Winter in the Forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship


Winter provides a simplified, yet inspiring version of the forest we know so well in other seasons.  I welcome its cool, calm colors after many weeks of the unrelenting holiday glitz and chaotic pace.  In many ways, it is so much easier to proverbially, “see the forest for the trees” in this season.  Uncovering the beauty and details of this place during winter is magical.  Especially after a snow, the silence paired with the subdued greys and whites removes the sensory overload that can distract in other seasons.  Texture, pattern, and form come alive and draw us into the intricacy of our forest.

To me, winter presents a perfect time for observation and curiosity:  Many of our wildlife friends have retired or relocated for the season, although evidence suggests that a few remain nearby.  I am delighted by spotting tracks on new snow, pondering where they were headed and who they met along the way.  Winter birds flitter from one shrub to another to gossip and look for their next meal.

ImageThe complex bark patterns and stoic silhouettes of leafless trees stand out against the muted background.  Crooked, twisting, and bending lines of Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) create a mysterious landscape, as if they were pulled from the Wizard of Oz forest. Beech and oak trees (Fagus grandifolia, Quercus spp.) are easily identified too as they are the ones still holding on to their persistent leaves.  Branches creak and groan and scrape against each other in the wind – sometimes at a startling volume.  Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) slyly vines its way around trees, displaying its showy red berries while quietly choking and adding unwelcome weight to its host.  Brown, dead remains of Mile-a-Minute (Persicaria perfoliata) covering shrubs in open fields remind me of our future springtime battles.  One of the few plants providing green color through the winter, the distinctive American Holly (Ilex opaca), seems to be thriving in our forest, as I spot many new seedlings and young trees along the trails.

ImageThe last of the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) fruit, a cone or cup-shaped collection of samaras, are a delicate discovery resting on the snow.   As we welcome the New Year, consider donning a few more layers and exploring the underappreciated winter landscape.  I guarantee moments of peacefulness and wonder.


Making Room for Rain – Stacy Levy

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is working to investigate the intersection of nature and the city. The role of rain in the landscape is being actively explored in programs and planning around its buildings. As a nature center, SCEE is at the forefront of solving site issues through art based intervention. On May 31, 2013 a conference on New Environmental Art will be held at SCEE to look at ways that art and science can collaborate to solve ecological problems in urban nature, and enlighten citizens to find new solutions in their own lives.

Rain is usually given a long narrow space to inhabit: gutters, downspouts, underground pipes. People can walk practically anywhere in a building and on the surrounding landscape. What if this paradigm got turned on its head? Give people a more narrow path of movement around a site while rain gets plenty of space to spread out and linger? How would our built environments change? And how would it change our relationship to rain?As an eco-artist, I want art to be an advocate of rain. Art is good at giving meaning to the leftover or abandoned aspects of the world—and rain is one of those abandoned elements. Though a yardstick worth of rain falls every yearin this region, we hardly register rain’s presence. In urban settings, architecture and engineering have generally kept rain invisible to us. The relationship between rain and the built environment needs to be changed, and art is well positioned to alter that relationship.At SCEE, I am working with ecologists, engineers and educators to create an artwork that gives the rain room to spread out while keeping people in a defined space. But people do not lose out in this design— both rain and visitors get a dynamic space to co-exist.Rain Gardens create spaces that can get wet and stay wet while the water infiltrates into the soil.

Instead of becoming a muddy soup, the rain garden holds the rain within the permeable soil and the roots of a diverse community of native plants . These plants also make good habitat for other species like insects and food for birds and other small mammals.

This new artwork deals with two types of visitors to the site: rain and humans. A grated metal catwalk prevents the plants from being trampled while also keeping people’s feet dry. ‘Staying dry’ and ‘soaking in’ are two incongruent activities—one of the reasons that rain has no place to go in the built world is the hierarchy of the dry human foot!

We want to demonstrate ways to change rain’s journey in the built environment. We also want to give visitors a chance to test out the very materials of the city: the surfaces we spend our lives walking on like asphalt, concrete and grass. How do these materials work with or work against rain?

How this art works: Some of the rainwater will be diverted and stored in an above ground cistern. Then during dry days, our visitors can pump this contained water into 5 different troughs. Each trough contains a different familiar surface materials from the landscape: concrete, asphalt, gravel lawn and meadow. People can direct the rainwater onto these different surfaces to see how the water responds— by soaking in or running off.

At SCEE rainwater will be given both the time and the place to act the way rain should act. And people will be given a place to interact with the falling rain while staying out of its way as it soaks into the soil. The idea of rain needing a refuge is a new idea to most of us. We hope people learn about rain, and the surfaces it meets in our world. This piece gives people a new angle on rain and its relationship to our built environment.

The piece will be under construction over the early spring. Please come by and see it!

Want to know more about Rain Gardens?

The Philadelphia Water Department

The Rain Garden Network

The Groundwater Foundation

The Department of Environmental Conservation

Rain Garden Alliance

Want to see more of Stacy Levy’s work?

The Race is on: Flowers vs. Trees!

The delicately pink-striped Spring Beauty

It’s springtime in a forest: an ancient race between trees and flowers.

Here’s the deal: as spring comes to a forest, the trees are still naked and bare-branched, allowing streaming sunlight to strike—and warm!—the forest floor.  Warmed by the sun’s rays, underground roots send up this year’s shoots and flowers, the fresh flowers giving pollinators like native bees, also waking up just now, their first taste of nectar in the new season.

Virginia Bluebells, three colors in one flower!

And as the flower is pollinated, it makes the seeds it needs to spread its species.

Then, as spring quickly progresses (especially in this year’s fast-forward edition of spring), trees leaf out, their buds opening to spread an umbrella of leaves across the forest canopy, effectively blocking out almost all sunlight, a cloak of darkness spreading across the forest.  

Without blessed sunlight, these flowers have a tough time photosynthesizing—making and storing the sugars they need to survive—so the flowers not only shut down but cast off their unneeded leaves, storing sugars as starches in their roots, ready and waiting for next year, when they’ll open and make flowers again.

So the flower vanishes completely—until next year.

Bloodroot, among the first flowers of spring

But the good news is there is a parade of wildflowers progressing through the season.  So on my walk, I noticed the mottled leaves of trout lily just poking their heads up out of the soil, and several stands of black cohosh rapidly unfurling.  The next wave of forest flowers on it way.

But come see them—incredibly lovely, remarkably quick-vanishing beauties.

A ‘Grate’ Day: Steel & The Schuylkill Center

Last week, I got to do something few people are given the opportunity to do. I got to see the guts of a steel plant up close and personal! Our friends at ArcelorMittal provided us with a  guided tour of the international corporation’s Conshohocken facility – just down river from our own organization. I was there with two similarly giddy co-workers, our Director of Land & Facilities and his Assistant, to pick up a custom machined well cover from the plant’s fabrication shop.

What in the world, you ask, does ArcelorMittal and the international steel industry have to do with the Schuylkill Center? As it turns out, an awful lot!

ArcelorMittal has been a recent, loyal donor of ours. As part of its commitment to supporting conservation and environmental education in operating communities like Conshohocken, it has donated over $12,000 in grants to us in the last two years. What’s more: local employees at the plant have also contributed their time at volunteer Land Restoration events, which they’ve attended with their children and grandchildren!

Last week, ArcelorMittal responded to our need for a cover for an old, 19thcentury well on our property in just a day’s time! (For those unfamiliar, we have lots of reminders of the land’s early history still peppering the woods. Some are old wells, some are the ruins of barns, buildings, and pump houses designed to bring water up to farms that used to dot Ridge Road. (That’s right!)) Yesterday, we were able to safely cover the well through a generous in-kind contribution orchestrated by Ian Mair, the plant’s Environmental Manager, and Lee, a Fabricator who made the grate.

Lee explains how he fabricated the well cover.

During our tour of the plant, on the way to pick up the well cover, we toured the cavernous buildings that make up America’s largest supplier of steel plate to our military, and the biggest steel producer on the globe. Hard-hatted and be-safety-spectacled, we saw raw steel from ArcelorMittal’s nearby Coatesville facility heat forged, cooled from over a thousand degrees by water on massive conveyors that appeared to be football fields long:

Red Hot Steel

Here’s a photo of the water evaporating from the surface of the steel:

Water cools Steel Plate heated to over 1,000 degrees.

 We also saw the inspection floor, where the steel is painted for use by the military and industry, and the yard where steel coil is set to cool for three days after being tempered. In a word: it was awesome.

The visit made me realize, like most relationship-building moments, why our mission is so important to our stakeholders like ArcelorMittal – and why it’s vital to support Environmental Education in general.

On our field trip, I learned not just about the unique material properties of steel (sometimes it’s magnetized, sometimes it’s not), but also about the ways that the plant uses and works to save energy, as well as precious water. Like many other corporations, ArcelorMittal works to model sustainable practices in a resource-intensive, but also necessary, industry. Water used in the process of making steel undergoes a rigorous purification and filtration process that exceeds industry requirements and re-uses the resource. The steel sludge filtered from water used in the tempering process is an asphalt extender.

Utilizing natural resources with minimal environmental impact is both necessary and challenging. And the ability to do both is predicated on a student’s ability to first grasp basic scientific concepts – the kind we begin to touch upon when we discuss water ecology at the Schuylkill Center, for example. We happen to undertake those investigations in unimpaired streams that feed the Schuylkill River – the same big blue ribbon of water that ArcelorMittal calls home.

The employees at ArcelorMittal understand this. It’s why they choose to support our work. We’re connected through philanthropy, but also through an understanding that it takes exposure to new ideas and experiences in nature to put a child on the path of caring for the environment – or a career in a STEM field that also works to protect the environment. They value the resource we protect: the largest remaining privately owned open space in Philadelphia.

If you or someone you know wants to make a difference, come visit us! We’ve got a couple of ways you could help. We won’t be able to show you how steel is made, but we can show you the end product sitting on top of our historic stone well – and we’ve got some young minds we’re intent on forging, too.

A very special thanks to our friends at ArcelorMittal!

Mike, Ian, Sean, and Joanne stand safely atop the well.


Emily, Director of Resource Development