Blueberries, A Local Classic

Highbush blueberries are one of the best parts of summer, and one of the only truly native foods to our region.

If you have never had the joy of walking or kayaking through the New Jersey Pine Barrens, this fall should be your first time. A short drive but a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, this quietly rugged wilderness is defined by fragrant conifers towering overhead and lush stands of fruiting shrubs at waist height. The crunch of sand under your feet, the soft lapping of water at creek’s edge, a fresh breeze filtering through the verdant solitude of white cedar stands – it is an experience that many find deeply rejuvenating, for some even spiritual.

This rare, fragile ecosystem is also home to something that has become a global culinary phenomenon: blueberries.

These luscious, flavorful berries – a summer favorite for many of us – are one of the few truly native foods of our region. Apples and peaches, wheat and potatoes, most foods we eat come from Eurasia, Africa, or South America, but the blueberry began right here.

Blueberries come in an incredible diversity of species, from diminutive mats of vegetation clinging to mountaintops in Maine all the way to small trees in the swamps of Florida. The kind that we eat, however, usually fall into two categories: lowbush and highbush. Lowbush blueberries form low spreading shrubs just a few inches tall, that creep and crawl across rock and sand in places that most other plants would wither. In these extreme conditions, lowbush blueberries produce small berries with an incredible concentrated flavor that make them a delicacy throughout New England where they can be bought as “wild blueberries”. The kind we usually find on store shelves is the highbush variety, producing far sweeter and larger berries that are easier to plant and manage in fields and orchards.

Both lowbush and highbush blueberries are plants that have a number of additional advantages as well. Red stems and a craggy architecture make them spectacular plants for winter interest in the garden. White bell-shaped flowers draw innumerable bumblebees and other native pollinators in the spring. Lush green foliage and ripening berries follow in the summer. The fall, however, is the best time to see a blueberry bush. Whether you are in Pennsylvania or Vermont, one of the most glorious plants for autumnal color is the blueberry bush. Here at the Schuylkill Center we look forward to mid-October every year when the wild blueberries along some of our trails begin to glow a fiery red. In the Pine Barrens, where blueberries grow abundantly, the scene is even more spectacular.

the shock of autumnal red from a colony of blueberries. Photo courtesy of Stanley Zimny.

It is a little surprise, then, that Elizabeth Coleman White noticed these lovely and productive shrubs growing around her family’s cranberry farm in southern New Jersey a little over a century ago. A Friends Central School and Drexel University graduate, White came from a local Quaker family and was a true polymath in her time. At the turn of the 20th century, blueberries were not cultivated for food; only in places where they grew wild were they harvested for local consumption. She presciently saw the potential in this colorful native fruit and invited Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, to help her breed and domesticate highbush blueberries. White paid local woodsmen to bring her their favorite large-fruiting blueberry bushes that they found on their treks across the Pine Barrens. In this way she was able to source the very best genetic material with which to breed new domesticated varieties. By 1916, after years of diligent work, Elizabeth White and Coville harvested and sold their first blueberry crop, founding an entire agricultural industry that has subsequently grown to global proportions. Descendants of the very blueberries that White and Coville bred and cultivated on her New Jersey farm are now grown as far afield as Australia and Peru.

Here at the Schuylkill Center we are in the middle of our annual Fall Plant Sale, and are excited to offer two highbush blueberry varieties bred from the collections of Elizabeth Coleman White and Frederick Coville. ‘Jersey’ blueberry is one of the very first varieties that they released, and is still a standard on many blueberry farms. ‘Bluecrop’ was released a few decades later from crossing and selecting the superior wild blueberries that they had sourced. Both of these, planted together, will give you locally native blueberry shrubs that give abundant, delicious fruit in the summer, a haven for native biodiversity, and year-round beauty in your garden. Unlike most plants, blueberries require acidic soil. A large helping of peat moss, fertilizers suited for azaleas and other acid-loving plants, and – if old timers are to be believed – a handful of rusty nails (to give the plant iron) placed at the bottom of the hole when planting should suffice.

This fall, the blueberries will once again radiate their autumnal beauty to the world. Thanks to two enterprising botanists in southern New Jersey a century ago, we can all enjoy this display in our own yards too – as well as the summer fruits. We invite you to take a look at blueberries and the many other native plants we have at our Fall Plant Sale, available now for ordering and pickup: shop.schuylkillcenter.org/native-plants

Max Paschall is our Land Stewardship Coordinator at the Schuylkill Center.

Missy Horrow: “I Feel Like I Have Come Home”

Missy Horrow, Director of Early Childhood Education

Last Wednesday, the teaching staff of Nature Preschool at the Schuylkill Center gathered to begin preparing for the post-Labor Day opening of the school. Starting its ninth year, our staff will again immerse three-, four- and five-year-olds in the natural world in all seasons. And once again, for the third school year, our staff will try to steer their students through pandemic whitewater– but that’s a story for another day.

That evening, Missy Horrow, the school’s new director, wrote in her Facebook feed, “today was the first day of prep week– I feel like I have come home.”

A veteran early childhood educator with more than 20 years experience leading preschools, she has long championed nature-based learning, pioneering the use of the outdoors with her students elsewhere, building, for example, the first outdoor nature playground while she directed a prestigious Main Line preschool. 

As such, she took training courses at the Schuylkill Center, and when she came here, loved the use of wood and natural materials in our classrooms. 

Dreams really do come true: she is now the preschool’s director, looking forward to, as she told me, “building community with the students and parents, supporting our teachers so they can do their best work, helping everyone spend as much time outside as possible, and keeping everyone safe.” 

I asked her what was it about nature that compelled her to bring it into traditional classroom settings? She went back to her childhood, where she went every summer to a camp with a strong outdoor component. 

“Aunt Blanche and Uncle Mel were this couple from Florida,” she reminisced, “and all the teachers were ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle.’ But these two drove up every summer to work in the outdoor program, setting up a campsite where we’d walk to for our overnight camping experiences. Aunt Blanche led nature walks, and something about those experiences stuck with me this entire time. My love of nature comes from them.” (Summer camp is huge in her family, by the way. Not only did she meet her husband at camp, but her parents did too– and so did her daughter. That’s crazy!)

She also remembered back to the first preschool she directed, where the school had 100 mostly unused acres. She took the kids sledding, and “seeing how they behaved outside, seeing how engaged they were, changed me.” Turns out that sledding is now a treasured and embedded part of that school’s curriculum.

In a way, I feel like I’ve been working towards this my whole life.

“This school is on the cutting edge of early childhood education, where it lets children explore the outdoors, engages them in an emergent curriculum where they choose what to study, where they get to roam and play. This is just the ultimate.”

She’s also working to connect the school to other programs at the Schuylkill Center, something we cut back on last year to keep the COVID bubbles tight around each class. This year, for example, the Wildlife Clinic’s staff visited the teachers last week to share with them how to raise mealworms, grubby beetle larvae that become the food of so many of the clinic’s rehabilitating animals. Three of the school’s classes immediately signed on to raising mealworms in class as an activity that teaches students about animal life cycles while providing our patients with food. 

Raised in Lafayette Hill, Missy still lives there today; both she and her two children are proud graduates of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School– go Colonials! The close commute gives her a smaller carbon footprint, another net benefit.

“Every step you take gets you closer,” Aunt Blanche would remind her campers on their long walks. The same might be said of careers– every step gets you closer to where you need to be, and in Missy’s case, that was the Schuylkill Center all along.

And a p.s.: The Schuylkill Center received grants from the state to rebuild our DIY down-homey play area, our nature playscape. With its mud kitchen, sandbox, climbing logs, log seesaw, the Maple Monster (come see it), and more, it’s a play area comprised of natural materials like wood and rock. And it’s getting kicked up a notch or two this year. This week, landscape architects will unveil their proposal for the site, to be used not only by Nature Preschool, but by the Roxborough community when you visit on weekends and afternoons. I look forward to sharing this new feature with you in the near future.

Until then, please join me in welcoming Missy Horrow home to the Schuylkill Center.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Schuylkill Center Intern Redesigns the Entrance Garden

A masked Schuylkill Center intern Jamel Shockley weeding the front entrance garden with volunteers.

“It’s the first thing people see when they walk in the front door. It’s like the first word of a play or the first note of a song– if it catches your attention and draws you in, you’re already off to a good start.”

Hearing the Schuylkill Center’s intern, Jamel Shockley, talk about redesigning the gardens in front of our main entrance, it is easy to share his enthusiasm. A lifelong Philadelphian and recent Drexel graduate with a degree in environmental science, Jamel has brought his passion and creative verve to tackle this highly visible space. With help from Center’s staff and native plant volunteers, he is taking a fresh look at what can be done with the space.

The garden in front of the Visitor Center was once a wild and unkempt tangle of lanky goldenrod, sumac, and more behind a mouldering fence. A few years ago, our staff came together and remade this crucial front space– removing the elements that no longer worked, but doing so with a light touch to allow for more sensitive native plants to return. The result was a mixed meadow dotted with older shrubs. While ecologically valuable, it was clear that a more distinctive design could even better reflect the Center’s mission. Enter Jamel.

“There were definitely valuable things there– wonderful plants and inviting spaces in the garden– but without structure or order it restricted what you could see. If you can open it up, then you can allow for a lot more diversity and let people experience every part of it.”

Jamel has been working at the Schuylkill Center through a fellowship with the Alliance for Watershed Education. The Alliance, a consortium of 23 environmental centers including the Schuylkill Center, works throughout the Delaware River watershed. The fellowship program brings young environmentalists from a variety of backgrounds to work in centers, each completing a capstone project as part of their work. For Jamel, redesigning and planting the new front walkway garden is the culmination of his time here.

Jamel, unmasked

This isn’t his first experience with the Center. As part of Drexel’s Co-op program, Jamel spent the summer of 2018 in our Land & Facilities department learning many of the skills and perspectives that he is using now to create an inviting space.

Growing up in a family of artists whose creativity was matched by their commitment to community service, Jamel arrived with the ability to see his environmental stewardship work in a unique light. With this garden, he wants to blur the lines between beauty, ecological functionality, and physical accessibility for visitors. While normally known for his quiet and contemplative reserve, his passion quickly shines through when he discusses this project:

“I want this to be something that people can interact with. Simply having the plants in a place where you can examine them up close–  even if you don’t know what it is, or anything about them– can be so helpful in understanding them. When you can be right there next to the plants, you see their form and color and how they interrelate with the rest of the environment.”

One of the benefits of this project for Jamel has been the learning process. Although he has done gardening in the past and taken botany courses at Drexel, this has been a great opportunity for him to work directly in the field and design with new plants in a new way. Luckily, he’s received assistance from the Center’s team of garden volunteers who are among some of the most knowledgeable native plant experts in the region. Jamel has been learning from the very best, and it’s paid dividends outside of work as well.

“I’ve started to really understand plants in a new way. When I go home and see things in my neighborhood I think, ‘oh, I recognize this! That’s Virginia creeper, that’s coneflower.’ Being able to work alongside these gardeners has truly been a precious gift.”

Jamel was handed a formidable task, but with characteristic diligence, thoughtfulness, and a creative twist, he is giving the Center a “first note” for which to be proud. There is a lot of excitement among those who pass through our doors about finally having a space along the front walk that embodies the beauty, vision, and purpose of the Schuylkill Center. 

We look forward to welcoming you to see Jamel’s work, in full bloom next spring.

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

 

Schuylkill Center Mandates Vaccines for Staff

On July 3, Philadelphia reported all of 177 cases of COVID-19 across the city, the lowest number since the pandemic’s beginning in March 2020. It seemed– felt, hoped– we were FINALLY crawling out of the pandemic’s pit. 

Then the highly transmissible delta variant struck, the fourth wave ramped up, and for the week ending August 7, the city reported 1,238 cases, a 700% increase in only one month. $%$#@!

So last week, to almost no one’s surprise, Mayor Jim Kenney reestablished a masking mandate in the city.

The Schuylkill Center decided we needed to respond to this disappointing wrong-way bend in the curve. Because we operate multiple programs where we invite unvaccinated children to our site, including Nature Preschool, which almost 100 preschoolers attend on a daily basis, and also because we have an obligation to provide a safe workplace for not only program participants and visitors but our own staff and their families, our Board of Trustees adopted a crucial policy last week.

In an unanimous vote, our organization’s 23 trustees agreed to require all of our employees to be vaccinated. We are now joining the growing ranks of companies and universities doing the same, including Google, Walmart, Amtrak, the US military, and many more– with more coming daily.

But we are also taking this important action because we are a science-based organization that teaches and believes in science. And the science is clear. We have sadly and strangely been conducting a year-long science experiment on the American population, bifurcating into states and communities that believe in science and those that believe in– what, exactly– fake news, for lack of a better term (like getting vaccinated will turn your body into a magnet!). 

The fourth wave has already been labeled “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and the data back this up. Today, there is a direct and irrefutable correlation between COVID and vaccination rates– those communities with the highest vaccination rates show the lowest caseload. Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, noted that on August 9, residents of the five most-vaccinated states, home to 14 million people, had only 580 people in the hospital with 12 COVID-related deaths that day. But in the five least-vaccinated states, with 16 million people, 6,600 hospitalized and 104 people had died. The least-vaccinated states have 10 times the number of hospitalizations and seven times the deaths. “So yeah,” he tweeted, “vaccines are working.”

Piling on, in the 10 worst states, those where only 38% of its residents are fully vaccinated, more than 14,000 people are currently hospitalized. But in the 10 best states, where more than 60% are vaccinated, only 1,400 people are in the hospital. Again, a tenfold difference.

Yes, there are breakthrough infections, and yes, that is troublesome– but is the rate of breakthrough infection large enough to derail the entire vaccination program? Of course not. “If you are vaccinated, you may get a breakthrough infection,” Dr Jha has admitted. “But you are very unlikely to get hospitalized. You are very, very, very unlikely to die. The horror of the delta variant will largely be felt by the unvaccinated.”

The Schuylkill Center will, of course, follow the standards similar to all of those entities named earlier, whereby medical and religious exemptions may be accommodated, and of course we will follow whatever other applicable laws are approved.

But we have an obligation to the thousands of people who visit our site, not only preschool children attending our school but summer campers coming here for a week in the great outdoors, school groups visiting for field trips, visitors participating in our many programs, walkers hiking in our forest, art lovers coming to our art gallery to see our latest art installation, and more.

You’d think a tenfold diminution in COVID cases would catch people’s attention… But no. We like to say we live in the Age of Information, but that’s not the case at all. We instead live in the Age of Opinion, and everyone not only has one, but has multiple platforms for promulgating that opinion.

As a science educator, good public policy should flow from good science– science informs policy. But like with climate change, we have become practiced at denying the science to alter the policy. To our detriment. Simply put, more people have already died, and more will die, because of the politics and deliberate disinformation surrounding COVID, not because of the science.

The science is astonishingly clear. Vaxx up, Roxborough.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Creativity inspires curiosity

Tina Plokarz and Deenah Loeb

The Center’s Board of Trustees bid a fond farewell to Deenah Loeb, who completed three consecutive three-year terms. For most of her tenure, Deenah chaired the environmental art committee working very closely with that department’s director. She has been a tireless advocate for our environmental art program and guiding the use of our land as a living laboratory for how an art program enhances an area’s natural habitat.

Fellow board member, Leah Douglas, appreciated Deenah’s legacy and said, “her dedication, thoughtfulness, and commitment to the art committee has been inspirational. She has consistently proven to think outside the box, and always has the arts be top of mind at the Schuylkill Center.”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz was especially grateful to Deenah who has been a mentor to her prior to joining the staff. Tina spoke on behalf of previous art directors who “have been and continue to be grateful for her breadth of knowledge and her generous availability to always be of assistance.”

In closing, Deenah reminded the board that “we need to inspire the creative voice in whatever we do. Having that creative voice will only further the Schuylkill Center’s uniqueness in Philadelphia and beyond.”

Thank you, Deenah!

By Amy Krauss, Director of Communications

New Mystery Illness Killing our Birds

A robin that has passed away from the new mystery bird illness sweeping across the country. Photo courtesy of Tamarack Wildlife Center.

Listen to Chris Strub, Director of Wildlife rehabilitation on WHYY’s Radio Times discussing this disease (starts at 32:00)

For bird enthusiasts, this spring had an ominous touch of COVID deja vu. Young birds were falling ill with alarming symptoms and dying– and no one knew the cause. Most commonly impacting starlings, blue jays, and grackles, the illness typically shows up with weeping, crusted-shut eyes and neurological symptoms. And like COVID, some birds are asymptomatic, or show a completely different suite of symptoms. It has also affected robins, cardinals, and others. It seems to strike mostly young birds, often fledglings who have recently left the nest, and the disease progression is rapid, leading to death in just days.

Starting out around DC, the illness spread quickly across the Mid-Atlantic, north into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, south into Florida, and as far west as Ohio. Wildlife rehabilitation clinics sounded the alarm, hoping to get out in front of the disease and mitigate its effects, even without fully understanding why or how it was happening.

One thing we do know, even without a year and a half of COVID-19 keeping us on our toes, was that social distancing was key. However the disease was spread, keeping birds from congregating in close quarters would surely slow it down. But how do you tell a blue jay to stay clear of its neighbors? You don’t need to speak blue jay– you just need to acknowledge the role humans play in encouraging wildlife to congregate in large numbers. In nature, most animals don’t like to be too close to their neighbors, especially during the breeding season when territorial feelings are high.  

Wildlife clinics have dealt with outbreaks like this before, usually of known diseases like finch conjunctivitis, and the answer is always the same: take down those bird feeders!

While it may seem unkind to withhold food at a time of crisis, spring and summer are actually the best time to remove your feeders. Birds have plenty of natural, native food sources, and those with nestlings (even seed-eating birds) rely more heavily on wild insects than anything that can be placed in a feeder. In terms of disease prevention, bird feeders are contagion hotspots, as their hard non-porous surfaces allow pathogens to live longer and infect more birds. Competition around feeders also brings birds into much closer contact than they would naturally tolerate, creating yet another disease vector.  

Whatever was causing the illness, if it was contagious at all, it would spread much more rapidly around bird feeders, and so they had to go. Environmental centers like the Schuylkill Center led the charge in removing feeders, and encouraged members of the community to follow suit. We also suspended our birdseed sales just to be safe.  Even scatter-feeding birds can promote disease spread, as it still encourages close contact.  

Luckily, by stewarding native plants and diverse natural ecosystems, environmental centers like ours provide lots of foraging opportunities, ensuring the birds won’t go hungry.  

Where does that leave us as wildlife rehabilitators as we look towards the beginning of fall migration? Even though the disease seems to be waning in some areas, we still don’t know what caused it, nor what impact it might have in the fall. No definitive diagnosis has emerged, but researchers across the region are working on it, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Futures Program.  

Our Wildlife Clinic is prepared to handle whatever happens as the summer wears on. We hope that the mysterious illness will leave as suddenly as it appeared, but we may also see new outbreaks as birds begin to naturally congregate for fall migration. Migration is also very taxing on a bird’s body, leaving them more open to pathogens. On the plus side, as birds mature, so do their immune systems, giving them a better chance of fighting off illness.

In the meantime, it’s best to keep those feeders down, and keep an eye on our feathered neighbors. As with mask-wearing and social distancing, encouraging birds to keep their distance from one another can only help. Suspected cases can be reported to the UPenn Wildlife Futures Program, and birds who are sick but still living can be brought to your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center for care.

If you encounter a sick wild animal, whether or not it appears to have symptoms of a specific illness, it’s important to contact your local wildlife rehabilitator right away. We can provide guidance and information, and do everything we can to help animals brought in to us for care.  We also play an important role in disease outbreaks like this, keeping tabs on disease spread on a local level and collaborating with researchers working on diagnoses.

By Chris Strub, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation

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

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 [email protected]