Something wicked this way comes

Severe Storms Bring Damaging Winds, Hail and Power Outages to Region

Last Wednesday, I was standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve in Blue Bell, wondering what to do– should I stay and gut it out, or get the heck out of the way? 

I was looking up and west, and the sky above me was dark and getting darker, the angry sky of a powerful storm quickly moving in. I thought of a witch’s line from Hamlet that became a Ray Bradbury novel that morphed into a Jason Robards movie: something wicked this way comes.

Given I was on the edge of a forest, I decided to move the car to a nearby location where a tree was less likely to fall on me, which I did. 

And then the storm slammed, winds fiercely whipping trees, branches falling everywhere, leaves blowing by, hail pounding the car. It was too much like the scene from “Wizard of Oz,” with me as Dorothy staring out the window– I would not have been surprised to see Miss Gulch fly by, knitting in her rocking chair. Except this wasn’t funny.

On top of the wind and trees, water was pouring down the shoulders of streets like rivers, flooding into blocked storm drains and across roads. It was nightmarish.  

And right at the beginning of rush hour, just about the worst time this could happen.

When it passed only 10-15 minutes later, if even that, my GPS routed me home, but the storm had outwitted the device: every road home was blocked by a large branch– or an entire tree–  that had mostly or completely fallen across the street. I turned onto side roads to find alternate routes (one bus driver waving me away from one route), or I turned completely around, at least five or six times. It was scary. Lucky for me, I got behind a landscaping truck with four big guys in it, who dutifully and doggedly cleared the way, stopping every few hundred yards to pull another branch aside. I might still be in Blue Bell if it wasn’t for them.

Thirty minutes of only driving maybe two miles, I reached Germantown Pike– where there was almost no sign of a storm. No leaves or branches down on the street, no stormwater streaming down the shoulder of the road. The sun was shining, birds were singing, traffic was fine. Huh?

Back in Blue Bell, I happened to be directly underneath a microburst, yet another new word that climate change is forcing us to learn. The National Weather Service says straight-line winds of at least 50 mph but only 2.5 miles wide plowed into the area that day. A Blue Bell dentist told one newspaper it was “the worst storm damage I’ve seen in my 24 years living here.” I believe it.

Here’s the scarier part of the story. The night before, my wife had pointed out the blood-red moon, which she thought was cool (it was) but I knew was wrong– turns out that particles in the sky from the massive wildfires out West changed the moon’s color– but also cooled the atmosphere here in Philly. Last week’s storm WOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE without that smoke.

The Bootleg Fire in Oregon, the largest of the 80 large fires in 13 states being wrestled with last week, has already burned an area larger than Los Angeles, is still on the move, and is so large and burning so hot it’s creating its own weather underneath it. There is so much soot in the air that it forms dense clouds that begin to rain, but the air is so dry the rain never hits the ground. Fueled by historic droughts out West, wildfire season is annually longer and worse than it had been historically, the fires burning hotter.

Dozens dead and missing as storms swamp western Germany

Last week’s intense storm also forced me think of Germany, where two months of rain fell in only 24 hours; in some places 5-7 inches fell in 12 hours. As of the end of last week, there were 160 confirmed dead and 37,000 buildings impacted. It will easily be Germany’s costliest storm ever, as the flooding tore down ancient bridges while upending roads and train tracks; some of these ruined towns were only 1,000 years old, which says something about current weather conditions.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the Henan province of China received its own burst of flooding, with at least 25 dead there, including a dozen people trapped in a subway car in the regional capital of Zhengzhou.

Across the planet, climate-fueled weather is killing people in unprecedented numbers. And it is costing us a fortune. Even that microburst in Blue Bell was costly, knocking out power for 125,000 people while delaying every Regional Rail line, damaging homes and cars as trees fell on them. 

Which brings us to a few questions: why are we still debating climate change? And why are we still debating solutions? When the earth speaks this loudly, we better answer, and as to which solutions work, we are now at a place where we simply try everything– throw everything at the wall and pray some of it sticks.

Will this be costly? Of course. But the alternative? Every minute we delay meaningful action now means we pay a steeper price later, as each delay only compounds the issues. The Bootleg Fire and Germany’s flooding– even that Blue Bell burst– tell us this. 

“Something wicked this way comes” is actually not correct. As the world has learned this summer, something wicked is already here. We ignore it at our peril. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Iraqi refugee brings a piece of his culture to Philadelphia

Artistic team of Al Mudhif at the Schuylkill Center (Yaroub Al-Obaidi, Sarah Kavage, Mohaed Al-Obaidi). Photo: Rob Zverina.

A house built of five crossing arches made of reeds spanned over knotted joists and lattices. Columns and walls strung together with rope and twine, encompassing a breezy and light-flooded space. A shelter in the middle of the woods at the Schuylkill Center. Upon entering, the reed structure offers a shady sitting area with carpets and pillows, inviting guests to gather and relax. Al Mudhif – A Confluence is the new art installation by Iraqi designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi and environmental artist Sarah Kavage in Philadelphia.

In the southern Iraqi marshlands, where it is utilized as a ceremonial space of welcome, a mudhif — Arabic for guesthouse — is traditionally made from top to bottom of the wetland reed called phragmites. There, the reed is socially and culturally essential — but in our latitude, it is considered an unfettered invader of our regional watershed since its importation in the 19th century from Europe and the Middle East. The building of the mudhif in Roxborough has put this ancient material into practical use.

This is not the first time that industrial designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi has applied a natural material, such as reed, wood or glass, to practical design. Back in Baghdad his first projects involved envisioning outdoor sitting units and later school bags in collaboration with Iraqi literary districts in order to engage and connect audiences through visual material.

At that time the physical material was his medium. “But when I came to the United States,” Al-Obaidi explains, “I found myself working with a different material: stories.” A creative shift that the artist sees manifested in the physical construction of the Iraqi guesthouse, Al Mudhif. For him, the house is not only a physical space made in the ancient tradition of Sumerian architecture, but also a symbol for building connections across communities and cultures. 

The story of how an Iraqi designer ended up building a guesthouse from invasive reeds in Philadelphia is both long and interwoven with anxiety, restlessness and uncertainty, but also with empathy, generosity and optimism. A former lecturer on art and industrial design at the University of Baghdad, Al-Obaidi fled Iraq to Syria threatened by extremists in 2007, hoping to return home once the dust of war had settled. But with the continued loss of relatives in Iraq, he and his family realized that their future could only be elsewhere. While working in Malaysia in support of his family, Al-Obaidi along with his brothers and mother applied for refuge to the United Nations. A seemingly infinite number of interviews later, he resettled to Philadelphia as a refugee in 2016 where the family happens to have a distant relative, in the hope to find peace and work in their new home.

 Breaking ground at the Schuylkill Center, Iraqis and US veterans united on Memorial Day.  Photo: Rob Zverina.

“So many people think that [being a] refugee is a choice,” Al-Obaidi says. “They don’t understand that I was forced to do that.” But when Al-Obaidi tells his story of grueling waiting, scrutinization and resettlement, people shift their perspective and start to understand: “I’m not here to take an opportunity,” he declares, “but I’m here to be a part of this community, to contribute through my knowledge, through my experience.”

And this is what Yaroub Al-Obaidi is hoping to achieve through building an Iraqi guesthouse at the Schuylkill Center. “Al Mudhif is a way of building bridges,” he shares his vision – bridges between places, people, and cultures. “And I want to build [these] bridges because this is the only way we can continue to live [together].” He believes that through the guesthouse he can bring a part of his culture to Philadelphia, contributing to the diversity of a city of immigrants and to the richness of indigenous traditions in the local watershed by connecting them to the unique traditions of the Mesopotamian Marshes. Al-Obaidi feels that contributing to diversity has been a literal request to him from the city and its citizens.

Encountering the rich history of Philadelphia has made him feel connected and encouraged him to share the stories from his own culture. Al Mudhif becomes the container for such stories. Al-Obaidi imagines the dialogs that it will spark: “Someone says, ‘Have you been to Roxborough?’ and the other says, ‘I have been to the Schuylkill Center … and I built Al Mudhif.’ ‘What is Al Mudhif’ ‘It is a gathering space.’” Thus, Al-Obaidi enthuses, “a wonderful story starts.”

The project is filled with love, he continues. His hope is that “thousands of Americans start to say Al Mudhif, and know what it [is], and that it is made out of reeds.” Although the guesthouse is reduced in scale and slightly modified from the traditional design, its symbolism as a place of sharing and belonging is much greater. The mudhif, Al-Obaidi believes, has the potential to reduce the gap between the two countries by bringing Iraqi knowledge and culture closer to Americans.

As a refugee and an artist, Yaroub Al-Obaidi sees the mudhif as an “iconic symbol” for rapprochement and belonging that can heal injuries between Iraqis and Americans – invaded and invaders – without resentment or idealism. The idea that healing starts with sharing is also the belief of Al-Obaidi’s artistic collaborator on this project, Sarah Kavage. Al Mudhif is part of her multi-sited art installation, Water Spirits, which features constructions made from natural materials such as phragmites throughout the Delaware River watershed. Through this collaborative work with an invasive plant material she hopes to heal people’s relationship to the natural environment and with each other.

Al Mudhif is the spatial and metaphorical vessel into which people are invited to share their stories and memories. Belonging and sense of home, so it is Al-Obaidi’s belief, are born out of human connections, and connections result out of curiosity.

By Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

Typical Summer Camp at the Schuylkill Center

Now that summer is here and covid-related restrictions have loosened, summer camp at the Schuylkill Center is in full swing giving many kids their first taste of freedom in over a year. This summer follows an atypical school year, when most students spent all or part of the academic year learning from their desk, bed or dining room table. They adjusted to long school days in front of a computer screen, without recess or the opportunity to socialize with their classmates. For those that attended school in-person, connecting with friends was a challenge with face masks, reduced class sizes, physical barriers and social distancing.

If you come to Camp Schuylkill on a hot day, you will see our campers running through sprinklers, picking wineberries, lifting logs to count the slugs and pillbugs, and balancing on tree stumps. Except for the legacy of wearing face masks indoors and maintaining physical separation among camp groups, it looks like a typical summer at the Schuylkill Center.

I had the opportunity to chat with some young campers at Camp Schuylkill and learned first hand how it feels to be at summer camp after the strangest school year in memory. One camper’s response summed it all up, “It feels good and very refreshing!” Because we are a nature-based program, campers shared some of their favorite things about summer camp including: “collecting mushrooms.” “building forts,” “hikes,” “edible wild snacks,” and “going on cool nature trails.” While I expected that kids would be most excited about playing outdoors and being in nature, their most common answers were making new friends and playing games with them.

Given more thought, this makes a lot of sense. The benefits of spending time in nature for kids and adults are well-known. When the pandemic was in full force and lockdowns closed schools and businesses and cancelled public and private gatherings, people largely responded by taking to parks and nature trails; it was one of the safest ways to spend time outside of the house. Lots of campers reported that the grown-ups in their lives committed to regular walks to balance out their increased screen time.

One camper even mentioned spending many weekends on the trails here at the Schuylkill Center. 

What was more difficult to replace was the social interactions that kids would normally get being physically at school every day. On top of schools being closed, playdates were cancelled, birthday parties were converted to drive-by celebrations, and vacations to visit extended family were the all-too-familiar video chats.  It was a ‘perfect storm’ for isolation.  For healthy social and emotional development, children need to interact with their peers. During the pandemic, most were isolated from each other for more than a year. While adults could have Zoom reunions and social media to connect with folks outside of their bubble, those same types of interactions aren’t as engaging for kids. 

We are delighted that kids arrive each morning eager to explore our trails and play games with their new friends. They are making up for 18 months of lost connections and stalled friendships, missed celebrations and postponed playdates. Summer camp gives them a chance to recapture the magic of childhood.  

What better place for that to happen than in the beauty of nature; at the Schuylkill Center.

Camp Schuylkill runs weekly sessions for ages 3-12 through August 20. We currently have a waiting list but encourage you to call 215-853-6249 for more information. 

By Aaliyah Green Ross, Director of Education

Unknown Illness Affecting Songbirds

Following up on our post last week about the unknown illness affecting songbirds, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PAGC) has released more information on cases in Pennsylvania. The full news release can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/3rax5s36

We’ve had several questions about this outbreak, and hope we can help clarify a few points for our bird-loving friends:

Where is this happening? To date, reports of ill birds have come from 27 counties, including Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery and Chester. While not all reports of ill or deceased birds may be related to the same unknown illness, we advise the public to follow all recommendations and report suspected ill birds using the following link: http://www.vet.upenn.edu/research/centers-laboratories/research-initiatives/wildlife-futures-program

Do I have to stop feeding birds? The Wildlife Clinic and the PAGC are recommending that the public remove all seed feeders and bird baths, clean them with a 10% bleach solution, and not put them back out until further notice. At this time, hummingbirds do not appear to be affected, and nectar feeders can still be used. As always, ensure they are thoroughly cleaned and refilled with fresh sugar water daily to prevent bacterial growth.

Can I remove my feeders but still put out seed on the ground or on my deck? We recommend not feeding birds at all, including scattering seed on the ground or other surfaces. Since we don’t know how this disease is transmitted, we don’t want to encourage birds to congregate in large groups where they may come into contact with sick individuals. Any food that is put out will encourage animals to gather and could increase the risk of spreading disease.

If we suddenly stop putting out seed, won’t the birds go hungry? What will parents feed their babies? Birds will not struggle or starve if feeders are removed, even in urban areas where natural food sources may appear scarce from our perspective- birds are experts at finding what they need! In the summer months, there is plenty of natural food available to sustain birds including insects, berries, and seeds from native plants. Most songbird species feed insects to their growing babies, as they are higher in protein and fat than seeds.

The best way to support baby birds is to reduce pesticide use and to encourage green spaces with native plants.

This Independence Day, Plant A Liberty Tea Garden

New Jersey tea in full bloom

Independence Day is one of the quintessential summer celebrations, replete with good food, (hopefully) enjoyable company, and citywide displays of fireworks.

Here at the Schuylkill Center though, and indeed in many wild corners of our city, a very different kind of fireworks display has been happening for the past few weeks.

Milkweeds burst with pink globes and sprays of orange. Red and lavender beebalm florets arc across the meadow. Yellow sunchoke flowers shoot up and fade into brown seedheads. Fields progress from lush spring green to a crescendo of summer color, punctuated by a dance of bumblebees, flittering moths, and the iridescent otherworldly buzz of hummingbirds. Early July is the moment of Nature’s midsummer abundance.

It may come as a surprise, then, that many of the wildflowers that contribute to this yearly symphony of color and scent were once, themselves, a powerful political statement.

On a cold December evening in 1773, a group of angry Bostonians heaved tons of imported black tea into the harbor in protest at new taxes placed on it by Britain. Many American colonists who supported this action were suddenly faced with a moral dilemma: how can we still enjoy our tea if we’re boycotting it? Tea was culturally foundational in a way that is hard for us to imagine today. An empty teapot was out of the question, even for the most ardent supporters of independence. 

The answer? Look to the forests and fields.

For people in the Carolinas, there was yaupon (the unfortunately named Ilex vomitoria) – a native holly whose leaves brew a delicious, caffeinated beverage. But for northern colonists, who did not have access to any native caffeine-producing plants, it was the flavors and aromas of native wildflowers that appealed most.

‘Liberty Tea’ became the term given broadly to a number of native wildflowers and shrubs whose aromatic foliage and flowers made sumptuous, spiced teas. Colonial women coursed the countryside, harvesting and cultivating flowers and wild herbs for their now-politicized teapots. The use of these herbs was a clear signal to neighbors, friends, and family as to which side of the political divide they stood on. To find the best species for this purpose they followed the example of Native peoples who had enjoyed brewing with the best native plants for millennia.

Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) was one of these favored plants. Leaves harvested before the plant blooms can be dried and stored for long periods, and used to brew an anise-scented tisane. Unlike its weedier relatives, sweet goldenrod does not spread aggressively in the garden and still supports incredible numbers of native pollinators with its late-season spray of yellow blossoms. 

Ruby-throated hummingbird sips on scarlet beebalm

Another popular Liberty Tea was scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma), also known as wild bergamot or Oswego tea. A host for orange mint and hermit sphinx moths, its shock of red tubular flowers burst forth in late June, providing an irresistible sip of nectar to hummingbirds and butterflies. Hummingbirds, indeed, seem to have good taste: a small handful of those same flowers can be added to a teapot to make a refreshingly aromatic summer beverage.

Colonial women favored a wide range of brewable wild plants to support the boycott and create a new culinary culture of resistance. New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) got its common name during this time because of its popularity as a Liberty Tea. This nitrogen-fixing plant is a low shrub, only growing a couple feet tall, with wintergreen-flavored leaves and creamy white flower clusters that are particularly attractive to moths and butterflies. 

The plants that our forebears imbibed are not just an historical curiosity to make into a tisane or herbal iced tea – they are also crucial food sources and waystations for some of the most sensitive creatures that we share this land with. 

Whether or not you are of the patriotic bent, planting a Liberty Tea garden is a great way to ensure that you have delightful, historic wild brews available for your July 4th cookout each year, while also providing year-round habitat to native pollinators and a sumptuous sip for migrating hummingbirds and butterflies looking for a rest and a snack on their intercontinental journeys. Early colonists reframed these native plants into a political statement about an independent future. For us, planting native species is an equally powerful statement: one that speaks of our commitment to a livable future in a world that relegates these lifegiving plants to the margins. So this Independence Day weekend, after the guests leave and the food coma wears off, consider planting a Liberty Tea garden for next year. After all, what better way to honor our country’s birth than by celebrating its natural splendor, and perhaps yield a tasty brew in the process?

By Max Paschall, Native Plants Assistant

Tom Landsmann, Roxborough’s Own Johnny Appleseed

Roxborough’s Tom Landsmann is a cross between Johnny Appleseed and the Energizer Bunny– he just keeps on planting and planting and planting… Over the last 20-plus years, Tom has either personally planted or helped plant thousands of trees in just about every public space in Roxborough: Gorgas Park, Germany Hill. the Wissahickon, the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, the Schuylkill Center, along the towpath. You name it, he has planted something there.

Even better, many of the trees he plants were lovingly grown by himself on his plot of land on River Road, right up against the Schuylkill and across the road from his home. Filled with oaks, maples, hickories, beeches, birches, hollies, pines, cedars, and more, the densely packed plot can amazingly hold as many as 4,000 trees. 

Likewise, adding yin to this yang, he has personally pulled thousands of invasive trees, shrubs, vines, and more out of these same public spaces. Out with the bad, in with the good.

“There is almost no public green space in Manayunk or Roxborough,” Rich Giordano told me recently, “which does not have the fingerprints, footprints, and even tractor tracks of Tom Landsmann.” Rich should know; himself the president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, Rich and Tom have been co-leading efforts to improve the reservoir as a park, and over the last decade the two of them have planted more than 1,000 trees there alone. 

As president of the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy, Tom invites you to join him in the area’s re-greening. The group sponsors Two on Tuesdays, a volunteer stewardship session where people gather for two hours on Tuesday evenings at one of the Conservancy’s 18 sites to plant new good stuff while pulling out the existing invasive bad stuff.

Next Tuesday, July 6, at 7 p.m., the group is meeting at the reservoir; look for them at the front stairs at Port Royal and Lare. And when the group is done, they will be retiring to Tom’s nursery on River Road for an after-party– where you can see his riverside nursery yourself!

He’s been highly engaged in the community for the last several decades. A resident of River Road for 22 years, he has been president of the Residents of the Shawmont Valley Association, the local civic, plus served a long stint on the Schuylkill Center’s board. And Two on Tuesdays began with the Ivy Ridge Green Coalition, an effort he started long ago. Now under the wing of the Conservancy, Two on Tuesdays has grown, and some 20 people join them most Tuesdays. 

“He is very driven,” says fellow board member Kay Sykora, herself a leader in greening efforts in the community, “about the future of the green space areas in the Roxborough-Manayunk community.”

“I’m not one to sit still,” Tom admits. “I guess I just hung up my marathon shoes for muck boots. But any good citizen just wants to make things better. I participated in all those organizations because I thought I had something to offer. I’m self-employed, and in business I look for a void, an opportunity. It’s extremely obvious that our city is not supporting our Roxborough-Manayunk green spaces. The reservoir’s wall has been crumbling for years, and the only maintenance the site receives is a quick mow at best. That’s an embarrassment on so many levels, and it’s insulting to those few like me that put so much effort and funding towards maintenance.” 

So Tom fills the void, bringing his fellow “good citizens” along and supplying them with essentially his own carefully stocked equipment.

But Tom gets a lot back. “I have a great sense of pride as I drive or walk past our trees, shrubs, and plants peppered all over Roxborough-Manayunk as well as other parts of Philly,” he said. “Also, operating a native tree nursery is good for the body and soul; it gives me inner peace.”

Dave Cellini, president of Shawmont Valley after Tom, notes that “Tom is a standout and generous guy, always willing to share his time, energy, tools, and knowledge. He is sincere, straightforward, and doesn’t mince words.” 

“Tom’s energy and enthusiasm,” adds John Carpenter, a board member of both the Conservancy and the Schuylkill Center, “keep our volunteers engaged.  His knowledge of plants and horticulture helps the Conservancy’s work to endure and strengthens the neighborhood’s green spaces.”

Kay also admires his “perseverance for the mission. He will go to all lengths to see his vision completed, to help folks see the importance of our parks and environmental resources.” 

“Tom is not only an advocate for preservation and a tireless worker on restoration projects,” Rich added, “he is also a very ardent proponent of recruitment, especially in regard to young people. Tom has  for many years overseen MLK Service days in the northwest, bringing large numbers of students to our parks and other natural areas.”

He also thinks in long timelines. Remember those 1,000 trees at the reservoir? “At that site, we’re focusing on creating a mature upland forest. Fifty years after I’m gone,” he said, “it should happen.”

An old Chinese proverb says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 year ago. The second best time is now.” To modify the proverb just a little, the second best time is Tuesday at the reservoir, where you can meet Roxborough’s own Johnny Appleseed.

And if you miss Tuesday? Join anytime moving forward. “We plant until the ground freezes or Santa arrives,” he told me. “We never seem to run out of trees.” 

Or, thankfully, energy. Go, Tom, go!

 

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, wishes he planted half as many trees as Tom, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org. 

 

A Roxborough First: The First Iraqi Guesthouse Built Outside Iraq in 5,000 Years

Phragmites used to build bench and Iraqi guest house (Al Mudif)

On Thursday evening, June 24 at 7:00 p.m., the Schuylkill Center invites you to a historic event. We are unveiling Al Mudhif – A Confluence, a very special installation in our forest. For more than 5,000 years, Iraqi inhabitants of the lower Mesopotamian valley, the cradle of civilization, have been building guesthouses– mudhifs in Arabic– out of reed grasses. Incredibly, this will be the very first time a mudhif (pronounced “mood-eef”) has ever been built outside of Iraq. Ever. 

And it is in Roxborough.

The event is also a confluence of firsts: the opening of the first-ever mudhif is also the very first in-person public program the Schuylkill Center has offered since March 2020. We’re graduating from Zoom for the summer and going back to live programming.

Conceived and created by Iraqi designer, immigrant, and Mt. Airy resident Yaroub Al-Obaidi along with environmental artist Sarah Kavage, the mudhif is constructed entirely of the wetland grass phragmites. Our staff and volunteers harvested the “phrag,” as we have been calling it, from our own site, plus the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (and the reservoir harvest involved volunteers from the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy– thanks to them). 

A Eurasian plant native to Iraq, the reed is highly invasive in our watershed and throughout the country, compromising native plants and animals. Because phragmites overwhelms native ecosystems, it is not welcome at places like the reservoir and the Schuylkill Center. Yet Kavage hopes to invite a different conversation about our notion of invasiveness by using the plant productively. “There is a certain language and a method that gets applied when we’re dealing with these plants,” she says, “that is similar to demonizing immigrants and anything that is sort of out-of-place in our culture. I would love for this work to provoke a more nuanced understanding of that language around displacement and the movement of plants and people.”

As someone who has pulled thousands of invasive plants out of natural sites over the last 40 years, cursing them much of the time, I so appreciate this perspective. For me, seeing phragmites being put to good use on our property is a wonderful thing.

Built over the last month by Al-Obaidi, Kavage, center staff, and many volunteers, the group has included both Iraqi immigrants and veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, purposefully using the construction process to heal from the twin traumas of war and displacement. Other programming this summer and fall will continue to focus on using the guesthouse as a place of healing.

In talking with Al-Obaidi, I learned that a mudhif is where special community events like weddings and birthday celebrations occur, but also where conflicting parties go to discuss and resolve differences. Special coffee ceremonies are held there as well, often hosted by the local sheikh, the tribal leader or elder. The interior of the mudhif is covered in rugs– Persian rugs, of course– and guests recline on pillows. Al-Obaidi looks forward to hosting such ceremonies during the run of the installation (wait, does that make me the sheikh? I am certainly among the oldest on staff!)

The mudhif is part of a watershed-wide series of art installations, “Water Spirit,” by Kavage, a Seattle-based environmental artist. She is constructing large– and beautiful– benches out of phragmites, again turning the invasive grass into something both aesthetic and useful. Near the entrance to the mudhif, look for one of these benches, versions of which are on display at many sites across the region, including Bartarm’s Garden, Heinz, even the Pocono Environmental Education Center way up on the Delaware River. Each bench is uniquely constructed to respond to its site.

Both the mudhif and the Water Spirit are part of a watershed-wide arts initiative organized through the Alliance of Watershed Education of the Delaware River, a coalition of 23 environmental education centers across the region focused on bringing people to our waterways, connecting them to our rivers, and teaching about the importance of water. As the group within the coalition with the most ambitious environmental art program, I’m thrilled to say the Schuylkill Center has been a leader in this project, our Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz serving as chair of the working group from the centers managing the installation of Water Spirits across the region. (A second art project will be unveiled shortly, by the way. Stay tuned!)

Our June 24 opening celebration includes storytelling by Native American performer Tchin, a participatory art project, and Middle Eastern dance music presented by Rana Ransom. It begins with a land acknowledgement by Trinity Norwood and Reverend John Norwood of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, remarks by Al-Obaidi and Kavage, and a blessing by Chaplain Christopher Antal of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition, an indoor gallery exhibition accompanies Al-Mudhif – A Confluence, featuring a diverse array of voices– Native American, Iraqi, American–  reflecting on the themes of belonging and sanctuary. The gallery show will open the same evening, and run throughout the summer.

So come to the Schuylkill Center on Thursday the 24th to see a true Roxborough first, the first reed-grass  mudhif guesthouse built outside of Iraq in 5,000 years.

In Roxborough. Remarkable.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

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

 

The New Abnormal

With the mercury rising into the 90s most of last week, it felt like August already, the air heavy and humid. The bad news, of course, is it’s not only not August, it’s not even summer. The solstice is still a few days off… 

Welcome to life in the New Abnormal, the climate changing before our very eyes. 

It’s not only getting hotter, it’s getting wetter. The skies opened up last Tuesday evening, flooding the region– again– with a dumping, a good downpour here in Roxborough, but a startling 7 inches of rain near Coatesville. For perspective, that was two months’ of rain in just one evening in parts of Chester County.

The number of large downpours in our region has spiked even higher than temperatures. In the 1950s, the largest amount of rainfall on the worst day used to be 2, maybe 2.5 inches in one day. Nowadays, the amount of rainfall on the largest rainfall day has jumped a full 50%, and we get about 3.75 inches of rain on the wettest day, a significant increase. 

Worse, the number of large downpours in Pennsylvania has grown by 360% since 1950. Translated, we now receive almost five times as many heavy downpours today as we did back then. And if you line up the 50 American cities with the largest increases, we rank number 3 in the entire country. We finally beat New York, which came in at #4 with “only” a 350% increase. (Numbers 1 and 2? McAllen, Texas and, oddly, Portland, Maine.)

But back to heat. Climate Central, a science-based organization out of Princeton that offers factual data on our climate, noted in 2018 that Philadelphia was experiencing 16.8 days of hotter-than-normal temperatures. If climate was not changing, we would expect warmer days and cooler days to essentially seesaw around the norm– cooler days this week balanced by warmer ones the next. 

In 1970, about 40 summertime days were hotter than normal. Today, 57 days– almost a full two months– of summer are higher than average temperature-wise. 

Also in 1970, the first Philadelphia day that measured 85 degrees arrived in mid-May; today, it comes in late April, on average almost two weeks earlier than it once did.

In that same vein, in 1970 we only suffered from four days of heat above 95 degrees. Today, we have added five more days of these sweltering temperatures, up to nine of them annually. (This year, it feels like we have hit that number already).

We currently should not have any days above 100 degrees in Philadelphia– they were rare and unexpected, But by 2050, says Climate Matters, depending on what happens in the years ahead, we may hit that mark 10-11 times annually. Ugh.

But Philadelphia is part of the larger world, where a number of unsettling trends are occurring. While the hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June 1, this year’s first named storm– Ana– arrived in late May, the SEVENTH consecutive year a named storm formed before the June 1 opening, a rarity that has now become a trend. That June date was not picked randomly: that was when the ocean’s surface temperatures were finally warm enough to generate the energy needed for a hurricane. Today, the ocean surface is warm enough in May.

California, the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Plains, and much of the Southwest is in the grips of a fierce drought. For California, this is business as usual, sadly, as this has happened in 13 of the last 22 years. The breadbasket of so much of the country and world, California is drying out, Last year’s record wildfires burned four million acres, and this year’s dry conditions have started a month earlier than expected. A

Lake Mead, the massive reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, is at record lows. “It has fallen 140 feet since 2000,” reported Reuters last week, “nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty from torch to base, exposing a bathtub ring of bleached-white embankments.” 

Farmers are giving up and abandoning their fields, Nevada is restricting lawn watering over much of Las Vegas, and the governor of Utah literally asked his state’s residents to pray for rain. Not sure “thoughts and prayers” will cure our climate ills.

A 2020 study published in the journal Science soberly reported that 2000 through 2018 was the second-driest 19-year period in the Southwest in at least the past 1,200 years.

Finally, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached 419 parts per million in May, its highest level in more than four million years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week. After dipping last year because of pandemic-fueled lockdowns, greenhouse gas emissions have begun to rise again as economies open and people resume work and travel. “The newly released data about May carbon dioxide levels show that the global community so far has failed to slow the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere,” NOAA said in its announcement.

For context, the last time CO2 levels exceeded 400 parts per million was during the Pliocene era, when global temperatures were more than five degrees warmer and sea levels were between 30 and 80 higher than they are now.

But back to Philadelphia. Early June heat waves should not be a thing, and storms dumping 7 inches of rain should not either. This is not normal. Or expected. Or average. 

It is, however, the New Abnormal, which, if we ignore it, will only worsen. Chew on this as we tiptoe warily into, hopefully, a pandemic-free summer. 

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

Reflecting on 10 years at the Schuylkill Center

Mike planting trillium, 10 species, one for each year of his tenure

When Mike Weilbacher first came to the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education 40 years ago, he never imagined he would one day become its executive director. In 1982, he arrived in Philadelphia, new to the city and fresh out of grad school, to work as an educator under legendary founding director Dick James. 

As he marks the 10th anniversary of his return to the Center, Mike reflects on the transformations of the last decade—and looks ahead to the next challenges. 

Back in 2011, Mike knew his return came at a pivotal moment in the organization’s history. The charter school that had been renting space for a decade was departing, leaving a mostly empty building, the lack of space leading to little programming. Where one might see challenges, Mike saw opportunities. 

Mike offers that we were, back in our heyday, “one of the most important environmental education organizations in the city, and even the state.” His goal was to restore our relevance within environmental education circles— and bring people in the front door. 

To accomplish this, he led a staff and board effort to reimagine the building, and staff began turning the 1968 cinder-block building back into a lively space for programming. We reopened our large 200-seat auditorium, carved an art gallery from a failed bookstore, united staff on one floor of the building, and turned the classroom wing into the new home of Nature Preschool.

Naturepalooza 2019

On the programming side, to fill that large auditorium, he inaugurated the annual Richard L. James Lecture, which he says “hopes to bring a large group of adults together to wrestle with cutting-edge information and issues.” He charged staff with creating a family-focused Earth Day festival, which blossomed into Naturepalooza, our most popular one-day event. 

He guided staff and board through master and strategic planning exercises that led to the new gateway entrance on the Schuylkill River Trail, the radical makeover of the Visitor Center’s front entrance, and the coming transformations of Nature Playscape and our River House site (stay tuned!). 

Coming soon, he envisions the Discovery Center, our indoor museum, moving into the 21st century with interactive exhibits on diverse topics like climate change in Philadelphia, and looks to continue improvements across additional spaces in the Visitor Center. 

Mike also expects our programming to meet this unique moment. “We have a narrow window of opportunity to address big issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. How does our programming rise to this challenge?” He continues, “In a very different context, Martin Luther King, Jr. talked of the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ I believe our programming needs that same fierce urgency.” So he continues to raise public awareness on tough issues in our programs and in his weekly columns for the Review, Roxborough’s paper. Mike sees progress in the past 10 years, like our 2016 Year of Climate Change programming, but there’s more to come. 

To mark this milestone, the staff and board recently gathered with Mike at a morning celebration, placing a bench in his honor on the Ravine Loop. Staff spent the morning with Mike planting an oak tree and more than 250 trillium bulbs—his favorite wildflower—of 10 species, one for each year. Nature Preschool students also offered him art featuring their hands touchingly wood-burnt into beautiful cedar slabs. 

Mike receives a hand made gift from the kindergartners

Mike’s tenure has clearly elevated our stature as a regional leader in environmental education. Board of trustees president Christopher P. McGill says, “Mike has created many successful programs—all mission-oriented and positively impacting our community at large. We are so grateful to have him driving the Center’s success now and into the future.” 

Former board president Binney Meigs puts it best, “In a time of noisy disinformation, we have an astute quiet voice who isn’t merely disseminating knowledge but is guiding students toward thinking for themselves and eventually, teaching others in numerous, flexible, and creative ways. This requires patience, infinite confidence and gentle strength without a personal agenda. Ultimately, this is the sign of profound and rare leadership which we deeply appreciate in Mike Weilbacher’s tenure at the Schuylkill Center.”

For Mike, his career arc at the Schuylkill Center is pure “poetic symmetry.” Coming here fresh out of grad school, he still pinches himself that he has been able to return.  

Fate of the World Hinges on a Pickup Truck

Two news stories appearing on the same day last week were remarkably well timed. 

In one, Ford unveiled the all-electric Lightning, the latest in its bestselling F-150 truck series, the world’s most popular vehicle for the last, unbelievably, 43 years, selling more than 900,000 of these monsters. And that truck alone rakes in $42 billion in revenues, twice the revenue of McDonalds, three times that of Starbucks. 

And it’s well named. Its twin electric motors take the heavy duty vehicle from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. “This sucker’s fast,” noted President Biden in a test spin the day before, of course decked out in his trademark aviators.

But on the exact same day as the launch party, researchers determined that a significant portion of Hurricane Sandy’s $62.7 billion in damages, as much as 13%, were caused by climate change, allowing a higher sea level to inundate far more homes. Our contribution to climate change from the burning of fossil fuels has raised the ocean by four inches in the New York area in the last century, offering Sandy more targets to slam.

Here’s the beauty of this. While climate change has irreparably fallen in the chasm between the two political parties, paralyzing the possibility of our government playing an important role in solutions, the private sector is stepping forward in a huge way. Ford, the iconic automaker named after the founding father of the modern auto industry, sees the writing on the wall—thank God!—and wants to beat the competition to the punch. A little competition never hurts, right? 

Because frankly, the future is electric. Ford understands that, and they don’t want to be eating Tesla’s dust.

One of the most anticipated introductions of a new car in a very long time, many auto experts compared Lightning to the Model T, the game-changing vehicle that brought cars to the masses. “Ford has a lot at stake in the new vehicle’s success,” wrote the New York Times, but truthfully, the entire world has a lot riding in the back of this pickup. If Ford can sell electric trucks to Philadelphia carpenters, Pennsylvania dairy farmers, Texas oilmen, and, heck, suburban homeowners would love trucks, it will greatly accelerate the move toward electric vehicles, central to any solution to climate change.

Carbon dioxide emitted from the tailpipes of our cars and trucks represents the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. You and I can turn off all the light switches we want to conserve power, but that just won’t move the needle on carbon emissions. We need to transition as quickly as we can away from fossil fuels across transportation, building, agriculture, and industry, and the Lightning will help immensely. 

Through April, automakers sold about 108,000 fully electric vehicles in America, twice the number from the same period last year. While that’s only 2% of vehicle sales, it’s a start; there are 18 electric vehicles offered for sale in this country now; by year’s end, the number will almost double to 30. 

Not only is the Lightning fast, but its battery is finally transcending the weakest link in the electric car story: its battery. This truck can happily travel 300 miles on one charge: you can finally drive from Philly to visit your cousin in Pittsburgh without stopping to recharge. Plus it is powerful, as exhibited by Ford’s wonderful commercial of the truck towing a long train weighing like a million pounds, the train loaded with other F-150s. The truck will be loaded with options, including a generator that allows you to plug in your power saw to the truck itself, and the price starts at $40,000. It will also be made in America, preserving union jobs. 

Oh, Ford won’t stop building gas-powered cars and trucks for years. But if the Lightning does well, it will hasten the long-awaited, much-needed, and very overdue transition to electric vehicles.

“It’s a watershed moment to me,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said at the Lightning’s unveiling. “It’s a very important transition for our industry.”

It’s a watershed moment for the world, too, hopefully an inflection point in the race to slide through the narrow window of time we have in front of us to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Speaking of timing, the mercury hit the 90s this week not only here but across a broad swath of the Southeast, and it’s still only May. And the hurricane season’s first named tropical storm—Ana—formed Friday in the Atlantic near Bermuda. While the hurricane season doesn’t start until June 1, this marks the seventh year in a row that a named storm formed before the start of the season. The subtext: the ocean is warming earlier, giving us named storm systems sooner than historically expected.

Welcome to the New Abnormal. Since we need a lightning-fast transition to a post-fossil fuel world, let’s hope the Lightning delivers on its promise. Because there’s a lot riding in the back of this pickup truck.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director