The Lands We Cultivate

“The beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability.” Rob Carter

The process of urbanization and our evolving understanding of plants are the main topics that shape the new exhibition Rob Carter: Cultured Lands at the Schuylkill Center. The exhibition features work by environmental artist Rob Carter, who uses historical, scientific, and experiential research to explore the relationship between humanity and nature. 

The exhibition features a selection of Carter’s creative experiments that challenge us to envision a future for our lands in which humanity and nature can sustainably coexist. Developed in partnership with the West Collection at SEI, a major contemporary art collection in our region, Carter’s solo exhibition will open this Thursday, April 15 with a virtual opening reception and artist talk. During the reception, Carter will share his fascination for botany, urban development, and how they shape our shared environment. He will discuss his current research into the history and future of landscapes with Tina Plokarz, the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Environmental Art, and Lee Stoetzel, manager of the West Collection.

“The way humans relate to plant life is fascinating,” says Carter in a recent interview. “I am interested in how we perceive and use it, and how plants, in turn, use us. Our relationship to the natural world, and plants specifically, is an environmental conundrum in terms of climate change and our complicated history.” Plants have recently become his “favorite characters,” he admits, explaining, “the beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability, making them seem almost human in their unique movement and grace.”

Rob Carter: Soy Drawing 4 (GMO), 2020 pencil, watercolour and soy plant ink on paper, Courtesy of the Artist

Cultured Lands features Carter’s work Plant Writing (2020), an artistic experiment with highly processed soy beans, the most valuable US agricultural export. With ink drawings and a time-lapse video, the artist documents the growth and movement of organic and genetically modified soybean plants over the course of several days. He captures both the action of the artist/scientist and the motion of the plants. A process that is quite methodical, but also “as free and instinctual as possible,” as Carter describes his art-making. 

Presented side-by-side with traces of Philadelphia’s colonization history in the gallery, the exhibition is a reminder of the transformation of soil into profitable farmland. The aim of growing ever more productive crops to meet the needs and wants of humanity continues to shape agriculture today. But if humanity is dependent on crops, the artist speculates, how can humans nurture an insightful and empathetic relationship to the natural environment?

Rob Carter: Metropolis (2008), courtesy of the artist and the West Collection

Cultured Lands is also an invitation for dialogue about the transformation of undeveloped land into concreted, industrial metropolises. It features the paper-based stop-motion animation Metropolis (2008), an abridged narrative history of the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, spanning the time period from 1755 to the present, and from a Native American trading path through farming and the discovery of gold to today’s modern city. Part American history lesson, part utopian avant-garde à la Fritz Lang, Metropolis builds a bridge from the urban development dreams of the past to today’s recognition of irreversible human-made influences in the era of the Anthropocene. 

Equally characters and props in our social drama plants and architecture are the lenses through which Carter unravels humanity’s responsibility as a global, Earth-changing force. Carter points to the uncertainties in our knowledge of the natural world and considers how our understanding and relationship to nature might evolve into the future.

The Schuylkill Center looks forward to seeing you in the art gallery. The exhibition is open from April 15 to June 5, 2021 with a virtual reception on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at 7pm. Please register for the opening here.

The Schuylkill Center’s Visitor Center is open, as is the art gallery, but please remember that masks and 6-feet social distancing are required. We also welcome your comments and thoughts in our digital guestbook at www.schuylkillcenter.org/art.

See you online or in the gallery.

 

Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

Migration Nature Kit: At-Home Version

This week’s nature kits focus on migration. Twice a year creatures such as certain birds and butterflies make thousand-mile journeys between North and South America. After today’s activity you will understand some of the unique challenges and needs of migrating animals, and you will learn how you can help them safely make their journeys. 

Every Saturday, Nature Kits are given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am–12:00 pm. Nature Kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails and given back once completed. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

Activity #1: Migration Hopscotch:
  • Draw a hopscotch board with 10 numbered squares on the pavement with chalk.
  • Then gather 8-10 items that will be placed on the squares later.
    • The items can be anything that you find—sticks, pinecones, toys, rocks, utensils, etc.
  • After drawing your board, stand in front of the #1 square; you are a bird starting your migration from north to south.
    • Each square represents a stopover-site between North America (Canada) and South America.
    • Migrate southward on the course by hopping from square to square until you arrive past square #10.
    • Before you turn to head back north, have your grownup place 2 items on 2 different squares—these are sites that no longer have resources for you to use.
    • Hop back north without stepping on the squares that have these props.
    • Continue placing more props on empty squares before every new round until it is impossible to migrate due to lack of squares (resources).
  • When the game is done, think about the importance of resources such as food, water, and land to a bird’s successful migration.
    • What happens if those resources are taken away? How can we save resources for migrating birds? 

 

Activity #2: Nesting Tree Memory Game

Did you know that some birds, such as swallows, return to one tree year after year to nest? Scientists are still unsure how they are able to find the same tree after migrating thousands of miles away from their warm overwinter spots in the south. Do you think you would be able to remember your nesting tree?

    • In your yard or a park, choose one tree that will be your final destination nesting tree.
    • Then create a trail to get to your final tree, finding 4 trees along the way to “rest” at before arriving at your destination.
      • Touch each tree before moving onto the next one, as your grownup records the order of the trees that you stopped at.
    • After you arrive at your nesting tree, leave the area for at least 10 minutes, then return and try to perfectly repeat the order of the trees you touched on your trail to your nesting tree.
    • Were you able to remember your route precisely? 
Activity #3: Migration Resources Scavenger Hunt

Nearly all migrating creatures need to make stops along the way to their destination to replenish on water, food, and rest.

  • Choose a migrating bird you would like to become.
  • Think about what resources this bird would need during its journey – what food do you eat, and where would you find it?
    • Where do you like to rest – in water, in a tree, in a meadow?
    • What about drinking water?
  • Plan out places in your yard or a park that you would need to visit to survive your flight.
    • In the table below, record the resources you find by checking off boxes with a pencil. 

Migration Resources Scavenger Hunt

Resource 

(up to 3 sites)

Check box when you find this resource Check box when you find this resource Check box when you find this resource
Food (must find at least 1)

What does your bird eat? Examples: insects, worms, berries, plants

Drinking Water (must find at least 2)
Shelter or a place to rest (must find at least 1)

 

—Rebecca Deegan, Environmental Educator

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

Water Nature Kit: At-Home Version

World Water Day is on Monday March 22. According to the United Nations, World Water Day “celebrates water and raises awareness of the global water crisis,” and this year’s theme is valuing water. Let’s celebrate our favorite liquid with these fun activities! (To learn more about World Water Day, and join in on the virtual celebration, visit https://www.unwater.org/worldwaterday2021/.)

Every Saturday, Nature Kits are given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am-12:00 pm. Nature Kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails and given back once completed. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

 

Activity #1: Drops on a Penny

There are many properties of water that make it unique. One of these is its high surface tension. Surface tension describes the strong “layer” at the top of water. It’s what makes it possible for the water strider to “walk” across the surface of water. But don’t take my word for it. Test it yourself!

Materials: penny, eyedropper, water

  • Place a penny on a flat surface. (Choose wisely—the surface will get a little wet!)
  • Use an eyedropper to slowly drip drops of water onto the penny.
  • See how many drops you can add before the surface tension breaks. 

Activity #2: What floats your boat?

Buoyancy is the force that allows things to float on water. A paper boat, for example, floats on water because the force of the boat pushing down towards the water is less than the force of buoyancy pushing up from the water. Test it out by making your own origami boat using the graphic instructions below.

Materials: 8.5×11 paper, bowl or sink full of water, coins/stones optional

  • See if your boat can float in a tub of water or a sink.
  • Place small stones or coins into your boat to see how much weight it can hold until it is no longer buoyant and sinks.

 

Activity #3: Water on the Move!

Water is the liquid form of H2O. As a liquid, it has some unique properties that allow it to move about. One way water moves is through capillary action. Simply put, capillary action is the ability of a liquid to move without—or even against—gravity through a small space. Water will wick, or draw itself upwards, because it likes to stick to itself and often also to the surface around it. See for yourself!

Materials: cup, 10×2 inch strip paper towel, washable markers, water.

  • Get a cup and fill it with about 1 inch of water.
  • Cut a 10×2 inch strip of paper towel.
    • Use washable markers of varying colors to draw a line of circles across the 2 inch width about 5 inches up the strip.
    • Fill in the circle.
  • Drape the paper towel over the edge of the cup so that the bottom is just touching the water.
    • Fold the top over the edge to keep it from falling in.
  • Now wait and watch!
    • Can you see the water moving up the paper towel?
    • What happens when the water reaches the dots of marker ink? 

Patti Dunne, Environmental Educator

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

 

N.D.E. – Near Death Experience

The photographs in the exhibition Citizen’s Eye were captured by a community of individuals each with their own perspective on the world. Yet, this special collection of images reveals it is profoundly and visually evident we’re all on the same journey. We’re just taking different paths and leaving our own unique footprints behind along the way.

Where there is light there is always shadow. This is the nature of life, seen and unseen. A handful of the submissions for Citizen’s Eye seemed to illuminate this existential truth revealing a tension of duality in both black and white and color photographs. Many of these photos displayed a bold mirroring effect through reflections and silhouettes recalling ideas of “as above, so below”. I was drawn to the photos with sharp contrasts and vivid juxtapositions of energy. I feel they speak to the truth of the soul, the light and shadow in us all. If there is one thing no human will escape before we emerge from this triple pandemic it is self-reflection—the act of facing one’s inner truth: the good and the bad, the ugly and the sublimely beautiful.

Snowy River by Gary Reed

Probably the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with in the past year during the pandemic is the untimely loss of our loved ones. Countless families have had to endure the unimaginable inability to say goodbye. We’ve been robbed of rituals to gather in grief and celebration of our beloveds’ homegoings. I’ve never thought about it much until now. But, when it comes to the language around one’s passing, I always preferred how the death of a living soul was spoken in terms of one’s “sunset.” This exhibition contained many sunsets imbued with both luminous serenity and dark mystique. Photos as a visual medium are not typically works we “hear”. But, there was something about the sunsets of the Citizen’s Eye that are loud with a silent stillness and that demands the respect of the dead and the living.

Hudson Valley by Conezy

This word, alone—sunset—conjures the poetic, bittersweet beauty beheld in the ritual farewell of our life-giving star at the end of each day. The metaphorical sunrise and sunset that book end every individual’s journey speak to mythic elements of the human experience. I think another reason I prefer to compare one’s death to the setting of the sun is because, while no one knows for sure what waits for us beyond our last breath, we would bet our lives that the sun will most certainly rise with each new day. Our human being echoes the eternal rhythm of birth:death:rebirth and our primordial connections to the cycles of nature and time. To think that a loved one’s life may come to an end in this world, but will rise again in the next is a comfort to me worth 1000 suns.

Sunset in December by Elisabeth Torg

For those of us who survived 2020 and its triple pandemic, for those who may have come so close to death but fought hard and were somehow blessed to keep it at bay, we are still here. For me, this past year felt like one long N.D.E. – Near Death Experience. Extensive research documents accounts of survivors who lived through an N.D.E. Individuals report seeing similar visions and voices, crossing thresholds and traversing tunnels of light. They often encounter family with meaningful messages that offer forgiveness and peace. In considering the perspective of the photographers of this series, whose age and demographics were unknown to me, it felt like they were all looking through the lens of the N.D.E that was a year like no other in human history. I couldn’t help but think about the visions I’d want to see at the end of my life. What images would soothe my soul and call me home in such a way I would welcome what comes next? Who would I want to greet me on my solitary path to the afterlife? While my spirit guides and ancestors are a personal matter, one of the images I’ll share that always comes to mind is the ocean. 

While writing this post I had the opportunity to travel to Cape May New Jersey for a weekend getaway. It was my first escape outside of state lines since the global pandemic was declared almost a year ago. I oddly felt like a fugitive and the freedom was intoxicating and admittedly, a bit scary. It was my birthday. The beach holds a special place in my heart and seemed the perfect place to release and honor all that was lost. It also seemed a fitting place to celebrate life and the hope of that next horizon, that inevitable sunrise. In thinking about this essay and all the amazing photos from Citizen’s Eye, I knew I had to end by sharing a photo of my own. This is what I captured:

Ocean view in Cape May by Li Sumpter

 

By Li Sumpter

Li Sumpter, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and multidisciplinary artist who applies strategies of D.I.Y. media and mythic design toward building better, more resilient communities of the future. Her artistic practice—the “art of survival”—addresses threats to mind, body and spirit with a focus on the readiness and resilience of black, brown and indigenous peoples. Li’s academic research explores apocalypse myths and afrofuturist narratives driven by feminine archetypes.

 

Citizen’s Eye is a community art exhibition featuring more than 400 photographs of surprising encounters with nature throughout the pandemic. The exhibition is on view in our gallery and online through March 21, 2021.

 

Roxborough’s Michelle Havens Welcomes You to the Schuylkill Center

If you’ve visited the Schuylkill Center on a weekday, chances are you’ve met Michelle Havens, our receptionist, office manager, and gift shop manager. At the center for more than five years, Michelle has deep roots in our community, as she is a third-generation Roxborough resident.

Michelle has lived in Roxborough for most of her life. Born at Roxborough Memorial Hospital, she grew up on Domino Lane, attended Shawmont School, and even lived in the Scout House off Henry Avenue in her 20s. As a child, “I used to walk from Domino Lane to the Andorra Shopping Center,” she told me, and fondly remembers the Clover there not far from the movie theater. “And Ivy Ridge was way different too; Target was an A&P, and there was a movie theater there too. You could walk so many places and not have to worry about it,” she continued. “Everything was within walking distance.” And today? “It’s just way busier, more traffic, more everything.”

She also remembers playing along the trails of the Schuylkill Center. “This was the park on the other side of the Ridge from the Wissahickon,” she said, laughing. “I’d not only play here, but I came here on school field trips.”

Michelle loves Roxborough’s many greenspaces, and she also “loves the nosiness of the neighbors. Everyone knows what’s going on, so it’s got a small-town feel; we look after each other. But that’s also a downside, that everyone knows what’s going on!”

She’s become active in the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, joining its board two years ago, and worries that the civic’s work “is getting busier now with so much building going on. For the civic, “keeping up with COVID is a little hectic, and makes things much harder. We can’t meet in person, so it’s tougher to get information to people and get their feedback. But we’re still doing it.”

I asked her what Roxborough should know about the Schuylkill Center. “Some people aren’t aware of what we do back here, and some people are just afraid to find out—maybe they’re too set in their ways. But we’ve got great hiking trails that connect to the bike trail, and you can head north or south along the trail. We’ve got great ponds, and great views of the Schuylkill River. It’s just a great place to get away—you can lose yourself in the woods without really getting lost. And you can partake in our programs!”

Michelle noted that many people “are surprised that we’re not supported by the city,” and she’s right. The center is privately supported, is not part of Fairmount Park, and receives no city funding.

As the front desk receptionist, she’s met a wide variety of people– and living things. “I came in one day to find a flying squirrel sitting on the seed cart in the lobby. I mean, where else can you find that?” She’s seen great blue herons fly by the front door, and she’s among the handful of staff who have seen coyotes. “I’ve seen a lot of them outside,” she recounted, “and have heard them some evenings too.” 

She’s also met a lot of interesting people. “One Saturday,” she said, “an older visitor came who used to live in a house above Wind Dance Pond,” the Center’s largest pond. “She was in her 80s or 90s, grew up there, and really wanted to see the pond.” Wind Dance is the pond visible from Port Royal Avenue, and her home, long gone, was on that road back in the day. “Everyone who comes is interesting; everyone has a story,” she offered.

But the big downside of being our receptionist is facing the public in a pandemic. “That isn’t something everyone wants to do, “ she confessed. “Last year when we started preparing for summer camp and the prospect of visitors returning, I was nervous about people following the mandates and guidelines. Prior to COVID, people were constantly coming and going, chatting at the entrance and hanging out. I was concerned about the risk of exposure.

“For the most part, “ she continued, “everyone has been great with masks and distancing. Many of our visitors have been grateful to have a place to come to safely. As much as I worried about exposure, even these brief interactions with visitors allow me to feel some semblance of normalcy. It’s a connection to other people in a time where many are unable to have that.” 

Michelle runs our gift shop, which features “an assortment of nature, local, and eco-friendly products, a little something for everyone.” Of course it features the best bird seed around, plus lots of bird feeders and other products that bring nature into your yard. Members get a discount, (hint, hint), a great reason to join.

She has raised two kids in her Upper Roxborough home—a fourth generation—and both are enrolled in college locally, one in environmental studies and the other in computer science. “I’ve got one green and one techie!” Her green child has worked in our Summer Camp and substitute teaches in our Nature Preschool, so the Center has been a family affair as well.

To her neighbors, she invites everyone to visit, to “get out and enjoy the break in the weather. Not many nature centers are open right now, so we’re lucky. We’re following all the rules, but we’re open!” 

Michelle, all of us here thank you for so warmly staffing the front desk at such a ridiculously challenging time. We’re in your debt. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

A Reflection on Making Space for Us

In my role as the Environmental Art Intern, I had the great opportunity to go through each and every one of the photos that were submitted to the amazing kaleidoscope of nature in the exhibition “Citizen’s Eye.” In the process of sorting through them, I had time to reflect on these snapshots, and on my own experiences in the outdoors throughout the pandemic. While there are many beautiful and eye-catching images, the ones that stood out to me most were those that documented time spent with other people. When I reflect on the time I spent outside over the last year, I am reminded of the close friends and family that I share these memories with. In a time of being hyper-aware of the spaces around us, nature provided a refuge and became the setting for all kinds of gathering. A place where we could still spend time with each other while also maintaining the distance we needed apart from each other to be safe and respectful.

Nature Preschool at the Schuylkill Center by Rose Hammerman

What I see when I look through these images is a process of placemaking. Each photograph documents a way in which we are embedding emotional significance and new meaning into our natural environments. When we give these spaces new life, making them significant locations for living, gathering and communicating, we have transformed them into a place. While indoor spaces closed their doors to gathering, we turned to the outdoors to create new places to create memories. Celebration, exploration, connection, learning, mourning and many more rituals all took place in natural environments. Restaurants looked at parking lots and sidewalks and imagined new places for dining. This process was important in 2020. Natural placemaking reflected our needs to adjust to the circumstances, and it also reconnected us to a natural world that we are often at odds with. Whether or not you spent much time in the outdoors before the pandemic, your view of natural space definitely changed during the pandemic.

My hope is that post-pandemic, however that future looks, we will continue this process and continue to embed meaning into our natural spaces, whether it be the patch of grass on the sidewalk or the forest you went hiking through. Many were already doing this long before Covid-19 took ahold of our attention, but for others, time in quarantine allowed us to be more reflective and more presently focused on processes like this. We found a need to create new places, not by building or defining a space, but by being intentionally aware of what a space means to us and the memories that are connected to it.

Photo by CJ Walsh

 I am glad to look through this collection of images and view the many ways in which we think about nature, both big and small, as important to our lives during a time of crisis and turmoil. As we imagine what futures await us, it is important to uphold these processes presently, and to imagine how natural space and its significance to us fits into these imagined futures.

 

By CJ Walsh, Environmental Designer and former Art Intern at the Schuylkill Center.

 

At-Home Nature Explorer Kit: Aquatic Macroinvertebrates

We’re talking about water bugs for this week’s Aquatic Macroinvertebrates themed nature kit. Aquatic macroinvertebrates—“macros” for short—are tiny water creatures that do not have a backbone and are large enough to see with the naked eye. Some are aquatic worms, crustrasians, or animals with a shell, like snails. Many others are the young stage of insects you are probably familiar with, like the dragonfly. From freshwater to saltwater and streams to ponds, each water habitat is called home by a unique variety of macros. These critters might be small, but they play an important part maintaining the health of the exosystem. 

Activity #1: Macro ID

When you find a macro in the wild, you will probably want to identify it. The tool we use to identify macros is called a dichotomous key. This key works by asking you a second question that will slowly help narrow down the possibilities until you are able to identify the specific macro you have found. Give it a try!

  • Use the dichotomous key linked here to identify the macros below.

  • Scroll to the bottom of the post to see if you identified them correctly.

      

Activity #2: Make Your Own Dichotomous Key

Materials Needed: 10 items in a similar category (details below); pencil; paper

Scientific Skills:

  • Observation
  • Identification
  • Categorization 

Instructions:

  1. Start by deciding what you want to categorize. You’ll need to be pretty familiar with your items since the end goal is to be able to identify them. Consider using familiar plants or insects you can find in your yard, or even sort something in your home, like kitchen tools or your stuffed animal collection. Get creative!
  2. Set out your items. I would suggest about 10 items. (If you’re using natural items, you don’t need to collect/pick them, but it does make the activity easier to be able to see them all at once.)
  3. Take a few minutes to make some observations about the items.  Ask:
    • What makes them similar?
    • What makes them different?
    • Do I notice any similarities among several of my items? 
    • Does any one item really stand out from the rest?
  4. Now you’re ready to start making your key. Begin by deciding what 2 main groups you could break your items into. Every item needs to fit into one of these two groups, so they should be pretty broad. To use stuffed animals as an example, maybe you could split them up into big & little or real & imaginary.
  5. Now pick one of those groups to focus on. In this group, are there 2 or 3 smaller groups you could break your items into? 
  6. Keep going. Continue this process of breaking the items into smaller and smaller groups until each item is named specifically. (If you feel stuck, you can peak at the example below.)
  7. Ask a family member to test it out! Give them a single item and ask them to follow your key to see if they can identify the item you gave them.
  8. Share it with us! Take a picture of your key and sorted items and tag us @schuylkillcenter on Facebook or Instagram. We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

 

Activity 1 Answer:

Water Boatman (left) & Dobsonfly Larva (right)

 

Patti Dunne, Environmental Educator