A New Lens on Nature: Community photos in “Citizen’s Eye”

It almost could be another tree, except for the ears. Look a little closer and you realize it’s a deer, stock-still and staring at you through the morning mist. As autumn leaves rustle, its silent appraisal reminds you: you are not alone. These woods are a shared space.

This encounter is captured in a photo by Peter DeStefano, one he submitted to the upcoming community show, “Citizen’s Eye — A Kaleidoscope of Nature.” More than 400 photos taken by over 200 people—Schuylkill Center staff, members, volunteers, neighbors, friends—document surprising encounters with nature from the past 10 months. Every photo is included in the exhibition, making for a truly kaleidoscopic display.

Photo by Peter DeStefano, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz and her team have been sorting through these images, arranging them in our gallery, while looking for patterns. Some photos show structures of bridges and buildings; many are close-ups of animals or plants. They all come from a heightened sense of awareness to our natural surroundings and a willingness to stop and focus on smaller things. Taking such a photograph of nature requires that you not just move through the world but slow down enough to notice it. That you become a reciprocal part of it and live in it.

While each image reflects its photographer’s interest, collectively they begin to tell a story, one that begins with people going out to find nature—whether for peace, solitude, or recreation—and discovering that it’s always right beside them. Nature with a capital ‘N’ may conjure up romantic notions of sublime landscapes in National Parks, grand mountains, and expansive deserts. But nature with a lowercase ‘n’ encompasses everything around us. It’s “the small things we’re experiencing every day,” Tina says. “It’s not only about blooming flowers, it is also about the little weed on the sidewalk.” 

A number of photos feature kids and adults outside—playing, building, exploring, living. Some are posed; some are candid; one is a silhouette. “When we really think about ‘nature’ and where this term comes from,” Tina says, “we quickly see that it’s not only the ‘natural world’—it’s also our world context, it’s also our body, it’s our human interaction with the environment. And I think that’s what I was really interested in seeing through other people’s eyes.”

Photo by Walther Vera, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Nature is also around us, inevitably, in death. One particularly striking photo is of a funeral with masked mourners holding big red umbrellas and carrying a casket down the street. At first, it may seem like it doesn’t belong in a show of nature photography. But it made Tina consider how other nature photos capture death and decay. Several images, for instance, show mushrooms sprouting from dying trees. The rotting wood provides the nutrients necessary to grow a network of fungi that spreads throughout the forest—itself an offering to trees and a vital connection between them. “It’s this circle of life,” she says, “and death is part of our lives.” 

Photo by Peter Handler, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

That topic of death is “hard to grapple with as it relates to the pandemic,” Tina says. But that’s why offering a place for people to share their experiences with nature is so powerful. “I think it allows us a space for grief, and for thinking how, when a tree is dying, it is not dying, it is just transforming into something else.”

Ultimately everything in nature is interconnected, everything shared. “Citizen’s Eye” reflects this in its community display, ready to welcome you in and transform your own encounters with nature.

 

“Citizen’s Eye —A Kaleidoscope of Nature” will be available to view in person in our gallery and online from January 21– March 21, 2021. Join us for a virtual opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 pm for a conversation with mythologist and social practice artist Li Sumpter Ph.D., John Heinz National Wildlife refuge manager Lamar Gore, and designer CJ Walsh, moderated by Tina Plokarz. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.schuylkillcenter.org/blog/event/citizens-eye-a-kaleidoscope-of-nature/

 

—By Emily Sorensen

 

Schuylkill Saturdays: Nature Art or Tracks kits

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. For the months of January and February, past explorer kit themes will be repeated (with the exception of a new Valentine’s Day themed kit on February 13). Two different themed kits will be available each week. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00 am–12:00 pm on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.

Come See the Flowers Race the Trees

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.  Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.
Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. In fact, you can, if you simply walk down our Ravine Loop.

Like the red trillium in the accompanying photograph, an elusive and rare plant that New Englanders dubbed “wake robin,” as it bloomed there about when robins return north from their migrations (robins are year-round residents here in Roxborough). 

Or the Virginia bluebells in the other photo– one of everyone’s favorites, as it is taller than many of the spring ephemerals and one of the bluest of them all. You can find it on our Ravine Loop and elsewhere across the property, and is happily one of our harder-to-miss wildflowers. I love its pink buds that open to blue flowers– two colors for the price of one.

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.  Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.
Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

But that’s just the beginning of the parade. There are bright yellow trout lilies, named for the spotting on their mottled leaves that resembles a trout’s back. And shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Jacob’s ladder, a complicated lilac-colored flower with ladder-ish leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside what looks like his mottled purple lectern. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Spring beauties, each petal a tiny white surfboard with a pink racing stripe down its middle. 

And that’s just a start.

What’s amazing about these plants is the narrow window of time through which they slide. A forest in spring features trees without yet any leaves, so sunlight shines through and caresses the forest floor. Warmed by the sun, long-dormant roots and rhizomes suddenly come alive and send sprigs of growth up above the ground. These leaves photosynthesize– remember that from high school biology?– using sunlight to make sugars and send starches down into the rootstocks so they grow larger. When those rootstocks are large enough and have the resources, the plants send flowers into the world, often brightly colored to dazzle pollinating bees and butterflies.

And they coincidentally dazzle us too. 

But the flowers are in a race against time– and the trees. As trees leaf out, those leaves block sunlight, form a sun-proof umbrella across the forest, and block those flowers from growing. So there is a small window of opportunity for the flowers to warm up, grow, make leaves, make flowers, get pollinated, drop seeds– and disappear for another year– before the trees leaf out.

We’ve already missed the earliest bloomers like bloodroot and skunk cabbage. But every day or every week you visit, new and different flowers will appear.

While our Visitor Center is closed, our forest is still open– park in the Hagy’s Mill parking lot if there is room (if not, park at the ballfields and walk in). Hike past our Visitor Center and head downhill through the butterfly meadow, following Ravine Loop until it curves at Smith Run; the best wildflowers are on the section of trail that parallels the stream.

When we reopen (please, God, soon!), we’ll be selling these plants for you to place in your own yard. My yard, I am happy to report, is beginning to fill with both bluebells and Solomon’s seal, and a healthy stand of May apple– it looks like a little bright green umbrella– is spreading happily. These flowers require little water or chemicals, come back stronger every year, and provide vital pollen, nectar, and food for the small critters that hold up the world, especially those pollinators you read so much about.

Spring wildflowers are racing the trees right now– come walk down our Ravine Loop, while of course practicing the required physical distancing, and see them for yourself.

 

Day-Off Camp: Animal Detectives

When schools are closed, we’re open! Bring your kids to the Schuylkill Center for a day of fun and exploration.

Where do animals go in the winter? Where do they find food, water, and shelter? We’ll explore our forests as we look for signs of wildlife in the harsh winter climate. Then we’ll follow in the footsteps of our animal friends as we build our own winter shelters.

For ages 5–12 | 8:00 am – 3:00 pm | Members: $60 | Non-members: $70

Extended day until 6:00 pm is available for an additional $20/day.

Please bring a packed lunch, water bottle, and an extra set of clothes. Wear weather-appropriate clothing that can get dirty.

Please note, day-off camps will be canceled ONE WEEK PRIOR if the minimum number of participants is not reached by then. Please register soon; space is limited. Registration required.

 

Not a member? Join today!

Register-now_green

Day-Off Camp: Master Trackers

When schools are closed, we’re open! Bring your kids to the Schuylkill Center for a day of fun and exploration.

Examining tracks can give us lots of clues about the wildlife in our forest. Master the art of tracking as we identify tracks of different native animals and learn how to interpret track patterns.

For ages 5–12 | 8:00 am – 3:00 pm | Members: $60 | Non-members: $70

Extended day until 6:00 pm is available for an additional $20/day.

Please bring a packed lunch, water bottle, and an extra set of clothes. Wear weather-appropriate clothing that can get dirty.

Please note, day-off camps will be canceled ONE WEEK PRIOR if the minimum number of participants is not reached by then. Please register soon; space is limited. Registration required.

Not a member? Join today!

Register now_green

Day-Off Camp: Wizards of the Forest

When schools are closed, we’re open! Bring your kids to the Schuylkill Center for a day of fun and exploration.

Magic is in the air as we transform into forest wizards for the day. We’ll carve wands, tell stories, and make edible potions as we scour forests and fields for our woodland creature companions. 

For ages 5–12 | 8:00 am – 3:00 pm | Members: $60 | Non-members: $70

Extended day until 6:00 pm is available for an additional $20/day.

Please bring a packed lunch, water bottle, and an extra set of clothes. Wear weather-appropriate clothing that can get dirty.

Please note, day-off camps will be canceled ONE WEEK PRIOR if the minimum number of participants is not reached by then. Please register soon; space is limited. Registration required.

 Not a member? Join today!

Register now

Day-Off Camp: Winter Break

When schools are closed, we’re open! Bring your kids to the Schuylkill Center for a day of fun and exploration.

Spend winter break in the outdoors, exploring our forest, climbing trees and rocks, tracking winter animals, making primitive shelters, even experimenting with snow and ice. Sign up for one adventurous day or for all three.

For ages 5–12 | 8:00 am – 3:00 pm | Members: $60 | Non-members: $70

Extended day until 6:00 pm is available for an additional $20/day.

Please bring a packed lunch, water bottle, and an extra set of clothes. Wear weather-appropriate clothing that can get dirty.

Please note, day-off camps will be canceled ONE WEEK PRIOR if the minimum number of participants is not reached by then. Please register soon; space is limited. Registration required.

Not a member? Join today!

Register-now_green

Day-Off Camp: Winter Break

When schools are closed, we’re open! Bring your kids to the Schuylkill Center for a day of fun and exploration.

Spend winter break in the outdoors, exploring our forest, climbing trees and rocks, tracking winter animals, making primitive shelters, even experimenting with snow and ice. Sign up for one adventurous day or for all three.

For ages 5–12 | 8:00 am – 3:00 pm | Members: $60 | Non-members: $70

Extended day until 6:00 pm is available for an additional $20/day.

Please bring a packed lunch, water bottle, and an extra set of clothes. Wear weather-appropriate clothing that can get dirty.

Please note, day-off camps will be canceled ONE WEEK PRIOR if the minimum number of participants is not reached by then. Please register soon; space is limited. Registration required.

Not a member? Join today!

Register-now_green

Day-Off Camp: Winter Break

When schools are closed, we’re open! Bring your kids to the Schuylkill Center for a day of fun and exploration.

Spend winter break in the outdoors, exploring our forest, climbing trees and rocks, tracking winter animals, making primitive shelters, even experimenting with snow and ice. Sign up for one adventurous day or for all three.

For ages 5–12 | 8:00 am – 3:00 pm | Members: $60 | Non-members: $70

Extended day until 6:00 pm is available for an additional $20/day.

Please bring a packed lunch, water bottle, and an extra set of clothes. Wear weather-appropriate clothing that can get dirty.

Please note, day-off camps will be canceled ONE WEEK PRIOR if the minimum number of participants is not reached by then. Please register soon; space is limited. Registration required.

Not a member? Join today!

Register-now_green

Nature Play Saturdays

Want to get outside but don’t know where to start? Bring your family for a hike and unstructured nature play with representatives from our NaturePHL program. We’ll climb, explore, and learn more about the many health benefits of outdoor activity. Meet us at the Tall Trees Playscape behind the Visitor Center and we’ll head out from there.

All ages welcome. No registration required. This event recurs every first Saturday of the month.


This program is part of NaturePHL, a collaborative program with CHOP that helps Philadelphia children and families achieve better health through activity in local parks, trails, and green spaces.