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.

Naturalist’s Notebook: The Missing Sponge

By Andrew Kirkpatrick, Manager of Land Stewardship

If you take a walk along Smith Run, coming up Ravine Loop below Penn’s Native Acres, the hillsides where the beeches, oaks and maples grow show signs of distress.  The structural roots of the trees are visible at the soil line when they should be tucked away cozily wrapped in the warm blanket of leaf litter and organic rich soil.  Instead, because of exotic invasive earthworms, which can be observed by scraping away the thin layer of leaves on the ground, the roots are exposed and left to fend for themselves in all of the elements; freezing winter winds, driving rains, and blazing sun.  If you look up, the impact on the trees is apparent.  Bare branches and diminished canopy reveal their stresses.  The trees are dying.  

In healthy, undisturbed forest soil, we would discover a universe of fungus, microorganisms, bacteria, and insects thriving. All of these elements facilitate the healthy growth and development of plant roots. The vast root mat matrix of the organic horizon (the top layer of healthy soil) in the forest acts like a gigantic sponge that collects water when it rains and holds it in storage for trees to use in the drier months of the year.  

However, in highly disturbed areas like the Schuylkill Center, the organic horizon of the soil is absent. Soil horizon is a technical term for the classification of the cake-like layers of soil.  The organic horizon is missing here because hundreds of years of agricultural use have long since removed the original rich soil and left mostly thin, mineral soil at the top of the profile.  In fact, parts of our property were in farmland almost until the Center’s founding in 1965. The forest has not been able to redevelop the O horizon as it might have otherwise, largely due to the activity of invasive earthworms.

photo by Julia Aguilar

photo by Julia Aguilar

Invasive earthworm and castings

Invasive earthworm and castings

The invasive earthworms are much larger than our native ones, tunnel deeper into the earth and voraciously devour the leaf litter that would accumulate annually in the fall, break down over time to replenish the soil, and rebuild the O horizon.  So what is left is a loose accumulation of worm castings on a destabilized base that washes away into our streams every time it rains, carrying many nutrients with them.  And when the dry times of the year arrive, the trees have no reserve of nutrients to draw upon.  Instead our forest is stressed and vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases that it would otherwise be able to fend off.  

Planting Fox Glen_5-20-17 (10)20170516_115508We can address these problems by improving the soil and providing the roots of trees with a healthy environment to grow and develop.  In our Fox Glen restoration site, as we planted new trees we covered the ground around them with wood chips to help the roots retain moisture.  The wood chips will break down over time and add to the organic content of the soil.  

If we want our forest at the Schuylkill Center to survive climate change and the increasing stresses that come from an urban environment, we must help it to be as resilient as possible by replacing the missing sponge.

About the author

photo by Heather FowlerAndrew has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and ecological restoration from Temple University.  He hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2005-2006.

Photo by Heather Fowler, WHYY

An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.