Bicycling with Butterflies

Author, educator, and “butterbiker” Sara Dykman observes a monarch sipping nectar on goldenrod during her epic 10,201-mile bike trip as she followed the butterfly’s migration.

Sara Dykman did something that no other human on this planet has ever done, or even thought to do. In 2017, she followed the entire migration route of monarch butterflies from their overwintering spot in Mexican mountains, north to Canada as far as monarchs go, and back to Mexico. Over a full year, she followed the butterflies.

On a bicycle. By herself. Logging 10,201 miles, to be exact. (That’s only like 40 miles each day.) Just amazing. And on a 1989 refurbished bicycle carrying 70 pounds of equipment. 

“Butterbiking,” she dubbed it, and rest assured no other person ever thought to accomplish such a remarkable feat. Happily, she turned her adventures into a book, “Bicycling with Butterflies” to share her story with us. On Thursday, April 14, at 7:00 p.m., Sara virtually visits the Center as part of its spring Thursday Night Live series. “Bicycling with Butterflies” is a free lecture; register for the event to receive the Zoom link. 

In an email conversation last week, I asked her why she did this unique feat– and how she keeps her answer to the “why” question fresh, as I am only the latest in a long line of thousands of people who have asked her this.

“I started biking with butterflies,” she told me, “to have an adventure and learn about the monarchs, but the more I learned, the more I realized that the monarchs needed me to be their voice. My tour became a publicity stunt to catch people’s attention and help them learn that the monarch’s migration could disappear if we don’t all plant habitat, especially milkweed, which is the only food source of the monarch caterpillar. And yes,” she continued, “it can get old answering the same questions, but that’s kinda the point. I just remember that every question can lead to another person noticing monarchs and possibly creating habitat to help save them.”

In her book, she recounts another question she was asked repeatedly, starting off in Mexico, “Estas solas?” people would ask. “Are you alone?” She told me that “I’ve turned this question into a joke. I always answer it by saying I wasn’t alone. I was with the butterflies.”  

At the moment, there are no monarchs in Philadelphia– yet. As Sara will recount, monarchs overwintering in Mexico fly into Texas, exhausted, and lay eggs on milkweed plants emerging there. Those next-generation monarchs push further north, so it may be several generations before we see them in late spring, early summer. But monarch populations have been plummeting in recent decades, threatening this unique migration phenomenon. 

“Monarchs have seen a downward decline,” she said, “mostly because of habitat loss and climate change.” Midwestern farm fields are routinely sprayed by herbicides that remove “weeds” like milkweed, and as milkweed populations drop, monarchs have been declining too. The butterfly is hit at the other end of its migration, too, as logging in Mexico’s mountains compromises the fir forest where they spend the winter. Of course, climate change upends their life cycle across all of North America. 

Climate change worries her “with every ounce of my being. The earth has found this incredible balance. The monarchs arrive (in Texas) just as milkweeds are emerging, that alone feels impossibly perfect. Then you think about the wind, rain, weather, every system really. They are all connected to give monarchs and their neighbors what they need. As the climate changes, this balance will be destroyed.”

As she met people on her butterbike five years ago, she was also routinely asked whether or not monarchs needed to be saved. I wondered if people were still asking that or has the needle moved on their story? “Sure, I think the needle is moving,” she responded. “People are starting to share their yards with their more-than-human neighbors, and more people than ever know about monarchs and their plight. But we need examples of new ways of living on every street in every town, because until we learn to share the earth the monarchs won’t be safe. On my tour, it was when I stayed with people that were planting gardens and sharing that I found the most hope. I think the monarchs are amazing because they give us a first step to helping the planet. All you have to do is grow a native garden.”

As we ended our exchange, she offered, “Monarchs are so generous. They will visit even a small garden (even a potted plant) if you give them the opportunity. They will help you be part of an adventure. They can be your teachers too, because they ask you to slow down and notice the world around you. And that world is really, extraordinarily wonderful.”

Join Sara on this adventure Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. and meet the world’s one and only butterbiker.

This week in climate. “Why are we talking about anything but climate change?” wonders Mary McNamara, culture columnist and critic with the Los Angeles Times, in a scathing op-ed piece. “Our ability to lower atmospheric temperature has thus far been flung to the four (now regularly hurricane-level) winds, because a few of us are making too much money from fossil fuels and the rest of us are busy weighing in on things like ‘cancel culture’ or what the film academy should do with Will Smith to notice that we are boiling ourselves to death.” She opined, “The first thing we need to do is stop using the term ‘climate change.’” It’s a climate crisis, she says, and of course she is dead-on.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Snakes, Turtles, and Toads, Oh My!

Why did the box turtle cross the road? Likely to lay her eggs, Bernard “Billy” Brown says.

While Philadelphia is a big, old, well-developed urban area, one of its many surprises is the abundant wildlife found not just in natural places like the Wissahickon, the Schuylkill Center, the John Heinz refuge, and more, but tucked into the many nooks and crannies across the city. Especially surprising might be the large number of reptiles and amphibians living alongside us as our natural neighbors.

One of our city’s most engaging naturalists, Bernard “Billy” Brown, will introduce you to many of our city’s creepy crawlies. On Thursday, April 7 at 7:00 p.m., Billy presents “Snakes, Turtles, and Toads, Oh My! Philadelphia’s Reptiles and Amphibians,” a free illustrated lecture that is part of our Thursday Night Live series. 

“Once I had home to classically wild spaces to look for these animals,” he told me, “and now I look wherever I happen to be.” He recounts finding red-backed salamanders under stones near the Art Museum and surprisingly common brown snakes in vacant lots across the city. 

Author of the monthly “Urban Naturalist” column in Grid magazine and co-host of the “Urban Wildlife” podcast, Billy has been “herping,” as friends of reptiles and amphibians call it, since he was a child growing up in the Columbus, Ohio area. “I’m hoping to give people some comfort and familiarity with creepy crawlies,” he said, “and hope that fosters a deeper connection that leads to conservation.” 

Familiarity with creatures like the black rat snake, “one of my favorites,” he said. “It’s one of the longest snakes in North America, is nice looking, and has a great vibe– it can be quite mellow while handling it. It’s a semi-arboreal snake; unlike other snakes it doesn’t panic when it’s picked up off the ground.

“If it weren’t for cars,” he continued, “we’d have black rat snakes everywhere. Since they eat warm-blooded prey like house sparrows and mice, there’s plenty of prey for them in the city. But they can’t cross roads well, so a five-foot black rat snake crossing Ridge Avenue is not going to do well.” And if a car doesn’t get it, some non-snake-loving person might, as people assume every snake is poisonous or harmful, and sadly kill them.

Speaking of snakes, he’ll introduce you to a common snake here at the Center, the northern water snake, one that is the happy beneficiary of a snake-tuary, a first-of-its-kind sanctuary for snakes near the dam in the Wissahickon just below Valley Green. Water snakes bask on the site’s warm stone walls on sunny days, and are passed by many people, some of them on their way to Devil’s Pool, the illegal and problematic swimming hole.

“It’s a tricky spot,” he said, because of the high traffic. Craig Johnson, the owner of Glen Fern, the historic house alongside the dam, noticed people– “often young men,” Billy noted– “not being nice to the snakes,” harming, even killing the non-venomous creatures as they basked. Craig– who has been written about both in this column and in Billy’s Grid column– worked with Friends of the Wissahickon “to put up a fence and signage about the snakes. He took a problem and turned it into a great educational opportunity,” perhaps America’s first sanctuary for a reptile.

He’ll also talk about Roxborough’s famous American toads, and he wrote about Toad Detour for Grid magazine a few years back. Toads awaken from their winter’s hibernation in our large forest, then cross Port Royal Avenue on rainy nights to climb into the old reservoir to mate. Our volunteers close the road on rainy nights to allow toads to cross without getting squashed. 

“Mid-April is solid toad time,” he said, “right now”– in late March when we talked– “it’s mostly males crossing. For explosive breeding amphibians like toads, males tend to show up first, get set up, and the females tend to come later to listen for the best singers.” April evenings are a great time to walk the reservoir park’s circular trail to listen to toad song– such a treat, as the male’s loud trilling is enchanting. 

And if you find a box turtle crossing a road? “It’s likely a female looking for a place to lay eggs.” He extorts everyone to not move a box turtle from its locale– or try to adopt it as a pet. “They grew up in a place,” he explained, “and that’s the place they know– where to hide, where to find food, where to hibernate.” Many people, coming across a turtle, can’t believe that it can survive in a woodlot or even a small suburban forest, and “pick it up and put it in a patch of woods like five miles away. So now it doesn’t know where to hide, find food, or hibernate, and it will start looking to go back home.” And will tirelessly, usually unsuccessfully, try to get back to what it knows.

“So if you find a box turtle trying to cross a road, simply help it across– that’s it.”

His coming Grid column in May focuses on the plight of the red knot, a migratory shorebird featured in last week’s Thursday Night Live. This week, allow Billy to immerse you in the wonderful herping world of snakes, turtles, and toads, oh my! To get the Zoom link, simply visit our website to register for the free event.

This week in climate.  Among its many impacts, the Russian invasion into Ukraine has halted important climate research. Arctic permafrost holds TWICE as much carbon as that stored in the atmosphere, and the Arctic has been warming four times faster than the rest of the world. As Russia owns fully one-quarter of the Arctic’s shoreline, many multinational research projects into permafrost have been canceled, just when we need this critical information.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Unraveling of the Red Knot


The red knot is one of the region’s most extraordinary birds, facing one of conservation’s biggest threats, but sadly flies under the radar of too many people. Too few of us have heard of the knot and fewer still know its story. But on Thursday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m, we’ll offer you a unique opportunity to dive into this incredible story.

A nine-inch-long sandpiper with a terra cotta belly, the red knot makes one of migration’s longest runs, flying 9,300 miles each spring from Tierra del Fuego at the bottom tip of South America to nest above the Arctic Circle in the spring. 

And somewhere around Mother’s Day, the exhausted birds– their gas tanks nearing empty– land on beaches along the Delaware Bay, looking for a critical food source to fuel them on the rest of their journey north. The famished birds need food rich in fats and that’s where the horseshoe crabs come in.

In one of nature’s best-timed events, horseshoe crabs, those prehistoric living fossils that have lumbered across ocean bottoms for 450 million years, haul themselves onto beaches. Large females usually have an entourage of smaller male hangers-on to mate and lay eggs in the surf. Each female lays 80,000 eggs, each a small green BB. They especially emerge in the full and new moons of high tides at night, a spectacle worth seeing in itself, as Delaware Bay is the single largest concentration of mating horseshoe crabs on the planet. (Bet you didn’t know that.)

So just when red knots and other migrating shorebirds need fat-rich food, Delaware Bay beaches are loaded with fatty crab eggs roiling in the surf. So the shorebirds enjoy a raucous debauchery of nonstop feeding, filling up on the eggs that give them the energy they need to finish the trip.

Many other shorebirds join them in this feast, including other sandpiper species like dunlins and sanderlings, plovers, ruddy turnstones, willets, and more, not to mention laughing, herring, and black-backed gulls, plus terns. 

It is a sight to behold. Arrive at low tide, and the beaches are crammed with shorebirds, gulls, and terns cheek-to-jowl in a frenzy of feeding, the cacophony of gulls impossibly loud; arrive at nighttime high tide, and the beach is chock-a-block with horseshoe crabs. It is a naturalist’s nirvana. On one visit last year, I easily spotted a huge turkey vulture inexplicably sitting amidst the gulls, quietly munching on dead horseshoe crabs while the gulls noisily fought over eggs. I’ve even seen bald eagles sitting on the beach at low tide at this time of year too, their size standing out among the Lilliputian shorebirds. 

Call it sex and gluttony on the Delaware Bay: the horseshoe crabs engaged in lusty orgy while the shorebirds engorge themselves on the fruits of the crabs’ labors. 

But this extraordinary confluence of natural history events is depressingly endangered. While horseshoe crabs have been used for fertilizer since the Lenape days, in recent decades the over-harvesting of the beasts for fertilizer, bait, and even medicine (the crab’s blue copper-based blood is useful to researchers) has greatly depleted their numbers. With fewer crabs emerging in the surf, knot numbers have plummeted, and bird experts are terrified we will lose the race of knots that engages in this long-distance feat. Over the last 20 years or more, there have been fierce battles raging over the allowable number of crabs to sustainably harvest, arguments leaving no one happy, neither biologists nor fishermen. And because three states border on the bay, the knot’s situation becomes even more entangled.

For the last 25 years or more, Dr. Lawrence Niles has been leading national efforts to call attention to the plight of both red knots and horseshoe crabs, and has been featured in many TV and radio news shows over the years. He is our very special guest on Thursday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m., as part of the center’s popular Thursday Night Live series of free virtual lectures. Simply visit our website to register for the event

Niles has had a front row seat on the red knot story, spending two decades as chief of New Jersey’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, where he works on other species like piping plovers, and in 2006 started his own company to pursue independent research and habitat restoration in the Delaware Bay and elsewhere. He is also a founding member of the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition and on the board of the National Shorebird Council and Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.  

“Over the last year,” he said, “we have built the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition to fight the wasteful killing of horseshoe crabs for bait and at the hand of multinational corporations for their blood despite an effective synthetic alternative.” On Thursday night. He will “describe new work on the ecological significance of horseshoe crabs, showing that their importance is far greater than eggs for shorebirds. At their natural levels, he concluded, ”they are a foundational resource for coastal ecosystems.” 

It’s a critical conservation story for the region, and I invite you to join me for Thursday Night Live. See you then.

This Week in Climate. After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the world’s youth are returning to the streets for climate strikes from school. Last week, more than 700 protests worldwide were held on Friday, according to Friday’s for Future, the climate strike organization that sprung from Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s solitary school strike and vigil at the Swedish parliament in 2018. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Real March Madness: Outside in Nature

Toadshade trillium in bud, one of the many spring wildflowers soon to bloom on our trails.

It’s hugely exciting times for college hoops fans, awash in basketball games where they breathlessly wait to see if, oh, the Providence Friars can hold off the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. (OK, Villanova vs. Delaware is pretty cool.) Some $3.1 billion will be bet– DOUBLE what was spent only last year– and almost 40 million Americans will fill out those brackets. 

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.  

And along our Ravine Loop, as the photo above shows, the very first trillium of the season has poked out of the ground, and is thisclose to opening its flowers. Trillium is a native member of the lily clan, and this one goes by the evocative name toadshade– small toads can hide from the sun under its umbrella of leaves. 

While snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils have already sprung up on our lawns, our forests will soon 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 our good friends at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 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?

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. 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 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.

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, the coaches’ salaries– in many states, athletic coaches are the highest paid state employee.

But nature? Not so much.

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. And that’s just madness.

This Thursday, March 24 at 7 p.m, we will presents a virtual “Celebration of Spring,” with our naturalists sharing favorite spring birds, trees, reptiles, fungi, and wildflowers over Zoom. The event is free; register and receive the link here

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Ukraine: “This is a Fossil Fuel War”

A gas-powered power plant and thermal power plant in snow-covered Anadyr, Siberia, Russia.

We’ve all been watching the increasingly grim war in Ukraine with a mixture of horror, outrage, and sadness at the needless loss of life and the tragic outpouring of refugees. Given Vladimir Putin’s relentless resolve in pushing forward at all costs, I’m guessing the situation only worsens between my writing this on Friday and your reading it next week. 

Svitlana Krakovska has a unique lens to view the war. A Kyiv resident, she’s Ukraine’s leading climate scientist and the head of the country’s delegation that helped draft the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN-led effort that has been carefully cataloging the climate catastrophe for decades now. The newest massive report, summarizing 34,000 independent studies, was released on February 28, just as Russian bombs began falling. As climate writer Bill McKibben reported last week in The Guardian, Krakovska was finishing the report while sheltering with her four children in her basement, bombs exploding very close to her home.

“Both the invasion and IPCC report,” wrote McKibben, “crystallized for Krakovska the human, economic and geopolitical catastrophe of fossil fuels. About half of the world’s population is now acutely vulnerable to disasters stemming from the burning of fossil fuels, the IPCC report found, while Russia’s military might is underpinned by wealth garnered from the country’s vast oil and gas reserves.”

She told McKibben, “I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels. Burning oil, gas and coal,” she continued, “is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilization.”

With oil and gas literally fueling something like 60% of the Russian economy– there isn’t much else– much of the West has embargoed Russian fossil fuels. That’s great, but few countries in the West are decarbonizing as quickly as we need to for the world to avoid the worst of climate change. And the US is especially intractable, as climate change long ago fell into the deep but growing chasm between Republicans and Democrats, meaning we cannot take meaningful action on this critical issue.

UN secretary general António Guterres bleakly describes the IPCC report as an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” Extreme heat is already killing more people worldwide, some 12 million people are already being displaced by floods and droughts annually,  and healthy available farmland is shrinking. “Without action,”  concludes the report, “worse is coming, and faster than scientists had thought.”

“But it is the conflict in Ukraine,” McKibben continues, “that has caused western governments to hastily attempt to untangle themselves from a reliance on Russian oil and gas. The European Union, which gets about 40% of its gas supply from Russia, is working on a plan to rapidly upscale renewable energy, bolster energy efficiency measures and build liquified natural gas terminals to receive gas from other countries.” That’s all fine, but the US is not holding up our own end of the climate change bargain, even though every day a new brand of electric car puts its glitzy ad on TV. That’s a great start, but we need more. Much more. 

With a barrel of oil going now for over $100– it briefly topped $130 last week– oil and gas production will ramp up as companies smell inflated prices and profits– ironically just as we need to leave carbon behind. And this truth is especially painful in Pennsylvania, a state where first oil, then coal, and now fracked natural gas have been king. No less than Tesla founder Elon Musk offered that “we need to increase oil and gas output immediately. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.”

Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, has a decidedly different take. “The fossil fuel industry’s so-called solution to this crisis,” he told McKibben, “is nothing more than a recipe to enable fossil-fueled fascists like Putin for years to come. As long as our economy is dependent on fossil fuels,” he concluded, “we will be at the mercy of petro-dictators who wield their influence on global energy prices like a weapon. American-made clean energy is affordable, reliable and free from the volatility of oil and gas markets. The best way to weaken Putin’s grip on the global energy market is to get America off of fossil fuels.”

Amen. Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Krakovska told McKibben she will stay in her home city as the Russian army advances, declining offers at other research institutions. “I know that’s what Putin wants, for us to flee Ukraine so they can have our beautiful country,” she said. 

And McKibben concluded his moving essay with this important notion: “Caring about the people of Ukraine means caring about an end to oil and gas.”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Great American Tree

A chestnut tree showing its open bur and those famously alluring fruits, craved by both people and a diverse assemblage of animals, from deer to passenger pigeons. Photo courtesy of the American Chestnut Foundation.

Walk through a local forest, and you’ll see a diverse assemblage of trees– tuliptrees reaching straight up into the sky, sassafras wiggling their trunks through the canopy, black cherries sporting their chipped bark, beeches seemingly standing like huge immovable elephants, massive smooth gray trunks imitating pachyderms. 

But you won’t see any American chestnut trees, once one of the most common trees in a Pennsylvania forest. They were wiped out in rapid-fire assault at the start of the century. 

Sara Fern Fitzsimons, American Chestnut Foundation director of restoration, is a leader in an army of scientists and foresters working to bring them back. And therein lies a story.

On Thursday, March 10 at 7:00 pm, we have a unique opportunity to hear Sara tell you this tree’s extraordinary story in a free Zoom lecture. It’s also our 11th annual Richard L. James Lecture, named for our founding executive director. Registration can easily be done here.

In the late 1800s, four billion chestnuts grew in the eastern US, fully one in four trees in a Pennsylvania forest. They were among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees, with straight-grained, rot-resistant wood used for furniture, fencing, and building. Its famous nuts fed billions of wildlife, people, and their livestock– including the passenger pigeon, whose massive flocks combed the forest floor in search of chestnuts, not to mention acorns, hickories, and beechnuts. 

Long before this, the Lenape burned our forests on a regular schedule to keep forests in earlier stages of succession and keep nut trees like chestnuts, acorns, and hickories. The nuts not only fed the First Nations people, but supported a larger population of deer and turkey, two animals central to their diet. Penn’s Woods was hardly a pristine wilderness; instead, it was actively managed by the Lenape, skilled forest ecologists– and chestnuts were central in their long-term plans.

“It was almost a perfect tree,” concludes the American Chestnut Foundation on its website. 

Tragically, dead chestnut trees were first discovered in the Bronx Botanical Garden in 1904. A fungal blight had been accidentally imported from Asia, where that continent’s species of chestnuts had evolved alongside the fungus and were resilient to its impact. The American species, however, encountering this novel threat for the first time ever, simply had no immunity, and quickly succumbed. The fungus spread like wildfire, reaching Philadelphia in 1908 and rippling across the northeast. The American Chestnut Foundation calls it, without exaggeration, the “greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history.”

The foundation’s elegy, concludes, “The American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, and then disappeared within 40.”

Despite its demise, the tree is not extinct. The blight doesn’t kill the underground root system, as the blight is unable to compete with soil microorganisms. Stump sprouts grow vigorously in cutover or disturbed sites where there is plenty of sunlight, but inevitably succumb to the blight. This cycle of death and rebirth has kept the species alive, though considered functionally extinct. The foundation carries out an active breeding program to breed blight-resistant hybrid chestnuts, and also uses high-tech biotechnology and biocontrol as well. The foundation hopes to restore the American chestnut to its storied place in the American landscape.

Will they succeed? Come see. “I hope people coming to the lecture,” notes Sara, “take away the incredibly fascinating scientific work behind restoring the American chestnut and the equally fascinating people behind the work, including volunteers and citizen scientists, and an understanding that our forests are under great pressure from non-native pests and disease. The success of the American chestnut restoration can lead the way toward rescuing those other threatened native forest trees.”

 Her foundation has planted 500,000 disease-resistant chestnuts already. What would she like people to do after the lecture? “Plant trees!” she answered. 

The Richard L. James Lecture is named in honor of our founding executive director, who led the center for 31 years from our 1965 founding through his 1996 retirement. He also wrote a column in The Roxborough Review for many of those years and offered weekly weather commentary on WFLN-FM, the long-gone radio station on Ridge Avenue alongside the Roxborough Church. In fact, his on-air weather commentaries, heard by Roxborough’s own David Montgomery, then a young and rising executive within the Phillies in the early 80s, led to Dick serving as the baseball team’s meteorologist. Dick would spend many a summer evening staring at his weather radar while on the phone with David, providing updates on when that thunderstorm would pass over South Philly so the game could resume. Dick had a huge presence in both Roxborough and the Delaware Valley.

The lecture also kicks off the Center’s Year of Restoration, with special programs and events occurring throughout the year– watch for them. In the meantime, join us Thursday, March 10 at 7 p.m. via Zoom for Sara’s lecture on this “almost perfect tree.”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The First Wildflower of Spring is Here!

Skunk cabbage, one of the first wildflowers to bloom during spring, sprouting on our Ravine Loop.

In this weird winter of seesaw weather– 60 degrees one day, 20 the next with an inch of snow to boot– last week I walked the Ravine Loop in search of one of my Holy Grails, one of my key markers in the natural year’s calendar. I was searching for the very first flower of spring, one that appears as early as mid-February, the first flower in a long march that concludes in the late summer with goldenrod and aster, the tramp clowns at the end of the floral circus parade.

Walking down the loop from the Visitor Center, the trail makes a hard left at Smith Run, a beautiful stream on our property. And at that turn, there is a small wetland seep that is perfect habitat for skunk cabbage, a plant that needs its feet wet. I peeked and poked and hoped and looked– and, yippee!, there it was.

Skunk cabbage. A petite purple hood poking up through the wetland. 

The mottled purple hood resembles something like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter universe. Incredibly, this hood is thermogenic, 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. 

And one of skunk cabbage’s pollinators is a blowfly with the wonderful species name of vomitoria. Need we say more?

The purple mottling of its hood is surprisingly common in the plant world, as lots of plants have learned how to imitate dead flesh as a means of seduction. Skunk cabbage belongs to the arum family, and its cousin, Jack-in-the-pulpit, employs the exact same trick to attract a different pollinator.

The heat it generates 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 that warmth. As I scanned the area for more hoods– I found at least four more coming up– I saw three different flies flitting around the area, one landing on a downed tree trunk to bask in the sunlight, as last Saturday saw temperatures pushing 60°. Was this its pollinator? Maybe. But it was one of the first flying insects I’ve seen this winter, the others out the day before, another warm day. 

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. 

Want to see skunk cabbage yourself? (Of course you do!) Come to the Visitor Center and ask our receptionist for a trail map. Then hike through the butterfly meadow, turning right and heading downhill on Ravine Loop. When the loop makes that big left turn at its bottom where it hits Smith Run, stay alert. Turn left to parallel the stream, then look immediately on your left for the wet, soggy, muddy spots– and the hoods will be interspersed 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, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal. Colorful names. And great sights for winter-weary eyes.

They’re coming, I promise! But for now, come see the first flowers of the coming season. And, with Valentine’s Day behind us and the days growing longer, happy almost-spring.

This week in climate. The Beijing Winter Olympic Games began earlier this month, and while I’ve been enjoying it (especially, I confess, curling), skiing has been visually jarring, its slope in the first week an island of bright white floating in an ocean of dull snowless brown. Sports Illustrated reports that this year is the first time an Olympic host city has had to rely entirely on artificial snow. And according to researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo, February temperatures in the 19 previous Winter Olympics host cities since 1950 have risen considerably, those cities seeing an average of a 4.8° rise in temperature; over that same period, Beijing has warmed a whopping 8.9°. If high carbon emissions continue, the study concludes, of all the prior Olympic venues, only four will be climate-reliable locations by mid-century, and only one late in the century. Artificial snow will likely become the norm. 

As a response to this threat, winter athletes– skiers, lugers, bobsledders– have in turn started their own environmental advocacy group, Protect Our Winters, a wonderfully welcome yet unlikely member of the growing coalition of concerned voices on climate. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

North Light Weathers the Viral Storm

North Light’s Jared Poindexter helps one of his students in the community center’s after-school program, one of the many services the center provides.

Remember when the pandemic hit back in March 2020, and non-profits like the Schuylkill Center and North Light Community Center shuttered our doors, assuming we’d close for a few weeks,  “flatten the curve,” and reopen in April? Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, non-profits have been battered financially and programmatically by choppy waves in the viral ocean. Some of us have swum these pandemic seas– not always gracefully– but many non-profits have sunk, disappearing under the pressure and stress, their revenues flattening more than that curve ever did.

But not North Light, the community center on Green Lane in Manayunk, with Roxborough just across the street. Happily, they’ve weathered the storm.

“It’s been a wild and wacky ride, I’ll say.” That’s Krista Weider, the now-battle-hardened executive director of the center, who joined the organization in the fall of 2019 only months before the pandemic turned the world upside down. “I’m into my third year already, but it still feels new a lot of days.”

With a staff of 14 people and a budget of $1.2 million, North Light “acts as a social services agency as well as a traditional community center,” Krista told me, serving around 800 people annually. It offers emergency services like a food pantry for struggling families, a child-care program for before- and after school students, teen services, plus enrichment classes, special events, and even facility rentals for birthday parties and the like. “We’re a polling place too, so people are always asking us about that, and we provide information on how to register to vote.”

And they are a site for that very precious commodity nowadays: COVID tests. They are offering free onsite drop-in testing on Thursday, February 12 and Saturday, February 21, both days from 11:00-3:00. Talk about vital services. 

The food pantry distributes around 150,00 pounds of food annually, and was a huge challenge in the pandemic, especially its early days. “When COVID first hit,” she continued, “we instituted a lot of safety measures, like putting out only pre-packaged foods so no one was touching anything. We still have lots of protocols in place, of course, but we’re back to a choice model. It’s set up almost like a grocery store so people come through and choose what they want. About 300 people participate in the food pantry, with lots of seniors and disabled people on fixed income utilizing this resource.”


A North Light volunteer restocks the center’s food pantry.

In addition, she said “North Light has drastically increased our housing and utility assistance, as the need for this went up during the pandemic,” as one could imagine when so many workplaces shut their doors and sent staff home. “Since COVID, we’ve given out $120,000 in housing and utility assistance, and it’s looking like we can sustain between $50,000 and $70,000 per year from our donor commitments.”

Fortunately for the community, “our childcare program and emergency services programs have been consistent through the pandemic,” Krista said. “Last year we had a virtual childcare program. We hope we never have to do that again!” she exclaimed and laughed. 

They currently have 48 children enrolled in the after-school program from four schools, including Dobson School just down the street, plus Shawmont, Cook-Wissahickon, and the Green Woods Charter School. But this is still challenging in these pandemic times. “Schools have staggered start and end times, so kids are coming in from 2:30 all the way to 4:00. It’s a little crazy and chaotic, as kids are always coming and going. There’s a lot of moving parts. But we’re making it work and still offering good enrichment, like CHOP experts coming in to offer nutritional work.”

Looking ahead, she offered that “we’re finalizing our strategic plan, and will put that out publicly in June, so we can share where North Light is heading in the next three years. We’re hiring a teen coordinator and will soon be re-launching our teen services program. We’re expanding our recreational options for children, too, and have a gymnastics program starting up soon, which is really exciting, and we’re looking at children’s indoor soccer and basketball programs. We’re planning on a lot more enrichment for the community. Adult tai chi is starting up soon, and I’m trying to get my kiln room back up and running to restart our pottery program; I’d love to do pottery with kids at summer camp.”

Board Treasurer Christopher McGill noted that “while only having four executive directors over 86 years” (it was founded in the Depression as a boy’s club), “Krista took the lead in 2019 and has not looked back. She and her wonderful team have stepped up to the challenge and continued to be there for the community.” Roxborough resident Joanne Dahme chairs the group’s board, and offers that “many of us had the luxury of working remotely during the height of the pandemic, but Krista and her dedicated team never did as they strived to continue their essential services. Passionate service to North Light’s community is their calling!”

Agreed! Thank you, Krista and everyone at North Light, for serving as a community polestar, our north light, in this pandemic– we wish you smooth sailing across the pandemic ocean.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director


The Hidden History of Groundhog Day

Punxsutawney Phil meets his adoring masses in 2020, when he called an early spring. What will he say this year?

Early Wednesday morning, way out there in the small town of Punxsutawney, a portly aging man in top hat and tails will unceremoniously yank a grumpy groundhog from his winter den and present it to a roaring crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. The man then will whisper to the groundhog in a secret, shared language, what he calls “Groundhogese”…

And, for the 136th year since 1886, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous rodent besides a mouse named Mickey, will have predicted the weather. Happy Groundhog Day. While I write this on Friday and don’t yet know what he said, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Phil tells the guy he sees his shadow (even if it is overcast) and we get six more weeks of winter. In this snowy, icy, bitter cold winter, he’d completely lose his credibility otherwise (like the groundhog has any, but you know…).

Though Phil’s batting average isn’t high—the National Climatic Data Center says his accuracy is only 39%, worse than a coin flip—his forecast of six more weeks of winter is the safe one. In 136 tries, that’s been his call more than 100 times. 

As a naturalist, however, I love a holiday named for an animal, and I’m tickled that the national media just might have made room among the top stories, like Russia on the cusp of invading the Ukraine and President Biden on the cusp of nominating a Black woman for the Supreme Court.

And I love that it’s based in some natural history.  Groundhogs—also called woodchucks—are in fact hibernators, sleeping the entire winter away in underground burrows, their heart rate plummeting from summer’s 80 beats per minute to winter’s five. Five beats per minute! In February, males arouse themselves from this slumber to scout their territory, searching for the dens of potential mates. Finished scouting, they go back to sleep for another month or so.

Pennsylvania Dutch farmers settling in the New World brought their German tradition of seeking out a hibernating animal—for them it was badgers, while Brits used hedgehogs—on February 2 for weather prognostications.  Coming here and seeing groundhogs roaming in February likely began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

But the choice of February 2 is no accident. Those same German settlers also commemorated the Christian Candlemas, the day when clergy blessed and distributed candles to combat the dark of winter, and lighted candles were placed in windows. Candlemas comes at the exact midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, and superstition held that if the weather was fair this day, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy. “If Candlemas be fair and bright,” said the superstition, “winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.” 

Candlemas itself has an origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc, one of four cross-quarter days, the halfway marks of seasons. Echoes of ancient cross-quarter holidays have stayed with us through the ages in May Day, Halloween, and Groundhog Day.

Today, we are halfway through winter, as farmers used to remind themselves by repeating the adage, “Groundhog Day, half your hay.” Pace yourself; make sure you’ve got enough for winter’s second half.


Seems there was a long-ago tug of war over which calendar would mark the seasons, one where cross-quarter days begin them, the other where solstices and equinoxes do. Midsummer’s Eve, another pre-Christian holiday captured so wonderfully by Shakespeare, occurs on the summer solstice, now the beginning of summer.  But way back when, the solstice was the midway point of the season.

Portions of that ancient calendar have stayed with us, embedded in our cultural DNA. When that top-hatted gentleman pulled Phil out of his burrow up there on Gobbler’s Knob, he reminded us of olden days when a completely different calendar ruled– and Wednesday was suddenly Imbolc, the very first day of Spring.

No matter what Phil called this week, let’s be honest: he’s got better chances of getting his prediction right than the Flyers have of winning the Stanley Cup. Paws down, sadly.

P.S. The name Punxsutawney is so evocative. I knew it had to be a Native American name, but only just last week checked into it. Turns out it’s a Lenape phrase meaning “town of mosquitoes.” Ssh, don’t tell the Chamber of Commerce– not quite the image they’d want to invoke.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Healing Power of White Pine

The white pine in winter, one of the few sources of green in our wintry world.

This deep in a surprisingly cold and snowy winter, you, like me, might be jonesing for some greenery, as winter’s bleakness can be a little depressing. I have just the antidote: get thee to the Pine Grove, an island of green in an ocean of winter’s browns and grays. 

One of our visitors’ favorite sites on the Center’s 340 acres, the grove is oddly not a natural phenomenon at all, but instead an artificial plantation of white pines planted in the1970s for the Center to use– to my surprise when I came access this in some notes– to sell as pine wood. Happily, that never happened, and the trees have matured into a dense grove of sharp-needled evergreens beloved by not only our visitors, but by kids in our summer camp and preschool and after-school programs, all of whom revel in visiting the grove to build forts from the many fallen branches there– it looks like a small city built by elves. 

While you are there, make sure to pay special attention to the tree, an extraordinary organism.  “There is no finer tree,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal, and few trees have played a larger role in American culture than this, the tallest tree in our region. For one, first British and then American navies relied on white pines, the Brits picking out “mast pines” that were specially marked and reserved for the Crown to use in English ships. And how many of us grew up watching TV in a pine-paneled den (I did!)? The tree is so useful that only 1% of old growth pine forests remain in the eastern US– we logged out all the rest. 

Today, pines of 100 feet in height are common, but back in the day, 200-foot-pines were more typical. In Cook State Forest in Pennsylvania’s Clarion County, there is a stand of uncut white pines, with one, named the “Longfellow Pine” and measuring almost 184 feet tall, regarded as the tallest white pine known today. 

Like all pines, the white pine holds its needles in clusters, something spruces and firs do not do. Each pine has a characteristic number of needles, which in the white pine is five; this alone makes the tree easy to identify. A conifer, the tree produces male and female cones– you’ll see them everywhere in the grove– the female cones the familiar one. The smaller, almost inconspicuous male cones form in the spring, releasing billions of pollen grains into the air, as the tree is wind-pollinated. Yes, pine pollen likely makes you sneeze.

The long, conspicuous female cones produce seeds, which are craved by a large number of animals, including squirrels and many birds. The cones also produce sap, which gives the tree its scientific name Pinus strobus, as the specific name strobus is Latin for “tree that produces gum.” 

While an evergreen, the tree’s needles live about 18 months. So every fall the white pine sheds its needles from two springs ago in a surprising orange shower.

A new recognition of the importance of pines has come as people rediscover the health benefits of trees and forests. In one extraordinary experiment, a Japanese scientist sprayed a small amount of pinene, the chemical that gives pines its characteristic scent, in a hospital’s neonatal ward, allowing newborns who have not ever been outside to smell its scent. Their blood pressures dropped as the babies “chilled out.” Turns out we are hardwired to be calmed by pine trees. When you smell that pine freshener in your Uber driver’s car, it’s also likely lowering your blood pressure, which is not a bad side effect.

When you visit Pine Grove, you’ll also notice two large piles of branches and trunks lying to the side. Pine Grove was whacked two Junes ago in that derecho that barreled through the region. Derecho, Spanish for straight, is a fast-moving linear storm system, this one trucking from like Reading to the Jersey shore while passing through Roxborough on the way. The straight-line winds took out too many of the pines. (Climate change is introducing us to new words, like derecho. Several have now plowed through our region in the last decade.)

We had just the year before planted about six smaller white pines to begin to fill the canopy gaps. But those were chewed on by pine borers, an unforgiving beetle that is concentrated in the grove, as the cluster of pines is an unnatural occurrence that the beetles are enjoying. If you look closely at many of the tree’s trunks, you will see small holes that look like someone drilled into the tree, these being the exit holes of the adult beetle, it’s larvae happily chewing through the wood. Only two of the six trees have survived– the beetles got the others. Then the wind-lopped trees fell on them, and we carefully pulled the ruks and branches off. 

In our Year of Restoration, our environmental art program will make this material available to local artists to turn into art, a clever way to remove these fallen pine parts from the grove– stay tuned for this.

So if you too are looking to sit in a quiet relaxing place surrounded by the calming color of green, come visit Pine Grove, and decide for yourself if Thoreau was correct.

This week in climate. Two Sundays ago, winter storm Izzy dumped large amounts of snow across a huge swath of the South, bringing ice and high winds to the region while knocking out power for almost 300,000 people. But it fueled tornadoes too, one with winds approaching 118 mph that destroyed 30 mobile homes. Remember, tornadoes need large inputs of energy to form, something that a winter storm should not have. But in this climate-changed world, tornadoes can even strike in January.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director