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

Fate of the World Hinges on a Pickup Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

A Tale of Two Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red-eyed vireo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Climate as an Infrastructure Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infrastructure questions all, without a doubt.

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

Infrastructure again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Engaging with the Environment through “Homegrown Stories”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrarium still #1, LeAnn Erickson and Jake Rasmussen

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

“Sightseeing” by Mary Slaughter

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

 

“In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants

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

 

Molly Stankoski, Freelance Writer and Researcher

 

Gardening with Native Plants: Great for You AND the Planet

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

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

Solomon’s seal

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

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

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

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

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

Spring violets

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

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

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

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

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

Redbud tree

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

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

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

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

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

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

 

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

This Topsy-Turvy Winter: Blame Climate Change

Last week’s winter storm piling first snow and then freezing rain on Roxborough and the entire region was just the latest in a long string of severe storms rocking us this winter—with more to come. And the storms have been far worse elsewhere, as several dozen Americans have now died from severe winter weather from Texas into New England. 

That’s a stark and strange contrast to last winter, when almost no snow fell at all, when there were no snow days the entire winter. Just when we thought that last year’s extreme might be the new normal, that climate change had made even snow an endangered species, Old Man Winter came roaring back this year with a vengeance. 

You’d think people like me who continually warn about global warming would be wrong. Think again.

“This week’s storms,” read an Associated Press story widely published in newspapers across the country, “fit a pattern of worsening extremes under climate change and demonstrate anew that local, state, and  federal officials have failed to do nearly enough to prepare for greater and more dangerous weather.”

And that dangerously liberal newspaper, USA Today, asked the key question last week in its headline: “Record cold, intense storms and tornadoes amid global warming: Could there be a connection?” The answer, sadly, is yes. 

Rae Hearts Design & Photography

For the last few years, I have been warning that Philadelphia’s climate was becoming hotter, wetter, and weirder. While this weather is decidedly not hotter—more on that in a second—it has been wetter this year, and wow is it ever weirder. That’s one of the downsides of climate change, that our weather wildly vacillates among extremes: too hot, then too wet, then too dry, then thunderstorms of too much intensity. 

For in addition to last week’s snowstorms, a tornado killed three people in Sunset Beach, North Carolina, the second deadly tornado and third significant tornado of a very young 2021. Tornadoes in winter? Yes, that’s weird.

Let’s start with the simple notion that what goes up must come down. A warming climate—remember, globally the six warmest years on record are the last six years—creates more evaporation: more water vapor rising into the atmosphere to form more clouds. All that water vapor can’t stay there forever; gravity makes it come down eventually, and in winter it may come down as snow or sleet. So last week’s storm covered a wide swath of the United States, dumping snow on 100 million Americans. At one point recently, some 75% of the country was under a blanket of snow. That’s weird.

About that cold. First, our winters now average almost five degrees warmer than they did 50 years ago, and the mercury has not dipped below zero in more than 25 years. Our winters are trending noticeably warmer, even with this cold spell.

To explain this year’s winter, we need to travel to the Arctic circle. In a more typical winter, the polar vortex—that gigantic circular upper-air weather pattern that covers the North Pole—is kept in place by the jet stream, which essentially pens it in. In any winter, the jet stream can wobble or weaken, allowing the polar vortex to slide down into North America. That happens every year. 

Enter climate change. “There is evidence,” said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd in that same USA Today article, “that climate change can weaken the polar vortex, which allows more chances for frigid Arctic air to ooze into the Lower 48.” Piling on, climate scientist Jennifer Francis, who has published a study on the phenomenon, said in 2019 that “warm temperatures in the Arctic cause the jet stream to take these wild swings, and when it swings farther south, that causes cold air to reach farther south.”

And the data clearly shows the Arctic circle is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet, and Arctic Ocean ice has retreated to its lowest levels in, well, ever in recorded history. In January 2021, Arctic Ocean ice measured almost 400,000 square miles below the 198–12010 average. The Arctic is warming, and the jet stream is wobbling.

Francis called the recent weather “a major breakdown” of the polar vortex. “It’s been unusual for a few weeks now—very, very crazy,” she concluded. “Totally topsy-turvy.”

One last thought. Texas has been notably slammed by this winter’s wild weather, and people are freezing and even dying under blackout conditions. It’s absolutely horrible. But that state’s governor oddly chose to blame the Green New Deal and wind turbines for this breakdown. Please don’t swallow this whopper. Texas long ago decided to be independent in its electrical grid to avoid federal regulation, and has resisted advocates asking the state to weatherize its system. Texas is sadly paying the price for avoiding this action.

Wind turbines played no role there. But climate has played a huge role in the weirding of this winter’s weather.

–Written by Mike Weilbacher
Photos by Rae Hearts Design & Photography