The Schuylkill Center’s Year of Restoration

Many hands make restoration possible. Join our Restoration Work Day.

We have named 2022 as our Year of Restoration, dedicating our programming to restoring so many things, starting with the forest habitat that our nature center calls home. But we are also looking to restore our climate, the planet in total, and several things lost in pandemic confusion: our sense of awe and a balance in our relationships with nature and each other.

The 11th annual Richard L. James Lecture, named for our founding director, will be held virtually in March and will focus on restoring the majestic American chestnut tree– slammed by a novel fungal blight in the early 1900s– to Pennsylvania forests, and will feature The American Chestnut Foundation‘s Director of Restoration.

Our beloved Pine Grove, a massing of mature white pines we planted in the 1970s and mightily whacked by a 2020 derecho—a climate-fueled high-energy straight-line windstorm—will benefit from the year: the piles of tree trunks left in the wind’s aftermath will become raw material for the Environmental Art department to invite area sculptors, woodworkers, and others to create inspired sculptures that we share with you.

In the spring, look for a series of Restoration Stations to pop up across the property. These are outdoor exhibits where you can stop and interactively learn something new about a different feature of restoration: native plant species, native bees and other pollinators, monarch butterflies, amphibians, migratory birds, ash trees, box turtles… Which will they be? Come see!

We’ll unveil the first Restoration Stations at Naturepalooza, our annual Earth Day festival, which this year becomes a Celebration of Restoration. Both the spring and fall semesters of Thursday Night Live, our popular online conversations, will skew heavily in this direction— look for the new semester in March and April. 

The Center will focus our 2022 habitat restoration efforts along the Wildflower Loop, the deer exclosure area begun circa 2000 that requires constant TLC: new and better fencing, more native plantings, a degraded meadow and pond to restore, and more. We’ll also build a monarch way station on our site, one formally certified by Monarch Watch, and replace a series of bluebird boxes that provide nesting sites for more than bluebirds—tree swallows and small mammals like them too.

“The Wildlife Clinic’s work is by nature restorative,” offers clinic director Chris Strub, “restoring wildlife to their natural habitats and restoring the public’s connection with wildlife through direct rescue efforts.” On top of this, we will work with volunteers and staff to install a Wildlife Garden inside one of its old outdoor cages, using the cage to protect the plants from deer, rabbits, woodchucks, and more. “We’ll grow native plants that make the food wildlife eat,” (think berries and nuts) says Chris, “as well as domestic plants for our patients, like lettuce.”

The clinic will also continue its partnership with Audubon chapters and the Bird Safe Philly, as our clinic is the official drop-off site for migratory birds found stunned when they hit Center City skyscrapers, and we will focus your attention on this important program this year too.

Our next two art exhibitions, the current one by Black artist Makeba Rainey and Filipino-American artist Maria Dumlao, will feature numerous installations and events focusing on the restorative powers of nature, especially for communities of color.

Our Nature Preschool already raises mealworms to feed to the clinic’s bird patients, and will continue this practice, while growing trees from seeds to plant in our forest and collecting acorns and nuts to bring to the clinic. They’ll even assist us in many of the projects noted above.

We’ll end the year in another now longstanding tradition, presenting a restoration-flavored Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award to… ah, we’ll be asking you for nominees in the spring.

You can join in the fun: our monthly Restoration Work Groups for volunteers will have a special urgency in 2022. And restore homes for wildlife by putting up bird boxes, planting native wildflowers and trees, and so much more. Hope you’ll join us in a Year of Restoration.

This week in climate. The numbers are finally in: 2021 was tied for the 6th hottest year ever, according to NASA and other agencies. And all of the top seven hottest years have happened in the last seven. (A European report differs slightly, saying 2021 was the fifth warmest.) But July was the hottest month ever recorded by humanity on this planet. 

And a different government study reported last week that 2021 was the deadliest weather year for the lower 48 states since 2011, with almost 700 people dying in 20 different billion-dollar weather disasters that together cost almost $150 billion. Climate change, as we are learning, is both costly and deadly.

Countdown: 10 Things I Love About Winter

Fox footprints in snow are very easy to spot. Evenly spaced, they usually follow a straight line, the fox seemingly knowing where it is going. Their cousins the domestic dog’s prints, however, are so different: a dog’s track is almost never a straight line, but instead a zig-zag of confusion.

Last week, the first full week of the New Year, was a weird one weather-wise. It was supposed to snow last Monday for like 24 hours straight, but the snow slipped east and south instead, slamming DC and the Jersey shore. Then on Wednesday, the morning commute was icy, and finally, on Friday, we saw our first real snowfall of the year, a nice covering of three to five inches hereabouts.

Philadelphians LOVE to complain about weather, and winter gives us a lot to complain about. But TV meteorologists don’t help, always acting surprised when winter weather is cold, or worse, when it snows. Just the threat of snow sends them into paroxysms of anguish– and sends us all to the Acme to wipe out the bread aisle.

While all of us hate slogging through piles of slush while scraping ice off our windshields, there are surprisingly many things we can like about winter. Here’s my top 10 list, the best of winter.

10. New vistas. Like all forests hereabouts, the Schuylkill Center’s 300 acres of trees have lost their leaves, allowing you to see across entire valleys, much farther than you can during the summer. You get a much better sense of landscape, valleys, dips and rises, cliffs and terrain. The Wissahickon is awesome here too. Winter opens a whole new way of seeing the world, but also opens whole new ways of hearing—sound travels much farther, so that darn expressway across the river is easier to hear in Roxborough as well.

9. Footprints in the snow. Winter’s creatures leave great stories in the snow, and there’s nothing like trying to decipher them on walks through snowy forests. A squirrel hopping to a tree, a deer nibbling on shrubs, a fox purposefully walking to its den: all this can be seen in snow. I’ve never seen a coyote at our trails (dang!), but I absolutely have admired their big-pawed canid tracks. I’ve even seen places where hawks have pounced on sparrows, the story etched in white—and with red splotches, like a murder scene in a mystery.

8. Winter birds. Speaking of sparrows, a winter forest is surprisingly alive with a rainbow of birds—cardinals, blue jays, crows, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, even birds that only come here for the winter like dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows. Visit our Bird Blind to see some of them. And on a sunny day in winter, those birds will actually start practicing their spring courtship songs, one of winter’s unexpected treats. Titmice are especially chatty on sunny days.

7. Winter’s tranquility. A winter forest seems quieter than other times of year; maybe it’s the lack of leaves rustling. Come experience it firsthand.

6. Soup! Yeah, chowder just tastes better after a cold day or in the middle of a snowfall. So does stew. Or the ultimate snow day lunch, tomato soup with a grilled tuna-and-cheese sandwich.

5. Snowballs and sledding. There’s nothing like aiming that first snowfall of winter at the speed limit sign on my street. And with my kids grown up and out of the house, I confess to missing a good sled ride. There are few things as satisfying as a long downhill run. Which brings me to snow days. Many school districts including Philadelphia did not have a snow day, but instead switched to virtual learning. Given how little time children already spend outdoors, I hope and pray the snow day– and the sledding and snowman-making that goes with it– is not another endangered species.

4. Blue skies. Cold air isn’t able to hold much water, so winter gives us bright blue skies, much bluer than you’ll see in humid July and August. And check out the sunsets– there have been strikingly bright sunsets in the last two weeks– check them out!

3. No ticks and mosquitoes. Seriously. Both are dead, smitten by the frost (or should be!). All adult mosquitoes die, the species surviving as eggs lying at the bottom of still bodies of water, eggs that won’t hatch until the water warms. So right now, there are no adults buzzing our ears and biting our kids. And those damned ticks need some below-freezing weather to truly be knocked down a few pegs, which we finally started getting last week. So pray for more bracingly cold days to put a damper on tick populations.

2. The first snowfall. Yes, the fourth or fifth snowfall can be tedious, even exhausting. But that first snowfall? Magical. I even enjoyed shoveling the driveway– this one time.

1. Spring. The absolute best thing about winter is it makes us ready for spring. That first flower, that first butterfly, that first migrating bird returning from the Caribbean, that first green leaf, all of these are more welcome and more wonderful because we missed them for so long. Winter is the perfect set-up for spring.

Enjoy it while you can, in a forest near you.

This Week in Climate. According to reporting in The Philadelphia Inquirer, New Year’s Eve “registered an average daily temperature of 51 degrees in Philadelphia– 16 degrees above normal. In fact, the entire month averaged 45.3 degrees, the second-warmest December on record for the city stretching back to 1874, according to an analysis of (government) records. Six of the top 10 warmest Decembers have occurred in the 21st century; 2015 marked the warmest December on record.”

While last week was finally wintry, the month before it was decidedly not.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Natural Selections: A fern for this season

Christmas fern, one of the few plants still green in a January forest.

The New Year is a great time to go for a walk in a natural area near you– the Wissahickon, Andorra Meadow, the Schuylkill Center, anywhere. The walk likely helps you meet one of your resolutions– yes, get those 10,000 steps!– while being outside allows you to sidestep that accursed virus that’s been, sorry, plaguing us unmercifully for two years now. And being outdoors allows you to lower your stress levels, as time in nature is restorative and calming. In 2022, make sure to get plenty of outdoor time.

And when you do, Christmas fern will likely be along for the walk.

One of the most common plants in Wild Philadelphia, Christmas fern is also one of the easiest ferns to spot– and know by name. Its fronds are evergreen, so on a Christmas morning walk through a forest, you’ll see its green fronds along the forest floor. Few other plants besides evergreens, rhododendrons, and hollies are still green at this time of year. And if you check out a leaflet– go ahead, look closely– it has a cute little bulge on the bottom, looking, without stretching the imagination too far, something like a Christmas stocking hanging from a fireplace.

Hello, Christmas fern, your introduction to the world of ferns. While there are hundreds of fern species locally, including many that are devilishly hard to key out to species, Christmas fern offers, appropriately, a present of sorts: it is easily knowable as one of the few green things growing along the forest floor right now. I’ve led scores of walks where people want to know the name of this or that fern, and I have to confess that it is likely a member of the giant wood fern clan, a notoriously hard knot to unravel. And lowly ferns just don’t get the love they deserve, as they are lower plants, ones without any flowers whatsoever.

But ferns are important, and are a wonderful story. The first ferns appeared on our planet some 360 million years ago, 100 million years BEFORE the earliest dinosaurs. Ferns are so ancient they predate flowers: Stegosaurus might have munched on ferns, but it never ate a flower. And in Pennsylvania’s geologic history, ferns dominated the dense primeval swamps that were buried underground, the peat slowly cooking to form coal, our state’s iconic fossil fuel.

Our state’s economy is built on the lowly fern.

The Christmas fern’s genus, Polystichum, is very successful, as it is found worldwide, its cousins growing across the entire planet. One reason Christmas fern is so common in local forests is that deer do not seek them out, a great advantage in forests typically overbrowsed by deer. (But fern fiddleheads are all edible, so perhaps consider sauteing some in the spring.)

Ferns create spores, not seeds, and most do so on fertile fronds, specialized fronds carrying structures holding the spores, often on the underside of the frond. In the Christmas fern, sterile fronds typically encircle taller fertile ones, which are also held more erect. Spores tend to be created  between June and October when the conditions are right. The fertile leaflets are at the tops of their fronds– check out frond undersides during summer and fall, looking for brown spots, the sacs that create spores. In the winter, those fertile fronds die away, leaving their sterile evergreen sisters.

While Christmas fern can form colonies, it more typically grows singly or in twos or threes, the foot-long fronds appearing rather tough and leathery. In the winter, it is not unusual to find flattened fronds on the forest floor, squashed from a snowfall, but doggedly remaining green.

So do get your outdoor steps in this New Year as part of your self-care plan, and do introduce yourself to Christmas fern, unwrapping its gifts as you walk.

Climate Watch. New for 2022, this column will end every week with a special update on the unfolding climate crisis, a situation I have long labeled the New Abnormal. Last week, wildfires swept through the Denver suburbs. Fueled by high winds (110 miles per hour) and an extremely dry climate, as of Friday of last week almost 2,000 acres and 500 homes burned while tens of thousands of Coloradans were evacuated– on New Year’s Eve. Those numbers will likely have climbed by the time you read this.

When wildfires flare in the ski-resort capital of the country in the winter, you are unquestionably seeing the impact of climate change.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

December’s Weather: Hot, Hot, Hot

Since 1970, temperatures in Philadelphia during The Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 to January 5) increased over 5 degrees.

It’s been a December to remember on the weather front. 

Two weeks ago, a series of high-intensity tornadoes tore a 200-mile path from Arkansas and Missouri into Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people (as of this writing), with many more still missing. But then last week another– very powerful and equally unusual– system swept through the Great Plains and Midwest under weirdly warmed skies, spawning hurricane-level winds in Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota, killing another handful of people. And hundreds of thousands have been without power after these two systems.

That tornado system blew through Roxborough over that weekend, one gust knocking over a dead ash tree that took out the our power lines, leading to us having to scramble on Monday to restore everything. Maybe you’ve noticed the weirdly warm winter as well.

Storms like this are fueled by a diet of energy, and high-heat storms should not exist in December. Welcome to winter in the New Abnormal, as we have been calling it here at the Center.

It was 70 degrees in Wisconsin that Wednesday evening. In its reporting on the event, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Weather Company historian Chris Burt, who wrote on Facebook comparing that day’s temperatures to a “warm July evening. I can say with some confidence that this event (the heat and tornadoes) is among the most (if not THE most) anomalous weather event ever on record for the Upper Midwest.” 

Across the lower 48 states, it has already been a far warmer December than normal, with 3,069 daily record high temperatures set across the country, and only 14 record lows. Climate Central says last week’s “extreme heat could push December toward the warmest on record, following the warmest summer, 3rd warmest autumn, and 7th warmest November on record for the U.S.”

Thus far, 2021 is only the fifth warmest on record, but the five warmest years are ALL from 2015 or later– statistically, if the climate was not changing, the top five would be a random assortment of years from a variety of decades. That five of the last six years are the warmest ever recorded tells you a whole lot. But we’ll see where this hot hot hot December places the year within this regrettable pantheon.

And as we noted two weeks ago, a white Christmas is becoming increasingly rare. As the graphic nearby illustrates, the 12 days of Christmas have warmed by more than five degrees since 1970, says Climate Central, making the chances for snowfall increasingly less. (I’m writing this before Christmas, and you’re reading it afterwards, so we’ll see if the weather gods make me eat these words!)

We’re also entering a world where high-intensity storm events are increasingly common, so climate change makes the news on a weekly basis, with tornadoes here, hurricanes and typhoons there, flooding here like we saw with Ida, droughts there, heat waves here, wildfires there.

In 2021, we learned that the climate can kill us. As we leave 2021 behind us, the Earth is offering a very loud, very palpable message.

In 2022, I hope we listen better. That’s my sole New Year’s wish for us all.

All We Want for Christmas

Santa visited Ridge Avenue two Saturdays ago to spread his Christmas cheer-- but what will he leave under Roxborough trees this year?

Santa visited Ridge Avenue two Saturdays ago to spread his Christmas cheer– but what will he leave under Roxborough trees this year?

With Christmas coming at week’s end, I asked a group of Roxborough leaders, community activists, nonprofit executives, and old friends what they wanted Santa to leave under their organization’s Christmas trees. As expected, they gave thoughtful, funny, and even surprising answers. Enjoy!

Michael Devigne, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation, told me via email, “This holiday season I would like to see Roxborough residents strolling Ridge Avenue and visiting our many shops and restaurants.” Here here. “Small businesses,” he continued, “are the backbone of our community, and there is nothing quite like seeing folks out on the Ridge spreading holiday cheer. It is great to walk down the Avenue and bump into people you know and catch up on the latest gossip. These organic community interactions make my day!”

The Manayunk Development Corporation’s Alex Cohen relayed her group’s wish. “We decided that if Santa was to leave a gift under the tree for us, it would be to have lights on the Towpath to ensure safety for the bikers and pedestrians between Shurs Lane and Ridge Avenue.”

Councilman Curtis Jones is thinking big. He’d like to see “a feasibility study for a new bridge over the Schuylkill as part of the infrastructure bill,” a project that has been discussed for decades. 

Krista Wieder directs the North Light Community Center on Green Lane. “North Light would love,” she told me, “more volunteers to help with our food pantry on Mondays and Fridays, both drivers to pick up food and people to help set up! And we need an afternoon van driver for our childcare program.” 

Rich Giordano is president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, and also co-leads the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve project, the extraordinary park across from the 21st ward ballfields. The reservoir has large stone walls holding it up along both the Port Royal Avenue and Lare Street sides, and a large hole has opened on the Lare side, with a smaller one on the Port Royal side too. No surprise Rich referenced this on his Santa wish list.

“I’d like to wave a wand and have that gap in the smile of my favorite park get an implant,” he wrote to me via email, “but having turned 70 recently, I have been thinking about something a lot– the need to find our replacements. Many of our events,” he continued, tongue firmly in cheek, “could be described as fifty shades of gray, although without any erotic content. This year I’d really like to meet the person who will take my place.” 

Friends of Gorgas Park’s John Boyce agrees with Rich. “I’ve been serving the community for over 30 years,” he said. “We need a youth movement. Younger generations I hope will answer the call and take the reins of leadership in the near future. The other thing I hope,” he continued, “is that 2022 will be another rebound year for Gorgas Park, as people became very active in the park again in 2021. I am going to be optimistic and predict even better days ahead.”

Tom Landsmann, Rich’s Reservoir partner in crime and president of the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy, told me, “I’d like sustainable support for groups like the RMC. We provide upkeep and capital improvements to many of our community’s green spaces. At more than half of our sites, we’re the only form of maintenance that these public spaces receive. RMC is providing a public service,” he noted “that deserves consistent sustainable funding so we can continue stewardship on behalf of our community.”

Celeste Hardester, president of the Central Roxborough Civic Association, would like to continue the greening of Roxborough. “My Christmas wish,” she wrote, “would be that property owners with large yards, especially large front yards, plant an evergreen that will grow someday to be at least 50 feet tall. The people that built homes in Roxborough 100+ years ago planted wonderful evergreens that are now reaching the end of their lives. Many are dying or being cut down, and few are being replaced. These trees have so much impact on our visual environment and of course provide the benefits of year-round shade and sustain wildlife.” 

“Building on Celeste’s theme,” added Kay Sykora, an RMC trustee, “I would love to see trees along Ridge Avenue above Fountain Street,” from around the high school up. “While it’s a great walking and running area, it’s ungodly hot in the summer. Whatever everyone thinks of all of the apartments being built, for them to be successful over the long haul, the neighborhood has to be walkable. People are moving here because of our wonderful green amenities, but the acres of cement and paving that now make up that part of Roxborough is appalling.”

Pam DeLissio, our state representative, takes the conversation in a new direction. “It would be great,” she wrote, “if Santa gifted new and fair rules under which the PA House would conduct its business. Currently, too much power is controlled by the committee chairs, the majority leader, and the Speaker. Fairer rules would permit more legislation to be considered, and much of the legislation that never sees the light of day would serve our greater citizens well.”

We’ll give Jamie Wyper, president of Residents of the Shawmont Valley, the last word. “Days like last Saturday when it hits 68 degrees frighten me. My wish is for a winter with bite– at least 30 days of 32 degrees or less weather with plenty of snow.” Amen, brother. 

Wishing you all a merry holiday and a Happy New Year. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Nature of the Holiday Season

Winterberry holly, a native holly whose bright red berries feed many birds throughout the winter, and one of the many symbols of the season.

Winter formally arrives at 10:58 a.m. on Tuesday, December 21, that moment we call the winter solstice, both the shortest day and longest night of the year. Our staff– like thousands of generations of humans before us– will gather around a fire to mark that exact moment.

Still, for a naturalist like me, one of the pleasures of the holiday season is that we decorate homes and offices with innumerable nods to nature: evergreen boughs and trees, reindeer, snow, mistletoe, holly. Few holidays (save Easter, maybe) borrow so many symbols from nature. Ever wonder why?

Go back thousands of years to a time when there was little, if any, science, and everyone saw nature seeming to die around them—trees losing leaves, bushes bare, flowers gone. Animals were vanishing too, as winter is free of frogs, turtles, snakes, woodchucks, bats, butterflies, mosquitoes (yay!), and so much more. And while we now know that some creatures migrate south while others hibernate underground, the ancients didn’t know that. Animals seemed to just disappear. In winter, it was as if nature was being snuffed out. 

The world was also getting darker this time of year, with the sun setting earlier, daylight dwindling, and each day colder and darker than the one before.  

To explain the winter, cultures invented great stories to explain what was happening. So brave heroes were slaying dragons that were holding nature captive, or fearless animals were grabbing pieces of the sun and flying back to the north with light and heat. One common theme in these stories, and the celebrations that arose around the stories, was the loss of sunlight during winter, and burning large fires to urge the light to return. Persians burned big wooden effigies of Tiamat the dragon that slayed nature; Scandinavians burned massive bonfires so big the gods could see them.

And we moderns put lights up everywhere, literally lighting the darkness, responding to our inner ancient who worries the sun may not be coming back. Even Hanukkah, the season my family celebrates, resonates with the wish to light fires in an increasingly darkening world. Hanukkah (early this year and long over) formally begins on the new moon of December– the darkest night of the darkest month. 

Another persistent theme in these holidays is evergreens. To the ancients, at a time where everything was apparently dying, evergreens seemed to possess a special magic that allowed them to beat winter.  Whatever was happening to green plants was not happening to evergreens. So people began bringing these special plants into their homes, praying whatever magic the plants possess would infuse their homes as well.

Hollies are even better. They not only retain their deep-green deciduous leaves in winter—unlike most other leafy plants—but they also sport bright red berries to boot.  Leaves AND fruit in winter—this plant is doubly powerful! Hollies ultimately became the symbol of the solstice, and when Christmas began being celebrated, that symbol transferred to the new holiday, lending Christmas its official red-and-green color scheme. 

Which also explains mistletoe. In Europe, mistletoe is a rootless parasitic flowering plant growing high up in trees, clustered on branches, the plant using those branches to get sunlight. It’s evergreen in the winter, and better, has bright white (poisonous) berries in winter as well. To the ancients, especially those Druids of Stonehenge fame, mistletoe had magic on par with holly. It’s got leaves and fruits in the winter—and doesn’t even need soil. THAT’s magic. 

Norse mythology holds that a spear made of mistletoe was used by that crazy god Loki to kill Odin’s son Baldur, whom he loathed. Frigg, Baldur’s devastated mother and the goddess who lent her name to Friday, cried tears that turned into mistletoe berries. The Norse then decreed that mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, and Frigg herself would kiss anyone who passed beneath it. That story morphed into today’s tradition.  

So while you decorate your home and office with nature’s symbols of the seasons, remember that so many of the symbols are based on terrified people unsure that nature would ever return in the spring. 

Kind of like us this winter– terrified what omicron might do this winter, sick of two full years of pandemic holidays.

Those evergreens and candles, mistletoes and menorahs, were once talismans that hoped to revive nature in the spring. 

Whichever holiday you celebrate, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or even the Festivus of “Seinfeld” fame, joyous holidays to you and your family. 

If you want to learn more about the traditions and symbols of the season, register for our special “Secrets of the Solstice” free online lecture on Tuesday, December 21 at 7:00 p.m.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Winters of Our Discontent

Wissahickon Valley Park under a recent winter’s thin coating of snow. What will this winter bring?

Last winter, Philadelphia received over 22 inches of snow at the airport, just a hair above the long-term 20.5 inch average. But that’s 73 times the amount that dropped during the snowless winter before; if anything, our weather has become erratic and prone to extreme mood swings like this.

So I was intrigued by the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction that this winter would be a “Season of Shivers.” The new season, they wrote, “will be punctuated by positively bone-chilling, below-average temperatures across most of the United States.” As of early December, they have been right: it has been chilly. 

But wait, you might say, what about climate change? Doesn’t a warming climate mean warmer winters with less snow? Well, yes and no. 

First, Philadelphia’s winter temperatures have increased 4.8℉ in the 50 years from 1970 through 2020, from an average temperature of 33℉ to almost 38℉. The coldest day of the winter between 1950 and 1980 was always below 5 degrees, usually around 3 or 4 degrees; but for the last 30 years, it has never been below 5 degrees. 

The first frost, not too long ago, came around Halloween; in the last 50 years, the first frost has arrived, on average, 17 days– more than two weeks– later, deep into November. “When the frost is on the pumpkin,” goes the very old poem I learned in high school. Not any longer.

But the city’s temperatures for a whole year have increased by 3.5℉, less than the rise in average winter temps. That’s the strange thing about climate change: across most of the United States including all of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, winters are the fastest warming season. (In fact, in far northern climes– think Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont– the average winter temperature is already fully 5 degrees warmer.

A warmer world means there is more evaporation over the ocean, which means our city’s annual precipitation is climbing too– our city is not just getting warmer, it’s getting wetter. On top of this, extreme precipitation events are on the rise, especially here in Philadelphia, where large-scale downpours have increased by a whopping 360% in recent years, the third largest climb of any American city. While we famously didn’t beat the Giants two Sundays ago (dang it!), we finally beat New York here, who came in number 4 at 350%– not something we want to beat NYC in, frankly.

As any kid learns, what goes up must come down, and more evaporation means more water coming down– and in winter, that just may come down as snow. “It may seem counterintuitive, but more snowfall during winter storms is an expected outcome of climate change,” reminds the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Which is why in 2009-10, we had the snowiest winter on record, with almost 79 inches of snow, a winter that included two storms– one in December, another in February– each with more than 20 inches, each storm packing more than a whole winter’s average snowfall.

Another consequence of climate change is that the jet stream– the phenomenon high in the atmosphere that is mentioned in almost every Action News weather report– is changing, with significant consequences.

“A growing body of research,” explains the Climate Reality Project’s website, “indicates that as average global temperatures rise and the Arctic continues to warm, the jet stream is both slowing down and growing increasingly wavy. In the winter months,” they continue, “this is allowing bone-chilling cold Arctic air– typically held in fairly stable places by the once-stronger jet stream– to both spill much farther south than usual and linger over areas unaccustomed to it for longer. So even as winters on average have been getting shorter and warmer, many places should still expect to see bouts of very cold weather from time to time. At least for now…”

So if the Old Farmer’s Almanac is correct, this could be a colder, snowier winter. But this is NOT proof there is no climate change. But here’s something I can say with 100% accuracy: the legions of climate deniers who have an outrageously outsized impact on public policy will scream with every coming snowstorm that that latest snow “proves” that climate change is a “hoax.” 

No. They are wrong. It does not. Surprisingly, it fits snugly into our growing understanding of the science of climate change. What goes up must come down, and in winter, it just might come down as snow. 

Will it be a White Christmas? Who knows: anything goes in the New Abnormal.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

LESS IS MORE: A New Exhibition

Photo of Makeba Rainey’s work is courtesy of Mae Belle Vargars.

On Saturday, December 4, our art gallery will be decked out in dazzling portraits of local Black figures, Liberation leaders, and ancestors, created by Philadelphia artist and community organizer Makeba Rainey. Her exhibition, LESS IS MORE: The Nature of Letting Go, will be on display through March 26, and is, as she describes it, “a celebration of a distinctly Black American ingenuity.” Her title refers less to a reverence for minimalism for its own sake than “a call to do the most with the least… as we have always done.” 

Bright colors and patterns of African wax cloth frame defiant, determined, and joyful faces in Rainey’s signature portrait style, one that has evolved since time spent in elementary school playing around with Microsoft Paint. While Rainey’s color palette has always been vivid, the framed faces have come more into focus over time and the surrounding patterning more complex—and more distinctly African. Now a self- (and YouTube-) taught expert in Photoshop, Rainey has pioneered a style that’s increasingly popular thanks to a few “high profile commissions (give thanks!)” and especially social media. Her work has inspired many imitators and garnered more than 14,000 Instagram followers. It’s an artistic sensibility she loves because it “is so accessible and has created a visual language with which to express pride in our African-ness.”

Beyond her own visual artwork, Rainey is transforming the gallery into a healing, memorial space, complete with a restorative reading corner for rest and reflection. This reading space is an extension of a project Rainey has been working on for a while now with a Black artists collective she started—the B(A)LM Community Library—and features books curated alongside other Philadelphia-based organizers, educators, and booksellers. Opposite this corner, another gallery wall will be covered in church fans dedicated to recently deceased members of the Philadelphia Black community. Outdoor wall art and seating (look for a swing!) extend the exhibition onto our grounds, and are an invitation to recharge and take solace in nature. 

Through this medley of spaces and artwork, Rainey explores how Blacks can access the energy of nature necessary for community and self-sustainability. More particularly, she asks us, how do we harness nature while also living in ethical and resourceful accord with it? Especially in this time of global scarcity—keenly and unjustly felt by those living in already under-resourced communities in our city—what does it look like to live sustainably, to find sustenance in ancestors, neighbors, family, and friends? 

In that vein, Rainey’s work is characterized by extensive collaborations with fellow artists, local organizations, and community members. As she puts it, “My community are my collaborators and my collaborators are my community.” For this exhibition, her creative partners include fellow Philadelphia artists Dominique London (creator of Skoolie, a school bus turned into a sustainable tiny home), musician and yogi Sudan Green (of SpiritsUp!) and sound designer Julien Terrell, among others. Together they will provide guided and meditative walks, healing rituals, and sustainable art workshops. 

When asked what she looks for in a collaborator, Rainey says “folks who share the same love and compassion that I have for ALL Black people. Folks who are authentic in spirit and diligent in their craft. Folks who are kind and who give more than they take. Folks who are constantly pushing themselves to be and do better. And, probably most important, people who can’t do what I can.” They’re folks who already are or become her family, and who complement each other personally, artistically, and spiritually. 

For Rainey, community also extends beyond the living; ancestors are as important as one’s current family, whether blood or chosen. The exhibition—its title and the ethos it reflects—is “an expression of gratitude and reverence for our ancestors,” Rainey says. It’s an exhortation to remember “you are who they were. Nothing more. Nothing less.” That’s why she’s covering one wall with church fans featuring photos of the recently deceased. Not only do church fans hold a particular place in Black culture, for Rainey they also help in “imagining their [an ancestor’s] spirit as the wind sweeping over you. Imagine them with you in your moments of respite and of praise… because they are. They are with you always.”

We will celebrate the exhibition’s opening at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 4 with a restorative walk through the Center’s grounds, a ceremonial drink, and conversation between the artist and cultural worker and healer Hakim Pitts. They’ll discuss the exhibition’s inspirations, Rainey’s printmaking process, working with nature, and building community. “When you work with/for the people you love and who love you back,” Rainey says, “the work will always be good.” Please register for the free event.

LESS IS MORE is presented by the Schuylkill Center’s Department of Environmental Art. 

By Emily Sorensen, Exhibitions Coordinator.

The First Thanksgiving Menu: Venison, Lobster, and… Passenger Pigeons?

The versatile and colorful Indian corn, widely used among Native Americans for porridge, bread, and more, was likely consumed during the 1621 Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, however, might not have been.

As we gather with family for Thanksgiving feasts this week, it will be especially poignant, as for many families (like my own), this is the first live Thanksgiving dinner in two very long years. 

Most likely a turkey will occupy a place of honor in your feast; for me, the reveal of the roasted turkey on a platter is the singular moment of the day. For those with classic American tastes, the gobbler will be surrounded by mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, candied yams, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and so much more. (My Italian-American friend grew up with a Thanksgiving dinner of Italian wedding soup, lasagna, and only THEN the full turkey dinner– wow.)

As we gather on  this historic day, let’s pause for a short history lesson that answers a question historians have been arguing about for decades: just what did the Pilgrims eat on that first Thanksgiving back in 1621? The answer might surprise you.

Remember, the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of one year of the Pilgrims surviving the foreign New World landscape of eastern Massachusetts, plus a celebration of their first harvest, and the Wampanoag Indians graciously shared the feast with them– over three very long days.

So first, what they didn’t eat on that day: mashed potatoes, candied yams, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce. Since white potatoes originated in South America and their close cousin the sweet potato is Caribbean in origin, neither had yet spread to North America, and both would have been absent in 1621. Pumpkins are American fruit, and the Wampanoag likely taught the Pilgrims how to roast them in the fire, filling their insides with other vegetables, but there was no pumpkin pie; the Pilgrims lacked flour and butter, so no pie.

And while cranberries are a key crop in Massachusetts even today and the Pilgrims were surrounded by them, the recipe for cranberry sauce is more than 50 years in the future, as the Pilgrims lacked a key ingredient here too—sugar was incredibly scarce. So they ate dried or raw cranberries. 

Without cranberry sauce, yams, and mashed potatoes, Kathleen Wall, historian and food culinarian at the Plimoth Plantation, told Smithsonian magazine in 2011, “That is a blank in the table, for an English eye. So what are they putting on instead? I think meat, meat, and more meat.”

So turkeys, right? While wild turkeys are, despite their name, a distinctly American bird—Ben Franklin famously thought it would be a better national symbol than the eagle—and while turkeys certainly inhabited the area where Pilgrims dined with their Wampanoag guests, turkeys were likely not on the table that first Thanksgiving, as there are reliable diaries and eyewitness accounts of the event at the time, with mention of lots of foods but– what!?– no mention of turkey.

We know venison was one huge component of the first Thanksgiving. In fact, records indicate Wampanoag hunters brought five deer to the feast, their contribution to the celebration. 

“Wildfowl was there,” continued Wall, and she suspects goose or duck were at the center of the table—though she also discovered in her research that swan and passenger pigeons would have been available too. “Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them,” she told the magazine. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.”

And some of the birds were boiled first, then finished in the fire. Boiled passenger pigeon? Yikes. In addition to wildfowl and deer, the group probably feasted on eels and shellfish like lobster, clams, and mussels, all staples of the coastal Wampanoag. “They were drying shellfish and smoking other sorts of fish,” says Wall.

Wait, so lobster may have been present at the first Thanksgiving! (Perhaps we begin a new tradition?)

Wall thinks it is possible the birds were stuffed, just not with the same bread as today. Instead, the Pilgrims stuffed the geese with onion and herbs, and “there is a wonderful stuffing for goose in the 17th-century that is just shelled chestnuts,” says Wall. There was bread present, but made from maize and not wheat. Multi-colored Indian corn was a staple, ground not only for bread but for porridge too. 

Like all eastern woodlands people, the Wampanoag, had a “varied and extremely good diet,” says Wall. The forest provided chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts, and those would have been incorporated into that 1621 feast.

Of course, the modern Thanksgiving feast features too many desserts—I’m looking forward to our friend’s annual pecan-and-chocolate Derby pie. But the 1621 feast contained neither pies nor cakes; melons and grapes, available and seasonal, likely would have finished the meal.

And to wash it down? Wall thinks they simply drank water; beer and wine was not there. 

The turkey-centric meal is more a product of the 19th than the 17th century, but the first event did feature two very different people speaking very different languages sharing food and creating community– not a bad model for the day that evolves into Thanksgiving. 

Happy Thanksgiving, Roxborough.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Mindy Maslin and Philadelphia’s Forest

The PHS’s Mindy Maslin, founder of Tree Tenders, is being honored for helping plant 20,000 trees across the region.

Philadelphia has a bold plan for reforesting the city, making sure 30% of our city is blanketed under a canopy of trees, which will go a long way to mitigating heat waves and cooling our city’s rapidly changing climate. It’s also an environmental justice plan, as– no surprise– economically challenged portions of the city have fewer trees than more advantaged neighborhoods. 

Mindy Maslin supports this ambitious goal. As the founder and director of Tree Tenders, an important program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), Mindy has been responsible for planting some 20,000 trees across the region while training 5,600 tree care volunteers since forming the program in 1991. Can you imagine that: 20,000 trees? 

To honor this extraordinary work, we are thrilled to present our 16th annual Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award to Mindy, as she not only believes planting trees is “a powerful way to enhance the health, resilience, and quality of our neighborhoods,” but has inspired thousands of citizens to make a difference in their community.

The Germantown resident is being given the award, our highest honor, in a virtual ceremony set for Thursday, November 18 at 7:00 p.m. Joining Mindy for a conversation on “The Urban Forest” are Tree Tenders and community leaders Sharrieff Ali and Gabriella Paez, along with Jack Braunstein, manager of the Tree Philly program, the group charged with implementing this important goal. The event is free; one can register on our website.

Tree Tenders is one of the oldest volunteer urban tree stewardship programs in the country, and has inspired similar programs throughout Pennsylvania and across the U.S. Locally, Tree Tenders graduates come from at least 100 active volunteer groups in the city and surrounding counties. Since this work is done by volunteers, the city has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having to hire professional arborists to do the planting or the initial care.

Mindy sees the social benefits of trees and is committed to addressing the inequities in tree canopies. Her PHS tree team has identified an uneven distribution of tree canopy that corresponds with high-density, low-income, and even high-crime neighborhoods. This latter point is important: there is less crime and, this is extraordinary, a lower murder rate in neighborhoods shaded by trees.

Mindy agrees that “all neighborhoods deserve to benefit from trees, for heat island abatement, air quality improvement, stormwater sequestering, and the softer gifts of mood enhancement and community building.” In response, Tree Tenders has a tool for prioritizing planting in low-canopy neighborhoods. In fact, studies show that people view urban residential spaces with trees as more attractive, safer and more appealing. “If you plant trees,” Mindy says, “it encourages people to go outside, meet their neighbors and build relationships; in turn, it fosters community pride which ultimately makes neighborhoods safer.”

In her efforts to diversify the program, she has connected with local institutions to bring the training directly to underserved neighborhoods. “Working within the community with local institutions and local tree champions is a critical part of the Tree Tenders model. They provide education and tools. But the onus is on the neighborhood Tree Tenders group to activate their neighbors to plant trees—it’s neighborhood-based citizen stewardship.” 

“You need to convince people who might be reluctant to plant a tree on their property why taking this action will improve their lives,” she says. And that happens at the neighborhood level where locals become advocates in their own community. Once you plant a tree, it still needs care to grow—a critical part to a tree’s survival. That’s where the stewardship piece comes in. The Tree Tenders program provides a framework to check on the trees and neighbors to make sure that the proper care is given.  

PHS’s Chief of Healthy Neighborhoods Julianne Schrader-Ortega notes, “Mindy is an integral part of the vitality of PHS’s mission to use horticulture in advancing the health and well-being of citizens in our local region and we’re pleased that Mindy is receiving the Meigs award as public recognition of the large impact she has had on the environment and on people’s lives.” 

Mindy is honored to be receiving this from “an institution of the Schuylkill Center’s caliber. It is a huge professional accomplishment. For decades, Tree Tenders and the Center have created joint programs that have served thousands of people in the region; our collaborations continue to be a highlight in my career. This award from such a valued partner is truly extraordinary.”

In turn, I’m so happy my Center is honoring her, as few people have planted more trees in the region than she has, and tree planting is such a powerful act, for all the reasons noted above.

The award celebrates area leaders who symbolize the spirit of integrity and vision of Henry Meigs, one of our founders, who served on our board for 40 years until passing away in 2005. His family established the award shortly thereafter, and past honorees include former governor Ed Rendell for his work on Growing Greener, environmental artist Stacy Levy, whose extraordinary art graces locations across the region, and Jerome Shabazz, founder of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center in West Philadelphia. 

Hope you’ll Zoom in with us.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director