Those Autumn Leaves – Leaf Them Alone!

Red and orange autumn leaves layered on the groundAutumn is many people’s favorite time of year, with leaves changing color and the weather becoming crisp, but not yet overly cold.  

Autumn also ushers in one of our least favorite chores: Raking leaves.  But before you start bagging all those leaves up for curbside pickup, two thoughts to consider.

First, those leaves are loaded with the exact perfect combination of nutrients your lawn needs to grow beautifully thick and green.  One of the ironies of the season is those of us with lawns feverishly remove every speck of leaf from the lawn—and then spend too much money on fertilizer, putting back on the lawn the exact stuff we just removed. Silly, huh?

Imagine using a mulching mower instead, and crunching all those leaves into small bits that simply vanish into the lawn, restoring the nutrients the plants need to thrive.  And removing those leaf bags from the trash—and out of the incinerator.

But those leaves do something else for us.  

As autumn slides into winter, insects—the small creatures that hold up the ecosystems that support us—begin dying off.  Each insect species survives the winter in one and only one stage of its life cycle. So tiger swallowtails survive in the chrysalis, ladybugs as larvae, praying mantises and mosquitoes as eggs (and the adult mosquitoes all die—yay!), and the mourning cloak butterfly, unusual for butterflies, surviving as the adult butterfly.  All other phases of the insect dies, so praying mantises and tiger swallowtails disappear, these other phases hibernating.

Right now, insects of all kinds are gearing up for winter, crawling into the nooks and crannies of their habitats for warmer places to sleep for the winter.  Ladybug larvae are in a state of suspended animation: alive, yes, but immobile and almost frozen.  Leaf litter, the decaying remnant of autumn leaves on the bottom of the forest floor, is a hiding place for thousands of hibernating insects.

In our yards, without natural habitat, the fallen leaves in the corners and edges of our properties are the perfect resting places for winter insects.  So removing every scrap of every leaf from every inch of the lawn not only removes the nutrients our trees and grass need to live, but removes the hibernating bodies of the many insects that form the bottoms of food chains. If we want birds with us next spring, we need insects to feed their babies. We need bugs. 

To keep insects around us, keep those leaves.

So as autumn winds and heavy rains knock the quickly-turning-color leaves off our trees, consider a small gift to your lawn and to the natural world. Mulch the leaves onto your lawn, and leave as many leaves as you can tolerate in the nooks and crevices of your property.  Do it for the bugs.  

That tiger swallowtail will thank you. So will I. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

 

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

 

Fate of the World Hinges on a Pickup Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

A Tale of Two Birds

While planting trees over the last two weeks at the Schuylkill Center, a familiar sound echoed through our Roxborough woods, something like an ethereal organ being played in the forest. I smiled: the wood thrush is back.

The wood thrush—a cousin of the robin and about the same size, but with a cinnamon coat and dramatic black spots on a bright white chest—is widely considered the best singer of all songbirds. No less an observer than Henry David Thoreau agreed. “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest,” he wrote. “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. It is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

Doesn’t that alone make you want to go hear one? The “ethereal” piece is because, almost uniquely, the bird uncannily can whistle two notes simultaneously, harmonizing with itself to produce the ringing that is so entrancing. Even better, it often sings at both sunrise and sunset, making it one of the first as well as one of the last birds you might hear during the day.

A creature of the interior forest and an important indicator of forest health, the thrush has become a symbol of the vanishing American songbird; one study estimated that its population has declined 62% since 1966 in eastern North America. Forest fragmentation is often cited as a chief reason for its decline, as it requires more than small suburban woodlots, and fragmented forests offer fewer places to escape predators. The brown-headed cowbird, a social parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, will stay out of deep interiors, but can easily find thrushes in smaller forests—and lay its eggs in the nest, its nestling outcompeting baby thrushes for parental attention.

It’s also a victim of being migratory. While North American forests are fragmenting, Central and South American forests—its winter home—are disappearing too, so, like many birds, the wood thrush is being hit at both ends of its migration.

But the first time I hear one every April at the Schuylkill Center, I stop and savor the sound: the gates of heaven have just opened. Please come and hear, maybe even see, it yourself.

And there’s a second bird I’d love for you to hear, this one the most common bird you’ve never heard of. If you have ever walked through a summertime forest anywhere in the Philadelphia region, you have heard this bird—and heard it, and heard it, and heard it.

Red-eyed vireo

Because the red-eyed vireo may just be the most abundant forest bird across Pennsylvania. Warbler-small and usually gleaning insects high up in the treetops, the bird sings incessantly, holding an ongoing monologue of usually three-noted sounds, some rising, some falling, as if it were asking and answering its own questions: “How are you? I am fine. Doing well. Pretty good. Are you sure?”

And it does have a red eye, but while I have heard thousands of vireos sing, I can count on only one hand the number of times I have actually seen the red eye—and the first time made me scream with delight. If you can see the red eye, you’ll also catch the two black stripes sandwiching a white one, slicing right through the red eye.

The name vireo is Latin for “I am green,” which its body feathers are—sort of. Its species name olivaceus only drives home that point in case you missed it the first time.

It builds one of the smallest non-hummingbird nests, a petite cup that dangles from the crotch of a high tree branch, held together with a number of fibers—and spider silk. These nests are even harder to find than the vireo’s eye.

The red-eye may be the most prominent member of a clan of songbirds, others of which drive even expert birders batty. There’s currently a solitary vireo hanging out behind the Schuylkill Center’s preschool classrooms that one of our teachers—an ace bidder herself—has been hearing. So consider the red-eye your gateway into the vireo kingdom. If you’ve heard one, challenge yourself to see the eye; if you’ve never heard of this bird, here’s a wonderful assignment for you.

Go for a walk this week, and listen for both the organ pipes of the thrush and the chatty monologist, the red-eyed vireo. The gates of heaven will open for you too.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Climate as an Infrastructure Issue

“If we act to save the planet,” President Joe Biden told a masked and distanced joint session of Congress last week, “we can create millions of jobs and economic growth and opportunity.” 

Words I have been waiting my entire adult life to hear a president say. Without apology. Without speaking in code. Without soft pedaling. Necessary words that address the unique moment we find ourselves in. 

You know this column is rarely political. Instead, I more typically offer updates on how the environment is doing in Philadelphia and Roxborough, or share the extraordinary natural world in which we live. But not this week. So walk with me out onto a political limb, and let’s talk climate.

Because, frankly, there is no more important issue. Yes, more important than COVID, because we are finally coming out of this pandemic—at least it seems at the moment—and in the last year, climate change has just not gone away, and underpins and supersedes all other issues. 

Ane because Philadelphia is already hotter, wetter, and weirder. Hotter: springtime is 2.7 degrees warmer than it was only 50 years ago in 1970, and getting warmer. Weirder: remember only last week temperatures toyed with hitting the 90s—in April!—and then suddenly dropped while weirdly high winds began blowing through. 

So I’m thrilled to have a president who doesn’t blink or hedge on climate change, but is all in, labeling it the “existential threat” it deserves to be called. He even dared to sprinkle climate change proposals throughout his infrastructure plan, which of course isn’t a universally popular move. OK, it’s actually reviled in some quarters. But think about it for a moment.

When the Delaware River—a tidal waterway, by the way—rises, as it already is, it threatens Penn’s Landing and I-95 through the city; it threatens South and West Philadelphia, Fishtown and the river wards. It threatens the major chemical and energy facilities along the river. It especially threatens a massive low-lying airport built on fill from previous dredging of the river. Projections show the airport to be underwater in coming decades: to where will we move the airport? In the alternative, how will we make the airport resilient to sea level change? 

Infrastructure questions all, without a doubt.

And combating climate change requires energy-efficient buildings that are solarized and connected to a smarter energy grid. Public transportation that more readily moves more people more smartly through the region so we can wean ourselves off of our overlong reliance on cars. And making streets and neighborhoods more resilient to the ravages of stormwater from more powerful storms.

Infrastructure again.

Biden also correctly connects the climate issue to justice, and is not afraid to talk about climate justice, as underserved Americans in low-income neighborhoods will especially feel the impacts of a supercharged climate. 

And yes, Biden also recommitted the country to the Paris Agreement, the world’s agreement on wrestling with climate change. Remember, when President Trump withdrew America from the treaty, we joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries to do so—and both have since that time signed on. Is this the company we wish to keep? All of us know climate change is a global concern, and we need to be at the table negotiating the terms for how the planet solves the crisis. We have a ton of skin in this game.

Biden outlined what Scientific American, an apolitical science-based magazine, called “a transformative vision of muscular government, with climate policy driving both domestic and international affairs. He cast decarbonization as an engine of his economic plans. And he framed competition with China as a struggle over the future of clean energy.”

“There’s no reason,” the president continued last week, “the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries.” Hard to imagine why anyone would have a beef with those last two sentences.

But he didn’t stop there. His plan is intent on “replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, so every child—can turn on the faucet and be certain to drink clean water.” Lead in drinking water leads to permanent loss of IQ among people who consume it; certainly his intention to purify water cannot be problematic.

“We are at an inflection point in history,” Biden said. We are. We’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change—and the last who can do anything meaningful about it.

George H.W. Bush ran on a climate change platform in 1988, but the issue quickly fell in the chasm between the parties. Intelligent people need to pull it out of the chasm—and handle it.

Because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted many decades ago, we are facing “the fierce urgency of now.” There is urgency in the pandemic, in racial justice, but especially in climate

“Look,” Biden says whenever he wants to make an important point. For me, it was long overdue that an American president talked like a rational adult about this critical issue. Finally.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Engaging with the Environment through “Homegrown Stories”

Last week, the Schuylkill Center, as well as more than 1 billion people from almost 200 countries, united for Earth Day in the name of improving our planet. As this week of honor and appreciation closes, we are left to reflect how our actions, both large and small, individually and collectively, have an impact on the Earth and our common future. The art project Homegrown Stories explores our natural environment through the lenses of video and film that the Environmental Art Team is excited to share in light of Earth Day. Already in 2020, the Schuylkill Center visually explored the meaning of Earth Day at 50 in the exhibition Ecotactical, which considered what new insights Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the middle of a pandemic provided us. The Homegrown Stories project considers similar questions and finds that while the world around changes, so, too, do the artistic responses to climate change, environmental injustice, and humanity’s exploitation of nature. 

 

In art, environment is everything. Whether it’s the nebulous political or social sphere that influences the artist’s style, subject matter, or intent, or the physical surroundings that contextualize the viewer’s perception of the piece—the shared nature of space is what connects us so deeply through art. In a time when the planet itself is in crisis, as climate change not only threatens humanity but the very foundation of “nature” as we know it, the environment of art has focused itself on The Environment. How we experience it, how we influence it, and how we must work together to save it.

These are the concepts currently being explored by the online video project Homegrown Stories. As outlined on the website, this project began in 2013 as a way for founders LeAnn Erickson and Sandra Louise Dyas to employ a one-shot aesthetic to create videos that delve into the “questions of personal space, the act of storytelling and the primacy of place in shaping one’s world view,” the collaborators explain.

Initially, they focused on their own experiences within the website’s noted theme of “place and space,” integrating both still and moving images from their daily lives. However, Erickson and Dyas quickly realized that regardless of where they traveled or what they focused on, they were only two perspectives on a theme that had a farther reaching effect.

Thus, in 2015, Homegrown Stories began inviting other artists to join in the conversation. Borrowing from creative writing techniques, Erickson and Dyas chose prompts that would serve as inspiration for original videos. With their varied and differing perspectives, each artist added something unique that would enhance the overall experience of the collaborative project.

In an effort to draw attention to the issues that threaten the planet, the year 2020 focused on the elements of the natural environment. Under the prompts of “Water,” “Earth,” “Air,” and “Fire,” Homegrown Stories collaborated with various filmmakers to document and witness, investigate and interpret the effects of climate change as it influences the physical, social, and political world. Often utilizing the pocket technology of smart phones, these videos provide an intimate perspective that not only draws the viewer in, but also creates a unique environment in which they might understand and interact with the art.

“Water”—arguably the most important element to human life, and perhaps the most pressing matter in terms of climate change’s effect on the planet—opened the prompts. Many filmmakers were drawn to focus on the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to flooding events that happened in their local environments. Philip Hopper’s “Flood Stage,” portrays the overflowing Cedar River in Iowa, while “Mississippi River, St Louis Waterfront,” a 360-degree interactive still image by Karla Berry and Don Barth, looks upon the Mississippi as it laps at the St. Louis Arch. As the waters submerge walkways, rush under bridges, and jostle path signs, the artists highlight the struggle of humanity as it tries to protect its structures and infrastructure from the raging waters that its own actions have caused. Hopper, Berry, and Barth aim to raise the alarm for change as they create a visceral experience of the sheer power of this man-influenced, but ultimately natural, element.

Terrarium still #1, LeAnn Erickson and Jake Rasmussen

The next prompt was “Earth”—one that led the artists in many different directions, though all pointing toward the planet’s cry for help. Memo Salazar’s video “Earth by Memo,” features a squishy earth ball that continually attempts to rebound as a human hand smashes and bangs it to a cacophonous soundtrack. “Terrarium,” by Erickson and Jake Rasmussen, takes a much more experimental approach, pairing 1930s voiceover from Encyclopedia Britannica with video images that bubble, mesh, and layer to create a kaleidoscopic perspective. Though the latter focuses more on a representation of the value in the beauty of nature, both videos note the fragility of the earth (whether as a malleable ball or a fracturing terrarium) and ask the viewer to question what it means to interact emotionally, experientially, and physically with the planet and how they might change these interactions for the better.

“Sightseeing” by Mary Slaughter

The year concluded with “Air” and “Fire,” two elements that go hand in hand. The former consisted of videos exploring the notion of breath in a world dealing with police brutality, an airborne pandemic, and the pollution that is destroying our atmosphere. “Fire,” instead, looked at the necessity of a resource that defines civilization, while also illuminating how this same civilization has utilized it as a destructive force. Mary Slaughter’s iPhone video, “Sightseeing,” looks at a traditional Kurama Fire Festival in Japan, meant to honor spirits with torches paraded through the streets. Instead of a reverent, religious event, however, it turns into a tourist spectacle which is marked by an immense police presence. “In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants, looks more closely at fire’s role in industrialization and how it affects our cities and towns. The piece explores the issues of the poverty divide, the building and decaying of urban structures, and the pollution of smoke as it billows out of factory chimneys. Both videos portray the miracle of fire and how it has allowed our society to grow and flourish, but also the negative consequences of such progress.

 

“In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants

The goal of Homegrown Stories is that of all artists—to evoke emotion and reaction and to engage in a conversation about what we hold as progress, truth, and beauty. However, this collaborative project also invites the viewer to find answers through science and political action by providing links in each prompt to resources such as The Thirst Project, Green America, and The Southern Poverty Law Center. Erickson and Dyas are asking for more than passive viewing, they are asking for participation in redirecting our planet’s future. When change is the necessity, then art is the catalyst, information is the momentum, and collective action is the answer.

 

Molly Stankoski, Freelance Writer and Researcher

 

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

This weekend’s Nature Kit is all about the City Nature Challenge taking place right now, in Philadelphia and cities across the U.S. Every Saturday, Nature Kits are given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am–12:00 pm. Nature Kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails and given back once completed. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

What is the 2021 City Nature Challenge?

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

To participate using the FREE iNaturalist app:

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

 

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

—Rebecca Deegan, Environmental Educator

Gardening with Native Plants: Great for You AND the Planet

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. 

Virginia bluebells, pink buds opening into bright blue flowers. Shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Trillium, a gorgeous but an oh-so-ephemeral plant, the species over here blooming in white, but the one over there in red. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside his lectern. And that’s just a start.

Solomon’s seal

And the good news? You can plant these in your yard. In fact, planting these in your yard is one of the most powerful acts you can do to improve the health of our planet. (And many of them require shade, even better for many of us without good sun in our yards.) 

The better news?  They are perennial; planting them now often means they come up better next year, spreading a bit. And unlike impatiens, they require little watering.

But why is this a powerful act? The tulips, daffodils and crocuses that grace most of our gardens are without question beautiful flowers. But since they are not native to Pennsylvania or even America, few other living things live on them. Sure, deer might eat them (as deer seem to like everything), but caterpillars don’t touch most of them, and neither do many or any other insects. While that makes us and landscapers happy—the plants are not getting consumed by hungry insects—it makes a mother robin looking for caterpillars to feed her fast-growing, hungry babies very sad.  

That’s the problem: a yard filled with tulips, daffodils, and crocuses sadly has no wildlife value for birds looking to feed bugs to their babies. And surprisingly, almost all birds feed bugs to their babies—even the babies of seed-eating birds grow up being fed bugs first. So that means a world filled with daffodils is by necessity one devoid of robins, wrens, thrushes, and more.

That’s the beauty of places like the Schuylkill Center and the Wissahickon—we’re islands of native plants in an ocean of inedible lawns and plantings. Truthfully, a lawn is an ecological desert.

Spring violets

One native Pennsylvania oak, as we noted last week, supports literally thousands of species of insects, including hundreds of caterpillars of different moths and butterflies. Same with the wild black cherry tree, with leaves that caterpillars devour, flowers that offer nectar for butterflies, and fruit that birds crave. One tree holds up an entire world.

Gardening with native plants, a modest movement that we wholeheartedly support, is thus a powerful act of environmental improvement, as it supports the many species of small creatures that inhabit this part of the planet, protecting our biological diversity.

The Schuylkill Center also makes this action easy for you: right now, online, we are offering our annual Native Plant Sale, your one-stop shopping for many of  the flowers I noted above (and so many more!). We’re also selling shrubs. ferns, grasses, vines and trees as well, plus soil and other gardening supplies. If you become a Schuylkill Center member, we’ll even give you a discount on the flowers you buy, all by itself reason enough to join.

In the shrub department alone, for example, several of the shrubs offer berries that are completely irresistible to songbirds. Serviceberry (also called shadbush because it blooms about when shad run up rivers), chokeberry, elderberry, and blueberry are just a few of the shrubs in our sale that sport wonderful berries that feed a diversity of native wildlife; blueberries especially attract a  large number of insects pollinators to them. 

In the tree section, redbuds and magnolias offer beautiful springtime flowers—redbuds are the medium sized trees blushing lilac right now. Oaks, birches, pawpaws, cedars, and horse chestnuts are a sampling of some of the other high-value native trees.

Redbud tree

We’ve even got sedges and grasses that offer visual interest in your garden. 

To hold your hand in this, on this week’s Thursday Night Live, our weekly deep dive into all things natural, we’re offering the Native Plants Hotline, a chance for anyone to call in with their garden questions about gardening with natives. Register for that on our website as well; the free event starts Thursday, April 29 at 7 p.m. and features both gardening and tree experts. Do call.

Spring is busting out all over—and you can bring that action into your yard. To be sure, you don’t have to replant your entire yard. Not at all. Just buy a few plants at the sale, add them to your yard, and every year tuck a few more here and there. It’s so easy. Come see. And the plants are easily as beautiful as daffodils—some, even more so. (Check out Virginia bluebells and white trillium.)

And the best part, our birds and butterflies will thank you.  

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Planting Oaks On Earth Day

On Thursday, April 22, the Schuylkill Center will be joining almost one billion people worldwide commemorating the day. And we’ll be engaged in an incredibly powerful act of environmental stewardship: we’ll be planting seven oaks trees that day, five at our nature center, one at our Wildlife Clinic, and a seventh at the 21st Ward Ballfields.

Why oaks? Because of all the trees in our forest, the oak is essential, a keystone species, offering more ecosystem services than any other tree in our forests.

To start, oaks support more biological diversity than any other local tree. Its leaves are the necessary food source for an astonishing 511 species of Pennsylvania moths and butterflies alone. In other words, 511 adult moths and butterflies seek out oaks to lay their eggs on their leaves, the oaks serving as host for the insect, nearly 100 more species than number two on the list, native cherries like black cherry. It likely surprises you that there are more than 500 species of this clan locally (it did me, and I teach this stuff), but absolutely. “No other tree genus supports so much life,” writes University of Delaware entomologist and bestselling author Doug Tallamy in his newest book, The Nature of Oaks.

Those caterpillars in turn are critical food for even seed-eating birds who busily stuff caterpillars down the craws of demanding nestling babies after they hatch. So if you are a seed-eating song sparrow or goldfinch, the adult parent is pushing insects into the beaks of their babies, giving their babies the protein packets they need to mature; caterpillars are a hugely important food for nestling birds, as they don’t yet have the exoskeleton of their adults, so they are more readily digested.

It’s a simple equation: more oaks, more bugs, and more bugs, more birds.

Then there are acorns, food for dozens of species of birds, mammals, insects, and more. While the birds include nuthatches, woodpeckers, titmice, towhees, crows, and more, blue jays have a special relationship with oaks: a jay will carry an acorn up to a mile away to cache it underground, storing it for the winter ahead. An industrious jay buries 4,500 acorns every fall—and either can’t use them all, forgets where some are planted, or perishes during the winter. Leftover acorns buried underground then sprout. So jay populations are supported by oaks, but jays in turn are essential dispersers of oak trees.

Acorns also make up almost 75 percent of a deer’s late fall diet, and you’ve likely dodged gray squirrels crossing streets to bury acorns like the jays do. But flying squirrels, opossums, raccoons, white-footed mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and even that black bear that crossed the Wissahickon a few years back all eat acorns too. 

Lots of you are likely worried about climate change—or I hope you are. Of all their peers, oaks are about the best at sequestering—storing—carbon and locking it away. A long-lived tree, oaks remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for centuries, and as trees with densely-packed cells, which makes oak the wood we love so much, pack away more than most. Its deep and extensive root system with a huge mycorrhizae network also pushes carbon underground, where it is stored for hundreds, some think thousands, of years. “Simply put,” concludes Tallamy, “every oak you plant and nurture helps to moderate our rapidly deteriorating climate better than the overwhelming majority of plant species.”

The huge leaf network of mature oaks, along with its roots, are excellent for capturing stormwater too, another one of the signature environmental threats of this day. An oak tree’s leaves, one study showed, held onto 3,000 gallons of water that evaporated before it reached the ground.

On top of all this, oaks, like all trees, filter air from smog, cool it in the summer, shade our homes, block excessive winds, and more.

An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Which is why the Schuylkill Center will plant seven trees on Earth Day.

And this year, all those trees were oaks, the essential tree in Pennsylvania forests. We hope you’ll join us in planting oaks across the region too, even in your front or backyard.

 

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Hopping and Hoping: Toads on the road

Why did hundreds of toads cross the road on a rainy Wednesday night? 

As ever, to get to the other side; migration season is in full swing. 

Every year in late March and early April, the amphibians wake from hibernation to mate and lay eggs, and they begin the treacherous journey from Schuylkill Center forests to the Roxborough reservoirs and back. The most treacherous part? Crossing Port Royal Avenue, often during evening rush hour. The toads mostly move in dusk and darkness to avoid animal predators—but that method doesn’t work so well for cars.  

by Kevin Kissling

Sixteen years ago, a group of volunteers set out to give these toads safe passage across the road, by erecting barricades and redirecting traffic around Port Royal Avenue. The Schuylkill Center took over this program three years in and has been running it ever since, under the affectionate name “Toad Detour.” It’s the largest volunteer operation we have, and folks come back year after year to participate.

It’s a great opportunity to have fun, learn more about amphibians and save the future, so to speak,” says Paulina Le, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Schuylkill Center.Toad Detour makes people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.” They come for nights full of the camaraderie of shared purpose, and for quiet, excited observation of the toads’ epic undertaking. As volunteer Sandy Brubaker describes it, she “Really enjoy[s] hearing them first, usually leaves rustling on the side of the road, and then seeing that first one!” Longtime volunteer leader Ed Wickham agrees, saying “I never tire seeing and hearing the toads, frogs and toadlets every year. They are my first sign of spring like the cherry blossoms or snow geese.”

How do they know when toads may make an appearance? First the weather has to be warm enough—the ground temperature needs to be consistently around 55°F—and ideally a bit wet or rainy. But the most telling sign: the male toads will begin their mating call, a high pitched trill that sounds through the night. This is a cue for volunteers to take to the streets. 

A male and female toad in “amplexus,” or their mating position, as they cross the road. Photo by Kevin Kissling

On the evening of Wednesday, March 31, no fewer than 543 live toads crossed the road, assiduously counted by our volunteers. (A few pickerel frogs also showed up to the party.) Counting the toads helps us track the size and health of local toad populations—which in turn indicates the health of the entire habitat. The numbers also make an online tool created by a long-time volunteer, the “Toad Predictor,” more accurate. While we don’t yet submit the numbers formally to a database as you might for migrating birds or butterflies, documenting the toads supports the necessity for road barriers.

And this is only part one of the journey: The eggs laid in the reservoirs will hatch three to 12 days later, and once the tadpoles mature into toadlets (tiny toads the size of your fingernail), they cross the road once more to get back to their terrestrial home territory. “They have tough lives,” Wickham says. “Only a very small percent of toads born become adults. To have a big female toad survive against all odds then be killed by a car is tragic.” So he has one final plea for you: “Please volunteer. Please volunteer often. Volunteers that show up many times a year every year are so valuable. They rescue more toads than anyone else.”

Sometimes volunteers use buckets to more effectively and safely transport toads across the street, and sometimes they use them to protect toads hopping their way over outside of the barrier zone. Photo by Colleen DiCola

As more and more nature centers throughout the country take up similar toad and amphibian detour operations, some also engineer special wildlife bridges and tunnels. As Paulina says, “Many folks are adapting the principle of living with the environment, not against it.” The toads, after all, “have been here longer than humans have”—and they’re certainly not going to let a road get in their way. 

 

—Emily Sorensen

 

 

Further resources:

Sign up to be a Toad Detour volunteer

Check out our Facebook Group 

What does the toad say? By Clare Morgan 

Watch Doug Wechsler’s Thursday Night L!VE talk on the life of a toad

Read a review of Wechsler’s book The Hidden Life of a Toad (available in our Nature Gift Shop)

Purchase the Toad Detour DVD