This Independence Day, Plant A Liberty Tea Garden

New Jersey tea in full bloom

Independence Day is one of the quintessential summer celebrations, replete with good food, (hopefully) enjoyable company, and citywide displays of fireworks.

Here at the Schuylkill Center though, and indeed in many wild corners of our city, a very different kind of fireworks display has been happening for the past few weeks.

Milkweeds burst with pink globes and sprays of orange. Red and lavender beebalm florets arc across the meadow. Yellow sunchoke flowers shoot up and fade into brown seedheads. Fields progress from lush spring green to a crescendo of summer color, punctuated by a dance of bumblebees, flittering moths, and the iridescent otherworldly buzz of hummingbirds. Early July is the moment of Nature’s midsummer abundance.

It may come as a surprise, then, that many of the wildflowers that contribute to this yearly symphony of color and scent were once, themselves, a powerful political statement.

On a cold December evening in 1773, a group of angry Bostonians heaved tons of imported black tea into the harbor in protest at new taxes placed on it by Britain. Many American colonists who supported this action were suddenly faced with a moral dilemma: how can we still enjoy our tea if we’re boycotting it? Tea was culturally foundational in a way that is hard for us to imagine today. An empty teapot was out of the question, even for the most ardent supporters of independence. 

The answer? Look to the forests and fields.

For people in the Carolinas, there was yaupon (the unfortunately named Ilex vomitoria) – a native holly whose leaves brew a delicious, caffeinated beverage. But for northern colonists, who did not have access to any native caffeine-producing plants, it was the flavors and aromas of native wildflowers that appealed most.

‘Liberty Tea’ became the term given broadly to a number of native wildflowers and shrubs whose aromatic foliage and flowers made sumptuous, spiced teas. Colonial women coursed the countryside, harvesting and cultivating flowers and wild herbs for their now-politicized teapots. The use of these herbs was a clear signal to neighbors, friends, and family as to which side of the political divide they stood on. To find the best species for this purpose they followed the example of Native peoples who had enjoyed brewing with the best native plants for millennia.

Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) was one of these favored plants. Leaves harvested before the plant blooms can be dried and stored for long periods, and used to brew an anise-scented tisane. Unlike its weedier relatives, sweet goldenrod does not spread aggressively in the garden and still supports incredible numbers of native pollinators with its late-season spray of yellow blossoms. 

Ruby-throated hummingbird sips on scarlet beebalm

Another popular Liberty Tea was scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma), also known as wild bergamot or Oswego tea. A host for orange mint and hermit sphinx moths, its shock of red tubular flowers burst forth in late June, providing an irresistible sip of nectar to hummingbirds and butterflies. Hummingbirds, indeed, seem to have good taste: a small handful of those same flowers can be added to a teapot to make a refreshingly aromatic summer beverage.

Colonial women favored a wide range of brewable wild plants to support the boycott and create a new culinary culture of resistance. New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) got its common name during this time because of its popularity as a Liberty Tea. This nitrogen-fixing plant is a low shrub, only growing a couple feet tall, with wintergreen-flavored leaves and creamy white flower clusters that are particularly attractive to moths and butterflies. 

The plants that our forebears imbibed are not just an historical curiosity to make into a tisane or herbal iced tea – they are also crucial food sources and waystations for some of the most sensitive creatures that we share this land with. 

Whether or not you are of the patriotic bent, planting a Liberty Tea garden is a great way to ensure that you have delightful, historic wild brews available for your July 4th cookout each year, while also providing year-round habitat to native pollinators and a sumptuous sip for migrating hummingbirds and butterflies looking for a rest and a snack on their intercontinental journeys. Early colonists reframed these native plants into a political statement about an independent future. For us, planting native species is an equally powerful statement: one that speaks of our commitment to a livable future in a world that relegates these lifegiving plants to the margins. So this Independence Day weekend, after the guests leave and the food coma wears off, consider planting a Liberty Tea garden for next year. After all, what better way to honor our country’s birth than by celebrating its natural splendor, and perhaps yield a tasty brew in the process?

By Max Paschall, Native Plants Assistant

Tom Landsmann, Roxborough’s Own Johnny Appleseed

Roxborough’s Tom Landsmann is a cross between Johnny Appleseed and the Energizer Bunny– he just keeps on planting and planting and planting… Over the last 20-plus years, Tom has either personally planted or helped plant thousands of trees in just about every public space in Roxborough: Gorgas Park, Germany Hill. the Wissahickon, the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, the Schuylkill Center, along the towpath. You name it, he has planted something there.

Even better, many of the trees he plants were lovingly grown by himself on his plot of land on River Road, right up against the Schuylkill and across the road from his home. Filled with oaks, maples, hickories, beeches, birches, hollies, pines, cedars, and more, the densely packed plot can amazingly hold as many as 4,000 trees. 

Likewise, adding yin to this yang, he has personally pulled thousands of invasive trees, shrubs, vines, and more out of these same public spaces. Out with the bad, in with the good.

“There is almost no public green space in Manayunk or Roxborough,” Rich Giordano told me recently, “which does not have the fingerprints, footprints, and even tractor tracks of Tom Landsmann.” Rich should know; himself the president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, Rich and Tom have been co-leading efforts to improve the reservoir as a park, and over the last decade the two of them have planted more than 1,000 trees there alone. 

As president of the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy, Tom invites you to join him in the area’s re-greening. The group sponsors Two on Tuesdays, a volunteer stewardship session where people gather for two hours on Tuesday evenings at one of the Conservancy’s 18 sites to plant new good stuff while pulling out the existing invasive bad stuff.

Next Tuesday, July 6, at 7 p.m., the group is meeting at the reservoir; look for them at the front stairs at Port Royal and Lare. And when the group is done, they will be retiring to Tom’s nursery on River Road for an after-party– where you can see his riverside nursery yourself!

He’s been highly engaged in the community for the last several decades. A resident of River Road for 22 years, he has been president of the Residents of the Shawmont Valley Association, the local civic, plus served a long stint on the Schuylkill Center’s board. And Two on Tuesdays began with the Ivy Ridge Green Coalition, an effort he started long ago. Now under the wing of the Conservancy, Two on Tuesdays has grown, and some 20 people join them most Tuesdays. 

“He is very driven,” says fellow board member Kay Sykora, herself a leader in greening efforts in the community, “about the future of the green space areas in the Roxborough-Manayunk community.”

“I’m not one to sit still,” Tom admits. “I guess I just hung up my marathon shoes for muck boots. But any good citizen just wants to make things better. I participated in all those organizations because I thought I had something to offer. I’m self-employed, and in business I look for a void, an opportunity. It’s extremely obvious that our city is not supporting our Roxborough-Manayunk green spaces. The reservoir’s wall has been crumbling for years, and the only maintenance the site receives is a quick mow at best. That’s an embarrassment on so many levels, and it’s insulting to those few like me that put so much effort and funding towards maintenance.” 

So Tom fills the void, bringing his fellow “good citizens” along and supplying them with essentially his own carefully stocked equipment.

But Tom gets a lot back. “I have a great sense of pride as I drive or walk past our trees, shrubs, and plants peppered all over Roxborough-Manayunk as well as other parts of Philly,” he said. “Also, operating a native tree nursery is good for the body and soul; it gives me inner peace.”

Dave Cellini, president of Shawmont Valley after Tom, notes that “Tom is a standout and generous guy, always willing to share his time, energy, tools, and knowledge. He is sincere, straightforward, and doesn’t mince words.” 

“Tom’s energy and enthusiasm,” adds John Carpenter, a board member of both the Conservancy and the Schuylkill Center, “keep our volunteers engaged.  His knowledge of plants and horticulture helps the Conservancy’s work to endure and strengthens the neighborhood’s green spaces.”

Kay also admires his “perseverance for the mission. He will go to all lengths to see his vision completed, to help folks see the importance of our parks and environmental resources.” 

“Tom is not only an advocate for preservation and a tireless worker on restoration projects,” Rich added, “he is also a very ardent proponent of recruitment, especially in regard to young people. Tom has  for many years overseen MLK Service days in the northwest, bringing large numbers of students to our parks and other natural areas.”

He also thinks in long timelines. Remember those 1,000 trees at the reservoir? “At that site, we’re focusing on creating a mature upland forest. Fifty years after I’m gone,” he said, “it should happen.”

An old Chinese proverb says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 year ago. The second best time is now.” To modify the proverb just a little, the second best time is Tuesday at the reservoir, where you can meet Roxborough’s own Johnny Appleseed.

And if you miss Tuesday? Join anytime moving forward. “We plant until the ground freezes or Santa arrives,” he told me. “We never seem to run out of trees.” 

Or, thankfully, energy. Go, Tom, go!

 

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, wishes he planted half as many trees as Tom, and can be reached at [email protected] 

 

A Roxborough First: The First Iraqi Guesthouse Built Outside Iraq in 5,000 Years

Phragmites used to build bench and Iraqi guest house (Al Mudif)

On Thursday evening, June 24 at 7:00 p.m., the Schuylkill Center invites you to a historic event. We are unveiling Al Mudhif – A Confluence, a very special installation in our forest. For more than 5,000 years, Iraqi inhabitants of the lower Mesopotamian valley, the cradle of civilization, have been building guesthouses– mudhifs in Arabic– out of reed grasses. Incredibly, this will be the very first time a mudhif (pronounced “mood-eef”) has ever been built outside of Iraq. Ever. 

And it is in Roxborough.

The event is also a confluence of firsts: the opening of the first-ever mudhif is also the very first in-person public program the Schuylkill Center has offered since March 2020. We’re graduating from Zoom for the summer and going back to live programming.

Conceived and created by Iraqi designer, immigrant, and Mt. Airy resident Yaroub Al-Obaidi along with environmental artist Sarah Kavage, the mudhif is constructed entirely of the wetland grass phragmites. Our staff and volunteers harvested the “phrag,” as we have been calling it, from our own site, plus the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (and the reservoir harvest involved volunteers from the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy– thanks to them). 

A Eurasian plant native to Iraq, the reed is highly invasive in our watershed and throughout the country, compromising native plants and animals. Because phragmites overwhelms native ecosystems, it is not welcome at places like the reservoir and the Schuylkill Center. Yet Kavage hopes to invite a different conversation about our notion of invasiveness by using the plant productively. “There is a certain language and a method that gets applied when we’re dealing with these plants,” she says, “that is similar to demonizing immigrants and anything that is sort of out-of-place in our culture. I would love for this work to provoke a more nuanced understanding of that language around displacement and the movement of plants and people.”

As someone who has pulled thousands of invasive plants out of natural sites over the last 40 years, cursing them much of the time, I so appreciate this perspective. For me, seeing phragmites being put to good use on our property is a wonderful thing.

Built over the last month by Al-Obaidi, Kavage, center staff, and many volunteers, the group has included both Iraqi immigrants and veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, purposefully using the construction process to heal from the twin traumas of war and displacement. Other programming this summer and fall will continue to focus on using the guesthouse as a place of healing.

In talking with Al-Obaidi, I learned that a mudhif is where special community events like weddings and birthday celebrations occur, but also where conflicting parties go to discuss and resolve differences. Special coffee ceremonies are held there as well, often hosted by the local sheikh, the tribal leader or elder. The interior of the mudhif is covered in rugs– Persian rugs, of course– and guests recline on pillows. Al-Obaidi looks forward to hosting such ceremonies during the run of the installation (wait, does that make me the sheikh? I am certainly among the oldest on staff!)

The mudhif is part of a watershed-wide series of art installations, “Water Spirit,” by Kavage, a Seattle-based environmental artist. She is constructing large– and beautiful– benches out of phragmites, again turning the invasive grass into something both aesthetic and useful. Near the entrance to the mudhif, look for one of these benches, versions of which are on display at many sites across the region, including Bartarm’s Garden, Heinz, even the Pocono Environmental Education Center way up on the Delaware River. Each bench is uniquely constructed to respond to its site.

Both the mudhif and the Water Spirit are part of a watershed-wide arts initiative organized through the Alliance of Watershed Education of the Delaware River, a coalition of 23 environmental education centers across the region focused on bringing people to our waterways, connecting them to our rivers, and teaching about the importance of water. As the group within the coalition with the most ambitious environmental art program, I’m thrilled to say the Schuylkill Center has been a leader in this project, our Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz serving as chair of the working group from the centers managing the installation of Water Spirits across the region. (A second art project will be unveiled shortly, by the way. Stay tuned!)

Our June 24 opening celebration includes storytelling by Native American performer Tchin, a participatory art project, and Middle Eastern dance music presented by Rana Ransom. It begins with a land acknowledgement by Trinity Norwood and Reverend John Norwood of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, remarks by Al-Obaidi and Kavage, and a blessing by Chaplain Christopher Antal of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition, an indoor gallery exhibition accompanies Al-Mudhif – A Confluence, featuring a diverse array of voices– Native American, Iraqi, American–  reflecting on the themes of belonging and sanctuary. The gallery show will open the same evening, and run throughout the summer.

So come to the Schuylkill Center on Thursday the 24th to see a true Roxborough first, the first reed-grass  mudhif guesthouse built outside of Iraq in 5,000 years.

In Roxborough. Remarkable.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Centre for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at [email protected]

 

The New Abnormal

With the mercury rising into the 90s most of last week, it felt like August already, the air heavy and humid. The bad news, of course, is it’s not only not August, it’s not even summer. The solstice is still a few days off… 

Welcome to life in the New Abnormal, the climate changing before our very eyes. 

It’s not only getting hotter, it’s getting wetter. The skies opened up last Tuesday evening, flooding the region– again– with a dumping, a good downpour here in Roxborough, but a startling 7 inches of rain near Coatesville. For perspective, that was two months’ of rain in just one evening in parts of Chester County.

The number of large downpours in our region has spiked even higher than temperatures. In the 1950s, the largest amount of rainfall on the worst day used to be 2, maybe 2.5 inches in one day. Nowadays, the amount of rainfall on the largest rainfall day has jumped a full 50%, and we get about 3.75 inches of rain on the wettest day, a significant increase. 

Worse, the number of large downpours in Pennsylvania has grown by 360% since 1950. Translated, we now receive almost five times as many heavy downpours today as we did back then. And if you line up the 50 American cities with the largest increases, we rank number 3 in the entire country. We finally beat New York, which came in at #4 with “only” a 350% increase. (Numbers 1 and 2? McAllen, Texas and, oddly, Portland, Maine.)

But back to heat. Climate Central, a science-based organization out of Princeton that offers factual data on our climate, noted in 2018 that Philadelphia was experiencing 16.8 days of hotter-than-normal temperatures. If climate was not changing, we would expect warmer days and cooler days to essentially seesaw around the norm– cooler days this week balanced by warmer ones the next. 

In 1970, about 40 summertime days were hotter than normal. Today, 57 days– almost a full two months– of summer are higher than average temperature-wise. 

Also in 1970, the first Philadelphia day that measured 85 degrees arrived in mid-May; today, it comes in late April, on average almost two weeks earlier than it once did.

In that same vein, in 1970 we only suffered from four days of heat above 95 degrees. Today, we have added five more days of these sweltering temperatures, up to nine of them annually. (This year, it feels like we have hit that number already).

We currently should not have any days above 100 degrees in Philadelphia– they were rare and unexpected, But by 2050, says Climate Matters, depending on what happens in the years ahead, we may hit that mark 10-11 times annually. Ugh.

But Philadelphia is part of the larger world, where a number of unsettling trends are occurring. While the hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June 1, this year’s first named storm– Ana– arrived in late May, the SEVENTH consecutive year a named storm formed before the June 1 opening, a rarity that has now become a trend. That June date was not picked randomly: that was when the ocean’s surface temperatures were finally warm enough to generate the energy needed for a hurricane. Today, the ocean surface is warm enough in May.

California, the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Plains, and much of the Southwest is in the grips of a fierce drought. For California, this is business as usual, sadly, as this has happened in 13 of the last 22 years. The breadbasket of so much of the country and world, California is drying out, Last year’s record wildfires burned four million acres, and this year’s dry conditions have started a month earlier than expected. A

Lake Mead, the massive reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, is at record lows. “It has fallen 140 feet since 2000,” reported Reuters last week, “nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty from torch to base, exposing a bathtub ring of bleached-white embankments.” 

Farmers are giving up and abandoning their fields, Nevada is restricting lawn watering over much of Las Vegas, and the governor of Utah literally asked his state’s residents to pray for rain. Not sure “thoughts and prayers” will cure our climate ills.

A 2020 study published in the journal Science soberly reported that 2000 through 2018 was the second-driest 19-year period in the Southwest in at least the past 1,200 years.

Finally, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached 419 parts per million in May, its highest level in more than four million years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week. After dipping last year because of pandemic-fueled lockdowns, greenhouse gas emissions have begun to rise again as economies open and people resume work and travel. “The newly released data about May carbon dioxide levels show that the global community so far has failed to slow the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere,” NOAA said in its announcement.

For context, the last time CO2 levels exceeded 400 parts per million was during the Pliocene era, when global temperatures were more than five degrees warmer and sea levels were between 30 and 80 higher than they are now.

But back to Philadelphia. Early June heat waves should not be a thing, and storms dumping 7 inches of rain should not either. This is not normal. Or expected. Or average. 

It is, however, the New Abnormal, which, if we ignore it, will only worsen. Chew on this as we tiptoe warily into, hopefully, a pandemic-free summer. 

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at [email protected]

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