Forest

The Pine Grove at the Schuylkill Center, photographed at dusk by Jerome Eno.

Like almost every institution in the region and every school in the state, the Schuylkill Center closed our Visitor Center last week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Nature Preschool closed for two weeks, and we canceled all programming through the end of the month.

Our Wildlife Clinic on Port Royal Avenue, however, remains open, taking your injured, orphaned and sick creatures. Our staff there, some of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet, are practicing social distancing and enhanced sanitizing to keep both you and them safe and healthy.

And while the Visitor Center is closed and most staff working remotely, staff will be there, taking care of mail and monitoring the facility.

But in these challenging times, we’d like to offer the good people of Roxborough an important service: our forest is open for business. Simply park on the small Hagy’s Mill Road parking lot, and walk into our trails – a large map greets you as you walk in.

Because open spaces and nature are restorative to our souls. Inhaling just one breath of the pine scent in our Pine Grove, one of the first features you'll meet when you walk our trails from Hagy’s Mill Road, lowers your blood pressure. Literally. Numerous studies show that pinene, the chemical that gives pine its characteristic odor, is calming for us. In fact, the Japanese practice “forest bathing,” visiting especially evergreen forests to sit quietly and drink in the healing scents. You can too.

But seeing green does this to us as well, and the very first buds of spring are now popping open revealing very small leaves cloaked in an impossibly bright green, my favorite green of all time.

Bird song, amazingly, is calming too, say those studies, and our 300-acre forest is overflowing with birds, many returning from a winter’s migration south. Robins, blue jays, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, mourning doves, crows and more are flying through our forest and can easily be seen in the bird feeders at our bird blind at the end of the paved Widener Trail.

Spring’s first turtles were seen last week on the edges of Fire Pond near our Visitor Center’s front door, awakened from their winter hibernation. The first woodchucks were seen chugging along our trails last week, also freshly awake. A fox was spotted too by our staff, but it was active all winter, hunting the many small animals that inhabit our forest.

And the very first American toads that famously cross Port Royal Avenue on warm rainy nights in spring started last week too. (We’re not asking Toad Detour volunteers to gather this year to help them cross – watch the Toad Detour facebook page for more updates.)

Our forest is expansive enough and our trails numerous enough that you can easily practice the 6-foot distancing you need between you and other people.

And the times are stressful enough that you need some relief, and with many restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters closed, there are only so many Netflix specials you can stream.

Greenspaces elevate our mood, alleviate anxiety, lower depression while lowering blood pressure, and even offer a good cardio workout. Our Visitor Center was carefully perched atop our land’s highest spot, so all trails ultimately lead to an uphill walk to the Visitor Center. There’s one, the Jubilee Grove trail, that I’ve nicknamed the Stairmaster – that one gets your heart going.

We expect to reopen the Visitor Center and Nature Preschool on Monday, March 30, resuming all of our programming then – depending on the arc of the pandemic. Frequent updates will be available on our website, www.SchuylkillCenter.org, and via social media. We will be watching the situation very closely, and adjusting the March 30 reopening if needed.

We will also watch advisories regarding the Wildlife Clinic, even consider closing that site of course if it protects our staff and its visitors. Given this is the only such facility in Philadelphia and one of only a handful in the region, we will strive to keep it open.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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