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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

LESS IS MORE

Guests explore the gallery during December’s opening reception of LESS IS MORE.

If you visit our art gallery, you won’t find any real or crafted plants, any carved or photographed trees, any mapped or painted landscapes. Instead, in Makeba Rainey’s show LESS IS MORE: The Nature of Letting Go, you’ll see large fabric portraits overlaid with patterns of African wax cloth, a Kwanzaa altar, a wall of church fans, and a cozy corner stocked with books. And you may wonder: how is this environmental art?

The answer is both clear and complex—namely, we humans are also part of nature.

We are not separate from our “environment” and the climate crisis is as much a social crisis as it is a material one, so its solutions must take both into account.

As Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art, puts it, “I believe today’s environmental practice can express itself in many ways—as a public action, political demonstration, or personal behavior. But it can also be a social practice that grows on building empathy across communities.” Ecology also works at the human level and in relationships between human communities; if they’re frayed, then our relationship with the environment will also suffer.  

Tina continues, “I invited Makeba Rainey to the Schuylkill Center because I was fascinated by the care and respect her works embody for community, particularly the Black community in the region”—because Rainey’s LESS IS MORE is created specifically by and for Black people, a group (in Philadelphia and around the country) that has historically been subject to high levels of environmental racism, from unchecked air pollution and contaminated water to redlining in districts with comparatively little tree cover. The sacred and memorial space Rainey has created in the gallery offers a much-needed counter: an invitation for healing, rest, and rejuvenation. All are vital for building and sustaining Black community.  

The show also pushes back against a dominant capitalist ideology of never-ending growth and linear progression, instead insisting that we are part of a cycle of life and death—and that cyclicality, with its inherent sustainability, is worth celebrating. Throughout the gallery, birth, life, and death coexist and move in a circle rather than a line: starting in one corner with midwifery artifacts from Rainey’s great aunt, tools for bringing new life into the world; moving on to a reading corner full of resources for life and accounts of lives lived; around to a memorial wall with church fans featuring photos of the recently deceased; and finally to a liminal space of an altar surrounded by two portraits, one of a late midwife, the other of a new mother and her child. Look closely and you’ll also find globes and spheres scattered through the space, underscoring this cyclicality.  

Globes and circles can be found throughout the gallery, emphasizing the cyclical nature of life and death.

Moreover, the exhibition not only features Rainey’s work as a visual artist (the two portraits), but also other aspects of her practice: curation and community organizing. Indeed, Rainey directly created only a few items in the gallery and curated the rest from collaborators and community. A bouquet made by Meagan Cook of The Botanic Village and a t-shirt by Sudan Green both stand in memory of a friend killed by gun violence. A haunting and evocative soundscape by Julien Terrell plays from a corner. The church fans feature photos submitted by Philadelphians, while the book collection reflects lists curated by a host of Black librarians, booksellers, activists, and educators. Again and again, Rainey reminds us: care for each other and care for the planet will be found in community.  

Similarly, the exhibition does not end where the gallery walls do. Rather, intrinsic to the show are the events programmed alongside it, opportunities to put the show’s themes into embodied practice: cultivating protected space Black community, honoring connection, and finding peace in letting go. These events, a birding outing on March 19 and an art and yoga workshop on March 26, are offered in partnership with In Color Birding Club and Spirits Up!, relationships Rainey brings with her as an artist. While it is easy to consider birding a scientific exercise and yoga a physical practice, in this context they’re imagined more holistically. Birding becomes a way to celebrate companionship, human and non-human alike, and yoga a way to nourish creativity and calm through the power of movement and breath. 

Whether you identify as Black or not, we hope this show inspires you to think about the role our human relationships play in our relationships to other living beings, plants and animals. What does it mean to see environmental and social justice as one in the same, and how can we create systems that allow both to flourish? We invite you to cultivate the regenerative energy of community while exploring what sustainability looks like as a circle, not a line.

LESS IS MORE: The Nature of Letting Go is on view through March 26. To learn more about the Center’s art exhibitions, go to www.schuylkillcenter.org/art.

By Emily Sorensen, Exhibitions Coordinator

The First Wildflower of Spring is Here!

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

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

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

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

The mottled purple hood resembles something like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter universe. Incredibly, this hood is thermogenic, able to generate heat to melt the snow and ice around it. Temperatures around the hood are as much as 60° higher than the air around it. Crazy, no?

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

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

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

The heat it generates accomplishes multiple functions; it not only melts the ice around it, critical at this time of year, but also helps disseminate the smell. And pollinators are likely to come into the hood seeking that warmth. As I scanned the area for more hoods– I found at least four more coming up– I saw three different flies flitting around the area, one landing on a downed tree trunk to bask in the sunlight, as last Saturday saw temperatures pushing 60°. Was this its pollinator? Maybe. But it was one of the first flying insects I’ve seen this winter, the others out the day before, another warm day. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

North Light Weathers the Viral Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

The Hidden History of Groundhog Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Healing Power of White Pine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Schuylkill Center’s Year of Restoration

Many hands make restoration possible. Join our Restoration Work Day.

We have named 2022 as our Year of Restoration, dedicating our programming to restoring so many things, starting with the forest habitat that our nature center calls home. But we are also looking to restore our climate, the planet in total, and several things lost in pandemic confusion: our sense of awe and a balance in our relationships with nature and each other.

The 11th annual Richard L. James Lecture, named for our founding director, will be held virtually in March and will focus on restoring the majestic American chestnut tree– slammed by a novel fungal blight in the early 1900s– to Pennsylvania forests, and will feature The American Chestnut Foundation‘s Director of Restoration.

Our beloved Pine Grove, a massing of mature white pines we planted in the 1970s and mightily whacked by a 2020 derecho—a climate-fueled high-energy straight-line windstorm—will benefit from the year: the piles of tree trunks left in the wind’s aftermath will become raw material for the Environmental Art department to invite area sculptors, woodworkers, and others to create inspired sculptures that we share with you.

In the spring, look for a series of Restoration Stations to pop up across the property. These are outdoor exhibits where you can stop and interactively learn something new about a different feature of restoration: native plant species, native bees and other pollinators, monarch butterflies, amphibians, migratory birds, ash trees, box turtles… Which will they be? Come see!

We’ll unveil the first Restoration Stations at Naturepalooza, our annual Earth Day festival, which this year becomes a Celebration of Restoration. Both the spring and fall semesters of Thursday Night Live, our popular online conversations, will skew heavily in this direction— look for the new semester in March and April. 

The Center will focus our 2022 habitat restoration efforts along the Wildflower Loop, the deer exclosure area begun circa 2000 that requires constant TLC: new and better fencing, more native plantings, a degraded meadow and pond to restore, and more. We’ll also build a monarch way station on our site, one formally certified by Monarch Watch, and replace a series of bluebird boxes that provide nesting sites for more than bluebirds—tree swallows and small mammals like them too.

“The Wildlife Clinic’s work is by nature restorative,” offers clinic director Chris Strub, “restoring wildlife to their natural habitats and restoring the public’s connection with wildlife through direct rescue efforts.” On top of this, we will work with volunteers and staff to install a Wildlife Garden inside one of its old outdoor cages, using the cage to protect the plants from deer, rabbits, woodchucks, and more. “We’ll grow native plants that make the food wildlife eat,” (think berries and nuts) says Chris, “as well as domestic plants for our patients, like lettuce.”

The clinic will also continue its partnership with Audubon chapters and the Bird Safe Philly, as our clinic is the official drop-off site for migratory birds found stunned when they hit Center City skyscrapers, and we will focus your attention on this important program this year too.

Our next two art exhibitions, the current one by Black artist Makeba Rainey and Filipino-American artist Maria Dumlao, will feature numerous installations and events focusing on the restorative powers of nature, especially for communities of color.

Our Nature Preschool already raises mealworms to feed to the clinic’s bird patients, and will continue this practice, while growing trees from seeds to plant in our forest and collecting acorns and nuts to bring to the clinic. They’ll even assist us in many of the projects noted above.

We’ll end the year in another now longstanding tradition, presenting a restoration-flavored Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award to… ah, we’ll be asking you for nominees in the spring.

You can join in the fun: our monthly Restoration Work Groups for volunteers will have a special urgency in 2022. And restore homes for wildlife by putting up bird boxes, planting native wildflowers and trees, and so much more. Hope you’ll join us in a Year of Restoration.

This week in climate. The numbers are finally in: 2021 was tied for the 6th hottest year ever, according to NASA and other agencies. And all of the top seven hottest years have happened in the last seven. (A European report differs slightly, saying 2021 was the fifth warmest.) But July was the hottest month ever recorded by humanity on this planet. 

And a different government study reported last week that 2021 was the deadliest weather year for the lower 48 states since 2011, with almost 700 people dying in 20 different billion-dollar weather disasters that together cost almost $150 billion. Climate change, as we are learning, is both costly and deadly.

Countdown: 10 Things I Love About Winter

Last week, the first full week of the New Year, was a weird one weather-wise. It was supposed to snow last Monday for like 24 hours straight, but the snow slipped east and south instead, slamming DC and the Jersey shore. Then on Wednesday, the morning commute was icy, and finally, on Friday, we saw our first real snowfall of the year, a nice covering of three to five inches hereabouts.

Philadelphians LOVE to complain about weather, and winter gives us a lot to complain about. But TV meteorologists don’t help, always acting surprised when winter weather is cold, or worse, when it snows. Just the threat of snow sends them into paroxysms of anguish– and sends us all to the Acme to wipe out the bread aisle.

While all of us hate slogging through piles of slush while scraping ice off our windshields, there are surprisingly many things we can like about winter. Here’s my top 10 list, the best of winter.

10. New vistas. Like all forests hereabouts, the Schuylkill Center’s 300 acres of trees have lost their leaves, allowing you to see across entire valleys, much farther than you can during the summer. You get a much better sense of landscape, valleys, dips and rises, cliffs and terrain. The Wissahickon is awesome here too. Winter opens a whole new way of seeing the world, but also opens whole new ways of hearing—sound travels much farther, so that darn expressway across the river is easier to hear in Roxborough as well.

9. Footprints in the snow. Winter’s creatures leave great stories in the snow, and there’s nothing like trying to decipher them on walks through snowy forests. A squirrel hopping to a tree, a deer nibbling on shrubs, a fox purposefully walking to its den: all this can be seen in snow. I’ve never seen a coyote at our trails (dang!), but I absolutely have admired their big-pawed canid tracks. I’ve even seen places where hawks have pounced on sparrows, the story etched in white—and with red splotches, like a murder scene in a mystery.

8. Winter birds. Speaking of sparrows, a winter forest is surprisingly alive with a rainbow of birds—cardinals, blue jays, crows, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, even birds that only come here for the winter like dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows. Visit our Bird Blind to see some of them. And on a sunny day in winter, those birds will actually start practicing their spring courtship songs, one of winter’s unexpected treats. Titmice are especially chatty on sunny days.

7. Winter’s tranquility. A winter forest seems quieter than other times of year; maybe it’s the lack of leaves rustling. Come experience it firsthand.

6. Soup! Yeah, chowder just tastes better after a cold day or in the middle of a snowfall. So does stew. Or the ultimate snow day lunch, tomato soup with a grilled tuna-and-cheese sandwich.

5. Snowballs and sledding. There’s nothing like aiming that first snowfall of winter at the speed limit sign on my street. And with my kids grown up and out of the house, I confess to missing a good sled ride. There are few things as satisfying as a long downhill run. Which brings me to snow days. Many school districts including Philadelphia did not have a snow day, but instead switched to virtual learning. Given how little time children already spend outdoors, I hope and pray the snow day– and the sledding and snowman-making that goes with it– is not another endangered species.

4. Blue skies. Cold air isn’t able to hold much water, so winter gives us bright blue skies, much bluer than you’ll see in humid July and August. And check out the sunsets– there have been strikingly bright sunsets in the last two weeks– check them out!

3. No ticks and mosquitoes. Seriously. Both are dead, smitten by the frost (or should be!). All adult mosquitoes die, the species surviving as eggs lying at the bottom of still bodies of water, eggs that won’t hatch until the water warms. So right now, there are no adults buzzing our ears and biting our kids. And those damned ticks need some below-freezing weather to truly be knocked down a few pegs, which we finally started getting last week. So pray for more bracingly cold days to put a damper on tick populations.

2. The first snowfall. Yes, the fourth or fifth snowfall can be tedious, even exhausting. But that first snowfall? Magical. I even enjoyed shoveling the driveway– this one time.

1. Spring. The absolute best thing about winter is it makes us ready for spring. That first flower, that first butterfly, that first migrating bird returning from the Caribbean, that first green leaf, all of these are more welcome and more wonderful because we missed them for so long. Winter is the perfect set-up for spring.

Enjoy it while you can, in a forest near you.

This Week in Climate. According to reporting in The Philadelphia Inquirer, New Year’s Eve “registered an average daily temperature of 51 degrees in Philadelphia– 16 degrees above normal. In fact, the entire month averaged 45.3 degrees, the second-warmest December on record for the city stretching back to 1874, according to an analysis of (government) records. Six of the top 10 warmest Decembers have occurred in the 21st century; 2015 marked the warmest December on record.”

While last week was finally wintry, the month before it was decidedly not.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Natural Selections: A fern for this season

Christmas fern, one of the few plants still green in a January forest.

The New Year is a great time to go for a walk in a natural area near you– the Wissahickon, Andorra Meadow, the Schuylkill Center, anywhere. The walk likely helps you meet one of your resolutions– yes, get those 10,000 steps!– while being outside allows you to sidestep that accursed virus that’s been, sorry, plaguing us unmercifully for two years now. And being outdoors allows you to lower your stress levels, as time in nature is restorative and calming. In 2022, make sure to get plenty of outdoor time.

And when you do, Christmas fern will likely be along for the walk.

One of the most common plants in Wild Philadelphia, Christmas fern is also one of the easiest ferns to spot– and know by name. Its fronds are evergreen, so on a Christmas morning walk through a forest, you’ll see its green fronds along the forest floor. Few other plants besides evergreens, rhododendrons, and hollies are still green at this time of year. And if you check out a leaflet– go ahead, look closely– it has a cute little bulge on the bottom, looking, without stretching the imagination too far, something like a Christmas stocking hanging from a fireplace.

Hello, Christmas fern, your introduction to the world of ferns. While there are hundreds of fern species locally, including many that are devilishly hard to key out to species, Christmas fern offers, appropriately, a present of sorts: it is easily knowable as one of the few green things growing along the forest floor right now. I’ve led scores of walks where people want to know the name of this or that fern, and I have to confess that it is likely a member of the giant wood fern clan, a notoriously hard knot to unravel. And lowly ferns just don’t get the love they deserve, as they are lower plants, ones without any flowers whatsoever.

But ferns are important, and are a wonderful story. The first ferns appeared on our planet some 360 million years ago, 100 million years BEFORE the earliest dinosaurs. Ferns are so ancient they predate flowers: Stegosaurus might have munched on ferns, but it never ate a flower. And in Pennsylvania’s geologic history, ferns dominated the dense primeval swamps that were buried underground, the peat slowly cooking to form coal, our state’s iconic fossil fuel.

Our state’s economy is built on the lowly fern.

The Christmas fern’s genus, Polystichum, is very successful, as it is found worldwide, its cousins growing across the entire planet. One reason Christmas fern is so common in local forests is that deer do not seek them out, a great advantage in forests typically overbrowsed by deer. (But fern fiddleheads are all edible, so perhaps consider sauteing some in the spring.)

Ferns create spores, not seeds, and most do so on fertile fronds, specialized fronds carrying structures holding the spores, often on the underside of the frond. In the Christmas fern, sterile fronds typically encircle taller fertile ones, which are also held more erect. Spores tend to be created  between June and October when the conditions are right. The fertile leaflets are at the tops of their fronds– check out frond undersides during summer and fall, looking for brown spots, the sacs that create spores. In the winter, those fertile fronds die away, leaving their sterile evergreen sisters.

While Christmas fern can form colonies, it more typically grows singly or in twos or threes, the foot-long fronds appearing rather tough and leathery. In the winter, it is not unusual to find flattened fronds on the forest floor, squashed from a snowfall, but doggedly remaining green.

So do get your outdoor steps in this New Year as part of your self-care plan, and do introduce yourself to Christmas fern, unwrapping its gifts as you walk.

Climate Watch. New for 2022, this column will end every week with a special update on the unfolding climate crisis, a situation I have long labeled the New Abnormal. Last week, wildfires swept through the Denver suburbs. Fueled by high winds (110 miles per hour) and an extremely dry climate, as of Friday of last week almost 2,000 acres and 500 homes burned while tens of thousands of Coloradans were evacuated– on New Year’s Eve. Those numbers will likely have climbed by the time you read this.

When wildfires flare in the ski-resort capital of the country in the winter, you are unquestionably seeing the impact of climate change.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

December’s Weather: Hot, Hot, Hot

Since 1970, temperatures in Philadelphia during The Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 to January 5) increased over 5 degrees.

It’s been a December to remember on the weather front. 

Two weeks ago, a series of high-intensity tornadoes tore a 200-mile path from Arkansas and Missouri into Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people (as of this writing), with many more still missing. But then last week another– very powerful and equally unusual– system swept through the Great Plains and Midwest under weirdly warmed skies, spawning hurricane-level winds in Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota, killing another handful of people. And hundreds of thousands have been without power after these two systems.

That tornado system blew through Roxborough over that weekend, one gust knocking over a dead ash tree that took out the our power lines, leading to us having to scramble on Monday to restore everything. Maybe you’ve noticed the weirdly warm winter as well.

Storms like this are fueled by a diet of energy, and high-heat storms should not exist in December. Welcome to winter in the New Abnormal, as we have been calling it here at the Center.

It was 70 degrees in Wisconsin that Wednesday evening. In its reporting on the event, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Weather Company historian Chris Burt, who wrote on Facebook comparing that day’s temperatures to a “warm July evening. I can say with some confidence that this event (the heat and tornadoes) is among the most (if not THE most) anomalous weather event ever on record for the Upper Midwest.” 

Across the lower 48 states, it has already been a far warmer December than normal, with 3,069 daily record high temperatures set across the country, and only 14 record lows. Climate Central says last week’s “extreme heat could push December toward the warmest on record, following the warmest summer, 3rd warmest autumn, and 7th warmest November on record for the U.S.”

Thus far, 2021 is only the fifth warmest on record, but the five warmest years are ALL from 2015 or later– statistically, if the climate was not changing, the top five would be a random assortment of years from a variety of decades. That five of the last six years are the warmest ever recorded tells you a whole lot. But we’ll see where this hot hot hot December places the year within this regrettable pantheon.

And as we noted two weeks ago, a white Christmas is becoming increasingly rare. As the graphic nearby illustrates, the 12 days of Christmas have warmed by more than five degrees since 1970, says Climate Central, making the chances for snowfall increasingly less. (I’m writing this before Christmas, and you’re reading it afterwards, so we’ll see if the weather gods make me eat these words!)

We’re also entering a world where high-intensity storm events are increasingly common, so climate change makes the news on a weekly basis, with tornadoes here, hurricanes and typhoons there, flooding here like we saw with Ida, droughts there, heat waves here, wildfires there.

In 2021, we learned that the climate can kill us. As we leave 2021 behind us, the Earth is offering a very loud, very palpable message.

In 2022, I hope we listen better. That’s my sole New Year’s wish for us all.