Reflections on Earth Day: One year after its 50 anniversary

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Installation view of Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Planting Oaks On Earth Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Hopping and Hoping: Toads on the road

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

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

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

by Kevin Kissling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Emily Sorensen

 

 

Further resources:

Sign up to be a Toad Detour volunteer

Check out our Facebook Group 

What does the toad say? By Clare Morgan 

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

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

Purchase the Toad Detour DVD

The REAL Flower Show: Trout Lily and White Trillium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Lands We Cultivate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you online or in the gallery.

 

Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

Migration Nature Kit: At-Home Version

This week’s nature kits focus on migration. Twice a year creatures such as certain birds and butterflies make thousand-mile journeys between North and South America. After today’s activity you will understand some of the unique challenges and needs of migrating animals, and you will learn how you can help them safely make their journeys. 

Every Saturday, Nature Kits are given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am–12:00 pm. Nature Kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails and given back once completed. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

Activity #1: Migration Hopscotch:
  • Draw a hopscotch board with 10 numbered squares on the pavement with chalk.
  • Then gather 8-10 items that will be placed on the squares later.
    • The items can be anything that you find—sticks, pinecones, toys, rocks, utensils, etc.
  • After drawing your board, stand in front of the #1 square; you are a bird starting your migration from north to south.
    • Each square represents a stopover-site between North America (Canada) and South America.
    • Migrate southward on the course by hopping from square to square until you arrive past square #10.
    • Before you turn to head back north, have your grownup place 2 items on 2 different squares—these are sites that no longer have resources for you to use.
    • Hop back north without stepping on the squares that have these props.
    • Continue placing more props on empty squares before every new round until it is impossible to migrate due to lack of squares (resources).
  • When the game is done, think about the importance of resources such as food, water, and land to a bird’s successful migration.
    • What happens if those resources are taken away? How can we save resources for migrating birds? 

 

Activity #2: Nesting Tree Memory Game

Did you know that some birds, such as swallows, return to one tree year after year to nest? Scientists are still unsure how they are able to find the same tree after migrating thousands of miles away from their warm overwinter spots in the south. Do you think you would be able to remember your nesting tree?

    • In your yard or a park, choose one tree that will be your final destination nesting tree.
    • Then create a trail to get to your final tree, finding 4 trees along the way to “rest” at before arriving at your destination.
      • Touch each tree before moving onto the next one, as your grownup records the order of the trees that you stopped at.
    • After you arrive at your nesting tree, leave the area for at least 10 minutes, then return and try to perfectly repeat the order of the trees you touched on your trail to your nesting tree.
    • Were you able to remember your route precisely? 
Activity #3: Migration Resources Scavenger Hunt

Nearly all migrating creatures need to make stops along the way to their destination to replenish on water, food, and rest.

  • Choose a migrating bird you would like to become.
  • Think about what resources this bird would need during its journey – what food do you eat, and where would you find it?
    • Where do you like to rest – in water, in a tree, in a meadow?
    • What about drinking water?
  • Plan out places in your yard or a park that you would need to visit to survive your flight.
    • In the table below, record the resources you find by checking off boxes with a pencil. 

Migration Resources Scavenger Hunt

Resource 

(up to 3 sites)

Check box when you find this resource Check box when you find this resource Check box when you find this resource
Food (must find at least 1)

What does your bird eat? Examples: insects, worms, berries, plants

Drinking Water (must find at least 2)
Shelter or a place to rest (must find at least 1)

 

—Rebecca Deegan, Environmental Educator

Plant an Earth Day Tree

Earth Day returns on Thursday, April 22, 2021, the 51st anniversary of the seminal event that changed the world by giving birth to the modern environmental movement. To commemorate the day, the Schuylkill Center invites you to join us in performing a powerful, even radical act that day:

We’d like you to plant a tree..

Because trees are critical weapons in the fight against the city’s three largest environmental issues: climate change, the loss of biological diversity, and the scourge of raging stormwater.

To cool the climate, we need more trees. Trees shade our homes and streets, mitigating the effect of that urban heat island you’ve likely heard so much about—the sun shines down on rooftops and asphalt, heats up, and gives off that heat at night, keeping us much warmer than we’d otherwise be. Trees also sequester carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere and replacing it with oxygen. 

Last fall, the Schuylkill Center’s Steve Goin (right) planted a swamp white oak at the center in honor of Kris Soffa (left) in honor of her long record of service to the Roxborough community

Our planet’s biological diversity is plummeting, and trees are important here too. Yes, squirrels and robins nest in trees, but more importantly, native trees are essential food for literally thousands of species of insects, the small creatures that hold up the world. Just one oak, for example, can be home to more than 500 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars. Imagine that. And those caterpillars, in turn, are required food for most bird species hereabouts, as parent birds pluck caterpillars to stuff down the maws of their nestlings. More oak trees, more insects; more insects, more birds. But the tree must be a Pennsylvania native to have the diversity upside. 

Climate-fueled storms send stormwater pouring off our rooftops and gutters, into streets, and into our streams, where they carve massive erosion gullies. Large trees act as giant umbrellas protecting the land from erosion, and holding back rainwater, which takes hours to work its way down through the millions of leaves in a large tree. Oaks, it turns out, are better at this than most trees too.

Trees do so much more than these three things, but combating climate change while supporting biodiversity and ameliorating stormwater are three great ways to honor Earth Day.

On Thursday, April 22, the Schuylkill Center is dedicating a portion of our land as the Earth Day Forest, and will inaugurate that forest with plantings dedicated by our Nature Preschool students and families. We’ll also be planting a tree in Roxborough that afternoon, and we’ve invited 20 organizations—civic associations, schools, churches, community groups—to plant one as well. 

And we’d love to include you in the fun. Please plant a tree for Earth Day—any time on and around April 22 works—and tag us in your social media. Let’s all share the love. If you belong to a local organization, maybe convince them to sponsor a tree in the community.

There are many sources of native trees, including nurseries, conservation group’s tree sales, arboreta, the Tree Philly program, even the Schuylkill Center; our plants are on our website right now. But if shopping at, say, a big box store, be careful, as they still still stock many nonnatives with little, even no, wildlife value. Their trees are also typically shipped from large nurseries outside of Pennsylvania, making them less adjusted to local growing conditions. But if you go, you’re asking for native oaks, black cherries, willows, birches, maples, and more. If in doubt, ask your favorite naturalist at a nature center for help.

Thornless Honeylocust

By buying at the Schuylkill Center or Tree Philly, you are ensuring that the plant’s provenance is as closely matched to the Philadelphia area as possible.

And maybe you have a small yard? There are many modest trees and shrubs perfect for small spaces that support biological diversity as well—there are even modest and small-sized oaks that won’t overpower your yard and are wonderfully long-lived. Check out redbud, another modest tree with a big upside, as it blossoms a wonderful pink color in the spring. There are numerous books that can help you, a plethora of websites, too, and your nature center friends.

I hope you will join me in planting Earth Day trees, a powerful act to mark an important day.

 

Mike Weilbacher

 

The Real March Madness

It’s hugely exciting times for college hoops fans, awash in basketball games where they breathlessly wait to see if, oh, the Grand Canyon University Antelopes beat the Iowa Hawkeyes, or if Creighton holds off UCSB, whatever that is. Wait, there is a Grand Canyon University?!

Some $1.5 billion will be bet legally over all the new gambling apps, almost 40 million Americans will fill out those brackets, gallons of newspaper ink will be spilled, and sports analysts will natter on for hours. “Bracketology” will trend on Twitter; coaches’ heads will roll. 

Over 19-year-old kids playing hoops. Welcome to March Madness. 

Meanwhile, receiving no fanfare at all, nature in March is simply exploding. Flowers have already begun opening, an elegant parade blooming in an orchestrated sequence begun back in February when skunk cabbages poked through the mud in wet areas, purple mottled hoods protecting a Sputnik-shaped flower. Just this week, the buds of red maples have popped to reveal tiny wind-pollinated flowers, little red spiders dangling from tree branches.  

Red maple

Sure, on our lawns there are snowdrops and crocuses and daffodils and tulips. But our forests will be bursting with ephemeral wildflowers with names as evocative as the flowers are stunning: trout lily, Jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot, shooting star, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal… With all apologies to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (whose show is delayed and outdoors this year—great idea), here’s the real flower show.

Meanwhile, migrating birds are undergoing their own rite of spring, flying through in  progression, red-winged blackbirds and phoebes now, ruby-throated hummingbirds later. Waves of woodland warblers—tiny but unbelievably exquisite creatures wearing extraordinary coats of many colors—pass through like clockwork, pine and prairie warblers right now, blackpolls bringing up the rear at season’s end. And they are passing through in their breeding plumage, essentially wearing  their Sunday best for us. Just Google “Blackburnian warbler”: is there a prettier animal anywhere?

Blackburnian warbler

And while some of these birds are staying for the summer, many are heading to nesting grounds far north of here—think Adirondacks and Canada—only visiting the region for a few days on their journeys north and south. Blink and they’re gone. 

Those birds that nest here—cardinals and chickadees, titmice and robins—will be calling their love songs. One of my favorite sounds of spring is the first moment I hear a wood thrush. A cousin of the robin, the thrush’s song is like organ pipes or flute music: it is simply stunning, and stops me in my tracks every spring. 

Butterflies soon begin awakening, mourning cloaks first, painted ladies soon, swallowtails in late April, and monarchs, just now leaving Mexico, much later.  

Hibernators are crawling out of dens ready to start the new year. Already, painted turtles are basking alongside Fire Pond near the front door of the Schuylkill Center, and American toads will soon be crossing Port Royal Avenue on a dark and stormy night to get to their mating grounds up in the old reservoir across the road. And any day now I expect to see the first groundhog of the season, likely nibbling on roadside grass blades, likely on that high bench of lawn along Hagy’s Mill Road, on the old Water Department land.

That’s the real March madness, that here we are, on the very first days of spring, having survived another wild and wooly winter, having been stuck in lockdown and freeze-down and ice-down, and we’re not betting on the first day a phoebe arrives from the tropics or the first day a mourning cloak butterfly flitters into view. We’re not inviting friends over for a beer to watch our crocuses unfold. We’re not sitting in lawn chairs to admire the red blush of flowers blooming across the maples on our street.

We’re not writing in our brackets which species migrates through first, the yellow-rumped warbler or the great crested flycatcher. 

No, we’re debating whether David, the 16th-seeded Drexel Dragons, can slay the Goliath of Illinois, the Big 10 champions and top seed in the Midwest. (OK, here I relent: go Drexel!)

The struggle for me as an environmental educator is that, as a nation, as a culture, we have collectively decided, quietly but definitively, that college basketball matters. Just look at the air time. The ink space. Heck, coaches’ salaries—in many states, athletic coaches are the highest paid state employees.

But nature? Not so much. Sure, it gets a weekly high-quality hour on PBS, but how are those spring wildflowers doing? How are migrating birds faring? How are those monarch butterflies doing, actually on the bubble as a species? Where’s the Nature section of the city newspaper? The culture has spoken, and nature is far, far down our list.

There’s another part of this madness: nature’s elegant springtime succession of flowers blossoming, trees leafing out, and birds migrating is in disarray because the symphony has a new conductor. While climate change is rearranging ancient patterns to an as-yet-unknown effect, the biggest experiment in the history of a planet…

… we’re glued to TV sets arguing over who’s better, Gonzaga or Baylor.  

So the real flower show has already started outdoors, in your backyard, in a forest near you. But we’re stuck inside filling out brackets.  

That’s just madness.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Water Nature Kit: At-Home Version

World Water Day is on Monday March 22. According to the United Nations, World Water Day “celebrates water and raises awareness of the global water crisis,” and this year’s theme is valuing water. Let’s celebrate our favorite liquid with these fun activities! (To learn more about World Water Day, and join in on the virtual celebration, visit https://www.unwater.org/worldwaterday2021/.)

Every Saturday, Nature Kits are given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am-12:00 pm. Nature Kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails and given back once completed. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

 

Activity #1: Drops on a Penny

There are many properties of water that make it unique. One of these is its high surface tension. Surface tension describes the strong “layer” at the top of water. It’s what makes it possible for the water strider to “walk” across the surface of water. But don’t take my word for it. Test it yourself!

Materials: penny, eyedropper, water

  • Place a penny on a flat surface. (Choose wisely—the surface will get a little wet!)
  • Use an eyedropper to slowly drip drops of water onto the penny.
  • See how many drops you can add before the surface tension breaks. 

Activity #2: What floats your boat?

Buoyancy is the force that allows things to float on water. A paper boat, for example, floats on water because the force of the boat pushing down towards the water is less than the force of buoyancy pushing up from the water. Test it out by making your own origami boat using the graphic instructions below.

Materials: 8.5×11 paper, bowl or sink full of water, coins/stones optional

  • See if your boat can float in a tub of water or a sink.
  • Place small stones or coins into your boat to see how much weight it can hold until it is no longer buoyant and sinks.

 

Activity #3: Water on the Move!

Water is the liquid form of H2O. As a liquid, it has some unique properties that allow it to move about. One way water moves is through capillary action. Simply put, capillary action is the ability of a liquid to move without—or even against—gravity through a small space. Water will wick, or draw itself upwards, because it likes to stick to itself and often also to the surface around it. See for yourself!

Materials: cup, 10×2 inch strip paper towel, washable markers, water.

  • Get a cup and fill it with about 1 inch of water.
  • Cut a 10×2 inch strip of paper towel.
    • Use washable markers of varying colors to draw a line of circles across the 2 inch width about 5 inches up the strip.
    • Fill in the circle.
  • Drape the paper towel over the edge of the cup so that the bottom is just touching the water.
    • Fold the top over the edge to keep it from falling in.
  • Now wait and watch!
    • Can you see the water moving up the paper towel?
    • What happens when the water reaches the dots of marker ink? 

Patti Dunne, Environmental Educator

Sarah West Says the Wissahickon Rocks!

While the pandemic has forced so many of us to retreat into the virtual world of Zoom calls and GoToMeetings, our counterbalance has been—correctly—to flood into green spaces like the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill Center. Parks everywhere have seen visitation rise as people turn to nature for its balm and healing. Still, it’s hard to socially distance in the Wissahickon, one of the most unusual and naturally beautiful places in the city.

And wildly unique geologically. 

As spring begins to—sorry—spring and leaves finally pop out on trees, these are the last weeks to get great unobstructed views of the rocks that line the gorge. So read this column, then walk the Wissahickon with a new eye to the extraordinary forces that formed the landscape.

I talked last week with local geology expert Sarah West, one of our neighbors at Cathedral Village and a longtime Trail Ambassador with Friends of the Wissahickon. She developed—and has passed along to the next generation—geological walking tours, some of which are offered online on the FOW website.

As an earth science teacher, she went to a summer program for science teachers at Chestnut Hill College in 1985, where they took the group for a geology walk in the Wissahickon, “The trip was so fascinating,” she recalled, “but the teachers talked so fast and in such language that a few of us thought we should really translate this into language that people can understand. From that workshop I was inspired to start writing geology for the common folk.”

The result was a self-published book that came out in the early 90s featuring both the geology and the history of the Wissahickon valley. At about the same time, “Chestnut Hill College asked me to do geology walks for their students. We’d start at Valley Green and walk along the east side as far as the Rex Avenue bridge.” She began offering these walks for FOW, Mt. Airy Learning Tree, the Schuylkill Center and other groups, and Shawn Green, FOW’s Volunteer Manager, calls her walks “famous.” 

“It’s a fascinating place,” she told me, “with close to the same number of rock types that you find out West like in the Grand Canyon.” Plus, she continued, “the Wissahickon is a backward stream. Think about it: most streams start in a mountain gorge and end in gently rolling land. The Wissahickon starts in gently rolling land and ends in a mountain gorge. The rock types change abruptly as you get to the gorge.” For Sarah, this is a clear signal that something is different.

Sarah’s Rock in the Wissahickon valley, a banded gneiss formed 10 miles underground.

Remember that the earth’s crust rests on plates that are slowly rearranging themselves. Wissahickon’s rock outcrops are “the roots of an ancient massive mountainous land,” more than 500 million years old. The rocks were laid down at the bottom of an ancient ocean, the Iapetus, who in mythology is the father of Atlantis. As the continents collided long ago, as Europe and Africa pushed against North America “at the rate your fingernails grow,” she noted, this ocean closed, and the collision raised the Appalachian Mountains, that chain found inland down the entire east coast. 

As the ocean closed, the rocks in the Wissahickon “got adhered to the North American continent.” So they are rocks from somewhere else that got pushed here as plates rearranged themselves.  

“Think of the Mediterranean Sea,” she explained, “which is a closing ocean. And whenever you have a closing ocean, you get a mountain range. Land masses like Italy and Sicily are stranded in this closing ocean; Italy is already stuck to Europe.” In fact, Italy’s collision is still pushing up the Alps; Sicily’s Etna is erupting even as I write.

One of the signature rocks in the valley is this schist, a metamorphic rock, loaded with mica flakes. “The schist started as clays formed in some kind of body of water, like a marshy area or delta, and became compacted. As plates moved, they got caught up in the collision, got heated up, pressured.” Because it was heated so slowly over so much time, many crystals have formed, not just mica, but garnets, which you can easily see in many schists in the valley. “My house in Mt. Airy had a big garnet in one rock, and lots of little ones.” In fact, much of the region’s houses (like my own) are built from mica schist. 

Gneiss is another common Wissahickon rock, including a large one the FOW ambassadors have dubbed Sarah’s Rock, as it is her favorite. Gneiss is a family of rocks characterized by strong banding, and often those bands are twisted and turned, showing you the deformation forces deep underground as the rock was formed. “Sarah’s Rock probably descended from schist, and formed 10 miles down, and has worked its way to the surface slowly over the last 250,000 years,” as the rocks above it were slowly eroded down.

There’s so much more to write, and places for you to learn. On FOW’s website, check out Sarah’s “Gems of the Wissahickon” in the Creekside Classroom section—it gives the full picture. FOW’s Shawn Green notes that “Sarah often refers to herself as a ‘student of the Wissahickon,’ and she makes everyone she meets want to be the same.” Hope you will too.

 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director