A Tale of Two Birds

While planting trees over the last two weeks at the Schuylkill Center, a familiar sound echoed through our Roxborough woods, something like an ethereal organ being played in the forest. I smiled: the wood thrush is back.

The wood thrush—a cousin of the robin and about the same size, but with a cinnamon coat and dramatic black spots on a bright white chest—is widely considered the best singer of all songbirds. No less an observer than Henry David Thoreau agreed. “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest,” he wrote. “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. It is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

Doesn’t that alone make you want to go hear one? The “ethereal” piece is because, almost uniquely, the bird uncannily can whistle two notes simultaneously, harmonizing with itself to produce the ringing that is so entrancing. Even better, it often sings at both sunrise and sunset, making it one of the first as well as one of the last birds you might hear during the day.

A creature of the interior forest and an important indicator of forest health, the thrush has become a symbol of the vanishing American songbird; one study estimated that its population has declined 62% since 1966 in eastern North America. Forest fragmentation is often cited as a chief reason for its decline, as it requires more than small suburban woodlots, and fragmented forests offer fewer places to escape predators. The brown-headed cowbird, a social parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, will stay out of deep interiors, but can easily find thrushes in smaller forests—and lay its eggs in the nest, its nestling outcompeting baby thrushes for parental attention.

It’s also a victim of being migratory. While North American forests are fragmenting, Central and South American forests—its winter home—are disappearing too, so, like many birds, the wood thrush is being hit at both ends of its migration.

But the first time I hear one every April at the Schuylkill Center, I stop and savor the sound: the gates of heaven have just opened. Please come and hear, maybe even see, it yourself.

And there’s a second bird I’d love for you to hear, this one the most common bird you’ve never heard of. If you have ever walked through a summertime forest anywhere in the Philadelphia region, you have heard this bird—and heard it, and heard it, and heard it.

Red-eyed vireo

Because the red-eyed vireo may just be the most abundant forest bird across Pennsylvania. Warbler-small and usually gleaning insects high up in the treetops, the bird sings incessantly, holding an ongoing monologue of usually three-noted sounds, some rising, some falling, as if it were asking and answering its own questions: “How are you? I am fine. Doing well. Pretty good. Are you sure?”

And it does have a red eye, but while I have heard thousands of vireos sing, I can count on only one hand the number of times I have actually seen the red eye—and the first time made me scream with delight. If you can see the red eye, you’ll also catch the two black stripes sandwiching a white one, slicing right through the red eye.

The name vireo is Latin for “I am green,” which its body feathers are—sort of. Its species name olivaceus only drives home that point in case you missed it the first time.

It builds one of the smallest non-hummingbird nests, a petite cup that dangles from the crotch of a high tree branch, held together with a number of fibers—and spider silk. These nests are even harder to find than the vireo’s eye.

The red-eye may be the most prominent member of a clan of songbirds, others of which drive even expert birders batty. There’s currently a solitary vireo hanging out behind the Schuylkill Center’s preschool classrooms that one of our teachers—an ace bidder herself—has been hearing. So consider the red-eye your gateway into the vireo kingdom. If you’ve heard one, challenge yourself to see the eye; if you’ve never heard of this bird, here’s a wonderful assignment for you.

Go for a walk this week, and listen for both the organ pipes of the thrush and the chatty monologist, the red-eyed vireo. The gates of heaven will open for you too.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Climate as an Infrastructure Issue

“If we act to save the planet,” President Joe Biden told a masked and distanced joint session of Congress last week, “we can create millions of jobs and economic growth and opportunity.” 

Words I have been waiting my entire adult life to hear a president say. Without apology. Without speaking in code. Without soft pedaling. Necessary words that address the unique moment we find ourselves in. 

You know this column is rarely political. Instead, I more typically offer updates on how the environment is doing in Philadelphia and Roxborough, or share the extraordinary natural world in which we live. But not this week. So walk with me out onto a political limb, and let’s talk climate.

Because, frankly, there is no more important issue. Yes, more important than COVID, because we are finally coming out of this pandemic—at least it seems at the moment—and in the last year, climate change has just not gone away, and underpins and supersedes all other issues. 

Ane because Philadelphia is already hotter, wetter, and weirder. Hotter: springtime is 2.7 degrees warmer than it was only 50 years ago in 1970, and getting warmer. Weirder: remember only last week temperatures toyed with hitting the 90s—in April!—and then suddenly dropped while weirdly high winds began blowing through. 

So I’m thrilled to have a president who doesn’t blink or hedge on climate change, but is all in, labeling it the “existential threat” it deserves to be called. He even dared to sprinkle climate change proposals throughout his infrastructure plan, which of course isn’t a universally popular move. OK, it’s actually reviled in some quarters. But think about it for a moment.

When the Delaware River—a tidal waterway, by the way—rises, as it already is, it threatens Penn’s Landing and I-95 through the city; it threatens South and West Philadelphia, Fishtown and the river wards. It threatens the major chemical and energy facilities along the river. It especially threatens a massive low-lying airport built on fill from previous dredging of the river. Projections show the airport to be underwater in coming decades: to where will we move the airport? In the alternative, how will we make the airport resilient to sea level change? 

Infrastructure questions all, without a doubt.

And combating climate change requires energy-efficient buildings that are solarized and connected to a smarter energy grid. Public transportation that more readily moves more people more smartly through the region so we can wean ourselves off of our overlong reliance on cars. And making streets and neighborhoods more resilient to the ravages of stormwater from more powerful storms.

Infrastructure again.

Biden also correctly connects the climate issue to justice, and is not afraid to talk about climate justice, as underserved Americans in low-income neighborhoods will especially feel the impacts of a supercharged climate. 

And yes, Biden also recommitted the country to the Paris Agreement, the world’s agreement on wrestling with climate change. Remember, when President Trump withdrew America from the treaty, we joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries to do so—and both have since that time signed on. Is this the company we wish to keep? All of us know climate change is a global concern, and we need to be at the table negotiating the terms for how the planet solves the crisis. We have a ton of skin in this game.

Biden outlined what Scientific American, an apolitical science-based magazine, called “a transformative vision of muscular government, with climate policy driving both domestic and international affairs. He cast decarbonization as an engine of his economic plans. And he framed competition with China as a struggle over the future of clean energy.”

“There’s no reason,” the president continued last week, “the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries.” Hard to imagine why anyone would have a beef with those last two sentences.

But he didn’t stop there. His plan is intent on “replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, so every child—can turn on the faucet and be certain to drink clean water.” Lead in drinking water leads to permanent loss of IQ among people who consume it; certainly his intention to purify water cannot be problematic.

“We are at an inflection point in history,” Biden said. We are. We’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change—and the last who can do anything meaningful about it.

George H.W. Bush ran on a climate change platform in 1988, but the issue quickly fell in the chasm between the parties. Intelligent people need to pull it out of the chasm—and handle it.

Because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted many decades ago, we are facing “the fierce urgency of now.” There is urgency in the pandemic, in racial justice, but especially in climate

“Look,” Biden says whenever he wants to make an important point. For me, it was long overdue that an American president talked like a rational adult about this critical issue. Finally.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Engaging with the Environment through “Homegrown Stories”

Last week, the Schuylkill Center, as well as more than 1 billion people from almost 200 countries, united for Earth Day in the name of improving our planet. As this week of honor and appreciation closes, we are left to reflect how our actions, both large and small, individually and collectively, have an impact on the Earth and our common future. The art project Homegrown Stories explores our natural environment through the lenses of video and film that the Environmental Art Team is excited to share in light of Earth Day. Already in 2020, the Schuylkill Center visually explored the meaning of Earth Day at 50 in the exhibition Ecotactical, which considered what new insights Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the middle of a pandemic provided us. The Homegrown Stories project considers similar questions and finds that while the world around changes, so, too, do the artistic responses to climate change, environmental injustice, and humanity’s exploitation of nature. 

 

In art, environment is everything. Whether it’s the nebulous political or social sphere that influences the artist’s style, subject matter, or intent, or the physical surroundings that contextualize the viewer’s perception of the piece—the shared nature of space is what connects us so deeply through art. In a time when the planet itself is in crisis, as climate change not only threatens humanity but the very foundation of “nature” as we know it, the environment of art has focused itself on The Environment. How we experience it, how we influence it, and how we must work together to save it.

These are the concepts currently being explored by the online video project Homegrown Stories. As outlined on the website, this project began in 2013 as a way for founders LeAnn Erickson and Sandra Louise Dyas to employ a one-shot aesthetic to create videos that delve into the “questions of personal space, the act of storytelling and the primacy of place in shaping one’s world view,” the collaborators explain.

Initially, they focused on their own experiences within the website’s noted theme of “place and space,” integrating both still and moving images from their daily lives. However, Erickson and Dyas quickly realized that regardless of where they traveled or what they focused on, they were only two perspectives on a theme that had a farther reaching effect.

Thus, in 2015, Homegrown Stories began inviting other artists to join in the conversation. Borrowing from creative writing techniques, Erickson and Dyas chose prompts that would serve as inspiration for original videos. With their varied and differing perspectives, each artist added something unique that would enhance the overall experience of the collaborative project.

In an effort to draw attention to the issues that threaten the planet, the year 2020 focused on the elements of the natural environment. Under the prompts of “Water,” “Earth,” “Air,” and “Fire,” Homegrown Stories collaborated with various filmmakers to document and witness, investigate and interpret the effects of climate change as it influences the physical, social, and political world. Often utilizing the pocket technology of smart phones, these videos provide an intimate perspective that not only draws the viewer in, but also creates a unique environment in which they might understand and interact with the art.

“Water”—arguably the most important element to human life, and perhaps the most pressing matter in terms of climate change’s effect on the planet—opened the prompts. Many filmmakers were drawn to focus on the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to flooding events that happened in their local environments. Philip Hopper’s “Flood Stage,” portrays the overflowing Cedar River in Iowa, while “Mississippi River, St Louis Waterfront,” a 360-degree interactive still image by Karla Berry and Don Barth, looks upon the Mississippi as it laps at the St. Louis Arch. As the waters submerge walkways, rush under bridges, and jostle path signs, the artists highlight the struggle of humanity as it tries to protect its structures and infrastructure from the raging waters that its own actions have caused. Hopper, Berry, and Barth aim to raise the alarm for change as they create a visceral experience of the sheer power of this man-influenced, but ultimately natural, element.

Terrarium still #1, LeAnn Erickson and Jake Rasmussen

The next prompt was “Earth”—one that led the artists in many different directions, though all pointing toward the planet’s cry for help. Memo Salazar’s video “Earth by Memo,” features a squishy earth ball that continually attempts to rebound as a human hand smashes and bangs it to a cacophonous soundtrack. “Terrarium,” by Erickson and Jake Rasmussen, takes a much more experimental approach, pairing 1930s voiceover from Encyclopedia Britannica with video images that bubble, mesh, and layer to create a kaleidoscopic perspective. Though the latter focuses more on a representation of the value in the beauty of nature, both videos note the fragility of the earth (whether as a malleable ball or a fracturing terrarium) and ask the viewer to question what it means to interact emotionally, experientially, and physically with the planet and how they might change these interactions for the better.

“Sightseeing” by Mary Slaughter

The year concluded with “Air” and “Fire,” two elements that go hand in hand. The former consisted of videos exploring the notion of breath in a world dealing with police brutality, an airborne pandemic, and the pollution that is destroying our atmosphere. “Fire,” instead, looked at the necessity of a resource that defines civilization, while also illuminating how this same civilization has utilized it as a destructive force. Mary Slaughter’s iPhone video, “Sightseeing,” looks at a traditional Kurama Fire Festival in Japan, meant to honor spirits with torches paraded through the streets. Instead of a reverent, religious event, however, it turns into a tourist spectacle which is marked by an immense police presence. “In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants, looks more closely at fire’s role in industrialization and how it affects our cities and towns. The piece explores the issues of the poverty divide, the building and decaying of urban structures, and the pollution of smoke as it billows out of factory chimneys. Both videos portray the miracle of fire and how it has allowed our society to grow and flourish, but also the negative consequences of such progress.

 

“In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants

The goal of Homegrown Stories is that of all artists—to evoke emotion and reaction and to engage in a conversation about what we hold as progress, truth, and beauty. However, this collaborative project also invites the viewer to find answers through science and political action by providing links in each prompt to resources such as The Thirst Project, Green America, and The Southern Poverty Law Center. Erickson and Dyas are asking for more than passive viewing, they are asking for participation in redirecting our planet’s future. When change is the necessity, then art is the catalyst, information is the momentum, and collective action is the answer.

 

Molly Stankoski, Freelance Writer and Researcher

 

“City Nature Challenge” Nature Kit: At-Home Version

This weekend’s Nature Kit is all about the City Nature Challenge taking place right now, in Philadelphia and cities across the U.S. Every Saturday, Nature Kits are given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am–12:00 pm. Nature Kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails and given back once completed. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

What is the 2021 City Nature Challenge?

An international event that takes place every spring, this friendly competition between participating cities is a way to get people outside to document plants and wildlife in their cities. From April 30 – May 3, all pictures of wildlife uploaded to iNaturalist in the Philadelphia region will be documented for the purpose of this challenge, with the goal being to record the largest number of species in our city. To participate, you can simply head outside and start taking pictures of all the wildlife species you see! (Don’t forget about those plants!)

To participate using the FREE iNaturalist app:

  • Download iNaturalist from your app store or by visiting inaturalist.org.
  • Create an account.
  • Begin making observations! 
    • Tap the “+” sign in the bottom right corner. 
    • Select “take photo” and take your picture.
    • Tap the “what did you see” button and select the picture that looks the most similar to what you saw.
    • Hit the green check mark at the bottom.
  • If you do not wish to download the app, you may still participate by using the observation cards below to record any wildlife observations!

 

Optional Wildlife Observation Cards (print as many as you’d like):

—Rebecca Deegan, Environmental Educator

Gardening with Native Plants: Great for You AND the Planet

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. 

Virginia bluebells, pink buds opening into bright blue flowers. Shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Trillium, a gorgeous but an oh-so-ephemeral plant, the species over here blooming in white, but the one over there in red. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside his lectern. And that’s just a start.

Solomon’s seal

And the good news? You can plant these in your yard. In fact, planting these in your yard is one of the most powerful acts you can do to improve the health of our planet. (And many of them require shade, even better for many of us without good sun in our yards.) 

The better news?  They are perennial; planting them now often means they come up better next year, spreading a bit. And unlike impatiens, they require little watering.

But why is this a powerful act? The tulips, daffodils and crocuses that grace most of our gardens are without question beautiful flowers. But since they are not native to Pennsylvania or even America, few other living things live on them. Sure, deer might eat them (as deer seem to like everything), but caterpillars don’t touch most of them, and neither do many or any other insects. While that makes us and landscapers happy—the plants are not getting consumed by hungry insects—it makes a mother robin looking for caterpillars to feed her fast-growing, hungry babies very sad.  

That’s the problem: a yard filled with tulips, daffodils, and crocuses sadly has no wildlife value for birds looking to feed bugs to their babies. And surprisingly, almost all birds feed bugs to their babies—even the babies of seed-eating birds grow up being fed bugs first. So that means a world filled with daffodils is by necessity one devoid of robins, wrens, thrushes, and more.

That’s the beauty of places like the Schuylkill Center and the Wissahickon—we’re islands of native plants in an ocean of inedible lawns and plantings. Truthfully, a lawn is an ecological desert.

Spring violets

One native Pennsylvania oak, as we noted last week, supports literally thousands of species of insects, including hundreds of caterpillars of different moths and butterflies. Same with the wild black cherry tree, with leaves that caterpillars devour, flowers that offer nectar for butterflies, and fruit that birds crave. One tree holds up an entire world.

Gardening with native plants, a modest movement that we wholeheartedly support, is thus a powerful act of environmental improvement, as it supports the many species of small creatures that inhabit this part of the planet, protecting our biological diversity.

The Schuylkill Center also makes this action easy for you: right now, online, we are offering our annual Native Plant Sale, your one-stop shopping for many of  the flowers I noted above (and so many more!). We’re also selling shrubs. ferns, grasses, vines and trees as well, plus soil and other gardening supplies. If you become a Schuylkill Center member, we’ll even give you a discount on the flowers you buy, all by itself reason enough to join.

In the shrub department alone, for example, several of the shrubs offer berries that are completely irresistible to songbirds. Serviceberry (also called shadbush because it blooms about when shad run up rivers), chokeberry, elderberry, and blueberry are just a few of the shrubs in our sale that sport wonderful berries that feed a diversity of native wildlife; blueberries especially attract a  large number of insects pollinators to them. 

In the tree section, redbuds and magnolias offer beautiful springtime flowers—redbuds are the medium sized trees blushing lilac right now. Oaks, birches, pawpaws, cedars, and horse chestnuts are a sampling of some of the other high-value native trees.

Redbud tree

We’ve even got sedges and grasses that offer visual interest in your garden. 

To hold your hand in this, on this week’s Thursday Night Live, our weekly deep dive into all things natural, we’re offering the Native Plants Hotline, a chance for anyone to call in with their garden questions about gardening with natives. Register for that on our website as well; the free event starts Thursday, April 29 at 7 p.m. and features both gardening and tree experts. Do call.

Spring is busting out all over—and you can bring that action into your yard. To be sure, you don’t have to replant your entire yard. Not at all. Just buy a few plants at the sale, add them to your yard, and every year tuck a few more here and there. It’s so easy. Come see. And the plants are easily as beautiful as daffodils—some, even more so. (Check out Virginia bluebells and white trillium.)

And the best part, our birds and butterflies will thank you.  

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Reflections on Earth Day: One year after its 50 anniversary

Postponed for a year, we’re excited to celebrate Earth Day 50+1 years in 2021. But as we start into new creative endeavors, we want to take a moment to look back at last year’s exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50. On display from September through December 2020, Ecotactical explored how the celebration of Earth Day has changed over time, and asked what the significance of the holiday means five decades after its conception. The exhibition featured works from various artists installed onsite in our gallery and along our trails. Each artist responded in a unique way, giving new perspectives into what Earth Day means to them personally, and to the world. But creating and presenting an exhibition in the midst of a pandemic came with challenges, as well as with new possibilities. We adapted to new timelines, new restrictions and new technologies, but in the end, the message is still clear: Earth Day remains an integral part of the ongoing fight for ecological change and environment justice. We look forward to carrying with us the energy and strength into 2021 that our artists and our team showed in making Ecotactical possible.

With a new year comes new energy behind this movement. We asked the Exhibition Coordinator and the artists to reflect on a series of questions, prompting them to consider the meaning of Earth Day and its relation to the things that have been happening in the world since the inception of the show. Below we share some of their responses and thoughts on this show. 

 

Asking our Exhibition Coordinator, Liz Jelsomine: While working with the artists and for the Schuylkill Center’s staff, how has your view on the world and Earth Day specifically has changed with the pandemic?

Winter 2019/20 was an exciting time at the Schuylkill Center. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day was approaching, and the possibilities of what that meant to our organization and for the future of our world was inspiring. To commemorate, we were gearing up for our annual Earth Day celebration, Naturepalooza, and the Environmental Art Department was planning the final details for our Earth Day themed show, Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50, due to open just before Earth Day on April 16.

Then, suddenly, the world erupted with news of a dangerous and very contagious disease, so devastating that society as we knew it would be put to a halt for the unforeseeable future. We know the disease all too well now as Covid-19. Business closures, job insecurity, isolation from others, and personal loss, were just a few of the hardships society was faced with. The Schuylkill Center made the difficult decision to cancel Naturepalooza. Ultimately, our center, along with many other businesses, had to temporarily close our doors. This left the Art Department with our own questions to ask: Would Ecotactical still be able to come to fruition? How would the context of the show develop during a pandemic? What would a virtual show look like for us?  While the Art Department was grappling with these questions, both our staff and the artists were navigating the new reality in their personal lives. Artists’ access to their studios was altered, and some as parents now had the added responsibility of child care during work time. Those as professors at universities were adapting to online teaching. Some were forced to relocate, making site visits impossible. Meetings about the outdoor installations on our trails became difficult to plan.

With determination and perseverance from our staff and the artists, we were thrilled to finally present Ecotactical on September 21, almost six months after its originally scheduled debut. Armed with plenty of hand sanitizer and capacity guidelines we were able to open our gallery doors and celebrate our reopening in our first virtual reception. Having a way to safely reconnect after much time apart and to process the impact of the pandemic together provided a moment of needed healing. As we look towards Earth Day 2021, we embrace one of the lessons the pandemic has taught us: the importance of spending time together and the value of the natural world around us. 

Installation view of Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

At this milestone in Earth Day’s legacy, what are your thoughts on engaging communities in Earth Day activism and in your artistic process specifically?

I am still struggling with how to make community activism tangible to kids, and how to have students see the results of their hard work. In the original version of our musical, the villains, “Businessman 1” and “Businessman 2,” come around and realize that green jobs are the way to go. But that ending never sat well with me. It felt too Pollyanna. So we rewrote the ending to reflect what actually happens in real life: The Businessmen decide that the oil refinery expansion project (which the child protagonists are fighting against throughout the play) is not right for them after all and they chalk it up to various other reasons, none of which is the kids’ activism: they wanted to spend more time with their families; they realized it was not financially viable at this time; etc. This is what children are up against in our world right now: the biggest culprits of environmental pollution will never admit when activism was successful. And it can be a slow process on top of that. I want to prepare young people for that, and also give them tools to fight back and ways to see what success looks like. The new song is called, ‘Totally Unrelated” and it hasn’t yet been recorded.   

I had an Art History teacher in college who used to say, “All art is propaganda” and that always stuck with me. As a musician, an artist, and an art appreciator, I now see that anything you are planning to show in public becomes a statement. In my band, we are paying more attention to the messages in the songs we choose to play, because when you make art, a message will be conveyed whether you want that or not. So it’s important to think carefully about what you want that message to be. The same goes for teaching: whatever we decide to teach, we are making a statement about what we want future generations to know and how we want them to view the world. It is no small decision.  

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020

Family Concert with Ants on a Log at the Schuylkill Center (2020).

 

What is a new question about the environment that has arisen for you after making your artwork?

I’m watching and wondering, what will we do as individuals and communities, if our government won’t prioritize the Earth, and our systems are designed to fail our most vulnerable populations? I’ve been reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. She continuously reminds us that the relational is the most important, and that nature already has the answers. If we as humans could only mimic what nature shows us, in its rhythms, cycles, and interdependence, we could start thriving. I am grateful for this kernel of hope right now. 

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020:

Installation view of Curious:Think Outside the Pipeline! in Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

As we were struck both personally and professionally with COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, the initial timeline of the exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50 had to change as well. How has the pandemic shifted your perspective on the environmental art world at large and your art practice specifically?

My project For The Future centers on community activism related to Earth Day throughout the history of the environmental movement. The content of the messages on the flags is meant to raise awareness of the activist actions of so many dedicated people: anonymous protesters at Earth Day and Climate marches, Greta Thunberg and the youth movement of Climate Strikers, Indigenous peoples defending some of the last remaining natural resources from extraction and pollution, and climate justice workers in urban environments fighting for the basic human right of healthy air, water and food access. The activism related to the environment is a crucial issue at the heart of our community’s health and prospects for the future.

The pandemic has crystalized my perspective on the environment. Rather than calling for attention at the periphery of social concern, environmental issues are now at the forefront. Looking at how our pandemic slowdown has allowed Earth to heal and how motivated the youth movement is on this issue, I am hopeful that the new administration sees how crucial listening to the science regarding climate change will be. Environmentally minded science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have envisioned what we are living through as a direct result of climate change. The key now is envisioning ways to live with mutual aid as a core value. Mutual aid between humans and between humans and the environment. I believe it will prove to be key to our survival.

 

By Julia Way Rix, presented the installation For The Future, 2020:

Installation view of For the Future on the Schuylkill Center’s trails by Liz Jelsomine

 

Planting Oaks On Earth Day

On Thursday, April 22, the Schuylkill Center will be joining almost one billion people worldwide commemorating the day. And we’ll be engaged in an incredibly powerful act of environmental stewardship: we’ll be planting seven oaks trees that day, five at our nature center, one at our Wildlife Clinic, and a seventh at the 21st Ward Ballfields.

Why oaks? Because of all the trees in our forest, the oak is essential, a keystone species, offering more ecosystem services than any other tree in our forests.

To start, oaks support more biological diversity than any other local tree. Its leaves are the necessary food source for an astonishing 511 species of Pennsylvania moths and butterflies alone. In other words, 511 adult moths and butterflies seek out oaks to lay their eggs on their leaves, the oaks serving as host for the insect, nearly 100 more species than number two on the list, native cherries like black cherry. It likely surprises you that there are more than 500 species of this clan locally (it did me, and I teach this stuff), but absolutely. “No other tree genus supports so much life,” writes University of Delaware entomologist and bestselling author Doug Tallamy in his newest book, The Nature of Oaks.

Those caterpillars in turn are critical food for even seed-eating birds who busily stuff caterpillars down the craws of demanding nestling babies after they hatch. So if you are a seed-eating song sparrow or goldfinch, the adult parent is pushing insects into the beaks of their babies, giving their babies the protein packets they need to mature; caterpillars are a hugely important food for nestling birds, as they don’t yet have the exoskeleton of their adults, so they are more readily digested.

It’s a simple equation: more oaks, more bugs, and more bugs, more birds.

Then there are acorns, food for dozens of species of birds, mammals, insects, and more. While the birds include nuthatches, woodpeckers, titmice, towhees, crows, and more, blue jays have a special relationship with oaks: a jay will carry an acorn up to a mile away to cache it underground, storing it for the winter ahead. An industrious jay buries 4,500 acorns every fall—and either can’t use them all, forgets where some are planted, or perishes during the winter. Leftover acorns buried underground then sprout. So jay populations are supported by oaks, but jays in turn are essential dispersers of oak trees.

Acorns also make up almost 75 percent of a deer’s late fall diet, and you’ve likely dodged gray squirrels crossing streets to bury acorns like the jays do. But flying squirrels, opossums, raccoons, white-footed mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and even that black bear that crossed the Wissahickon a few years back all eat acorns too. 

Lots of you are likely worried about climate change—or I hope you are. Of all their peers, oaks are about the best at sequestering—storing—carbon and locking it away. A long-lived tree, oaks remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for centuries, and as trees with densely-packed cells, which makes oak the wood we love so much, pack away more than most. Its deep and extensive root system with a huge mycorrhizae network also pushes carbon underground, where it is stored for hundreds, some think thousands, of years. “Simply put,” concludes Tallamy, “every oak you plant and nurture helps to moderate our rapidly deteriorating climate better than the overwhelming majority of plant species.”

The huge leaf network of mature oaks, along with its roots, are excellent for capturing stormwater too, another one of the signature environmental threats of this day. An oak tree’s leaves, one study showed, held onto 3,000 gallons of water that evaporated before it reached the ground.

On top of all this, oaks, like all trees, filter air from smog, cool it in the summer, shade our homes, block excessive winds, and more.

An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Which is why the Schuylkill Center will plant seven trees on Earth Day.

And this year, all those trees were oaks, the essential tree in Pennsylvania forests. We hope you’ll join us in planting oaks across the region too, even in your front or backyard.

 

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Hopping and Hoping: Toads on the road

Why did hundreds of toads cross the road on a rainy Wednesday night? 

As ever, to get to the other side; migration season is in full swing. 

Every year in late March and early April, the amphibians wake from hibernation to mate and lay eggs, and they begin the treacherous journey from Schuylkill Center forests to the Roxborough reservoirs and back. The most treacherous part? Crossing Port Royal Avenue, often during evening rush hour. The toads mostly move in dusk and darkness to avoid animal predators—but that method doesn’t work so well for cars.  

by Kevin Kissling

Sixteen years ago, a group of volunteers set out to give these toads safe passage across the road, by erecting barricades and redirecting traffic around Port Royal Avenue. The Schuylkill Center took over this program three years in and has been running it ever since, under the affectionate name “Toad Detour.” It’s the largest volunteer operation we have, and folks come back year after year to participate.

It’s a great opportunity to have fun, learn more about amphibians and save the future, so to speak,” says Paulina Le, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Schuylkill Center.Toad Detour makes people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.” They come for nights full of the camaraderie of shared purpose, and for quiet, excited observation of the toads’ epic undertaking. As volunteer Sandy Brubaker describes it, she “Really enjoy[s] hearing them first, usually leaves rustling on the side of the road, and then seeing that first one!” Longtime volunteer leader Ed Wickham agrees, saying “I never tire seeing and hearing the toads, frogs and toadlets every year. They are my first sign of spring like the cherry blossoms or snow geese.”

How do they know when toads may make an appearance? First the weather has to be warm enough—the ground temperature needs to be consistently around 55°F—and ideally a bit wet or rainy. But the most telling sign: the male toads will begin their mating call, a high pitched trill that sounds through the night. This is a cue for volunteers to take to the streets. 

A male and female toad in “amplexus,” or their mating position, as they cross the road. Photo by Kevin Kissling

On the evening of Wednesday, March 31, no fewer than 543 live toads crossed the road, assiduously counted by our volunteers. (A few pickerel frogs also showed up to the party.) Counting the toads helps us track the size and health of local toad populations—which in turn indicates the health of the entire habitat. The numbers also make an online tool created by a long-time volunteer, the “Toad Predictor,” more accurate. While we don’t yet submit the numbers formally to a database as you might for migrating birds or butterflies, documenting the toads supports the necessity for road barriers.

And this is only part one of the journey: The eggs laid in the reservoirs will hatch three to 12 days later, and once the tadpoles mature into toadlets (tiny toads the size of your fingernail), they cross the road once more to get back to their terrestrial home territory. “They have tough lives,” Wickham says. “Only a very small percent of toads born become adults. To have a big female toad survive against all odds then be killed by a car is tragic.” So he has one final plea for you: “Please volunteer. Please volunteer often. Volunteers that show up many times a year every year are so valuable. They rescue more toads than anyone else.”

Sometimes volunteers use buckets to more effectively and safely transport toads across the street, and sometimes they use them to protect toads hopping their way over outside of the barrier zone. Photo by Colleen DiCola

As more and more nature centers throughout the country take up similar toad and amphibian detour operations, some also engineer special wildlife bridges and tunnels. As Paulina says, “Many folks are adapting the principle of living with the environment, not against it.” The toads, after all, “have been here longer than humans have”—and they’re certainly not going to let a road get in their way. 

 

—Emily Sorensen

 

 

Further resources:

Sign up to be a Toad Detour volunteer

Check out our Facebook Group 

What does the toad say? By Clare Morgan 

Watch Doug Wechsler’s Thursday Night L!VE talk on the life of a toad

Read a review of Wechsler’s book The Hidden Life of a Toad (available in our Nature Gift Shop)

Purchase the Toad Detour DVD

The REAL Flower Show: Trout Lily and White Trillium

Any day now, two wonderful spring wildflowers will blossom on the floor of the Schuylkill Center’s forest, and if you love flowers, if you buy tickets to see the wonderful Philadelphia Flower Show, you really need to see these—and they are free!

The incandescent yellow turban-shaped blossoms of the trout lily are one of the most recognizable features of a Pennsylvania forest in early spring. Rising only 4-6 inches above the soil, the flower is named after the brown-gray mottling of its leaves that resembles something like a trout’s back. 

The bright nodding flowers do attract pollinators, and the seeds produced afterward play a clever trick. In a strategy adopted by a range of plants, the seeds sport little caps called elaiosomes, fleshy structures rich in fats (the elaio is Latin for oil) and proteins craved by ants. Worker ants dutifully carry the seeds into their nests to feed the fatty elaiosomes to their larvae. The seeds are then discarded underground—where they grow into plants, the flower essentially bribing ants into sowing its seeds.

The trout lily is also a patient species. The plant quietly produces a single mottled leaf each spring, which photosynthesizes to send starches into its growing underground tuber. Somewhere  between four and seven years, the plant has at last stored enough material to produce TWO leaves—and between the two leaves rises the bright yellow flower. Every trout lily flower you see belongs to a plant that could be a decade old—or more…

…for the flower also grows in large colonies, covering, as an example, one entire hillside at the Schuylkill Center; some colonies may be 200 years old. And while that colony could be old, there are remarkably few flowers in the group: only 0.5% of the plants seem to make flowers. 

So when you see a trout lily, stop to enjoy its patience, beauty, and age.

The second is white trillium, whose species name, grandiflorum, means “grand flowering.” It is magnificent, as its two- or three-inch bright white petals are among the largest of our spring wildflowers. Like the trout lily, it often grows in clonal colonies that form a white beacon shining on the forest floor in mid-spring. It has no smell, as it does not need one: bumblebees are one of the pollinators lured to the scentless flowers by the color. There is a stand of white trillium in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia estimated to number 10 million individuals: it is worth a trip to visit.

And check out the generic name, Trillium, which simply translates as “tri-lily.” Everything in trillium comes in threes or multiples of threes: three bright white petals, three sepals below the petals supporting them, six pollen-producing anthers topped by three pistils, three greenish-white stigmas atop a six-sided ovary.

You can also tell that it is a member of the lily family, one of the larger families in the botanical world. Examine their leaves and notice the strong parallel veins running their length—these parallel veins are one of the signatures of lilies.

While most white trilliums are just that, white, there are pink and pink-striped variants as well, so you may occasionally stumble upon a pink or pinkish one—it is still white trillium.

Pollinated flowers produce seeds that, also like trout lily, are pulled underground by ants, who add in dispersion and planting. 

White trillium—plus many of the lilies—are preferred foods for those dang white-tailed deer, of which there is no shortage in Penn’s Woods. Studies have shown that deer will seek trillium above other plants, which of course causes problems with its survival in many forests. Deer select the taller trillium first, leaving shorter ones behind, allowing keen-eyed scientists to estimate deer density by the height of the trillium. But deer foraging also reduces the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and send sugars and starches into the underground root system. So deer overbrowsing also results in shorter trillium in the forest, if any at all. 

But these two are only the tips of a floral iceberg: red trillium, spring beauties, Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, hepatica, blue cohosh, shooting stars, Jacob’s ladder—all of these and more are set to bloom. But they only blossom for an all-too short window of time, and then disappear for another year.

So come for a walk at the Center, and ask the receptionist for a map and directions to first our Wildflower Loop and then our Ravine Loop. You’ll get a front-row seat at nature’s Flower Show, blossoming right now at the Schuylkill Center.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Lands We Cultivate

“The beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability.” Rob Carter

The process of urbanization and our evolving understanding of plants are the main topics that shape the new exhibition Rob Carter: Cultured Lands at the Schuylkill Center. The exhibition features work by environmental artist Rob Carter, who uses historical, scientific, and experiential research to explore the relationship between humanity and nature. 

The exhibition features a selection of Carter’s creative experiments that challenge us to envision a future for our lands in which humanity and nature can sustainably coexist. Developed in partnership with the West Collection at SEI, a major contemporary art collection in our region, Carter’s solo exhibition will open this Thursday, April 15 with a virtual opening reception and artist talk. During the reception, Carter will share his fascination for botany, urban development, and how they shape our shared environment. He will discuss his current research into the history and future of landscapes with Tina Plokarz, the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Environmental Art, and Lee Stoetzel, manager of the West Collection.

“The way humans relate to plant life is fascinating,” says Carter in a recent interview. “I am interested in how we perceive and use it, and how plants, in turn, use us. Our relationship to the natural world, and plants specifically, is an environmental conundrum in terms of climate change and our complicated history.” Plants have recently become his “favorite characters,” he admits, explaining, “the beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability, making them seem almost human in their unique movement and grace.”

Rob Carter: Soy Drawing 4 (GMO), 2020 pencil, watercolour and soy plant ink on paper, Courtesy of the Artist

Cultured Lands features Carter’s work Plant Writing (2020), an artistic experiment with highly processed soy beans, the most valuable US agricultural export. With ink drawings and a time-lapse video, the artist documents the growth and movement of organic and genetically modified soybean plants over the course of several days. He captures both the action of the artist/scientist and the motion of the plants. A process that is quite methodical, but also “as free and instinctual as possible,” as Carter describes his art-making. 

Presented side-by-side with traces of Philadelphia’s colonization history in the gallery, the exhibition is a reminder of the transformation of soil into profitable farmland. The aim of growing ever more productive crops to meet the needs and wants of humanity continues to shape agriculture today. But if humanity is dependent on crops, the artist speculates, how can humans nurture an insightful and empathetic relationship to the natural environment?

Rob Carter: Metropolis (2008), courtesy of the artist and the West Collection

Cultured Lands is also an invitation for dialogue about the transformation of undeveloped land into concreted, industrial metropolises. It features the paper-based stop-motion animation Metropolis (2008), an abridged narrative history of the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, spanning the time period from 1755 to the present, and from a Native American trading path through farming and the discovery of gold to today’s modern city. Part American history lesson, part utopian avant-garde à la Fritz Lang, Metropolis builds a bridge from the urban development dreams of the past to today’s recognition of irreversible human-made influences in the era of the Anthropocene. 

Equally characters and props in our social drama plants and architecture are the lenses through which Carter unravels humanity’s responsibility as a global, Earth-changing force. Carter points to the uncertainties in our knowledge of the natural world and considers how our understanding and relationship to nature might evolve into the future.

The Schuylkill Center looks forward to seeing you in the art gallery. The exhibition is open from April 15 to June 5, 2021 with a virtual reception on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at 7pm. Please register for the opening here.

The Schuylkill Center’s Visitor Center is open, as is the art gallery, but please remember that masks and 6-feet social distancing are required. We also welcome your comments and thoughts in our digital guestbook at www.schuylkillcenter.org/art.

See you online or in the gallery.

 

Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art