Welcome to New Staff Members

This fall we welcomed several new staff members (and two returning staff members in new roles) to the Art department and to the Education department. We are thrilled to have you and look forward to seeing the great work you will contribute to the center.

Zaina Asaad
Manager of Public Programs
zaina@schuylkillcenter.org

Zaina is very excited to join the amazing team at Schuylkill Center. She grew up in the Middle East and moved here to find opportunities that allow her to explore more diverse ecological systems and be a part of an equally passionate community. She is specifically interested in wildlife conservation and is thoroughly enjoying spotting all the amazing critters that surround the center. Zaina hopes to continue to build up this space for diverse communities to explore a love for nature, and she would like to focus on instilling excitement and intrigue by creating new programs that allow for that.

Margaret Clarkson
Manager of School Programs
margaret@schuylkillcenter.org

After college in New England, Margaret came back home to Pennsylvania and has been living in South Philly for a year and a half. She loves to spend time outside hiking, kayaking, and camping. In her spare time she loves to read, try new vegetarian restaurants, and spend time with family (and their dogs). In this new position Margaret is looking forward to reaching out to a wide range of schools to introduce them to our new climate change curriculum. She is excited to encourage the youth of today to live more sustainably and encourage positive change in the community.

Kristina Murray
Director of Environmental Art
kristina@schuylkillcenter.org

Bringing several years of experience developing curatorial initiatives in museums and public parks, Kristina comes to us from Glen Foerd where she oversaw an artist residency program of environmentally-focused projects. She is thrilled to join the team at the Schuylkill Center and to continue the incredible work initiated by former curators in this space. She looks forward to collaborating with artists to create immersive and thought-provoking installations and programs that directly reflect the dynamic relationship we share with our environment.

Nick Tonetti
Environmental Educator
nicholas@schuylkillcenter.org

Nick grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, spending a lot of time outdoors as a boy scout. He studied Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University, and after graduating, he returned home to Philly to pursue environmental education in the city. He started working at the Schuylkill Center in the summer of 2020 as a camp counselor, community gardens coordinator, and now an environmental educator. Nick really enjoys seeing the spark of play and curiosity when working with children in the outdoors, and he loves to teach about foraging for wild edible plants. He looks forward to reaching more children and adults in Philly that lack exposure to the outdoors, and sharing his sense of connection and passion for nature with more people.

Deadly Fungi

According to the Poison Control Center at CHOP, there have been 11 wild mushroom poisoning cases in the last month. While this may seem alarming, severe mushroom poisonings are rare. In our area, there are only a handful of species that will cause life threatening illness or death. These species include: Funeral Bells, Destroying Angels, and Gyromitra korfii. A few others are known to cause severe discomfort and GI distress including Jack-o-Lanterns and the Vomiter. 

Here are some FAQs about mushroom safety that everyone should know:

  • All mushrooms are safe to touch and must be ingested to cause illness of any kind (barring rare allergies.)
  • There are no hard and fast rules or tricks for safely consuming wild mushrooms. The only way to know if a mushroom is toxic is to be positive which species it is. This may mean becoming extremely familiar with edible species AND toxic species before consuming any. It may also mean consulting local experts.
  • Toxic mushrooms may take a week or more to show symptoms. 
  • Always photograph mushrooms (top and bottom) before consuming. Identification will aid in prompt and effective treatment if necessary. 
  • Like every lifeform on this planet, mushroom species are incredibly diverse throughout the world. An edible mushroom from one continent may look similar to a deadly mushroom in another part of the world. Unfortunately, most instances of mushroom poisonings occur in immigrant families that previously foraged for mushrooms in other countries.
  • Lastly, foraging is not permitted on public land within the city of Philadelphia. There are many reasons for this, but an important one to consider is the absorption of heavy metals from our soil, which may also cause illness. 

It is best to always use caution when eating any wild foods, but mushrooms are not something to be afraid of or demonize. They are crucial parts of our ecosystems and should be celebrated as such — at a safe distance. 

If you care to learn more about safe, ethical, legal, and sustainable mushroom foraging practices,  join the Philadelphia Mycology Club by signing up for their mailing list and join their facebook group or post to their iNaturalist project to see what types of fungal life are near you.

Photos by George Pushkal (@mycojawn) and Bethany Teigen (@jawnattenborough) of the Philadelphia Mycology Club (@phillymycoclub)

 

**All species pictured are considered toxic

The Now-Endangered Monarch Butterfly

Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant outside our front door

When one worries about nature, the world is so much like a Springsteen song, one step up and two steps back.

One step up: the Schuylkill Center’s staff have seen multiple monarch butterflies and their caterpillars in and around the center recently, many of them right outside the Visitor Center’s front door. This beats several recent years when there were few– if any– sightings of the Halloween-colored insect. For butterfly lovers like me, it’s been a great week for monarchs. In fact, only hours before I wrote this, I spotted a bedraggled adult monarch butterfly (her wings were really faded and beaten up) nectaring on Joe-pye-weed in our front garden while scoping out places to lay her eggs. 

And two steps back: just last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature formally added the famously migrating butterfly to its “red list” of threatened species and officially categorized it “endangered,” only two steps away from extinction. The group estimates that North American monarch populations have declined between 22% and 72% over 10 years, depending on the measurement method. 

“What we’re worried about is the rate of decline,” said Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at Michigan State University. “It’s very easy to imagine how very quickly this butterfly could become even more imperiled.” He estimates that monarch populations in the eastern US have declined between 85% and 95% since the 90s.

Scientists typically speak in more measured language about their concerns. Not anymore. “It’s just a devastating decline,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University. “This is one of the most recognizable butterflies in the world.”

The monarch butterfly defies logic, for embedded in a small collection of nerve cells generously called a brain is a GPS directing the insect to fly from, say, here in Roxborough all the way to a mountain valley near Mexico City, where it joins every other monarch from east of the Rockies (western monarchs head to the Pacific coast). It’s the longest insect migration known to humanity.

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

In early spring, they begin heading north, make it into Texas to lay their eggs—and die. It takes another generation or two for monarchs to make it back to Pennsylvania, not until early summer. Then this fall, monarchs will fly more than a thousand miles to a place they have never been, joining millions of their friends who have the same GPS coordinates. “It’s a true spectacle and incites such awe,” said Anna Walker, a conservation biologist at New Mexico BioPark Society, who was involved in determining the new listing.

Photo credit: Beatrice Kelly

But here’s the scary thing. Last year, North America’s monarchs were overwintering on only 7 acres of Mexican fir trees. Seven. One ice storm, and our monarchs are… gone. Crazily, that number is UP from the previous year of even fewer acreage. 

Monarchs have been crashing for a number of reasons, one huge one being that herbicided corn and soy fields across the Midwest have become milkweed deserts, as modern agriculture has removed the host plant required for caterpillars. No milkweed, no caterpillars. To restore monarchs and other pollinators, the nonprofit Monarch Watch has initiated a nationwide landscape restoration program, “Bring Back the Monarchs,” that hopes to restore 20 milkweed species to their native ranges throughout the United States and to encourage the planting of nectar-producing native flowers that support adult monarchs and other pollinators.

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

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

For now, I’m appreciating the new attention given to this amazing butterfly by its listing, and reveling in the many monarchs we are seeing here at the Schuylkill Center these days. Come see them yourself.

Watch some of our recent conversations about monarchs

Mike Weilbacher, the Center’s executive director, has been writing and teaching about monarchs while planting milkweed for 30 years now.

Two Great Summer Flowers: Monarda and Milkweed

If you come to the front door of the Visitor Center this week, two extraordinary– and extraordinarily important– flowers are waiting to greet you, two flowers you should not only know, but plant in your own yards.

The bright blossoms of Monarda, commonly known as bee balm, greet you first, their scarlet red flowers simply impossible to miss. Can a flower ever get more red than this?! That color is a clear signal as to who pollinates it, as hummingbirds are highly attracted to red flowers. Also,  check out the long floral tubes, specifically evolved to allow a hummingbird to sip its nectar.

And growing in and alongside the Monarda is my own favorite summer flower, common milkweed, the tall, gangly member of the milkweed clan whose flowers are big pink globes highly reminiscent of a summer fireworks explosion. Last week as I wrote this, the flowers were thinking of opening; this week as you read it, they might be ready and popping. When you visit one, make sure to breathe deeply– this is one of the sweetest nectar-rich plants I’ve ever had the pleasure to poke my nose into.

Monarda, italicized here as this is its scientific name, goes by multiple common names, including wild bergamot, as its crushed leaves smell something akin to the bergamot citrus that flavors Earl Grey tea. But bee balm is another name commonly given to this plant, and my favorite, as the flower’s ecological importance is wrapped up in this name. Not only do hummingbirds crave this flower, but bees do too, especially bumblebees, those native insects and hugely important pollinators that are struggling in the modern world.

Bee balm also has a long history of use as medicinal plants by many Native Americans. The Blackfoot used its leaves in poultices for skin infections and minor wounds, and many First Americans and later colonial settlers used it to alleviate stomach and bronchial ailments. It was also useful in treating mouth and throat infections caused by gingivitis, as bee balm is a natural source of the antiseptic compound found even today in modern commercial mouthwashes. 

Oh, and your inner preschooler will LOVE to know that Native Americans also used the plant to prevent excessive flatulence. 

So if you plant bee balm in your yard, you’ll be visited by bumblebees and hummingbirds, two wonderful and wonderfully different natural neighborhoods– and you can alleviate your farting problem. Doesn’t get better than this!

Milkweed, as has been written about here many times before over the years, is the exclusive  host plant of the monarch caterpillar, mother monarchs laying their eggs only on the very few species of milkweeds that inhabit North America. In fact, just around June 1 I saw an adult monarch laying her eggs on milkweed planted in my own front yard. They’re back!

Monarchs are, of course, the large, orange-and-black butterflies that migrate to Mexico and back, an amazing story that is endangered by multiple issues, including habitat loss, climate change, and, most importantly, herbicides and genetically-resistant GMO crops. Corn and soy are sprayed across huge landscapes, and the crops are able to withstand the chemical assault. But plants like milkweed succumb, and much of the Midwestern corn belt has become a milkweed desert, leading to a 90% crash in monarch overwintering populations in Mexico.

Starting in the 90s, there was a resurgent interest in planting native plants in our yard, and a brilliant “Got Milkweed?” marketing campaign started. But more of us need to plant more of these flowers to buttress those plummeting populations and help save the species. 

And the nectar is impossibly attractive for a range of other insects, including all other butterfly species and native bees and pollinators. Plant milkweed and you’ll have a whole ecosystem of pollinating insects buzzing around your yard. 

One of the best flowers for your own yard is a cousin of the common milkweed. Nicknamed butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), it grows only a couple of feet tall, but has bright orange flowers that are butterfly magnets. I seriously love this flower– and you will too. And you might also discover that after a female monarch lays her eggs on it, the caterpillar(s) that result may chew all your flower’s leaves; for me, that’s a small price to pay for supporting monarch populations.

So come to the Schuylkill Center soon to go for an early summer nature walk, and introduce yourself to the two flowers growing side-by-side at our front door: Monarda and milkweed, two of the best flowers for increasing the ecological importance of our yards.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Mindy Maslin and Philadelphia’s Forest

The PHS’s Mindy Maslin, founder of Tree Tenders, is being honored for helping plant 20,000 trees across the region.

Philadelphia has a bold plan for reforesting the city, making sure 30% of our city is blanketed under a canopy of trees, which will go a long way to mitigating heat waves and cooling our city’s rapidly changing climate. It’s also an environmental justice plan, as– no surprise– economically challenged portions of the city have fewer trees than more advantaged neighborhoods. 

Mindy Maslin supports this ambitious goal. As the founder and director of Tree Tenders, an important program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), Mindy has been responsible for planting some 20,000 trees across the region while training 5,600 tree care volunteers since forming the program in 1991. Can you imagine that: 20,000 trees? 

To honor this extraordinary work, we are thrilled to present our 16th annual Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award to Mindy, as she not only believes planting trees is “a powerful way to enhance the health, resilience, and quality of our neighborhoods,” but has inspired thousands of citizens to make a difference in their community.

The Germantown resident is being given the award, our highest honor, in a virtual ceremony set for Thursday, November 18 at 7:00 p.m. Joining Mindy for a conversation on “The Urban Forest” are Tree Tenders and community leaders Sharrieff Ali and Gabriella Paez, along with Jack Braunstein, manager of the Tree Philly program, the group charged with implementing this important goal. The event is free; one can register on our website.

Tree Tenders is one of the oldest volunteer urban tree stewardship programs in the country, and has inspired similar programs throughout Pennsylvania and across the U.S. Locally, Tree Tenders graduates come from at least 100 active volunteer groups in the city and surrounding counties. Since this work is done by volunteers, the city has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having to hire professional arborists to do the planting or the initial care.

Mindy sees the social benefits of trees and is committed to addressing the inequities in tree canopies. Her PHS tree team has identified an uneven distribution of tree canopy that corresponds with high-density, low-income, and even high-crime neighborhoods. This latter point is important: there is less crime and, this is extraordinary, a lower murder rate in neighborhoods shaded by trees.

Mindy agrees that “all neighborhoods deserve to benefit from trees, for heat island abatement, air quality improvement, stormwater sequestering, and the softer gifts of mood enhancement and community building.” In response, Tree Tenders has a tool for prioritizing planting in low-canopy neighborhoods. In fact, studies show that people view urban residential spaces with trees as more attractive, safer and more appealing. “If you plant trees,” Mindy says, “it encourages people to go outside, meet their neighbors and build relationships; in turn, it fosters community pride which ultimately makes neighborhoods safer.”

In her efforts to diversify the program, she has connected with local institutions to bring the training directly to underserved neighborhoods. “Working within the community with local institutions and local tree champions is a critical part of the Tree Tenders model. They provide education and tools. But the onus is on the neighborhood Tree Tenders group to activate their neighbors to plant trees—it’s neighborhood-based citizen stewardship.” 

“You need to convince people who might be reluctant to plant a tree on their property why taking this action will improve their lives,” she says. And that happens at the neighborhood level where locals become advocates in their own community. Once you plant a tree, it still needs care to grow—a critical part to a tree’s survival. That’s where the stewardship piece comes in. The Tree Tenders program provides a framework to check on the trees and neighbors to make sure that the proper care is given.  

PHS’s Chief of Healthy Neighborhoods Julianne Schrader-Ortega notes, “Mindy is an integral part of the vitality of PHS’s mission to use horticulture in advancing the health and well-being of citizens in our local region and we’re pleased that Mindy is receiving the Meigs award as public recognition of the large impact she has had on the environment and on people’s lives.” 

Mindy is honored to be receiving this from “an institution of the Schuylkill Center’s caliber. It is a huge professional accomplishment. For decades, Tree Tenders and the Center have created joint programs that have served thousands of people in the region; our collaborations continue to be a highlight in my career. This award from such a valued partner is truly extraordinary.”

In turn, I’m so happy my Center is honoring her, as few people have planted more trees in the region than she has, and tree planting is such a powerful act, for all the reasons noted above.

The award celebrates area leaders who symbolize the spirit of integrity and vision of Henry Meigs, one of our founders, who served on our board for 40 years until passing away in 2005. His family established the award shortly thereafter, and past honorees include former governor Ed Rendell for his work on Growing Greener, environmental artist Stacy Levy, whose extraordinary art graces locations across the region, and Jerome Shabazz, founder of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center in West Philadelphia. 

Hope you’ll Zoom in with us.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Blueberries, A Local Classic

Highbush blueberries are one of the best parts of summer, and one of the only truly native foods to our region.

If you have never had the joy of walking or kayaking through the New Jersey Pine Barrens, this fall should be your first time. A short drive but a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, this quietly rugged wilderness is defined by fragrant conifers towering overhead and lush stands of fruiting shrubs at waist height. The crunch of sand under your feet, the soft lapping of water at creek’s edge, a fresh breeze filtering through the verdant solitude of white cedar stands – it is an experience that many find deeply rejuvenating, for some even spiritual.

This rare, fragile ecosystem is also home to something that has become a global culinary phenomenon: blueberries.

These luscious, flavorful berries – a summer favorite for many of us – are one of the few truly native foods of our region. Apples and peaches, wheat and potatoes, most foods we eat come from Eurasia, Africa, or South America, but the blueberry began right here.

Blueberries come in an incredible diversity of species, from diminutive mats of vegetation clinging to mountaintops in Maine all the way to small trees in the swamps of Florida. The kind that we eat, however, usually fall into two categories: lowbush and highbush. Lowbush blueberries form low spreading shrubs just a few inches tall, that creep and crawl across rock and sand in places that most other plants would wither. In these extreme conditions, lowbush blueberries produce small berries with an incredible concentrated flavor that make them a delicacy throughout New England where they can be bought as “wild blueberries”. The kind we usually find on store shelves is the highbush variety, producing far sweeter and larger berries that are easier to plant and manage in fields and orchards.

Both lowbush and highbush blueberries are plants that have a number of additional advantages as well. Red stems and a craggy architecture make them spectacular plants for winter interest in the garden. White bell-shaped flowers draw innumerable bumblebees and other native pollinators in the spring. Lush green foliage and ripening berries follow in the summer. The fall, however, is the best time to see a blueberry bush. Whether you are in Pennsylvania or Vermont, one of the most glorious plants for autumnal color is the blueberry bush. Here at the Schuylkill Center we look forward to mid-October every year when the wild blueberries along some of our trails begin to glow a fiery red. In the Pine Barrens, where blueberries grow abundantly, the scene is even more spectacular.

the shock of autumnal red from a colony of blueberries. Photo courtesy of Stanley Zimny.

It is a little surprise, then, that Elizabeth Coleman White noticed these lovely and productive shrubs growing around her family’s cranberry farm in southern New Jersey a little over a century ago. A Friends Central School and Drexel University graduate, White came from a local Quaker family and was a true polymath in her time. At the turn of the 20th century, blueberries were not cultivated for food; only in places where they grew wild were they harvested for local consumption. She presciently saw the potential in this colorful native fruit and invited Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, to help her breed and domesticate highbush blueberries. White paid local woodsmen to bring her their favorite large-fruiting blueberry bushes that they found on their treks across the Pine Barrens. In this way she was able to source the very best genetic material with which to breed new domesticated varieties. By 1916, after years of diligent work, Elizabeth White and Coville harvested and sold their first blueberry crop, founding an entire agricultural industry that has subsequently grown to global proportions. Descendants of the very blueberries that White and Coville bred and cultivated on her New Jersey farm are now grown as far afield as Australia and Peru.

Here at the Schuylkill Center we are in the middle of our annual Fall Plant Sale, and are excited to offer two highbush blueberry varieties bred from the collections of Elizabeth Coleman White and Frederick Coville. ‘Jersey’ blueberry is one of the very first varieties that they released, and is still a standard on many blueberry farms. ‘Bluecrop’ was released a few decades later from crossing and selecting the superior wild blueberries that they had sourced. Both of these, planted together, will give you locally native blueberry shrubs that give abundant, delicious fruit in the summer, a haven for native biodiversity, and year-round beauty in your garden. Unlike most plants, blueberries require acidic soil. A large helping of peat moss, fertilizers suited for azaleas and other acid-loving plants, and – if old timers are to be believed – a handful of rusty nails (to give the plant iron) placed at the bottom of the hole when planting should suffice.

This fall, the blueberries will once again radiate their autumnal beauty to the world. Thanks to two enterprising botanists in southern New Jersey a century ago, we can all enjoy this display in our own yards too – as well as the summer fruits. We invite you to take a look at blueberries and the many other native plants we have at our Fall Plant Sale, available now for ordering and pickup: shop.schuylkillcenter.org/native-plants

Max Paschall is our Land Stewardship Coordinator at the Schuylkill Center.

Schuylkill Center Mandates Vaccines for Staff

On July 3, Philadelphia reported all of 177 cases of COVID-19 across the city, the lowest number since the pandemic’s beginning in March 2020. It seemed– felt, hoped– we were FINALLY crawling out of the pandemic’s pit. 

Then the highly transmissible delta variant struck, the fourth wave ramped up, and for the week ending August 7, the city reported 1,238 cases, a 700% increase in only one month. $%$#@!

So last week, to almost no one’s surprise, Mayor Jim Kenney reestablished a masking mandate in the city.

The Schuylkill Center decided we needed to respond to this disappointing wrong-way bend in the curve. Because we operate multiple programs where we invite unvaccinated children to our site, including Nature Preschool, which almost 100 preschoolers attend on a daily basis, and also because we have an obligation to provide a safe workplace for not only program participants and visitors but our own staff and their families, our Board of Trustees adopted a crucial policy last week.

In an unanimous vote, our organization’s 23 trustees agreed to require all of our employees to be vaccinated. We are now joining the growing ranks of companies and universities doing the same, including Google, Walmart, Amtrak, the US military, and many more– with more coming daily.

But we are also taking this important action because we are a science-based organization that teaches and believes in science. And the science is clear. We have sadly and strangely been conducting a year-long science experiment on the American population, bifurcating into states and communities that believe in science and those that believe in– what, exactly– fake news, for lack of a better term (like getting vaccinated will turn your body into a magnet!). 

The fourth wave has already been labeled “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and the data back this up. Today, there is a direct and irrefutable correlation between COVID and vaccination rates– those communities with the highest vaccination rates show the lowest caseload. Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, noted that on August 9, residents of the five most-vaccinated states, home to 14 million people, had only 580 people in the hospital with 12 COVID-related deaths that day. But in the five least-vaccinated states, with 16 million people, 6,600 hospitalized and 104 people had died. The least-vaccinated states have 10 times the number of hospitalizations and seven times the deaths. “So yeah,” he tweeted, “vaccines are working.”

Piling on, in the 10 worst states, those where only 38% of its residents are fully vaccinated, more than 14,000 people are currently hospitalized. But in the 10 best states, where more than 60% are vaccinated, only 1,400 people are in the hospital. Again, a tenfold difference.

Yes, there are breakthrough infections, and yes, that is troublesome– but is the rate of breakthrough infection large enough to derail the entire vaccination program? Of course not. “If you are vaccinated, you may get a breakthrough infection,” Dr Jha has admitted. “But you are very unlikely to get hospitalized. You are very, very, very unlikely to die. The horror of the delta variant will largely be felt by the unvaccinated.”

The Schuylkill Center will, of course, follow the standards similar to all of those entities named earlier, whereby medical and religious exemptions may be accommodated, and of course we will follow whatever other applicable laws are approved.

But we have an obligation to the thousands of people who visit our site, not only preschool children attending our school but summer campers coming here for a week in the great outdoors, school groups visiting for field trips, visitors participating in our many programs, walkers hiking in our forest, art lovers coming to our art gallery to see our latest art installation, and more.

You’d think a tenfold diminution in COVID cases would catch people’s attention… But no. We like to say we live in the Age of Information, but that’s not the case at all. We instead live in the Age of Opinion, and everyone not only has one, but has multiple platforms for promulgating that opinion.

As a science educator, good public policy should flow from good science– science informs policy. But like with climate change, we have become practiced at denying the science to alter the policy. To our detriment. Simply put, more people have already died, and more will die, because of the politics and deliberate disinformation surrounding COVID, not because of the science.

The science is astonishingly clear. Vaxx up, Roxborough.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Iraqi refugee brings a piece of his culture to Philadelphia

Artistic team of Al Mudhif at the Schuylkill Center (Yaroub Al-Obaidi, Sarah Kavage, Mohaed Al-Obaidi). Photo: Rob Zverina.

A house built of five crossing arches made of reeds spanned over knotted joists and lattices. Columns and walls strung together with rope and twine, encompassing a breezy and light-flooded space. A shelter in the middle of the woods at the Schuylkill Center. Upon entering, the reed structure offers a shady sitting area with carpets and pillows, inviting guests to gather and relax. Al Mudhif – A Confluence is the new art installation by Iraqi designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi and environmental artist Sarah Kavage in Philadelphia.

In the southern Iraqi marshlands, where it is utilized as a ceremonial space of welcome, a mudhif — Arabic for guesthouse — is traditionally made from top to bottom of the wetland reed called phragmites. There, the reed is socially and culturally essential — but in our latitude, it is considered an unfettered invader of our regional watershed since its importation in the 19th century from Europe and the Middle East. The building of the mudhif in Roxborough has put this ancient material into practical use.

This is not the first time that industrial designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi has applied a natural material, such as reed, wood or glass, to practical design. Back in Baghdad his first projects involved envisioning outdoor sitting units and later school bags in collaboration with Iraqi literary districts in order to engage and connect audiences through visual material.

At that time the physical material was his medium. “But when I came to the United States,” Al-Obaidi explains, “I found myself working with a different material: stories.” A creative shift that the artist sees manifested in the physical construction of the Iraqi guesthouse, Al Mudhif. For him, the house is not only a physical space made in the ancient tradition of Sumerian architecture, but also a symbol for building connections across communities and cultures. 

The story of how an Iraqi designer ended up building a guesthouse from invasive reeds in Philadelphia is both long and interwoven with anxiety, restlessness and uncertainty, but also with empathy, generosity and optimism. A former lecturer on art and industrial design at the University of Baghdad, Al-Obaidi fled Iraq to Syria threatened by extremists in 2007, hoping to return home once the dust of war had settled. But with the continued loss of relatives in Iraq, he and his family realized that their future could only be elsewhere. While working in Malaysia in support of his family, Al-Obaidi along with his brothers and mother applied for refuge to the United Nations. A seemingly infinite number of interviews later, he resettled to Philadelphia as a refugee in 2016 where the family happens to have a distant relative, in the hope to find peace and work in their new home.

 Breaking ground at the Schuylkill Center, Iraqis and US veterans united on Memorial Day.  Photo: Rob Zverina.

“So many people think that [being a] refugee is a choice,” Al-Obaidi says. “They don’t understand that I was forced to do that.” But when Al-Obaidi tells his story of grueling waiting, scrutinization and resettlement, people shift their perspective and start to understand: “I’m not here to take an opportunity,” he declares, “but I’m here to be a part of this community, to contribute through my knowledge, through my experience.”

And this is what Yaroub Al-Obaidi is hoping to achieve through building an Iraqi guesthouse at the Schuylkill Center. “Al Mudhif is a way of building bridges,” he shares his vision – bridges between places, people, and cultures. “And I want to build [these] bridges because this is the only way we can continue to live [together].” He believes that through the guesthouse he can bring a part of his culture to Philadelphia, contributing to the diversity of a city of immigrants and to the richness of indigenous traditions in the local watershed by connecting them to the unique traditions of the Mesopotamian Marshes. Al-Obaidi feels that contributing to diversity has been a literal request to him from the city and its citizens.

Encountering the rich history of Philadelphia has made him feel connected and encouraged him to share the stories from his own culture. Al Mudhif becomes the container for such stories. Al-Obaidi imagines the dialogs that it will spark: “Someone says, ‘Have you been to Roxborough?’ and the other says, ‘I have been to the Schuylkill Center … and I built Al Mudhif.’ ‘What is Al Mudhif’ ‘It is a gathering space.’” Thus, Al-Obaidi enthuses, “a wonderful story starts.”

The project is filled with love, he continues. His hope is that “thousands of Americans start to say Al Mudhif, and know what it [is], and that it is made out of reeds.” Although the guesthouse is reduced in scale and slightly modified from the traditional design, its symbolism as a place of sharing and belonging is much greater. The mudhif, Al-Obaidi believes, has the potential to reduce the gap between the two countries by bringing Iraqi knowledge and culture closer to Americans.

As a refugee and an artist, Yaroub Al-Obaidi sees the mudhif as an “iconic symbol” for rapprochement and belonging that can heal injuries between Iraqis and Americans – invaded and invaders – without resentment or idealism. The idea that healing starts with sharing is also the belief of Al-Obaidi’s artistic collaborator on this project, Sarah Kavage. Al Mudhif is part of her multi-sited art installation, Water Spirits, which features constructions made from natural materials such as phragmites throughout the Delaware River watershed. Through this collaborative work with an invasive plant material she hopes to heal people’s relationship to the natural environment and with each other.

Al Mudhif is the spatial and metaphorical vessel into which people are invited to share their stories and memories. Belonging and sense of home, so it is Al-Obaidi’s belief, are born out of human connections, and connections result out of curiosity.

By Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

Unknown Illness Affecting Songbirds

Following up on our post last week about the unknown illness affecting songbirds, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PAGC) has released more information on cases in Pennsylvania. The full news release can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/3rax5s36

We’ve had several questions about this outbreak, and hope we can help clarify a few points for our bird-loving friends:

Where is this happening? To date, reports of ill birds have come from 27 counties, including Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery and Chester. While not all reports of ill or deceased birds may be related to the same unknown illness, we advise the public to follow all recommendations and report suspected ill birds using the following link: http://www.vet.upenn.edu/research/centers-laboratories/research-initiatives/wildlife-futures-program

Do I have to stop feeding birds? The Wildlife Clinic and the PAGC are recommending that the public remove all seed feeders and bird baths, clean them with a 10% bleach solution, and not put them back out until further notice. At this time, hummingbirds do not appear to be affected, and nectar feeders can still be used. As always, ensure they are thoroughly cleaned and refilled with fresh sugar water daily to prevent bacterial growth.

Can I remove my feeders but still put out seed on the ground or on my deck? We recommend not feeding birds at all, including scattering seed on the ground or other surfaces. Since we don’t know how this disease is transmitted, we don’t want to encourage birds to congregate in large groups where they may come into contact with sick individuals. Any food that is put out will encourage animals to gather and could increase the risk of spreading disease.

If we suddenly stop putting out seed, won’t the birds go hungry? What will parents feed their babies? Birds will not struggle or starve if feeders are removed, even in urban areas where natural food sources may appear scarce from our perspective- birds are experts at finding what they need! In the summer months, there is plenty of natural food available to sustain birds including insects, berries, and seeds from native plants. Most songbird species feed insects to their growing babies, as they are higher in protein and fat than seeds.

The best way to support baby birds is to reduce pesticide use and to encourage green spaces with native plants.

A Roxborough First: The First Iraqi Guesthouse Built Outside Iraq in 5,000 Years

Phragmites used to build bench and Iraqi guest house (Al Mudif)

On Thursday evening, June 24 at 7:00 p.m., the Schuylkill Center invites you to a historic event. We are unveiling Al Mudhif – A Confluence, a very special installation in our forest. For more than 5,000 years, Iraqi inhabitants of the lower Mesopotamian valley, the cradle of civilization, have been building guesthouses– mudhifs in Arabic– out of reed grasses. Incredibly, this will be the very first time a mudhif (pronounced “mood-eef”) has ever been built outside of Iraq. Ever. 

And it is in Roxborough.

The event is also a confluence of firsts: the opening of the first-ever mudhif is also the very first in-person public program the Schuylkill Center has offered since March 2020. We’re graduating from Zoom for the summer and going back to live programming.

Conceived and created by Iraqi designer, immigrant, and Mt. Airy resident Yaroub Al-Obaidi along with environmental artist Sarah Kavage, the mudhif is constructed entirely of the wetland grass phragmites. Our staff and volunteers harvested the “phrag,” as we have been calling it, from our own site, plus the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (and the reservoir harvest involved volunteers from the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy– thanks to them). 

A Eurasian plant native to Iraq, the reed is highly invasive in our watershed and throughout the country, compromising native plants and animals. Because phragmites overwhelms native ecosystems, it is not welcome at places like the reservoir and the Schuylkill Center. Yet Kavage hopes to invite a different conversation about our notion of invasiveness by using the plant productively. “There is a certain language and a method that gets applied when we’re dealing with these plants,” she says, “that is similar to demonizing immigrants and anything that is sort of out-of-place in our culture. I would love for this work to provoke a more nuanced understanding of that language around displacement and the movement of plants and people.”

As someone who has pulled thousands of invasive plants out of natural sites over the last 40 years, cursing them much of the time, I so appreciate this perspective. For me, seeing phragmites being put to good use on our property is a wonderful thing.

Built over the last month by Al-Obaidi, Kavage, center staff, and many volunteers, the group has included both Iraqi immigrants and veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, purposefully using the construction process to heal from the twin traumas of war and displacement. Other programming this summer and fall will continue to focus on using the guesthouse as a place of healing.

In talking with Al-Obaidi, I learned that a mudhif is where special community events like weddings and birthday celebrations occur, but also where conflicting parties go to discuss and resolve differences. Special coffee ceremonies are held there as well, often hosted by the local sheikh, the tribal leader or elder. The interior of the mudhif is covered in rugs– Persian rugs, of course– and guests recline on pillows. Al-Obaidi looks forward to hosting such ceremonies during the run of the installation (wait, does that make me the sheikh? I am certainly among the oldest on staff!)

The mudhif is part of a watershed-wide series of art installations, “Water Spirit,” by Kavage, a Seattle-based environmental artist. She is constructing large– and beautiful– benches out of phragmites, again turning the invasive grass into something both aesthetic and useful. Near the entrance to the mudhif, look for one of these benches, versions of which are on display at many sites across the region, including Bartarm’s Garden, Heinz, even the Pocono Environmental Education Center way up on the Delaware River. Each bench is uniquely constructed to respond to its site.

Both the mudhif and the Water Spirit are part of a watershed-wide arts initiative organized through the Alliance of Watershed Education of the Delaware River, a coalition of 23 environmental education centers across the region focused on bringing people to our waterways, connecting them to our rivers, and teaching about the importance of water. As the group within the coalition with the most ambitious environmental art program, I’m thrilled to say the Schuylkill Center has been a leader in this project, our Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz serving as chair of the working group from the centers managing the installation of Water Spirits across the region. (A second art project will be unveiled shortly, by the way. Stay tuned!)

Our June 24 opening celebration includes storytelling by Native American performer Tchin, a participatory art project, and Middle Eastern dance music presented by Rana Ransom. It begins with a land acknowledgement by Trinity Norwood and Reverend John Norwood of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, remarks by Al-Obaidi and Kavage, and a blessing by Chaplain Christopher Antal of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition, an indoor gallery exhibition accompanies Al-Mudhif – A Confluence, featuring a diverse array of voices– Native American, Iraqi, American–  reflecting on the themes of belonging and sanctuary. The gallery show will open the same evening, and run throughout the summer.

So come to the Schuylkill Center on Thursday the 24th to see a true Roxborough first, the first reed-grass  mudhif guesthouse built outside of Iraq in 5,000 years.

In Roxborough. Remarkable.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

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