Most art, even ecological art is a flash in the pan, a tasty snack. They generate attractive catalogs and press releases and perhaps valuable discussion, but will the worms and watersheds really notice? We have large institutions for pickling great paintings and sculptures, but outdoor work designed to heal the earth and support our communities is a different animal. While a project can have representative images and installations at these museums (usually as part of a temporary exhibition), the real work gets done on the ground and in context.

Like in an ecosystem, we need the dew drops and temporary projects to delight and attract. We also require specific medium term artful initiatives to control erosion, channel rainwater, educate people longer term and connect current and future generations to the land. It falls to the long term, multi-generational projects, however, to provide a long term vision that considers the implications and resilience needed to cope with, say, a 2-6 degree rise in global temperatures over the next few hundred years. It seems we’d want to look at rising water levels – how would this affect the Schuylkill River? What local conditions will we need to ensure maximum biodiversity and habitat support for migrating species seeking more favorable habitats?

In nature, we can see the extraordinary interplay of finely tuned life cycles working together to support the system as a whole. As these delicately synchronized dances grow increasingly out of synch with pollution, temperature and weather changes, what we know and have studied over the past hundreds of years will require new interpretation. It will become less about restoration of past conditions and more about our capacity to surf these changes. Our notion of what art is will also need to change.

For ecological art to be effective, we will need to think along multiple time scales and beyond the individual artwork, towards a future-oriented cultural system as a whole. How can the brief delightful moments support the larger arc of history? Can we begin to layer and combine artworks to support each other, much like the shift from unicellular to multi-cellular life? I’m looking forward to the role the Schuylkill Center can play in this civilizational shift. It is a precious opportunity to contribute to our times and help develop new cultural patterns for generations to come.

©Sam Bower 2013