With leaves off of many trees, our giants of the forest have revealed themselves. (No, not the fairy tale variety, the trees!)

While walking the trails of the Schuylkill Center in the summer months, our most gigantic trees are tucked away from sight, obscured by cork trees, devil’s walking sticks and sometimes their own young saplings. Now that winter days are upon us, the largest trees on our preserve can be appreciated in their full glory!

Join us for a guided hike to appreciate the largest trees of the Schuylkill Center. While on our walk, we will admire our gigantic friends not only for their magnitude, but for the history that they tell. We will learn ways to interpret forest communities, and see how historic homesteads and agricultural cultivation has altered the landscape. Please feel free to BYOM (Bring your own Mug!) for spiked hot apple cider that we will have, or use paper travel cups provided. We look forward to seeing you!

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

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.

All We Want for Christmas

Santa visited Ridge Avenue two Saturdays ago to spread his Christmas cheer-- but what will he leave under Roxborough trees this year?

Santa visited Ridge Avenue two Saturdays ago to spread his Christmas cheer– but what will he leave under Roxborough trees this year?

With Christmas coming at week’s end, I asked a group of Roxborough leaders, community activists, nonprofit executives, and old friends what they wanted Santa to leave under their organization’s Christmas trees. As expected, they gave thoughtful, funny, and even surprising answers. Enjoy!

Michael Devigne, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation, told me via email, “This holiday season I would like to see Roxborough residents strolling Ridge Avenue and visiting our many shops and restaurants.” Here here. “Small businesses,” he continued, “are the backbone of our community, and there is nothing quite like seeing folks out on the Ridge spreading holiday cheer. It is great to walk down the Avenue and bump into people you know and catch up on the latest gossip. These organic community interactions make my day!”

The Manayunk Development Corporation’s Alex Cohen relayed her group’s wish. “We decided that if Santa was to leave a gift under the tree for us, it would be to have lights on the Towpath to ensure safety for the bikers and pedestrians between Shurs Lane and Ridge Avenue.”

Councilman Curtis Jones is thinking big. He’d like to see “a feasibility study for a new bridge over the Schuylkill as part of the infrastructure bill,” a project that has been discussed for decades. 

Krista Wieder directs the North Light Community Center on Green Lane. “North Light would love,” she told me, “more volunteers to help with our food pantry on Mondays and Fridays, both drivers to pick up food and people to help set up! And we need an afternoon van driver for our childcare program.” 

Rich Giordano is president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, and also co-leads the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve project, the extraordinary park across from the 21st ward ballfields. The reservoir has large stone walls holding it up along both the Port Royal Avenue and Lare Street sides, and a large hole has opened on the Lare side, with a smaller one on the Port Royal side too. No surprise Rich referenced this on his Santa wish list.

“I’d like to wave a wand and have that gap in the smile of my favorite park get an implant,” he wrote to me via email, “but having turned 70 recently, I have been thinking about something a lot– the need to find our replacements. Many of our events,” he continued, tongue firmly in cheek, “could be described as fifty shades of gray, although without any erotic content. This year I’d really like to meet the person who will take my place.” 

Friends of Gorgas Park’s John Boyce agrees with Rich. “I’ve been serving the community for over 30 years,” he said. “We need a youth movement. Younger generations I hope will answer the call and take the reins of leadership in the near future. The other thing I hope,” he continued, “is that 2022 will be another rebound year for Gorgas Park, as people became very active in the park again in 2021. I am going to be optimistic and predict even better days ahead.”

Tom Landsmann, Rich’s Reservoir partner in crime and president of the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy, told me, “I’d like sustainable support for groups like the RMC. We provide upkeep and capital improvements to many of our community’s green spaces. At more than half of our sites, we’re the only form of maintenance that these public spaces receive. RMC is providing a public service,” he noted “that deserves consistent sustainable funding so we can continue stewardship on behalf of our community.”

Celeste Hardester, president of the Central Roxborough Civic Association, would like to continue the greening of Roxborough. “My Christmas wish,” she wrote, “would be that property owners with large yards, especially large front yards, plant an evergreen that will grow someday to be at least 50 feet tall. The people that built homes in Roxborough 100+ years ago planted wonderful evergreens that are now reaching the end of their lives. Many are dying or being cut down, and few are being replaced. These trees have so much impact on our visual environment and of course provide the benefits of year-round shade and sustain wildlife.” 

“Building on Celeste’s theme,” added Kay Sykora, an RMC trustee, “I would love to see trees along Ridge Avenue above Fountain Street,” from around the high school up. “While it’s a great walking and running area, it’s ungodly hot in the summer. Whatever everyone thinks of all of the apartments being built, for them to be successful over the long haul, the neighborhood has to be walkable. People are moving here because of our wonderful green amenities, but the acres of cement and paving that now make up that part of Roxborough is appalling.”

Pam DeLissio, our state representative, takes the conversation in a new direction. “It would be great,” she wrote, “if Santa gifted new and fair rules under which the PA House would conduct its business. Currently, too much power is controlled by the committee chairs, the majority leader, and the Speaker. Fairer rules would permit more legislation to be considered, and much of the legislation that never sees the light of day would serve our greater citizens well.”

We’ll give Jamie Wyper, president of Residents of the Shawmont Valley, the last word. “Days like last Saturday when it hits 68 degrees frighten me. My wish is for a winter with bite– at least 30 days of 32 degrees or less weather with plenty of snow.” Amen, brother. 

Wishing you all a merry holiday and a Happy New Year. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Nature of the Holiday Season

Winterberry holly, a native holly whose bright red berries feed many birds throughout the winter, and one of the many symbols of the season.

Winter formally arrives at 10:58 a.m. on Tuesday, December 21, that moment we call the winter solstice, both the shortest day and longest night of the year. Our staff– like thousands of generations of humans before us– will gather around a fire to mark that exact moment.

Still, for a naturalist like me, one of the pleasures of the holiday season is that we decorate homes and offices with innumerable nods to nature: evergreen boughs and trees, reindeer, snow, mistletoe, holly. Few holidays (save Easter, maybe) borrow so many symbols from nature. Ever wonder why?

Go back thousands of years to a time when there was little, if any, science, and everyone saw nature seeming to die around them—trees losing leaves, bushes bare, flowers gone. Animals were vanishing too, as winter is free of frogs, turtles, snakes, woodchucks, bats, butterflies, mosquitoes (yay!), and so much more. And while we now know that some creatures migrate south while others hibernate underground, the ancients didn’t know that. Animals seemed to just disappear. In winter, it was as if nature was being snuffed out. 

The world was also getting darker this time of year, with the sun setting earlier, daylight dwindling, and each day colder and darker than the one before.  

To explain the winter, cultures invented great stories to explain what was happening. So brave heroes were slaying dragons that were holding nature captive, or fearless animals were grabbing pieces of the sun and flying back to the north with light and heat. One common theme in these stories, and the celebrations that arose around the stories, was the loss of sunlight during winter, and burning large fires to urge the light to return. Persians burned big wooden effigies of Tiamat the dragon that slayed nature; Scandinavians burned massive bonfires so big the gods could see them.

And we moderns put lights up everywhere, literally lighting the darkness, responding to our inner ancient who worries the sun may not be coming back. Even Hanukkah, the season my family celebrates, resonates with the wish to light fires in an increasingly darkening world. Hanukkah (early this year and long over) formally begins on the new moon of December– the darkest night of the darkest month. 

Another persistent theme in these holidays is evergreens. To the ancients, at a time where everything was apparently dying, evergreens seemed to possess a special magic that allowed them to beat winter.  Whatever was happening to green plants was not happening to evergreens. So people began bringing these special plants into their homes, praying whatever magic the plants possess would infuse their homes as well.

Hollies are even better. They not only retain their deep-green deciduous leaves in winter—unlike most other leafy plants—but they also sport bright red berries to boot.  Leaves AND fruit in winter—this plant is doubly powerful! Hollies ultimately became the symbol of the solstice, and when Christmas began being celebrated, that symbol transferred to the new holiday, lending Christmas its official red-and-green color scheme. 

Which also explains mistletoe. In Europe, mistletoe is a rootless parasitic flowering plant growing high up in trees, clustered on branches, the plant using those branches to get sunlight. It’s evergreen in the winter, and better, has bright white (poisonous) berries in winter as well. To the ancients, especially those Druids of Stonehenge fame, mistletoe had magic on par with holly. It’s got leaves and fruits in the winter—and doesn’t even need soil. THAT’s magic. 

Norse mythology holds that a spear made of mistletoe was used by that crazy god Loki to kill Odin’s son Baldur, whom he loathed. Frigg, Baldur’s devastated mother and the goddess who lent her name to Friday, cried tears that turned into mistletoe berries. The Norse then decreed that mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, and Frigg herself would kiss anyone who passed beneath it. That story morphed into today’s tradition.  

So while you decorate your home and office with nature’s symbols of the seasons, remember that so many of the symbols are based on terrified people unsure that nature would ever return in the spring. 

Kind of like us this winter– terrified what omicron might do this winter, sick of two full years of pandemic holidays.

Those evergreens and candles, mistletoes and menorahs, were once talismans that hoped to revive nature in the spring. 

Whichever holiday you celebrate, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or even the Festivus of “Seinfeld” fame, joyous holidays to you and your family. 

If you want to learn more about the traditions and symbols of the season, register for our special “Secrets of the Solstice” free online lecture on Tuesday, December 21 at 7:00 p.m.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Winters of Our Discontent

Wissahickon Valley Park under a recent winter’s thin coating of snow. What will this winter bring?

Last winter, Philadelphia received over 22 inches of snow at the airport, just a hair above the long-term 20.5 inch average. But that’s 73 times the amount that dropped during the snowless winter before; if anything, our weather has become erratic and prone to extreme mood swings like this.

So I was intrigued by the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction that this winter would be a “Season of Shivers.” The new season, they wrote, “will be punctuated by positively bone-chilling, below-average temperatures across most of the United States.” As of early December, they have been right: it has been chilly. 

But wait, you might say, what about climate change? Doesn’t a warming climate mean warmer winters with less snow? Well, yes and no. 

First, Philadelphia’s winter temperatures have increased 4.8℉ in the 50 years from 1970 through 2020, from an average temperature of 33℉ to almost 38℉. The coldest day of the winter between 1950 and 1980 was always below 5 degrees, usually around 3 or 4 degrees; but for the last 30 years, it has never been below 5 degrees. 

The first frost, not too long ago, came around Halloween; in the last 50 years, the first frost has arrived, on average, 17 days– more than two weeks– later, deep into November. “When the frost is on the pumpkin,” goes the very old poem I learned in high school. Not any longer.

But the city’s temperatures for a whole year have increased by 3.5℉, less than the rise in average winter temps. That’s the strange thing about climate change: across most of the United States including all of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, winters are the fastest warming season. (In fact, in far northern climes– think Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont– the average winter temperature is already fully 5 degrees warmer.

A warmer world means there is more evaporation over the ocean, which means our city’s annual precipitation is climbing too– our city is not just getting warmer, it’s getting wetter. On top of this, extreme precipitation events are on the rise, especially here in Philadelphia, where large-scale downpours have increased by a whopping 360% in recent years, the third largest climb of any American city. While we famously didn’t beat the Giants two Sundays ago (dang it!), we finally beat New York here, who came in number 4 at 350%– not something we want to beat NYC in, frankly.

As any kid learns, what goes up must come down, and more evaporation means more water coming down– and in winter, that just may come down as snow. “It may seem counterintuitive, but more snowfall during winter storms is an expected outcome of climate change,” reminds the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Which is why in 2009-10, we had the snowiest winter on record, with almost 79 inches of snow, a winter that included two storms– one in December, another in February– each with more than 20 inches, each storm packing more than a whole winter’s average snowfall.

Another consequence of climate change is that the jet stream– the phenomenon high in the atmosphere that is mentioned in almost every Action News weather report– is changing, with significant consequences.

“A growing body of research,” explains the Climate Reality Project’s website, “indicates that as average global temperatures rise and the Arctic continues to warm, the jet stream is both slowing down and growing increasingly wavy. In the winter months,” they continue, “this is allowing bone-chilling cold Arctic air– typically held in fairly stable places by the once-stronger jet stream– to both spill much farther south than usual and linger over areas unaccustomed to it for longer. So even as winters on average have been getting shorter and warmer, many places should still expect to see bouts of very cold weather from time to time. At least for now…”

So if the Old Farmer’s Almanac is correct, this could be a colder, snowier winter. But this is NOT proof there is no climate change. But here’s something I can say with 100% accuracy: the legions of climate deniers who have an outrageously outsized impact on public policy will scream with every coming snowstorm that that latest snow “proves” that climate change is a “hoax.” 

No. They are wrong. It does not. Surprisingly, it fits snugly into our growing understanding of the science of climate change. What goes up must come down, and in winter, it just might come down as snow. 

Will it be a White Christmas? Who knows: anything goes in the New Abnormal.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Day-Off Camp: Winter Break

When schools are closed, we’re open! Bring your kids to the Schuylkill Center for a day of fun and exploration.

Spend winter break in the outdoors, exploring our forest, climbing trees and rocks, tracking winter animals, making primitive shelters, even experimenting with snow and ice. Sign up for one adventurous day or for all three.

For ages 5–12 | 8:00 am – 3:00 pm | Members: $60 | Non-members: $70

Extended day until 6:00 pm is available for an additional $20/day.

Please bring a packed lunch, water bottle, and an extra set of clothes. Wear weather-appropriate clothing that can get dirty.

Please note, day-off camps will be canceled ONE WEEK PRIOR if the minimum number of participants is not reached by then. Please register soon; space is limited. Registration required.

Not a member? Join today!