New Mystery Illness Killing our Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Strub, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation

Reflecting on 10 years at the Schuylkill Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturepalooza 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Mike receives a hand made gift from the kindergartners

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

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

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

Fate of the World Hinges on a Pickup Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Reviving the Prairies of Philadelphia

Shop online for native plants: tinyurl.com/SCEEnativeplants

There are few better ways to learn plants than by working in a nursery. Assisting with the Schuylkill Center’s annual Native Plant Sale—now in its 17th year—is a truly unique experience for employees and volunteers alike. With over 200 species of native plants being offered to the public annually, even the most experienced botanists and gardeners encounter fascinating plants that they have never seen before. In my work with the sale this year, two plants in particular have caught my eye.

Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are both wildflowers with wonderful names that are native to southern parts of the now rare eastern prairie ecosystem, landscapes that once existed from the Mississippi River to Pennsylvania, and Florida to New Hampshire. The eastern prairies are relegated to tiny out-of-the-way patches today, but at one time they contained an astonishing diversity of species: asters, orchids, and false indigos. Switchgrass and bluestems. Blazing stars, goldenrods, milkweeds, and mountain mints. Miles of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees dotting a savannah humming with life. 

Of course, when we hear the word “prairie,” the first place that comes to mind is the Great Plains of the Midwest. With trees eagerly popping up every place they can in our area, we like to imagine that the native ecosystems of the past here were all woodland and forest. Early accounts of this region, however, reveal a far more nuanced picture. Descriptions abound from the 15th to 18th centuries of broad meadows, savannahs, and grasslands tended with fire by indigenous communities across the Atlantic seaboard. 

Were any prairies present here in Philadelphia? Local Lenape place names, which often encode ancient environmental information, give us a clue: while Wissahickon means “catfish creek” and Wissinoming is “a place where grapes grow,” Southwest Philadelphia’s Kingsessing is the Lenape word for “place where there is a meadow.”

The pre-urban environment of Philadelphia was a diverse, managed mosaic of old growth forests, vast fruit-laden woodlands, and networks of tall prairies—a far cry from the concrete barrens that we see around us today. This is, sadly, all too common across the continent. Eastern prairies have disappeared throughout their range in the face of farming and development. The removal of native people and their millennia-old relationships with the land—particularly, the seasonal controlled burns that held back trees and regenerated the grasslands—have further ensured the decline of these unique meadow ecologies. But despite this familiar story, all is not lost.

What if Philadelphia’s concrete-encased small yards could be transformed into the same diverse landscapes that once existed here—every container garden a pocket prairie, every yard a micro-forest? What if all it took to return biodiversity to a neighborhood is a gardener with a trowel, the right plants, and a little gusto? Just as was the case in the past, it is human care and stewardship that can create and preserve these endangered ecosystems. The dazzling beauty and biodiversity of the eastern prairie can be recreated in any backyard—even if it’s as small as a postage stamp of grass or a few pots on a balcony. With their diminutive size but exuberance of color, scent, and form, prairie and meadow plants can pack a punch in a small garden in a way few others can.

Rattlesnake Master. Photo by Frank Mayfield

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is one of the most charismatic of these plants. With light powdery blue, tropical-looking foliage and a spray of flower orbs emerging like a constellation, this is a plant that looks far more at home in the Caribbean than in the prairies of the Mid-Atlantic where it has grown for millennia. Its flowers are irresistible to many native pollinators, particularly the same wasps that can help control pests in the rest of your garden. It also grows just as easily in containers as it does in the broad expanse of its original prairie habitat. With its ethereal charm and distinctive name, rattlesnake master is a wildflower that would be at home in any Philadelphia garden, big or small.

And what better to complement it than a patch of one of its prettiest prairie companions, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)? This wildflower is a treasure to people and pollinators alike. Along with a handful of other Echinacea species, coneflower is foundational to herbal medicine, being widely available for its purported immune-boosting properties. Its color and elegant form in the garden have led to its popularity in native landscaping, and it is available in a wide range of cultivars with unique colors, from eggshell white to green and purple. Its true power, however, is in the life that it brings to the garden. From fritillaries and swallowtails to bumble bees and beetles, watching a blooming coneflower in July is truly a sight to behold. As a late bloomer, it provides rich nectar and pollen at a crucial time for pollinators, when little else is in flower. 

A patch of coneflower and rattlesnake master is a lifeline to your neighborhood’s bees and butterflies every summer. Paired with other now-rare plants that once existed in the long-gone ecosystems of our region, plantings like this can become a foothold for the return of beauty and biodiversity to any neighborhood in this city. 

Working with the amount of acreage we have at the Schuylkill Center is a blessing, but the true future of our city lies in the spirit of stewardship that we all can cultivate in whatever space we have to work with. Bringing biodiversity back to your small patch of this world is a deeply empowering act that pays dividends far beyond what one imagines at the outset. 

I invite you to see what kinds of plants can become a part of the ecosystem that you steward in your space: the Schuylkill Center’s Native Plant Sale offers a wide range of plants for any garden or taste. Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are easy and lovely to grow, and may just yet inspire you to imagine the lost landscapes that we could enjoy yet again.

 

Max Paschall, Native Plants Assistant

 

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

 

“City Nature Challenge” Nature Kit: At-Home Version

This weekend’s Nature Kit is all about the City Nature Challenge taking place right now, in Philadelphia and cities across the U.S. 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.

What is the 2021 City Nature Challenge?

An international event that takes place every spring, this friendly competition between participating cities is a way to get people outside to document plants and wildlife in their cities. From April 30 – May 3, all pictures of wildlife uploaded to iNaturalist in the Philadelphia region will be documented for the purpose of this challenge, with the goal being to record the largest number of species in our city. To participate, you can simply head outside and start taking pictures of all the wildlife species you see! (Don’t forget about those plants!)

To participate using the FREE iNaturalist app:

  • Download iNaturalist from your app store or by visiting inaturalist.org.
  • Create an account.
  • Begin making observations! 
    • Tap the “+” sign in the bottom right corner. 
    • Select “take photo” and take your picture.
    • Tap the “what did you see” button and select the picture that looks the most similar to what you saw.
    • Hit the green check mark at the bottom.
  • If you do not wish to download the app, you may still participate by using the observation cards below to record any wildlife observations!

 

Optional Wildlife Observation Cards (print as many as you’d like):

—Rebecca Deegan, Environmental Educator

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

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