Plant an Earth Day Tree

Earth Day returns on Thursday, April 22, 2021, the 51st anniversary of the seminal event that changed the world by giving birth to the modern environmental movement. To commemorate the day, the Schuylkill Center invites you to join us in performing a powerful, even radical act that day:

We’d like you to plant a tree..

Because trees are critical weapons in the fight against the city’s three largest environmental issues: climate change, the loss of biological diversity, and the scourge of raging stormwater.

To cool the climate, we need more trees. Trees shade our homes and streets, mitigating the effect of that urban heat island you’ve likely heard so much about—the sun shines down on rooftops and asphalt, heats up, and gives off that heat at night, keeping us much warmer than we’d otherwise be. Trees also sequester carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere and replacing it with oxygen. 

Last fall, the Schuylkill Center’s Steve Goin (right) planted a swamp white oak at the center in honor of Kris Soffa (left) in honor of her long record of service to the Roxborough community

Our planet’s biological diversity is plummeting, and trees are important here too. Yes, squirrels and robins nest in trees, but more importantly, native trees are essential food for literally thousands of species of insects, the small creatures that hold up the world. Just one oak, for example, can be home to more than 500 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars. Imagine that. And those caterpillars, in turn, are required food for most bird species hereabouts, as parent birds pluck caterpillars to stuff down the maws of their nestlings. More oak trees, more insects; more insects, more birds. But the tree must be a Pennsylvania native to have the diversity upside. 

Climate-fueled storms send stormwater pouring off our rooftops and gutters, into streets, and into our streams, where they carve massive erosion gullies. Large trees act as giant umbrellas protecting the land from erosion, and holding back rainwater, which takes hours to work its way down through the millions of leaves in a large tree. Oaks, it turns out, are better at this than most trees too.

Trees do so much more than these three things, but combating climate change while supporting biodiversity and ameliorating stormwater are three great ways to honor Earth Day.

On Thursday, April 22, the Schuylkill Center is dedicating a portion of our land as the Earth Day Forest, and will inaugurate that forest with plantings dedicated by our Nature Preschool students and families. We’ll also be planting a tree in Roxborough that afternoon, and we’ve invited 20 organizations—civic associations, schools, churches, community groups—to plant one as well. 

And we’d love to include you in the fun. Please plant a tree for Earth Day—any time on and around April 22 works—and tag us in your social media. Let’s all share the love. If you belong to a local organization, maybe convince them to sponsor a tree in the community.

There are many sources of native trees, including nurseries, conservation group’s tree sales, arboreta, the Tree Philly program, even the Schuylkill Center; our plants are on our website right now. But if shopping at, say, a big box store, be careful, as they still still stock many nonnatives with little, even no, wildlife value. Their trees are also typically shipped from large nurseries outside of Pennsylvania, making them less adjusted to local growing conditions. But if you go, you’re asking for native oaks, black cherries, willows, birches, maples, and more. If in doubt, ask your favorite naturalist at a nature center for help.

Thornless Honeylocust

By buying at the Schuylkill Center or Tree Philly, you are ensuring that the plant’s provenance is as closely matched to the Philadelphia area as possible.

And maybe you have a small yard? There are many modest trees and shrubs perfect for small spaces that support biological diversity as well—there are even modest and small-sized oaks that won’t overpower your yard and are wonderfully long-lived. Check out redbud, another modest tree with a big upside, as it blossoms a wonderful pink color in the spring. There are numerous books that can help you, a plethora of websites, too, and your nature center friends.

I hope you will join me in planting Earth Day trees, a powerful act to mark an important day.

 

Mike Weilbacher

 

The Real March Madness

It’s hugely exciting times for college hoops fans, awash in basketball games where they breathlessly wait to see if, oh, the Grand Canyon University Antelopes beat the Iowa Hawkeyes, or if Creighton holds off UCSB, whatever that is. Wait, there is a Grand Canyon University?!

Some $1.5 billion will be bet legally over all the new gambling apps, almost 40 million Americans will fill out those brackets, gallons of newspaper ink will be spilled, and sports analysts will natter on for hours. “Bracketology” will trend on Twitter; coaches’ heads will roll. 

Over 19-year-old kids playing hoops. Welcome to March Madness. 

Meanwhile, receiving no fanfare at all, nature in March is simply exploding. Flowers have already begun opening, an elegant parade blooming in an orchestrated sequence begun back in February when skunk cabbages poked through the mud in wet areas, purple mottled hoods protecting a Sputnik-shaped flower. Just this week, the buds of red maples have popped to reveal tiny wind-pollinated flowers, little red spiders dangling from tree branches.  

Red maple

Sure, on our lawns there are snowdrops and crocuses and daffodils and tulips. But our forests will be bursting with ephemeral wildflowers with names as evocative as the flowers are stunning: trout lily, Jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot, shooting star, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal… With all apologies to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (whose show is delayed and outdoors this year—great idea), here’s the real flower show.

Meanwhile, migrating birds are undergoing their own rite of spring, flying through in  progression, red-winged blackbirds and phoebes now, ruby-throated hummingbirds later. Waves of woodland warblers—tiny but unbelievably exquisite creatures wearing extraordinary coats of many colors—pass through like clockwork, pine and prairie warblers right now, blackpolls bringing up the rear at season’s end. And they are passing through in their breeding plumage, essentially wearing  their Sunday best for us. Just Google “Blackburnian warbler”: is there a prettier animal anywhere?

Blackburnian warbler

And while some of these birds are staying for the summer, many are heading to nesting grounds far north of here—think Adirondacks and Canada—only visiting the region for a few days on their journeys north and south. Blink and they’re gone. 

Those birds that nest here—cardinals and chickadees, titmice and robins—will be calling their love songs. One of my favorite sounds of spring is the first moment I hear a wood thrush. A cousin of the robin, the thrush’s song is like organ pipes or flute music: it is simply stunning, and stops me in my tracks every spring. 

Butterflies soon begin awakening, mourning cloaks first, painted ladies soon, swallowtails in late April, and monarchs, just now leaving Mexico, much later.  

Hibernators are crawling out of dens ready to start the new year. Already, painted turtles are basking alongside Fire Pond near the front door of the Schuylkill Center, and American toads will soon be crossing Port Royal Avenue on a dark and stormy night to get to their mating grounds up in the old reservoir across the road. And any day now I expect to see the first groundhog of the season, likely nibbling on roadside grass blades, likely on that high bench of lawn along Hagy’s Mill Road, on the old Water Department land.

That’s the real March madness, that here we are, on the very first days of spring, having survived another wild and wooly winter, having been stuck in lockdown and freeze-down and ice-down, and we’re not betting on the first day a phoebe arrives from the tropics or the first day a mourning cloak butterfly flitters into view. We’re not inviting friends over for a beer to watch our crocuses unfold. We’re not sitting in lawn chairs to admire the red blush of flowers blooming across the maples on our street.

We’re not writing in our brackets which species migrates through first, the yellow-rumped warbler or the great crested flycatcher. 

No, we’re debating whether David, the 16th-seeded Drexel Dragons, can slay the Goliath of Illinois, the Big 10 champions and top seed in the Midwest. (OK, here I relent: go Drexel!)

The struggle for me as an environmental educator is that, as a nation, as a culture, we have collectively decided, quietly but definitively, that college basketball matters. Just look at the air time. The ink space. Heck, coaches’ salaries—in many states, athletic coaches are the highest paid state employees.

But nature? Not so much. Sure, it gets a weekly high-quality hour on PBS, but how are those spring wildflowers doing? How are migrating birds faring? How are those monarch butterflies doing, actually on the bubble as a species? Where’s the Nature section of the city newspaper? The culture has spoken, and nature is far, far down our list.

There’s another part of this madness: nature’s elegant springtime succession of flowers blossoming, trees leafing out, and birds migrating is in disarray because the symphony has a new conductor. While climate change is rearranging ancient patterns to an as-yet-unknown effect, the biggest experiment in the history of a planet…

… we’re glued to TV sets arguing over who’s better, Gonzaga or Baylor.  

So the real flower show has already started outdoors, in your backyard, in a forest near you. But we’re stuck inside filling out brackets.  

That’s just madness.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Sarah West Says the Wissahickon Rocks!

While the pandemic has forced so many of us to retreat into the virtual world of Zoom calls and GoToMeetings, our counterbalance has been—correctly—to flood into green spaces like the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill Center. Parks everywhere have seen visitation rise as people turn to nature for its balm and healing. Still, it’s hard to socially distance in the Wissahickon, one of the most unusual and naturally beautiful places in the city.

And wildly unique geologically. 

As spring begins to—sorry—spring and leaves finally pop out on trees, these are the last weeks to get great unobstructed views of the rocks that line the gorge. So read this column, then walk the Wissahickon with a new eye to the extraordinary forces that formed the landscape.

I talked last week with local geology expert Sarah West, one of our neighbors at Cathedral Village and a longtime Trail Ambassador with Friends of the Wissahickon. She developed—and has passed along to the next generation—geological walking tours, some of which are offered online on the FOW website.

As an earth science teacher, she went to a summer program for science teachers at Chestnut Hill College in 1985, where they took the group for a geology walk in the Wissahickon, “The trip was so fascinating,” she recalled, “but the teachers talked so fast and in such language that a few of us thought we should really translate this into language that people can understand. From that workshop I was inspired to start writing geology for the common folk.”

The result was a self-published book that came out in the early 90s featuring both the geology and the history of the Wissahickon valley. At about the same time, “Chestnut Hill College asked me to do geology walks for their students. We’d start at Valley Green and walk along the east side as far as the Rex Avenue bridge.” She began offering these walks for FOW, Mt. Airy Learning Tree, the Schuylkill Center and other groups, and Shawn Green, FOW’s Volunteer Manager, calls her walks “famous.” 

“It’s a fascinating place,” she told me, “with close to the same number of rock types that you find out West like in the Grand Canyon.” Plus, she continued, “the Wissahickon is a backward stream. Think about it: most streams start in a mountain gorge and end in gently rolling land. The Wissahickon starts in gently rolling land and ends in a mountain gorge. The rock types change abruptly as you get to the gorge.” For Sarah, this is a clear signal that something is different.

Sarah’s Rock in the Wissahickon valley, a banded gneiss formed 10 miles underground.

Remember that the earth’s crust rests on plates that are slowly rearranging themselves. Wissahickon’s rock outcrops are “the roots of an ancient massive mountainous land,” more than 500 million years old. The rocks were laid down at the bottom of an ancient ocean, the Iapetus, who in mythology is the father of Atlantis. As the continents collided long ago, as Europe and Africa pushed against North America “at the rate your fingernails grow,” she noted, this ocean closed, and the collision raised the Appalachian Mountains, that chain found inland down the entire east coast. 

As the ocean closed, the rocks in the Wissahickon “got adhered to the North American continent.” So they are rocks from somewhere else that got pushed here as plates rearranged themselves.  

“Think of the Mediterranean Sea,” she explained, “which is a closing ocean. And whenever you have a closing ocean, you get a mountain range. Land masses like Italy and Sicily are stranded in this closing ocean; Italy is already stuck to Europe.” In fact, Italy’s collision is still pushing up the Alps; Sicily’s Etna is erupting even as I write.

One of the signature rocks in the valley is this schist, a metamorphic rock, loaded with mica flakes. “The schist started as clays formed in some kind of body of water, like a marshy area or delta, and became compacted. As plates moved, they got caught up in the collision, got heated up, pressured.” Because it was heated so slowly over so much time, many crystals have formed, not just mica, but garnets, which you can easily see in many schists in the valley. “My house in Mt. Airy had a big garnet in one rock, and lots of little ones.” In fact, much of the region’s houses (like my own) are built from mica schist. 

Gneiss is another common Wissahickon rock, including a large one the FOW ambassadors have dubbed Sarah’s Rock, as it is her favorite. Gneiss is a family of rocks characterized by strong banding, and often those bands are twisted and turned, showing you the deformation forces deep underground as the rock was formed. “Sarah’s Rock probably descended from schist, and formed 10 miles down, and has worked its way to the surface slowly over the last 250,000 years,” as the rocks above it were slowly eroded down.

There’s so much more to write, and places for you to learn. On FOW’s website, check out Sarah’s “Gems of the Wissahickon” in the Creekside Classroom section—it gives the full picture. FOW’s Shawn Green notes that “Sarah often refers to herself as a ‘student of the Wissahickon,’ and she makes everyone she meets want to be the same.” Hope you will too.

 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

The First Wildflower of Spring is…Skunk Cabbage?

March comes in like a lion, the old saw says, but the last thing any of us needs right now is for March to roar in this; after the winter we’ve been through, we’re all completely exhausted by snow and ice. I’ll take a heaping helping of lamb instead, please, thank you very much.

And right now I’ll also take whatever sign of spring I can. Which explains why I ran outside last week when I heard the familiar honking of Canada geese overhead. I looked up, and there they were: two low-flying skeins of geese in beautiful V-formation flying exactly due north– avian compasses telling me spring is coming. 

In that same vein, desperately seeking spring, I hiked the Schuylkill Center’s Ravine Loop two Saturdays ago, slogging through the snow and ice in search of the very first wildflower of spring, which blooms right about now, amazingly.

It’s skunk cabbage, named for its large stinky leaves—that strong chemical keeps herbivores like deer at bay. Its leaves aren’t up yet—they come later—but I was looking for its flowers, as the plant blooms surprisingly early, as early as late February. And the flower is tucked inside a small mottled purple hood that resembles something like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter universe. Incredibly, this hood is thermogenic, which means it is able to generate heat to melt the snow and ice around it. Temperatures around the hood are as much as 60° higher than the air around it. Crazy, no?

But that purple hood isn’t the flower. No, tucked inside the hood is a Sputnik-like knobby orb, rather Klingon-ish. Those knobs, unsexy as they are, are its flowers. And the flowers reek too, but a different smell, one akin to rotting flesh. This serves a huge purpose: attracting its pollinators, the flies and bees that scavenge on dead and rotting flesh. They crawl into the hood looking for dead meat, crawl over and across the yellow knobs, and accidentally pollinate the flower—a highly effective strategy. The purple mottling of its hood is surprisingly common in the pant world, as lots of plants have learned how to imitate dead flesh as a means of seduction.

And one of its pollinators is a blowfly with the wonderful species name of vomitoria. Need we say more?

Oh, the heat accomplishes multiple functions; it not only melts the ice around it, critical at this time of year, but also helps disseminate the smell. And pollinators are likely to come into the hood seeking the warmth that it generates. 

After blooming, its bright green leaves come up as well, some almost two feet long, their cabbage-like appearance lending the plant its name. 

As if all this were not cool enough, the plant’s stems remain buried below the surface, contracting as they grow, effectively pulling the stem deeper into the mud. In effect, it is an upside-down plant, the stem growing downward. As the plant grows, the stem burrows deeper, making older plants practically impossible to dig up. 

Sadly, I did not find skunk cabbage on that walk—I was just a little too early. So I’m going again this weekend, and invite you to do the trek yourself. Ask our receptionist for a Center map, and hike through the butterfly meadow, turning right and heading downhill on Ravine Loop. The loop makes a big left turn when it hits Smith Run, our lovely small stream, and it’s at that exact corner that you’ll see the skunk cabbage. Turn left to parallel the stream, then look on your left immediately for the wet, soggy, muddy spots—and the hoods will be interspersed in there. 

At that same corner and all along this stretch of the Ravine Loop, skunk cabbage will soon be joined by a raft of stunning flowers, the more traditional spring wildflowers with bold colors and big smells that look to entice the first butterflies and bees of spring. They’ve got sweet names too: spring beauty, Virginia bluebell, trout lily, trillium, Jack-in- the-pulpit, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal. Colorful names. And great sights for very winter-weary eyes.

They’re coming, I promise! But for now, come see the first flowers of the coming season. And happy almost-spring.

 

—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

News Flash: Beavers in Roxborough!

One of the feel-good stories on the environmental scene is the rewilding of large cities like Philadelphia, where suddenly peregrine falcons nest in church steeples and on Delaware River bridges, bald eagles pull large fish out of the Schuylkill River, and coyotes amble down Domino Lane.

In that vein, members of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy were somewhat startled to discover that the restoration plantings they’ve doggedly placed along the Schuylkill River have been devoured by…beavers! Wait, beavers in Roxborough?

Once extirpated—a fancy word meaning locally extinct—across Pennsylvania, hunted because their fur was remarkably valuable and because we did not appreciate their ability to rearrange landscapes to their own ends. But beavers have been returning to our state over the last century, and have been seen along Tacony and Pennypack Creeks since about 2008. And now they have taken up residence in the Schuylkill River and Manayunk Canal around Flat Rock Dam.

“I first noticed beavers and their lodge in the winter of 2018,” observed Suzanne Hagner, Roxborough resident and member of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy, “as I rode out the Schuylkill River Trail towards Shawmont. I could see where they had worn down a path into the woods on the far side of the trail and I guessed that was where they were going for food.” The lodge was near Flat Rock Dam, and they have been spotted—and photographed—as far down as Lock Street and as far up as past Shawmont Avenue, both in the canal and along the river.

“You can see their work from Lock to Cotton streets,” added Kay Sykora, another key Conservancy member, “particularly in the Cotton Street area; look for the damage on the banks and trees.” She offered that there was a “small dam in the wetlands near the upper locks” but that may have been damaged by heavy storms. Tom Landsmann, president of the Conservancy, offers that “the very best place to see the beaver or signs of the beaver’s visits is from the river. Take a kayak or paddle board and look for the damaged bark or the lodges. Look just above the flat rock dam on the Philly side, but on the Lower Merion side and up river as well. Can’t miss it.”

They famously cut down saplings and trees with their chisel-like teeth, building dams and lodges with the branches, chewing the inner bark of trees as their favored food source. That tree-cutting, of course, can sometimes interfere with our own good work.

“Beavers have good taste in trees,” Tom added, tongue in cheek. “They ate over 60 trees we planted along the canal last year. But we adjusted. Last spring, we painted the uneaten trees with latex paint mixed with a lot of sand,” the grit distasteful to the large rodents. “Many of the damaged trees grew out again this summer,” he continued. “We wrapped those trees in cages this fall. We installed 130 cages along the canal near both sides of Fountain Street.”

Bernard “Billy” Brown, author of Grid magazine’s Urban Naturalist column, told me that, in addition to the cages, Riverfront North, a group doing restoration work along Pennypack Creek, “has planted species that can rebound well after being cut down by beavers, like willow species in particular.”

The Conservancy recently hosted a walk-through of the area with a self-described “beaver believer” they brought in from central PA, and their takeaway was similar. “The other approach which I believe we will have to do,” continued Kay, “is to rethink our plantings. We need to put in more herbaceous plants on the impacted banks and see if we can add things like willows to the upper wetland areas to keep them in that area, which is better suited for them and for us.”

Suzanne Hagner agrees. “There are plants, several species of low growing willow that beavers eat that we can plant and hopefully, if we get them planted soon, we can entice the beavers to move further out the trail” and away from their restoration plantings.

Billy Brown has been writing about the beaver’s return to Philadelphia for a while now. “As a reaction, I’ll say that beavers and their return to Philadelphia show the importance of waterways in connecting urban habitat with the surrounding landscape. I think most people under-appreciate how severely our system of roads isolates habitat, an issue the Schuylkill Center contends with the Toad Detour project, for example. Waterways and the green corridors around them are exceptions to the fragmentation of habitat in urban landscapes. The ability of beavers to quickly disperse through the city shows that. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to imagine how different our urban ecosystems would be if we could more broady connect to the surrounding landscape.”

Suzanne Hagner has been reading up on beaver, passing books along to Conservancy members. “They are amazingly skilled at creating waterways and irrigation systems that lead to ecological health,” she said. “Our consultant offered that the return of the beavers was a very good sign in our area, as the beaver is an ecological system in itself. I had lived in Washington state, and had heard that beavers were being reintroduced in eastern Washington to help curb the arid areas that are prone to wildfires.”

“The return of the beaver,” notes Kay Sykora, “along with a wide range of wildlife like herons and turtles underscores the health of our river area, once one of the most damaged and polluted rivers in the country. Beaver were virtually trapped out of existence for their fur, and there was no understanding of the role they played in the environmental balance of nature. They are key to the health of our wetland areas and the range of wildlife that needs those areas to survive.”

Go for a walk along the Schuylkill River Trail, and find for yourself the pointed chiseled ends of tree trunks along the canal and river. It’s evidence of Roxborough’s newest neighbor, the beaver.

 

—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Photo/Video by Linda Lee McGinnis

TreeVitalizing Our Forests

By Drew Rinaldi Subits, Land Stewardship Coordinator

You may have recently noticed a large clearing across the trail from Pine Grove, which has been steadily cleared and then mowed and maintained throughout the Spring and Summer months. If you have been there more recently, you may have noticed fencing and a young grove of trees and shrubs.

This newest planting effort was possible through the collaboration of our Land and Facilities team, a state-funded tree planting grant initiative from TreeVitalize, and a RJ Carbone, a local young man looking to complete his Eagle Scout project.

For the past five years, the Schuylkill Center has been the recipient of one these TreeVitalize grants which is intended to promote and develop sustainable urban forestry programs within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  We have planting sites all over the property, typically marked by black plastic deer fencing, that helps protect the young, relatively fragile trees.  The Land and Facilities team was certainly excited for this particular location as it is one of the most visible and popular sites on the property, just down the trail from the Hagy’s Mill parking lot and across from the well-known Pine Grove.  

Previously this planting site had been a grove of the equally infamous Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia elata), one of the more common, pesky, and aggressive invasive tree stands in our region.  These ecosystem dominators thrive by using rhizome root structures which means the roots continually spread and rapidly create new tree shoots underground in all directions.  In areas such as this, they quickly become the only species left standing, and totally outgrow, outcompete, and out-resource all other species, especially eco-precious natives.

These tree planting efforts came together on a beautiful September morning when Boy Scout Troop 177 of Wyndmoor, PA supported RJ in completing his Eagle Scout project.  There were a total of 51 people throughout the day, logging a total of 221 volunteer hours, to plant and mulch 100 native trees and 40 shrubs.  The team also constructed a deer fence around the perimeter of the entire planting site to give the young trees a fighting chance in this disrupted urban forest environment.

The planting was a great success, thanks to the efforts of all those involved, the Land and Facilities team, RJ’s planning, execution, and general leadership of a large group of eager helpers from Troop 177, and of course the crucial financial support of the TreeVitalize program.  It is these continued efforts that will make the difference and go a long way to ensure the slow and steady reforestation and next generation of forest canopy and native local ecosystems.  Many thanks to all involved, and here’s to the future forest!

 

Film Screening: The Story of Plastic

As if the pandemic, the economy, and racial justice were not enough to worry about, as if last week’s hot spell doesn’t remind us that climate change needs to be addressed too, the Schuylkill Center invites you to consider one more threat to your health and well-being: plastics.

On the cusp of the pandemic, Philadelphia was about to ban plastic bags in the city– something many neighboring municipalities have already done, as the rising tide of single-use plastics has come under increasing scrutiny. But plastic bags are just, pardon the pun, the tip of the plastic straw.

For our planet is drowning in plastic waste. Literally. A report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that “there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if drastic measures are not taken to move away from our disposable plastic culture.” Today, the world consumes an estimated five trillion plastic bags per year, with only about 1% being recycled. We have produced more plastic bags in the last decade than we did in the previous century.

And don’t get me started about single use plastic water bottles. 

Worse, studies confirm that people are ingesting thousands of microplastic particles year after year, in our food and in our water– yes, microplastics flow through our drinking water– and that human blood carries with it some of the most persistent and toxic chemicals associated with plastic. What all this is doing to our health and well-being is a rising concern. 

To address the issue, a new documentary, “The Story of Plastic,” has been released, and the Schuylkill Center is offering free virtual screenings. When you go to our website at www.schuylkillcenter.org and register for the event, you will receive the link to the screening– which you watch privately whenever you’d like.

On Thursday, July 30, join me at 7 p.m. for a live Zoom conversation about the movie and the issue.

The film takes a sweeping look at the crisis of plastic pollution and its effect on both people and planet. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe: fields full of garbage, mountains  of trash, rivers and seas clogged with waste, and skies choked with the poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing. With engaging original animation, archival footage beginning in the ‘30s, and first-person accounts, the film shines a bright light on this increasingly important issue.

Many people– including concerned Schuylkill Center staff and members– have already been reducing the amount of single-use plastics we consume, forgoing water bottles, sandwich bags, produce bags and those ubiquitous shopping bags for permanent products. Water bottles are easy, but weaning yourself off shopping bags can be quite the challenge. And there is much more to do.

The plastics industry has long promoted the idea that recycling is the best way to keep plastic out of the landfill, but more than 90% of all the plastic ever produced has not been recycled. Plastic is far more likely to end up in landfills, incinerators, or in the environment than to be recycled, and recycling systems cannot keep up with the huge volume of plastic waste being generated. Plastic recycling is always complicated– you need to first unlock the secret code on the bottom of your yogurt container and then remember which numbered plastic your municipality takes.

Consequently, much of the plastic we ship to recycling facilities– usually in China– are hopelessly contaminated with the wrong plastics. And too much of our plastic is “downcycled” anyway, turned into products like plastic lumber, which itself is not recyclable; neither is that down jacket made from spun plastic bottles. While that one more use is better, it is not classic recycling, where an aluminum can becomes an aluminum can becomes an aluminum can…

While soda and water bottles, milk jugs, and laundry detergent containers are commonly recycled, recycling rates are still shockingly low: half of the PET sold (PET is the plastic in bottles) is never collected for recycling, and only 7% of those bottles collected for recycling are turned into new bottles. 

This has an impact on nature, of course, in addition to the infamous photos of animals like seals and turtles with six-pack rings choking their necks. Earlier this year, a sperm whale washed ashore in Spain, having died from ingesting 64 pounds of plastic debris. Carcasses of sea birds on remote islands have been found– decomposed– with a pile of plastic where their guts would have been; they pick bright floating objects off the ocean surface, which are not jellyfish or dead fish, but are plastics, and die as a result.

The rising tide of plastics is not the happiest story, of course, but it is  an important one, perhaps even a necessary one, as that microplastic floating in your gut and those plastic chemicals in your blood present yet-unknown consequences. Join the conversation; go to our website. See you Thursday on Zoom.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Year of Action: Join us in Taking Action

By Mike Weilbacher

contratsting planet (1)The New Year 2020 promises to be pivotal on a number of fronts, but especially the environment. The increasing urgency of the climate crisis has sparked higher levels of activism by new, youth-led groups like the Sunrise Movement. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s lonely 2018 climates strike in front of the Swedish parliament have blossomed into climate strikes of millions of kids skipping school across the world.

The presidential election near the year’s end promises to be not only loud, but will have an out sized impact on environmental policy, with major implications for how America, and thus the world, responds to climate change.

But 2020 also marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Philadelphia was center stage for Earth Days in 1970 and 1990, and the global holiday is now credited with launching the environmental movement. Celebrated by over a billion people each year, this April’s Earth Day promises to be huge.

In recognition of all of the above, the Schuylkill Center declares 2020 as our Year of Action and will flavor much of our programming– including our own Earth Day festival– around this concept. Nature Preschoolers will take relevant actions; our Art Department will join in the fun too. So will Land and Facilities, and many programs coming from our Education team.

We’re also asking you to take personal actions at home and in your workplace. 

How can you personally assist in cooling the climate and preserving species?

We assume as a member and friend of our Center, you likely recycle and conserve water and electricity, probably try to create less waste. So what next? Say you’d like to step up in our Year of Action– thank you! What might you do?

Share your plans at scee@schuylkillcenter.org

 

 

2019 Bird Census Results

by Ben Vizzachero, Environmental Educator

On the morning of June 1st, staff and volunteers completed the Schuylkill Center’s Nesting Bird Survey. Birders of all experience levels come out to participate in this annual citizen science project. Birding is one of the most popular ways to engage with the natural world. Read this article by Jack Connor to learn more about why birding is so great (warning: you may shed a tear).

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

To complete the count, participants break up into five groups and walk through all major areas of the Schuylkill Center’s property. As they go, they count all birds they can identify by sounds or sight. This year, participants also decided to begin recording notes about breeding behavior, using a standardized set of breeding codes. Each code refers to a specific categorized observation and can indicate confirmed breeding activity (such as finding a nest with eggs), probably breeding activity (such as breeding displays or territorial behavior), or potential breeding behavior (such as a singing male). All this information is entered into ebird.org, which makes it available to the public and researchers studying population and migration trends. Years of Schuylkill Center bird surveys allow us to recognize long term changes in abundance.

Male American Redstart

Male American Redstart

This year, participants detected many declining migratory songbirds, including Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Veery, American Redstart, and Eastern Towhee. They confirmed breeding activity for 14 species including Blue Jay, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, House Finch, Field Sparrow, Common Grackle, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, and Northern Cardinal.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

House Finch

House Finch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One volunteer detected a possible Red-tailed Hawk nest location on the north side of Meigs run. Other highlights including a singing Warbling Vireo, a pair of Willow Flycatchers, a Prairie Warbler, and a pair of flyover Greater Black-backed Gulls.

Red Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk

Unfortunately, participants did not detect a number of expected migrants, including Eastern Phoebe, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. These absences may be indicative of widespread migratory songbird declines.

Overall, this year’s Bird Survey was a success: we compiled an admirable amount of data, and had fun in the process! Birding is both a great recreational pastime and an important avenue for citizen science. We encourage you to go outside and look up at the sky today–you may be surprised by how many birds you see, and how much diversity!

Photographing faces in the forest

When I go for a nature walk in a local forest, I see trees, birds, flowers, deer.

Not photographer Willard Terry.

When he goes for a walk — which he does a lot — he sees faces, lots of faces, incredible faces. Gnomes, ghosts, demons, animals, dinosaurs, people, aliens, all staring at him from tree trunks, tree roots, broken branches, gnarly bark, rock walls, even fence posts and barn siding.

Amazingly, once you start looking for them, there are faces everywhere.

And Terry has been photographing them.

He just published a book, “Pareidolia: Spirits and Faces of the Wissahickon and Schuylkill Valleys,” which will soon be available in the Schuylkill Center’s gift shop (and on Terry’s website as soon as he sets one up). The book’s title, pronounced parr-i-DOH-li-ah, while a mouthful, is the phenomenon in psychology whereby people see patterns in inanimate objects — like trees — and turn them into things they are not. The Man in the Moon is perhaps the best known example of pareidolia.

I visited Terry in his Port Royal Avenue home just before the winter solstice, where the retired school teacher — he taught at Germantown Friends for 30 years — was preparing for his annual solstice party. His wife, Holly, also a retired school teacher, also a veteran of Quaker schools (she at Plymouth Meeting Friends), were preparing for a celebration with their three sons, all of whom work in the arts.

They’ve lived in their 1840s-era home for more than 30 years and have been careful and conscious stewards of their historic home and barn. But they’ve brought that home into a greener future, their front porch including a portable hoop garden bed where the couple is growing salad greens — in December — and their wood stove reduces their reliance on fossil fuels, which is admirable.

Terry walks “seven or eight miles a day, consistently over 50 miles a week,” he told me, much of it at the Schuylkill Center’s sprawling property across the street and along the Wissahickon.

“Years before I retired, I used to run,” he said, but after an injury forced him to reconsider that activity, “now I walk a lot, and walking has made me more observant.”

He took me and his dog, Lily, to visit a maple tree at the Schuylkill Center just off Port Royal, where he had his “aha moment.” He had walked past this tree many times, but one day, the wizened face of a gnome frowning at him “just popped out at me,” as the bark’s bumps and gnarls formed a cranky face. He’s since photographed the maple many times and in the book includes a photo of the tree in winter, a dusting of snow giving his gnome a bad case of dandruff. The book’s bio page features an action shot his son took of Terry photographing the gnome.

Photographer Terry Willard pauses on his walk next to the maple tree that started it all, the one with the gnarly gnomish face

Photographer Willard Terry pauses on his walk next to the maple tree that started it all, the one with the gnarly gnomish face

Willard Terry sees an anteater in this branch

Willard Terry sees an anteater in this branch

Where Terry sees a unicorn, the author sees a camel. What do you see?

Where Terry sees a unicorn, the author sees a camel. What do you see?

 

 

“Once I started photographing faces,” he reflected, “I became more aware of them. You’re sort of half looking, but then they jump out at you like a guy is suddenly staring at you.”

For example, he points to a Tyrannosaurus-shaped branch he’s walked by hundreds of times on the opposite side of Port Royal from his gnome tree — and suddenly he saw it, T. rex in profile.

When I asked him about the Freudian nature of seeing faces where none existed, he laughed.

“I looked this up on the internet,” he offered, always a dangerous thing to do, “and saw that while some people see this as a sign of instability, others see a more creative mind at work.”

(For the record, I’m going with the latter.)

He also noted it’s a bit of a Rorschach, like a photo he calls “Duck Dinner,” where two mallards on a pond look to me like they’re about to be eaten by a plesiosaur, an extinct reptile, but others see the branch emerging ominously from the water as just another duck. Not sure what this says about me … a sign of my own instability?

His photography embraces more than pareidolia.

“I’m interested in portraits and landscapes,” he said, “where I like to look for patterns,” like a photo he showed me of sycamore bark, its jigsaw puzzle-patterned bark always a favorite of mine.

He also loves to add a sense of humor to his work, like a framed color landscape photo in his home of a Mail Pouch tobacco ad painted on the side of a Pennsylvania barn, smoke rising from the barn as if it were a giant chimney — which it clearly is not. But hidden behind the barn is the cooling tower of the Limerick nuclear power plant, steam rising from it creating the optical illusion of the barn as a chimney.

While he first taught a sixth-grade class and then seventh-grade English, in retirement, he’s teaching a black-and-white film photography course back at Germantown Friends.

“The kids have never seen film before,” he chuckled. “They have no idea what it is.”

His pareidolia photographs have been displayed before and will appear in the Schuylkill Center’s upcoming “Community” exhibition later this winter. We hope you come see them then.

Meanwhile, Willard Terry will continue walking 50 miles a week in natural areas, finding faces where less creative people like me simply see bark and branches.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets@SCEEMike and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.