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 

Another Fall in Philadelphia

 The changing leaves on our trails.

I drive into work one Monday morning in October, enjoying the intense green of the trees here at the Schuylkill Center, and am greeted by a shock of yellow leaves covering the sweet birches looming over the driveway. Further down, I notice that the poison ivy winding up the cherries, too, has turned to gold since the previous Friday. A week later, the maples and sumacs turn to impossibly intense shades of scarlet and amber. Firewood reappears at the grocery store, pumpkins materialize in every shop, and I suddenly develop intense cravings for hot chocolate. Fall has finally, finally arrived.

The change of color every autumn in the deciduous forests of eastern North America is, truly, one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. Entire tourism industries are founded on the dependability of leaf peepers driving north to enjoy this finely-tuned seasonal shift. The colors of the leaves here are so bright and ephemeral that early botanists in England thought the paintings of American artists portraying the autumnal landscape in places like Pennsylvania and New England were fanciful exaggerations. American botanists had to send physical autumn leaf samples to prove to their colleagues in Europe that yes, it is all true: the forests here are quite literally unbelievably beautiful this time of year.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there is not yet a scientific consensus on exactly why plants change color in the autumn. Theories abound: it is believed that trees turn more vibrant colors when they are growing in poor soil. Some think of the colors as a signal warning insect predators to stay away, or that anthocyanins (the chemicals creating red and purple in leaves) are useful as a kind of sunblock allowing the trees to break down and reabsorb leaf nutrients without getting burned by frosty winter sun. More nefarious hypotheses exist, too, about how trees change color to undermine the camouflage of herbivores whose coloration is meant to hide them from predators in the summer. Could those scarlet hillsides be a way for trees to help birds and foxes catch plant-eating prey a little more easily?

Whatever the reason for fall color, the Schuylkill Center enjoys a true showstopper every year. Our cool microclimate and unusual diversity of species provide even more beautiful shades of yellow, red, orange, and purple than other forests in the area. Lately, however, we have noticed strange things afoot. Interspersed with the glowing hues are trees still fully green in November, almost like summer never ended. Others drop everything in a rainstorm before they change and give nothing away of their autumn beauty. Some trees turn lazily from their summer to fall colors, giving less a show and more of a plodding progression toward winter dullness. This is not the sudden fireworks show of color that New England is famous for, but then again friends in Vermont and Maine have reported a less vibrant showing than usual in their neck of the woods as well. The glory of fall is undoubtedly here, but it makes its way in with a sluggish spottiness that has become increasingly normal of late. What gives?

The truth is that this process has been changing for some time now. Cold temperatures help trigger the onset of autumn foliage, and the Northeast has experienced fall temperatures above the historic average every year since 1998. Fall color has come later, and arrived with less definition, as a result.

Whereas the Philadelphia area frequently had more stunning leaf displays in the past, recent history has made our autumns a more muddled affair.

Beautiful to be sure, but when we continue having summer temperatures even into November, the trees get befuddled and turn in a slower and more varied way. Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere can also delay autumnal colors, even without changes in temperature. This leads to forests staying green for longer, making them burn the midnight oil for weeks after they would have normally gone to bed for the winter. Strange times, indeed.

It is common to think of climate change as a series of catastrophes: apocalyptic visions of possible futures-to-come in places like Australia and California that seem to never leave the news cycle, but only appear here with the occasional hurricane. The truth, however, is far more complex. Beyond the headline-grabbing disasters, climate change also affects the natural world in a variety of more subtle ways. The lessening beauty of fall foliage in the Northeast may seem like a minor outcome, but it is an ominous portent of things to come. The reality is that we simply don’t know what will happen to our forests or wildlife when their seasonal cycles shift dramatically. Every species in our region has finely-tuned requirements to thrive, and these changes that seem so small could have enormous consequences for a variety of plants and animals that we share this special landscape with. 

While we have been lucky to avoid the wildfires that plague the West Coast for now, a multitude of more elusive changes are already underway here that could one day grow to be just as disastrous. The only way to stop this terrifying future from becoming a reality is to make the changes that are necessary now to ensure that our communities can live with this land in a spirit of true respect and reciprocity. Change of this scale is, of course, scary in its own way. But I curiously always have a greater sense of hope looking out at these trees here, watching as they celebrate the inevitable shift in season with a riot of beauty. 

May we learn to embrace change as they do.

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

The Lenape and the Land

A typical Lenape village, with wigwams, the Lenape name for their homes.

Pennsylvania school kids are still mistakenly taught that our state’s history begins in 1681 with William Penn and the naming of our state, Penn’s Woods. Of course, the land already had a name, Lenapehoking, and it was hardly new: for some 10,000 years before William Penn, the Lenape inhabited Lenapehoking

On Thursday evening, November 4 at 7:00 p.m., in celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we will present “The Lenape and the Land,” a free virtual conversation among three members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania: Chuck “GentleMoon” Demund, Chief of Ceremonies, Shelley DePaul, Chief of Education and Language, and Adam DePaul, the nation’s Storykeeper. This event concludes the our five-part Thursday Night Live series, where visitors have dropped in from as far away as Florida, Maine, and Saskatoon. 

The conversation intends to share the extraordinarily surprising story of the Lenape and their relationship to the land.

Living in small towns across the region, the Lenape territory stretched from Maryland and coastal Delaware through eastern Pennsylvania, included all of New Jersey, and swept north deep into upstate New York. It was the Lenape who famously “sold” the island of Manahatta to the Dutch in 1626 (almost 60 years before William Penn was granted Pennsylvania), and the Dutch who built a wall around New Amsterdam to protect themselves from the British and the Lenape; the island of course is Manhattan and Wall Street marks the boundary of that wall. 

And the Delaware River of course had a name then as well: Lenapewihittuck. It is appropriate that their tribal name is embedded in the river’s, as the river was the main artery that flowed through Lenapehoking; one writer called it their Main Street. “Delaware” is a name the English bestowed on the river after their Lord de la Warr. 

In addition, many sources routinely identify them as the Lenni-Lenape. Adam DePaul notes that “this term is an anglicized grammatical error that basically translates as the ‘original people people.’” Though he acknowledges that though many Lenape identify as either Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, “the best word to use when referring to us is simply ‘Lenape.’” 

Most accounts of the Lenape– and actually of most Native Americans– present them as living passively on the land, treading lightly, hunting a few animals here and there, using every part of that animal, having little or no impact on the land. Early American writers thus dubbed the New World “pristine,” “untouched,” and that most ridiculously and horribly loaded word, “virgin.” The “noble savage” myth dehumanizes the Lenape as completely as the “fierce warrior” does. All this mythology still permeates our understanding of First Nations, as we never give them their deserving three dimensions. So let’s muddy these waters completely.

Most importantly, Lenapehoking was never a pristine, untouched, virgin forest. Hardly. The big surprise of modern Lenape scholarship, arrived at from studies of both paleoecology and forest ecology, is that the Lenape practiced a highly skilled and remarkably common form of fire ecology, one actively practiced by many indigenous people across the Americas. 

In short, they routinely burned Lenapehoking. The forest was continuously sculpted by native hands to create a wide variety of desired benefits. Most importantly, fire favored the growth of oaks, chestnuts, hickories, and walnuts, trees that offered so many other benefits, especially mast, the forester’s name for nut production. Blueberry bushes, the fruit so nutritious, also respond to burning, producing more fruit in the year right after a fire. 

“Fire enhanced their production of mast and fruit,” says Penn State forest ecologist Marc David Abrams, who has been researching fire ecology for 40 years, “not only to feed themselves, but to feed the animals they were hunting; it was a win-win.” More mast meant more deer, turkeys, passenger pigeons, rabbits, and bears, animals they wanted and needed for food, bones, fur, and feathers. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. The ash resulting from fire was nutrient-rich, offering many plants the ability to grow healthy and fast, and some of the plants that came back after a burn were medicinal plants with important healing properties. Fire cleared out the underbrush, allowing hunters to cover more land more easily while giving them better sightlines to find and shoot prey. Ticks and other harmful pests overwintering in the undergrowth were even killed in a spring fire, and these fires prevented the buildup of too much brush on the ground, which would lead to major conflagrations.

Of course, these were not the wildfires making headlines in so many climate-challenged places. No. These more modest fires quickly burn off the leaf litter, the moist soil preventing the fire from completely destroying the soil’s upper layers. The fire moves quickly through dry leaf litter, and taller trees keep their branches well above the flames, the thick bark protecting the tree charring but surviving.

Acorns and chestnuts cannot sprout and grow underneath their own dense canopy; they require more sunlight hitting the soil than a dense forest offers. Thus, burning cleared out gaps in the forest for acorns and nuts to sprout and grow. If the Lenape did not burn, the forest would have matured, and growing underneath the oak trees would be the late-stage successional trees of maple, beech, birch, and hemlock, fine trees all, but with lower wildlife value and fewer nuts for themselves. So the Lenape kept forests frozen in mid-succession. Dr. Abrams researched an old growth forest in West Virginia that was being logged, and found burn scars in many of the cut stumps indicating indigenous people would burn a section of forest every 8-10 years or so, a number backed up by research from others in the field.

So Penn’s Woods neither belonged to Penn nor was a pristine wilderness. Lenapehoking instead was a highly managed and yet sustainable forest artificially kept in a lower stage of succession in many areas, propping up the plants the Lenape needed nearby, especially chestnuts and oaks. Among their many qualities, the Lenape were exceptional ecologists continuously molding the land to fit their lifestyle.

That’s just the beginning of the story; we hope you’ll register for “The Lenape and the Land,” and learn more about the first Philadelphians.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

The Amazing Monarch Migration: A Status Report

How are this year’s monarch’s doing? Join us and National Monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor for our free, virtual event to find out.

The monarch butterfly, that large insect perfectly decked out for Halloween– or a Flyers game– in its orange and black cloak, undergoes one of the most extraordinary migrations in the animal kingdom. Butterflies across America and even Canada.

The monarch butterfly defies logic, for embedded in a small collection of nerve cells generously called a brain is a GPS directing the insect to fly from Roxborough all the way to a mountain valley near Mexico City, where it joins every other monarch from east of the Rockies (western monarchs head to the Pacific coast). As you read this, monarchs across the eastern US and even Canada are flying south, many along the eastern seaboard; most are near or even in Mexico already.  

Once in Mexico, they gather in large groups to coat fir trees with millions of their bodies, a remarkable sight visited by thousands of eco-tourists annually. The butterflies wait out the long winter, living five months—Methuselah territory for an insect.

In early spring, they begin heading north, make it into Texas, lay their eggs—and die. It takes another generation or two for monarchs to make it back to Pennsylvania, not until early summer. So the butterflies hatching in my garden will start flying more than a thousand miles to a place they have never been. How’s that for Mother Nature’s planning?

If you’d like a treat, drive to Cape May point soon and watch clusters of them funneling down New Jersey hop across the Delaware Bay to get to the mainland and continue their journey south. 

While it’s remarkable that an insect can make this migration, I’m saddened to report that this phenomenon is endangered as monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years, compromised by climate, pesticides, Midwestern “milkweed deserts,” and over-logging in Mexico. 

So how are this year’s monarch’s doing? How is the insect holding up? Should it be declared an endangered species?

We hope to answer this question on Thursday, October 21 at 7:00 p.m. with our Thursday Night L!VE presentation, “The Monarch’s Amazing Migration: a Status Report.” National monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, the organization that has helped place 35,000 monarch waystations across the country, joins us from his Kansas base to share the creature’s story and its status. Monarch Watch started in 1992 as an outreach program dedicated to engaging the public in studies of monarchs, and is now concentrating its efforts on monarch conservation. 

“In real estate,” Dr. Taylor says, “it’s location, location, location. And for monarchs and other wildlife it’s habitat, habitat, habitat. We have a lot of habitat in this country, but we are losing it at a rapid pace. Development is consuming 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. Further, the overuse of herbicides along roadsides and elsewhere is turning diverse areas that support monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife into grass-filled landscapes that support few species. The adoption of genetically modified soybeans and corn have further reduced monarch habitat. If these trends continue, monarchs are certain to decline, threatening the very existence of their magnificent migration.” 

Female monarchs are exceptional botanists, laying their eggs only on one family of plants, the milkweeds. She tastes plants with her feet, laying eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars hatch from eggs, and immediately begin munching on milkweed—the only food they are adapted to eat. The creatures have evolved to take the noxious chemicals found in milkweed sap and use it to make themselves—both caterpillar and adult—bad-tasting for any bird that may try to eat it.

A very clever “Got Milkweed?” campaign was started years ago, and more and more home gardeners like me began planting milkweed– and the Schuylkill Center has been selling milkweeds for years.

To address these changes and restore habitats for monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife, Monarch Watch is initiating a nationwide landscape restoration program called “Bring Back the Monarchs.” The goals of this program are to restore 20 milkweed species, used by monarch caterpillars as food, to their native ranges throughout the United States and to encourage the planting of nectar-producing native flowers that support adult monarchs and other pollinators.

This program is an outgrowth of the Monarch Waystation Program started by Monarch Watch in 2005. “While these sites, mostly habitats created in home gardens, schoolyards, parks, and commercial landscapes, contribute to monarch conservation, it is clear that to save the monarch migration we need to do more,” Taylor said. “ We need to think on a bigger scale and we need to think ahead, to anticipate how things are going to change as a result of population growth, development, changes in agriculture, and most of all, changes in the climate.”

According to Taylor, we need a comprehensive plan on how to manage the fragmented edges and marginal areas created by development and agriculture, since it is these edges that support monarchs, many of our pollinators, and the many forms of wildlife that are sustained by the seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, and foliage that result from pollination. “In effect,” Taylor argues, “we need a new conservation ethic, one dealing with edges and marginal areas that addresses the changes of the recent past and anticipates those of the future.” 

Dr. Chip Taylor has been pioneering in butterfly conservation for decades. Meet him by joining me in a Thursday Night L!VE virtual lecture this week. Register for the free event.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Goldenrods and the Last Chance Cafe

Goldenrods, an autumn bloom, are one of the last sources of nectar and pollen before winter.

As summer slides into fall, a wonderful transformation begins happening in meadows across the area—summer flowers give way to classic autumn blossoms like goldenrod and asters. These are hugely important plants, as they represent the very last shot that thousands of species of insects have for pollen and nectar before winter settles in.  

For bees and butterflies, a goldenrod field is essentially their Last Chance Cafe. 

There’s a great example of this here at the Schuylkill Center. At the corner of Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue, a field of goldenrod is at its peak flowering right now, and its cousins aster and snakeroot are nearby– and the flowers there are literally abuzz in bees, flies, wasps and more. 

In the co-evolution of insects and flowers, something remarkable happened. As the weather cools, it gets harder and harder for bees, wasps, and butterflies to fly from flower to flower searching for nectar—as the mercury drops, it is difficult for cold-blooded insects to move. So nature responded by evolving composite flowers, plants that have bundled their flowers in massive clusters, allowing a bee, say, to efficiently walk across hundreds of flowers without needing to fly.

Take dandelion, for example. Pull one “petal” out of the flower, and you’ll find the toothy-edged petal has some fuzz clinging to it.  That fuzz, oddly enough, represents a complete but greatly reduced flower, and that one petal is actually the product of the ancestral flower’s petals fusing into one. So one dandelion is actually—literally—hundreds of flowers. That’s the concept, the bundling of huge floral clusters to create a target-rich environment, and the family that performed this trick is the composites, a huge and sprawling clan of wildflowers.

Goldenrods and aster are composites, offering clusters of nectar-packed flowers standing cheek-to-jowl, allowing for hyper-efficient nectar collecting. And in the yearlong parade of blossoming flowers, goldenrods and asters are the tramp clowns that bring up the rear of the parade, the absolutely last chance for honeybees to collect pollen and nectar.  They’ll keep blossoming into the first frost. 

In addition, in early fall monarch butterflies are in the middle of their migration to Mexican mountain valleys, an extraordinary phenomenon. Nectar-rich goldenrod’s bright yellow beacon pulls monarchs down to refuel for their extensive journey. If you are a monarch flying south, goldenrod is a critical rest stop on the highway.

But despite their ecological significance, goldenrods are reviled in our culture because just as they bloom, so does ragweed, a flower with microscopic pollen that wafts into the wind—and into our noses. So when showy goldenrod blooms—achoo!—so does ragwort, and goldenrod gets all the blame for the ragweed’s problems. It’s also at this time of year you’re treated to TV commercials of people standing in goldenrod fields waving a white flag with an exhortation to buy their hay fever medication. Memo to allergy sufferers: goldenrod’s pollen is just too heavy to get launched on the wind; instead, it sticks to the legs and bodies of insects like bees and wasps. It’s wind-pollinated flowers like ragweed that make us sniffle.

Of course, because goldenrod fields attract so many bugs, you’ll find many predators there too, like praying mantises and crab spiders hiding among the petals waiting for an unsuspecting wasp. Swallows and dragonflies cruise above the flowers—and hawks above them, waiting to grab a bird. Peacock flies lay their eggs in goldenrod stems, the eggs rubbing the flower the wrong way to produce a tumorous swelling that surrounds and cradles the egg. Look for goldenrod ball galls dotting the stems of plants in a field, fly larvae sleeping the winter in their safe little home. But downy woodpeckers know about galls, and land on the stems to peck open the galls to grab the tasty larva tucked inside.

For honey bees, butterflies, and more, goldenrod fields are the Last Chance Cafe, the last flowers of the fall season, the last chance for nectar and pollen. As such, they are critically important plants– and ecological gold mines filled with important pollinating insects.

Here at the Schuylkill Center, we’ve got goldenrod in several locations besides our Port Royal corner, like the Grey Fox Loop and down under the PECO power lines close to the river. Our butterfly meadow doesn’t have goldenrods, but may other composites are there to lure happy bugs, as daisies, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, and Joe-Pye-weed are all composites– it’s a big and wildly successful family of flowers. Morris Arboretum also has a great goldenrod field at its entrance; goldenrod even loves waste areas so you’ll find them growing in vacant “weedy” lots.

“The Secrets of a Goldenrod Field” kicks off our new season of Thursday Night Live on Thursday, October 7 at 7 p.m. via Zoom. Go to our website to register, and we’ll see you on Zoom– and next time you visit the Schuylkill Center, stop in at the Last Chance Cafe.   

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Our Native Wildflower Seed Packet Design contest Winner is: Monica Smith!

Monica Smith’s winning seed packet design

We are thrilled to welcome new members to the Schuylkill Center every day! Starting October 1, all new members will receive in their welcome kit our native wildflower seed packet designed by one of our very own Schuylkill Center members, Monica Smith. The contest ran from July 28, 2021, to August 20, 2021, and was open to creatives of all ages and skill levels. We were overwhelmed with the great response and received several beautifully designed submissions that made the decision very difficult. We want to send a special thank you to everyone that participated in the contest!

Monica’s design was inspired by the wildflower patches her husband planted on their farm this past year. She shared with us that the wildflowers provided them with “cheer and beauty” during the pandemic. As they continue to plant their gardens with native flowers, scrubs and trees, Monica hopes that the native wildflower seed packets will “inspire everyone to give them a try!”

Monica also shared that the reason she started receiving the Schuylkill Center’s Quill newsletter was that her dear friend, an artist who passed away last October, requested that memorial donations be made to the Schuylkill Center. Monica found our website and loved what she saw, so she sent a memorial donation. Monica has been a part of the Schuylkill Center community ever since!

Liz Ellmann: A Warrior for Wildlife

Liz Ellmann helping a turtle

The Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center, the city’s only wildlife rehabilitation clinic, is located on Port Royal Avenue in Upper Roxborough and staffed by an extraordinary group of dedicated workers, both employees and volunteers, who handle thousands of injured, sick, and orphaned animals annually. It’s a labor of love.

Separately, the Schuylkill Center this summer unveiled our mudhif, a traditional Iraqi guesthouse built of reeds– the first one ever built outside of Iraq. In memory of this year’s 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Center last weekend offered “Reconciliation: A Healing Encounter,” where veterans, Iraqi immigrants, and the public gathered to heal from the injuries of war and the socio-political unrest in Iraq and adjacent countries.

Our clinic and mudhif came together at Reconciliation, as Liz Ellmann, the clinic’s assistant director and an Army veteran, led nature walks for the event.

Liz, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns, has been with us for almost three years now, one year as a volunteer and intern and the last two as an employee. A resident of Roxborough-Manayunk, “Liz has been a vital part of keeping the clinic going through our tough COVID months,” noted Chris Strub, the clinic’s director. “Their care and compassion for our patients, along with their incredible organizational skills, help keep everyone on track with keeping our patients cared for and our clinic running smoothly.”

For Liz, it has been quite the journey from the Army to a wildlife clinic in Roxborough. “I was in the active Army for eight years,” they told me as we drank coffee outside the mudhif. While stationed mainly in Fort Hood Texas, Liz was deployed to Kuwait, South Korea, and Germany. They were assigned Patriot missiles: “we would place them, fix them, reload them; I was this little person next to a huge canister of missiles.” They were also “armor for my unit, in charge of all the weapons and ammo. I loved it, was good at it, and in South Korea I was asked to lead workshops on this.”

They accompanied a medivac full of injured servicemen from Kuwait to Germany, and was also assigned funeral detail, accompanying coffins on their sad journeys home. “My first one was a 19-year-old kid just married with a newborn kid and only there for two weeks,” Liz shared. “These are your brothers and sisters, you know why they did what they did. They made the ultimate sacrifice, and you can’t take that away from their families.”

But they blew out their knee in Kuwait on their last deployment, “where I had no ligament left and tore my meniscus in half. There were complications from my surgery, giving me bad migraines. I had wanted to stay in and do my 20 years; I had dreams, things I wanted to do, but they could not figure out what was wrong. So I got medically retired out as a sergeant.”

From Ashland, Virginia, Liz grew up in a small town 45 minutes north of Richmond that had “tons of farmland; we had a cornfield in front of the high school.” After the Army, wanting to get back to the East Coast closer to their roots and work on a college degree, they enrolled in Drexel (“what they do with veterans is absolutely amazing”) which brought Liz to Philly. Now armed with a Bachelor’s in psychology and a Master’s in spatial cognition, they were looking for an entry into the psychology field, which isn’t easy. But their wife showed Liz an announcement for an internship at the Wildlife Clinic. “You’ve always loved animals,” she told Liz. They agreed. The internship “really clarified things for me.” Rebecca Michelin, the previous clinic director who first hired Liz, “was huge in helping me figure it out, being an amazing mentor in helping me decide. And this was the right decision.”

“I absolutely want to be doing this, and feel a passion and purpose. I see such a lack of good information and knowledge that our industry”– wildlife rehab– “even exists.” Liz also sees so many well-intentioned people finding an injured animal, or one they assume is orphaned, and doing the wrong thing. “They Google solutions– and Google is like the death of everything. It’s not malicious, people are trying to help, but they end up not helping so much.” Like by taking a baby that one assumes was abandoned away from its parents, when they might have left it alone.

When Liz heard first about the mudhif coming to the Schuylkill Center, “I was so excited. There is such a stigma and stereotype with people from the Middle East; people assume everyone there is an extremist or a terrorist. So the mudhif is a healing point, and everyone has a lot of healing to do, especially veterans, as we have our own issues. To have a place like this, it’s sacred. There needs to be a bridging point not only within the community but with the world. The September 11 event is so important,” they continued. “There needs to be an opening of arms.”

The loss of soldiers last week in Afghanistan is “devastating, just devastating. Once again they’re all kids who made the ultimate sacrifice trying to save innocents. It’s gut wrenching.” To memorialize the loss, Liz has “tied yellow ribbons on my front porch for each of the fallen, and added one for the innocent Afghan people. They feel like we abandoned them– and actually we did.

“At day’s end,” Liz finished, “we all bleed the same blood, and need to protect each other.”

That fierce protectiveness is exactly what the Wildlife Clinic needs in a rehabilitator, someone who will move heaven and earth to save even the tiniest mouse or sparrow. For me, the Schuylkill Center is so proud of Liz’s service to the country, and so honored to have them on our team. Thank you, Liz.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough.