Reflections on Earth Day: One year after its 50 anniversary

Postponed for a year, we’re excited to celebrate Earth Day 50+1 years in 2021. But as we start into new creative endeavors, we want to take a moment to look back at last year’s exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50. On display from September through December 2020, Ecotactical explored how the celebration of Earth Day has changed over time, and asked what the significance of the holiday means five decades after its conception. The exhibition featured works from various artists installed onsite in our gallery and along our trails. Each artist responded in a unique way, giving new perspectives into what Earth Day means to them personally, and to the world. But creating and presenting an exhibition in the midst of a pandemic came with challenges, as well as with new possibilities. We adapted to new timelines, new restrictions and new technologies, but in the end, the message is still clear: Earth Day remains an integral part of the ongoing fight for ecological change and environment justice. We look forward to carrying with us the energy and strength into 2021 that our artists and our team showed in making Ecotactical possible.

With a new year comes new energy behind this movement. We asked the Exhibition Coordinator and the artists to reflect on a series of questions, prompting them to consider the meaning of Earth Day and its relation to the things that have been happening in the world since the inception of the show. Below we share some of their responses and thoughts on this show. 

 

Asking our Exhibition Coordinator, Liz Jelsomine: While working with the artists and for the Schuylkill Center’s staff, how has your view on the world and Earth Day specifically has changed with the pandemic?

Winter 2019/20 was an exciting time at the Schuylkill Center. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day was approaching, and the possibilities of what that meant to our organization and for the future of our world was inspiring. To commemorate, we were gearing up for our annual Earth Day celebration, Naturepalooza, and the Environmental Art Department was planning the final details for our Earth Day themed show, Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50, due to open just before Earth Day on April 16.

Then, suddenly, the world erupted with news of a dangerous and very contagious disease, so devastating that society as we knew it would be put to a halt for the unforeseeable future. We know the disease all too well now as Covid-19. Business closures, job insecurity, isolation from others, and personal loss, were just a few of the hardships society was faced with. The Schuylkill Center made the difficult decision to cancel Naturepalooza. Ultimately, our center, along with many other businesses, had to temporarily close our doors. This left the Art Department with our own questions to ask: Would Ecotactical still be able to come to fruition? How would the context of the show develop during a pandemic? What would a virtual show look like for us?  While the Art Department was grappling with these questions, both our staff and the artists were navigating the new reality in their personal lives. Artists’ access to their studios was altered, and some as parents now had the added responsibility of child care during work time. Those as professors at universities were adapting to online teaching. Some were forced to relocate, making site visits impossible. Meetings about the outdoor installations on our trails became difficult to plan.

With determination and perseverance from our staff and the artists, we were thrilled to finally present Ecotactical on September 21, almost six months after its originally scheduled debut. Armed with plenty of hand sanitizer and capacity guidelines we were able to open our gallery doors and celebrate our reopening in our first virtual reception. Having a way to safely reconnect after much time apart and to process the impact of the pandemic together provided a moment of needed healing. As we look towards Earth Day 2021, we embrace one of the lessons the pandemic has taught us: the importance of spending time together and the value of the natural world around us. 

Installation view of Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

At this milestone in Earth Day’s legacy, what are your thoughts on engaging communities in Earth Day activism and in your artistic process specifically?

I am still struggling with how to make community activism tangible to kids, and how to have students see the results of their hard work. In the original version of our musical, the villains, “Businessman 1” and “Businessman 2,” come around and realize that green jobs are the way to go. But that ending never sat well with me. It felt too Pollyanna. So we rewrote the ending to reflect what actually happens in real life: The Businessmen decide that the oil refinery expansion project (which the child protagonists are fighting against throughout the play) is not right for them after all and they chalk it up to various other reasons, none of which is the kids’ activism: they wanted to spend more time with their families; they realized it was not financially viable at this time; etc. This is what children are up against in our world right now: the biggest culprits of environmental pollution will never admit when activism was successful. And it can be a slow process on top of that. I want to prepare young people for that, and also give them tools to fight back and ways to see what success looks like. The new song is called, ‘Totally Unrelated” and it hasn’t yet been recorded.   

I had an Art History teacher in college who used to say, “All art is propaganda” and that always stuck with me. As a musician, an artist, and an art appreciator, I now see that anything you are planning to show in public becomes a statement. In my band, we are paying more attention to the messages in the songs we choose to play, because when you make art, a message will be conveyed whether you want that or not. So it’s important to think carefully about what you want that message to be. The same goes for teaching: whatever we decide to teach, we are making a statement about what we want future generations to know and how we want them to view the world. It is no small decision.  

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020

Family Concert with Ants on a Log at the Schuylkill Center (2020).

 

What is a new question about the environment that has arisen for you after making your artwork?

I’m watching and wondering, what will we do as individuals and communities, if our government won’t prioritize the Earth, and our systems are designed to fail our most vulnerable populations? I’ve been reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. She continuously reminds us that the relational is the most important, and that nature already has the answers. If we as humans could only mimic what nature shows us, in its rhythms, cycles, and interdependence, we could start thriving. I am grateful for this kernel of hope right now. 

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020:

Installation view of Curious:Think Outside the Pipeline! in Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

As we were struck both personally and professionally with COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, the initial timeline of the exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50 had to change as well. How has the pandemic shifted your perspective on the environmental art world at large and your art practice specifically?

My project For The Future centers on community activism related to Earth Day throughout the history of the environmental movement. The content of the messages on the flags is meant to raise awareness of the activist actions of so many dedicated people: anonymous protesters at Earth Day and Climate marches, Greta Thunberg and the youth movement of Climate Strikers, Indigenous peoples defending some of the last remaining natural resources from extraction and pollution, and climate justice workers in urban environments fighting for the basic human right of healthy air, water and food access. The activism related to the environment is a crucial issue at the heart of our community’s health and prospects for the future.

The pandemic has crystalized my perspective on the environment. Rather than calling for attention at the periphery of social concern, environmental issues are now at the forefront. Looking at how our pandemic slowdown has allowed Earth to heal and how motivated the youth movement is on this issue, I am hopeful that the new administration sees how crucial listening to the science regarding climate change will be. Environmentally minded science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have envisioned what we are living through as a direct result of climate change. The key now is envisioning ways to live with mutual aid as a core value. Mutual aid between humans and between humans and the environment. I believe it will prove to be key to our survival.

 

By Julia Way Rix, presented the installation For The Future, 2020:

Installation view of For the Future on the Schuylkill Center’s trails by Liz Jelsomine

 

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

 

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.

 

Pivoting to Virtual Education

When most schools in our area began the year with virtual learning, our environmental educators were faced with an extraordinary challenge: how can we translate a school field trip in our forest into an engaging virtual experience for students learning at home? 

“Half of the experience is just being outdoors,” explains environmental educator Patti Dunne. “Any observation that relies on a sense other than sight—the feel of a pelt or the scent of a leaf, for instance—you have to figure out how to get that across in a different way. Many of the lessons we’re rewriting entirely.”

Our education team responded to this challenge with creativity and innovation, breaking down lessons into basic concepts and rebuilding them with a mixture of live interaction, pre-recorded videos, and self-guided outdoor activities. Through the end of January, educators have reached over 700 students through virtual school programs.

The addition of pre-recorded videos offers the opportunity for students to observe habitats, organism interactions, and scientific concepts in action. A watershed lesson, for example, can include a video recorded during a rainstorm, capturing the movement of stormwater runoff from street to storm drain, as well as the use of interactive maps to allow students to visualize the watershed they live in. 

Teaching in a virtual format has also had some unexpected advantages. Educator Rebecca Deegan remarks that with in-person field trips, “you’re limited to what you have on hand; you might need something that’s being used by another class. With virtual programs, you have access to the entire internet to assist your lessons, so it’s less about your individual resources.” Manager of School Programs Eduardo Dueñas adds that with virtual classes, “We can give the students lots of time to ask questions and indulge their curiosity. There’s not as much pressure to rush, so some students really take advantage of that and ask lots of questions.”

One thing that hasn’t changed with the new dimension of virtual school programs is the rewarding sense of fulfillment that educators feel when helping students make a meaningful, impactful connection to nature. As part of a self-guided “homework” assignment for Lankenau High School’s AP Environmental Science class, students had to go outdoors to collect a soil sample, make observations, and answer questions about it. One student commented that they enjoyed the homework because it was the first time they’d been outdoors in weeks. Not only are these programs providing engaging educational instruction, but they’re also helping to keep students connected to nature at a time when they are indoors more than ever before.

Executive Director Mike Weilbacher notes, “We have been leading school field trips for over fifty years. This is one signature program that has been consistent throughout our existence. Even with COVID, we continue to engage students virtually in our passion for the environment.”  To learn more about having a virtual education program in your classroom, contact Beatrice Kelly at 215-853-6249 or beatrice@schuylkillcenter.org.

 

By Aaliyah Green Ross, Director of Education

Nature’s Music At-Home Activities

This week’s nature kits focus on the different sounds that we hear outside. From the calling of birds to the whistling of wind to the crunching of leaves—nature is alive with its own special type of music. 

Every Saturday, nature kits have been 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. 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: Sound Scavenger Hunt

In our own neighborhoods, there are sounds specific to nature and sounds not specific to nature.

  • Print out a sound scavenger hunt and go on a hike to see if you can hear the sounds on the sheet.
    • As you hike around, pause at a few points and cup your hands around the back of your ear to look like the ears of a deer. This helps to amplify sound or make it louder.
    • Animals like deer and rabbits have large cup-shaped ears so that they can listen for predators such as foxes and coyotes.
    • Which sounds on your scavenger hunt sheet are sounds from nature? Which are sounds that are not from nature? Are there any sounds that you hear that aren’t on the scavenger hunt sheet?
Activity #2: Animal Charades
  • Take a piece of paper and cut it into strips.
    • Brainstorm some animals that make distinct sounds and write (or draw for younger children) one animal on each piece of paper.
    • Put all of the slips of paper in a brown paper bag.
  • Go outside and find the perfect stage to perform your charades.
    • Have one person from your family pick a piece of paper from the brown bag and make the sound that that animal makes.
    • Can everyone else guess what animal it is?
    • Have another person take a turn.
      • For an extra challenge, split your family into teams and see who can get through the most animals in a set amount of time.
    • Which animal sounds were really easy to guess? Which were really hard?
Activity #3: Family Nature Band
  • It’s time to create your very own rock band!
  • Have each member of your family find a nature instrument.
    • Some examples include: using a rock and stick for a drum set, making an xylophone out of different sized sticks, or just grabbing some leaves to crunch.
  • Have one person from your family act as a conductor.
    • When the conductor moves their hands quickly, the music should go faster.
    • When the conductor moves their hands slowly, the music should slow down.
    • The conductor can also tell certain people when to stop or start playing.
      • Point to someone to tell them to start playing.
      • Act as though your hand is a mouth and clamp your fingers together to tell someone to stop playing.
  • Can you put together your own family song?
Activity #4: Jingle Sticks
  • Find a Y-shaped stick in your backyard or a nearby park.
  • Tie a piece of yarn onto one side of the stick.
  • String materials that would make sound through the yarn.
    • Some examples include: dried pasta, beads, or buttons.
  • Once your materials are added, tie the yarn off on the other side of the stick.
    • You can wrap the bottom of your stick in yarn or color it with paint.

 

If you do any of these activities, be sure to snap a picture and share it with us on social media (tag us @schuylkillcenter)—we’d love to see what you discover in your own backyard!

Valentine’s Day Nature Kit: At-Home Version

Happy Valentine’s Day weekend! This week’s nature kits focus on the unique ways that animals find mates. Whether it’s by impressing their partner with elaborate courtship dances, showing off their brightly colored feathers, or by serenading them with beautiful calls, “love” in the animal kingdom stretches the gamut from cute to quirky to downright bizarre. 

Every Saturday, nature kits have been 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. 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.

Bright Colors to Attract a Mate

Most flowering plants require the help of pollinators, such as butterflies, birds, birds, and even moths, to make new flowers. When pollinators pollinate a flower, they move pollen in the middle of the flower from one flower to another. When pollen moves from flower to flower, eventually a seed is created, and a new flower can grow from that seed. Since pollinators help to create new flowers, plants want to attract them. One way that they can do this is by being bright and showy.

  • Draw three flowers on a piece of white paper.
    • Use crayons or markers to color the outside flower petals bright colors, making sure that each flower looks different.
  • Go to your backyard or a nearby park and place the flowers in three spots.
    • Your grown-up will pretend to be a bee.
      • While you are placing the flowers, have them close their eyes.
      • Make sure to not hide the flower completely.
      • Your grown-up should still be able to see at least part of the flower from where they are standing.
    • Have your grown-up turn around and try to locate the flowers by their bright colors.
      • Did the bright colors help them to locate the flower?
      • Which flower were they able to see first?
      • Was this the most colorful one?
    • Have your grown-up then move the flowers as you pretend to be the bee.
      • Activity Extension: Color the center of each of your flowers with a different color of chalk. Grab a cotton ball and pretend to be a bee by traveling from flower to flower. At each flower that you visit, rub your cotton ball bee in the “pollen,” or chalk, in the center. After you’ve visited each flower, look at the colors on your cotton ball. Is each flower’s pollen color represented on the cotton ball bee? If so, this means you’ve done a good job pollinating!

 

Dancing to Attract a Mate

The males or boys of some species will actually dance to attract a mate. These dances can often be really funny looking.

  • Use this courtship dance sheet to make your own funny dance.
  • Start by listing five movements that will be part of your dance.
    • Movements can be things like stomping your feet, patting your head, or snapping your fingers.
    • The number column is the number of times you would do that movement before moving onto the next one.
    • Fill out the sheet and then perform the dance as a family.
    • As an added activity, have each person in your family create their own dance.
      • Vote on who you think had the best dance.

 

Using Sounds to Attract a Mate:

Animals such as frogs, crickets, and owls will use mating calls to attract mates. They will call out loudly and their potential mate will decide whether or not to answer back based on if they like what they hear from the call. For this game, you’ll want to start out by finding a large field or backyard to play in. Have your grown-up close their eyes.

  • Choose one spot on the field to stand.
  • Have your grown-up clap their hands.
    • Whenever they clap their hands, clap yours back, making sure to stay in one spot as you do so.
  • Have your grown-up use their sense of hearing to find you.
  • Once they’ve found you, switch roles and try to use your hearing to find your grown-up.
  • Instead of clapping, try to make a different sound.
    • You can stomp your feet, snap your fingers, or make your very own noise maker (dried pasta or rice in a jar works well).
      • What noises make it easy to find one another?
      • Which noises make it a little harder?

 

Animal Valentine’s Day Cards:

Animals will care for one another by providing food to their young, helping their mate to build a den/nest, or even by warning one another of danger. There are ways that we can care for one another, and one way to do that is by telling the people in our lives why they are important to us. Valentine’s Day is a great time to do that!

  • Print out the animal Valentine’s Day cards that you like best.
  • Decide who you want to give your Valentine’s Day card or cards to and write, or have your grown-up write, their name in the bottom box.
  • In the message box, write or draw a picture that tells why that person is important to you.
  • Try to think about the things they do for you or the things that you like to do with them.
  • Give or send your Valentine’s Day card to that person.

 

 

 

A New Lens on Nature: Community photos in “Citizen’s Eye”

It almost could be another tree, except for the ears. Look a little closer and you realize it’s a deer, stock-still and staring at you through the morning mist. As autumn leaves rustle, its silent appraisal reminds you: you are not alone. These woods are a shared space.

This encounter is captured in a photo by Peter DeStefano, one he submitted to the upcoming community show, “Citizen’s Eye — A Kaleidoscope of Nature.” More than 400 photos taken by over 200 people—Schuylkill Center staff, members, volunteers, neighbors, friends—document surprising encounters with nature from the past 10 months. Every photo is included in the exhibition, making for a truly kaleidoscopic display.

Photo by Peter DeStefano, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz and her team have been sorting through these images, arranging them in our gallery, while looking for patterns. Some photos show structures of bridges and buildings; many are close-ups of animals or plants. They all come from a heightened sense of awareness to our natural surroundings and a willingness to stop and focus on smaller things. Taking such a photograph of nature requires that you not just move through the world but slow down enough to notice it. That you become a reciprocal part of it and live in it.

While each image reflects its photographer’s interest, collectively they begin to tell a story, one that begins with people going out to find nature—whether for peace, solitude, or recreation—and discovering that it’s always right beside them. Nature with a capital ‘N’ may conjure up romantic notions of sublime landscapes in National Parks, grand mountains, and expansive deserts. But nature with a lowercase ‘n’ encompasses everything around us. It’s “the small things we’re experiencing every day,” Tina says. “It’s not only about blooming flowers, it is also about the little weed on the sidewalk.” 

A number of photos feature kids and adults outside—playing, building, exploring, living. Some are posed; some are candid; one is a silhouette. “When we really think about ‘nature’ and where this term comes from,” Tina says, “we quickly see that it’s not only the ‘natural world’—it’s also our world context, it’s also our body, it’s our human interaction with the environment. And I think that’s what I was really interested in seeing through other people’s eyes.”

Photo by Walther Vera, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Nature is also around us, inevitably, in death. One particularly striking photo is of a funeral with masked mourners holding big red umbrellas and carrying a casket down the street. At first, it may seem like it doesn’t belong in a show of nature photography. But it made Tina consider how other nature photos capture death and decay. Several images, for instance, show mushrooms sprouting from dying trees. The rotting wood provides the nutrients necessary to grow a network of fungi that spreads throughout the forest—itself an offering to trees and a vital connection between them. “It’s this circle of life,” she says, “and death is part of our lives.” 

Photo by Peter Handler, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

That topic of death is “hard to grapple with as it relates to the pandemic,” Tina says. But that’s why offering a place for people to share their experiences with nature is so powerful. “I think it allows us a space for grief, and for thinking how, when a tree is dying, it is not dying, it is just transforming into something else.”

Ultimately everything in nature is interconnected, everything shared. “Citizen’s Eye” reflects this in its community display, ready to welcome you in and transform your own encounters with nature.

 

“Citizen’s Eye —A Kaleidoscope of Nature” will be available to view in person in our gallery and online from January 21– March 21, 2021. Join us for a virtual opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 pm for a conversation with mythologist and social practice artist Li Sumpter Ph.D., John Heinz National Wildlife refuge manager Lamar Gore, and designer CJ Walsh, moderated by Tina Plokarz. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.schuylkillcenter.org/blog/event/citizens-eye-a-kaleidoscope-of-nature/

 

—By Emily Sorensen

 

Pam DeLissio: ‘Voters Want to be Heard’

While razor-thin voting margins characterized so much of the electoral landscape this month, state Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-194, cruised to an easy reelection victory for her sixth term in Harrisburg, racking up more than 74% of her district’s almost 37,000 votes.

I talked to her last week over the phone, and she laughed when she told me that “a voter I met asked me if I had to work hard for this win. I told her I work hard every day.” And she does.

A self-described “moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-road” politician, she bristles when anyone suggests these traits show a lack of strength, or lack of an opinion. Clearly she has opinions. But she listens very hard to her constituents, and works to represent those interests in the capitol. “I take the input of constituents very seriously,” she offered, “because when citizens are informed about the process, they make better decisions.”

The COVID pandemic colors everything these days, including politics. “Here we are sitting and talking with 4,700 new cases only yesterday,” she said, pausing to confirm the number. “Yes, 4,711, higher than the highest high in the spring, and the legislature has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to correct the governor’s supposedly erroneous behavior. In an emergency like this, you need to be nimble, and putting the pandemic in the hands of the legislature is just not effective. As long as you have gerrymandering in place, you’ll have a skewed perspective on COVID.”

As an example, the state is currently sitting on a pot of $1 billion given to Harrisburg by Congress from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act with overwhelming bipartisan support back in March. “Our CARES money could have been 100% appropriated by the governor,” she told me, “but as an olive branch he gave authority to the legislature to spend it. So there’s still about a billion dollars to be spent that the legislature has not been inclined to deal with.” (They were waiting to possibly use it for deficit relief.) “And many sectors of the community – child care comes to mind – are acutely aware that this money has not been spent.”

Given that she is now a veteran of a full decade of service, she is in line for serving as a minority chair on one of the committees she belongs to. “I’m looking forward to that,” she said. Even though she will be minority chair, “if you do it well, do it right, and do it strategically, you could have some influence.”

When asked about her legislative priorities, she did not hesitate: “redistricting reform, because 2021 is a redistricting year. There is a transparency piece I am interested in, to direct the reapportionment commission to be more accountable by requiring public hearings and allowing public comments. I actually pushed for redistricting reform at one of my first town halls back when I was first elected, and people said, ‘Pam, that’s 10 years away!’ And here we are suddenly at the other end of that decade. But neither party seems very interested in this,” she added wistfully.

“I also see and hear a lot about equity and poverty. Our city’s poverty rate is 26%,” her voice rising. Philadelphia is often described as the poorest large city, not a badge of honor by any stretch. “Poverty stands in the way of our citizens breaking into the middle class.” For her, poverty becomes a lens through which she can examine other bills before her: “is this bill going to help or exacerbate the situation?” She noted that, “ I’ve spent some time understanding the social determinants of health, like the impact of housing, transportation, and food insecurity on health.” These play into poverty as well.

Pam easily connects education to the issue, and reminded me that an education commission made recommendations in 2015 to change the formula the state uses to distribute money for school districts. Of the 500 school districts in the state, almost 200 are underfunded, according to the state’s own math. The new allocation formula, she said, “takes into consideration things that have never been considered before, like poverty level, and there’s even a factor in the equation for deep poverty.” But Harrisburg got stuck on whether the new formula goes into effect automatically or steps down over time, and she signaled she would like to champion stepping down, a gradual drop over time to more equitable levels.

When asked about Pennsylvania being in the national crosshairs over our election’s integrity, she said, “Out of the blue this fall, there came an effort (in the legislature) to create a select committee on election integrity. The way the language was written – it was so poorly drafted – it would have given subpoena power to the majority Speaker. The pushback, no, the blowback,” she said, her voice rising on blowback, “was tremendous, and that was shelved.”

About the fraud allegations, she says “nobody has shared one scintilla of evidence. Oh,” she remembered, “one person from one polling place called me with a complaint, and I need to track that down. But that’s it.”

She would like to see election reform. “I’d like to memorialize the drop boxes– there was unbelievable voter engagement this year because of mail-in votes. Many many states have mail-in voting, so it’s not new, it’s just new in Pennsylvania. Interestingly, it eliminates straight-ticket voting, which is no problem for me. But this engagement may just be what many legislators want to avoid – they actually don’t want engaged voters.” She also supports mail-in votes that can be opened and prepped early, so they can be counted on Election Day, avoiding this year’s multi-day wait.

She’s not a big fan of legislation crafted “for the sake of the base. I’ve never played to a base; I haven’t done that and will not do that, and that’s how I ended up with a robust percentage of the vote in a divisive election. Voters tell me, ‘I know she listens to me.’ That’s what most voters want, to be heard.”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Bea Kelly Marks 20 Years at the Schuylkill Center

If you’ve visited the Schuylkill Center anytime in the last 20 years, there’s a great chance you’ve met Roxborough’s Bea Kelly, who this week celebrates her 20th anniversary as a member of the center’s staff. Our program registrar, Bea served as our receptionist for 15 of those 20 years,so if you’ve walked in the front door to come to an event, see our art gallery, drop off a preschooler, or buy our special bird seed, you’ve likely said hello to Bea.

To mark the occasion, the staff created a bee-friendly garden (pun intended, get it?) at the front door near our new seating area, which overflows with plants that birds and pollinators like native bees find attractive, like viburnums, small flowering shrubs with fruits craved by birds, and fall-blooming asters that nourish migrating monarchs on their way south. She also was given a gift certificate to White Yak, the delicious Tibetan restaurant that’s scoring a lot of attention on the Ridge. 

A native Philadelphian who grew up in Northwest Philly, Bea has called Roxborough her home for the last five years. Asked why she chose Roxborough, she responded, “well it’s obvious that being in close proximity to work is a bonus. The neighborhood is beautiful, vibrant, verdant, and conducive to sustainable living and healthy community. And it’s fun.

“My neighborhood,” she continued, “ is one of the most priceless areas of the region. I can walk just about anywhere from my house and find interesting nooks and crannies along the way. I love the views and the architecture and the history around every corner, and also the gardens. I enjoy the ease and comfort in exploring the area and I meet so many friendly neighbors everywhere I go.”  

Bea came to the Center in 2000 as a part-time educator but quickly transitioned to become the “face” of the organization when she took on the job of front-desk receptionist.  Bea recalls, “it was always satisfying to help anyone who came through our front door because everyone is usually surprised and delighted at what they find when they explore our trails.”

She’s also seen a lot of nature in her time with us, as the front desk is surrounded by glass windows. She’s the first to see new birds at our feeding station, often writing their names of an old-school chalkboard in the lobby, or deer coming too close to the front door, or Canada geese returning to nest on Fire Pond outside the front door, or blue jays stealing name tags from the native plants we sell at the front door (they love doing this, oddly), or fox droppings deposited on the front walkway by a fox likely snubbing his nose at us, and more.

She’s even our rainfall monitor, measuring how much rainfall comes each day in the rain gauge out by the solar collectors. And she’s been one of the go-to photographers I’ve leaned on for submitting alongside this column– you’ve seen her work on several occasions.

When asked about colleagues or mentors that influenced her, Bea gave a shout out to our diverse army of volunteers.  “I think there’s something miraculous when people give freely of their time.”  While the individual tasks may not seem significant, Bea notes, “their collective benefits are immeasurable. Their work over the years has made the Center run much more smoothly.”  When asked about working with Bea, Director of Education Aaliyah Green Ross comments, “I’ve relied on Bea in my time here. She is always a great resource when it comes to what works when we’re planning education and public programs.”

When Bea isn’t at her desk, you might find her walking along one of her favorite places at the Center, our driveway. “There’s a place at the bend in our driveway that’s really quiet and there are trees on either side,” she muses. “When I walk along the driveway, it feels like I’m on an old country road. The bend is a spot that has a nice mix of ‘wildness’ with a dab of civilization.”

 During her time, Bea has worked for three of our four executive directors, and just missed meeting our founder, Dick James, who retired in 1996. As the fourth in that chain, I think that it’s incredibly rare that people stay at one workplace for 20 years anymore, so the center is very lucky that Bea has been that warm, welcoming presence at our front door for all this time. In fact, Dick James, here for 31 years, may be the only other person in our organization’s history to hit this mark. 

I’m hoping she stays on another 20 more! We’ll write about her in this corner of the newspaper again when she does. 

Congratulations, Bea, and thank you.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Halloween and Hermit’s Cave

Kris Soffa as the “Woman in the Wilderness” at the Hermit’s Cave. Photo by David Soffa.

It’s Halloween, a normally festive holiday that’s been made even scarier by the pandemic. Lots of Halloween events have sadly been canceled this year out of care and caution; one of those was typically set in a very special place in Roxborough:

The Hermit’s Cave along the Wissahickon. Which amazingly was created by a Philadelphian who immigrated here from– you can’t make this stuff up– Transylvania.

You may have heard of the legend that a hermit lived in a cave along the Wissahickon for some time. While much of the truth has been lost and the legend has been greatly embellished, Halloween is a great time to dig up the skeleton of the story. And our tale is told by Kris Soffa, longtime Roxborough resident and Trail Ambassador for Friends of the Wissahickon who typically did a spooky night at the cave, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Johannes Kelpius, as Kris explained, “was the son of a Lutheran minister, born in 1667,” she said, yes, in Transylvania. “He was a scholar, writer, alchemist, philosopher, mystic, musician, and scientist,” she continued, “and part of the Pietist movement, breaking off from Lutheranism during the Reformation. He was the leader of a hotbed of people studying the Book of Revelation.” The group decided through their intense study that the world would end in 1694. Inspired by a passage in the book noting the importance of the “Woman in the Wilderness,” which to them signaled they should await the end in the wilds of the New World. As Philadelphia was close to the 40th parallel, and 40 was mystical to the group, and the city was tolerant of religious freedom, they came to Philadelphia, bringing 40 men to start their celibate cult in the New World wilderness to await the end. As Kelpius went to college in Germany, much of his group were highly literate German men, and they found a German patron to buy them land, not far from Germantown, again finding people sympathetic to their story.

It was America’s first Doomsday Cult. They set up shop off now-named Hermit Lane at the bottom of Roxborough near the Wissahickon, erecting a tabernacle 40 feet wide by 40 feet long, the 40 men living (near the 40th parallel, remember) in huts nearby. Legend says Kelpius himself lives in a cave here; some legends even say the group lives in caves along the creek, but there are not many true caves here– it’s the wrong kind of rock.

And while (spoiler alert!) the world does not end in 1694, the group stays busy. Learned men in a small growing town– Philadelphia has only 500 buildings when they arrive– “they become successful doctors and lawyers,” continued Kris, “so they are visiting Germantown, people coming to them for healing.” They grow a large botanical garden that includes many of the plants they need for their medical work. Kris says the group sets up the first observatory in the New World, at Lover’s Leap in the Wissahickon, using instruments Kelpius brought with him. He wrote the first piece of music in the New World, a book of hymns, some still used today. His follower Christopher Witt, a Brit expatriate, painted his portrait, the first oil painting in the New World. Wikipedia adds that Witt also “built them a pipe organ… the first privately owned organ in North America.”

As 1694 passes without the world ending, some of the followers become disenchanted, and the group struggles. Kelpius dies in 1708, many blaming his ascetic life in a cave for his death in his 40s. The effort ends with the land being purchased by the well-established Righter family who operated a shad fishery, mills, and ferry along the Schuylkill.

In 1848, the Righters sold the site of the tabernacle and one “hermit” cabin to the son of a Russian count, who built a country house here he named the Hermitage. Evan’s son sold the property in 1895 to Fairmount Park for $1.

The cave is downhill of the Hermitage off Hermit Lane. Carefully lined with rock and lintels, it appears more like a root cellar. While several websites claim it was a springhouse, no spring emerges from its solid-stone floor. Kris doubts this was ever a hermit’s cave, but where Kelpius really lived and whether it was a hut or a cave has been lost in time. That said, the Rosicrucians, another sect that has claimed Kelpius, erected a stone marker to him here in 1961– which stands today.

In recent years, Kris Soffa orchestrated a special evening event there. A prop coffin was wheeled into the cave, as she described, “and spooky re-enactors in full Halloween regalia lit candles and incense and laid out artifacts which Kelpius might have used, like an astrolabe, crystals, and alchemy objects. The hermit himself, in Renaissance robes and hood, waited inside the cave at a small table and chair.” As her group walked to the cave, costumed characters joined them as escorts, and at the cave, a vampire of course emerged from the coffin, a joyful mashup of history and Hallwoeen.

But not to be done this year! Stay tuned for next year, and in the meantime, Happy Halloween.

By Mike Weilbacher. Executive Director.  Mike tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.