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 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.  

Biden: Changing the Climate on Climate Change

When President-elect Joe Biden assumes the presidency in two months, he takes the helm with as many front-burner issues as any president ever, even FDR and Lincoln. He’s got to handle a raging pandemic with its horrific economic fallout, a long overdue reckoning on race, and a collapsing climate. All at once.

Consider climate. As Election Day dawned, a typhoon with gusts of 235 mph plowed into the Philippines to become the strongest storm to make landfall in world history. Here in the Atlantic this year, we set a record with 29 big storms, exhausting the English alphabet and moving into Greek. As David Leonhardt reported in the New York Times, “Nine of those storms became much more intense in the span of a single day, an event that was rare before the planet was as warm as it now is.”

This summer, more than five million acres of the American West burned, and West Coast sooty air was more harmful to breathe than that of smog-choked Indian cities. Worldwide, September was the hottest month ever measured, and 2020 is tracking to be the hottest year ever (of course). The Arctic is melting faster than expected, and sea levels are rising too quickly too. Leonhardt again: “Glaciers are losing more ice each year than can be found in all of the European Alps.”

Climate-denying President Trump had famously withdrawn America from the Paris Agreement on climate, and ironically, the treaty’s timing was such that our participation ended the day after Election Day. No matter how you feel about the treaty, there are at least two relevant facts you should know. For one, 179 countries have formally adopted the plan—that’s out of 195 countries total—and among the few holdouts are Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iran… and us. Great company, right?

And two, the agreement is a loose framework designed to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius—a number scientists agree would be catastrophic. And two, the agreement is a loose framework designed to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius—a number scientists agree would be catastrophic. (We’ve already climbed 1.2 degrees.) Most close watchers of the accord have long agreed it was not enough, so even though the Paris plan was contentious, it would never get us to where we need to be. But at least it got the world around one table talking.                   

Biden has said all along that he will return to the Paris accord, which he reiterated when he was named the winner. In fact, he added Paris to his long list of Day One activities, and he ran on a $2 trillion climate plan, which, while ambitious in scope, was easily more centrist than those promulgated by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But still, it is a solid plan because it has been vetted by a long list of policy experts and scientists. (Radical idea: smart science leads to informed policy choices.)

He began to make good on this promise last week by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry to a new post, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, giving Kerry—who played a key role in brokering the Paris accord—a cabinet-level position and a seat on the National Security Council. Said the formal press release announcing the appointment, “This marks the first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue.” 

The heart of the Biden plan is reducing greenhouse gas emissions through both subsidizing clean energy and setting tougher standards for polluting industries. If subsiding green power is problematic for you, remember we have been subsidizing coal and oil for decades. 

His plan is no Green New Deal, the progressive set of ideals that sets conservative hair on fire. For Republicans who fear a Green New Deal, the challenge is for them to place on the table an acceptable, different, science-based plan that still gets us to lower emissions. Lacking an alternative, the Biden plan is all we have at the moment.

But the Green New Deal is also meant to confront two front-burner issues, climate plus our intransigent racial disparities. The New Deal piece of it demands racial justice and economic equality, and wonderfully, clean energy can help immensely here, both by mitigating the impact of a hotter climate on especially poor and minority residents of large cities, but also by offering high-wage skilled-labor jobs. Win-win.

The bad news for Pennsylvania is that the age of fossil fuels is over, and needs to be over. Pennsylvania, of course, is where America’s oil was first discovered in 1859, where huge coal fields have been mined for generations, where coal powered the rise of Bethlehem Steel and the Pennsylvania Railroad, where fracking has been hailed as the future of fuel. But that storm slamming into the Philippines on Election Day reminds us of another reality. Carbon emissions are too high, and need to be drastically reduced. Now.

Sadly, the message that is continually lost in all the noise is that a greener energy future means MORE jobs for Pennsylvanians, not less, as wind and solar ramp up. Too many studies show that clean energy offers far more jobs than coal, which has been dying anyway.

For most of the world, climate change long ago crossed the threshold from heresy to conventional wisdom, and we have a quickly diminishing window of opportunity to address climate. In a Biden presidency, we thankfully finally have a shot, and for that alone I am grateful.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Wild Turkeys: The Truth Behind the Bird

Even in this crazy, complicated COVID year, Americans of all shapes, sizes and colors– maybe just fewer in number– will gather around tables overflowing with colorful cornucopias of food. And whether that table includes cranberry sauce or couscous, tortellini or tortillas, the centerpiece of the meal is likely that quintessential American bird, the turkey.

Consider that turkey, one of our biggest natural neighbors. Likely one of your holiday plates includes an image of the tom turkey, chest all puffed out, strutting its stuff. That’s not how turkeys appear in November. Sleeker, thinner, turkeys are now forming winter single-sex flocks, a tom and its brothers joining a fraternal order of other males. During this first winter, the toms spar viciously and violently to establish, yes, the pecking order, and a rigorous, fiercely contested one at that. They peck, wrestle, and strike with wings, feet and head until exhausted, and he who fights longest and hardest is the winner. To him go the spoils of war: the right to mate in spring.

For when the winter flocks break up, the brothers stay together. They pick clearings in the forest to strut their stuff, gobbling and fluffing like hyperactive mummers, calling attention to themselves while attracting harems of females. The bumps atop their heads turn various shades of reds, whites and blues—they are, after all, patriotic—and their wattles flap while their snoods bounce around: they have a face only a mother—and hens—can love. And when the hens arrive, only the big brother—top of the heap—mates, top gun mating with multiple females to spread his strong genes throughout the pool.

It’s not known whether or not Pilgrims and Native Americans dined on turkey that first Thanksgiving; one Pilgrim diarist mentions a whole litany of foods (venison, geese, shellfish, and more, but no turkey). But the Pilgrims knew about turkeys, encountering them in England, of all places. You see, the Aztecs domesticated the Mexican subspecies around 800 B.C., and Spaniards introduced the bird to Europe, where it came to England in 1550, and by the Pilgrim’s era was the centerpiece of large feasts held by the wealthy. The turkey we eat today is still a descendant of the Mexican subspecies—not the native North American bird we see at places like here at the Schuylkill Center, where turkeys are sporadically spotted.

Oh, one more turkey story. While wild turkeys are surprisingly common across Pennsylvania these days, the sight of these massive birds was unlikely even recently. Though turkeys had roamed a huge swath of America, because of the one-two punch of overhunting and deforestation, only 30,000 turkeys gobbled across 18 states by 1900; the animal had disappeared completely from Canada, New England, New York, and agricultural states like Indiana. While Pennsylvania was the northernmost state on the East Coast to retain a wild turkey population, there were none in Philadelphia or its suburbs.

So the wild turkey almost met the same fate as the dodo and the passenger pigeon.  Happily, three things altered its future. Too many hunters in too many parts of the country let wildlife agencies know they valued wild turkeys. Turkey hunters are a passionate lot, and whether or not you hunt or believe in animal rights, turkeys are here, in part, because of pressure from hunters. Second, wildlife managers learned how to use relic populations of wild turkeys in captive breeding programs—and re-introduced newly hatched turkeys to their former haunts.  

And finally, over the last decades, our forests have been slowly regenerating over the years, turkeys rediscovering new, viable habitat. Creatures of the edge, they crave forests for cover and nesting spots, then fields and meadows for seeds and insects to eat. As their habitat returned, so did they. Today, state websites indicate that turkeys nest in all but two Pennsylvania counties, Delaware and Philadelphia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if nesting turkeys return to my Schuylkill Center in Roxborough sometime soon.

The National Wild Turkey Federation now estimates some seven million turkeys range across the U.S., and National Audubon christened it one of the “10 Creatures We Saved” in its centennial celebrations a few years back. This is happily also true of the bald eagle, a creature we featured here only two weeks ago.

On Thursday, as turkeys decorate our possibly smaller tables, be thankful for one of the too-few conservation success stories we share, the return of the wild turkey.  

Happy Thanksgiving.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Pam DeLissio: ‘Voters Want to be Heard’

While razor-thin voting margins characterized so much of the electoral landscape this month, state Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-194, cruised to an easy reelection victory for her sixth term in Harrisburg, racking up more than 74% of her district’s almost 37,000 votes.

I talked to her last week over the phone, and she laughed when she told me that “a voter I met asked me if I had to work hard for this win. I told her I work hard every day.” And she does.

A self-described “moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-road” politician, she bristles when anyone suggests these traits show a lack of strength, or lack of an opinion. Clearly she has opinions. But she listens very hard to her constituents, and works to represent those interests in the capitol. “I take the input of constituents very seriously,” she offered, “because when citizens are informed about the process, they make better decisions.”

The COVID pandemic colors everything these days, including politics. “Here we are sitting and talking with 4,700 new cases only yesterday,” she said, pausing to confirm the number. “Yes, 4,711, higher than the highest high in the spring, and the legislature has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to correct the governor’s supposedly erroneous behavior. In an emergency like this, you need to be nimble, and putting the pandemic in the hands of the legislature is just not effective. As long as you have gerrymandering in place, you’ll have a skewed perspective on COVID.”

As an example, the state is currently sitting on a pot of $1 billion given to Harrisburg by Congress from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act with overwhelming bipartisan support back in March. “Our CARES money could have been 100% appropriated by the governor,” she told me, “but as an olive branch he gave authority to the legislature to spend it. So there’s still about a billion dollars to be spent that the legislature has not been inclined to deal with.” (They were waiting to possibly use it for deficit relief.) “And many sectors of the community – child care comes to mind – are acutely aware that this money has not been spent.”

Given that she is now a veteran of a full decade of service, she is in line for serving as a minority chair on one of the committees she belongs to. “I’m looking forward to that,” she said. Even though she will be minority chair, “if you do it well, do it right, and do it strategically, you could have some influence.”

When asked about her legislative priorities, she did not hesitate: “redistricting reform, because 2021 is a redistricting year. There is a transparency piece I am interested in, to direct the reapportionment commission to be more accountable by requiring public hearings and allowing public comments. I actually pushed for redistricting reform at one of my first town halls back when I was first elected, and people said, ‘Pam, that’s 10 years away!’ And here we are suddenly at the other end of that decade. But neither party seems very interested in this,” she added wistfully.

“I also see and hear a lot about equity and poverty. Our city’s poverty rate is 26%,” her voice rising. Philadelphia is often described as the poorest large city, not a badge of honor by any stretch. “Poverty stands in the way of our citizens breaking into the middle class.” For her, poverty becomes a lens through which she can examine other bills before her: “is this bill going to help or exacerbate the situation?” She noted that, “ I’ve spent some time understanding the social determinants of health, like the impact of housing, transportation, and food insecurity on health.” These play into poverty as well.

Pam easily connects education to the issue, and reminded me that an education commission made recommendations in 2015 to change the formula the state uses to distribute money for school districts. Of the 500 school districts in the state, almost 200 are underfunded, according to the state’s own math. The new allocation formula, she said, “takes into consideration things that have never been considered before, like poverty level, and there’s even a factor in the equation for deep poverty.” But Harrisburg got stuck on whether the new formula goes into effect automatically or steps down over time, and she signaled she would like to champion stepping down, a gradual drop over time to more equitable levels.

When asked about Pennsylvania being in the national crosshairs over our election’s integrity, she said, “Out of the blue this fall, there came an effort (in the legislature) to create a select committee on election integrity. The way the language was written – it was so poorly drafted – it would have given subpoena power to the majority Speaker. The pushback, no, the blowback,” she said, her voice rising on blowback, “was tremendous, and that was shelved.”

About the fraud allegations, she says “nobody has shared one scintilla of evidence. Oh,” she remembered, “one person from one polling place called me with a complaint, and I need to track that down. But that’s it.”

She would like to see election reform. “I’d like to memorialize the drop boxes– there was unbelievable voter engagement this year because of mail-in votes. Many many states have mail-in voting, so it’s not new, it’s just new in Pennsylvania. Interestingly, it eliminates straight-ticket voting, which is no problem for me. But this engagement may just be what many legislators want to avoid – they actually don’t want engaged voters.” She also supports mail-in votes that can be opened and prepped early, so they can be counted on Election Day, avoiding this year’s multi-day wait.

She’s not a big fan of legislation crafted “for the sake of the base. I’ve never played to a base; I haven’t done that and will not do that, and that’s how I ended up with a robust percentage of the vote in a divisive election. Voters tell me, ‘I know she listens to me.’ That’s what most voters want, to be heard.”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director