by Thomas Gartside

When I moved to Manayunk in the 1980’s, I bought a house on “The Wall,” a street that would become legendary in cycling circles. It was exciting in those early years, when I could sit on my step and watch the best cyclists in the world sprint up one of the steepest inclines in professional bicycle racing.

Over the years, I am sad to say, ever-increasing congestion on my street has come to ruin the experience. In the last few years, despite my interest in cycling, I have battened down the hatches and left town. Upon return, I would find the street and sidewalk paved with plastic cups, bottles, cans and other trash left behind by insensitive invaders.

Two years ago, I decided to give it another try. It was exciting. Many neighbors kicked off festivities with parties on Saturday night, which continued until the following Sunday afternoon. Thousands of spectators flowed up and down the Wall during the race, and the excitement was contagious. Nevertheless, after three or four hours of uninterrupted congestion and noise, I decided to flee to the woods.

I will never forget the moment I stepped onto the upper trail of the Wissahickon Valley Park at Jeanette Street. Though I could not see it, a wood thrush was filling the air with sounds no flute or oboe could ever attain. The song of this bird is unique because it has the rare ability to produce two sounds at once. As its melody evolves, the harmonic strains intertwine. No other creature can make these sounds. In a moment I was transported from uninterrupted cacophony to a soothing and peaceful place.

When I learned that the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department has proposed to lease parts of the Wissahickon in June to develop a zip line/treetop adventure course, I was appalled. I attended a meeting of the Alliance for the Preservation of the Wissahickon (APOW) and volunteered to help get petitions signed.

This was not easy for me because approaching strangers makes me very uncomfortable. Furthermore, the people to be approached have a right to their peaceful moments in the woods. I usually opened my rap with, “Excuse me. Did you know that the Department of Parks and Recreation is planning to lease part of the Wissahickon to a corporation to build a zip line/adventure course?”

Most of the people I approached were shocked to learn about the planned concession stand, paved parking lot, Porta Potties, and the desecration of 5-7 acres of parkland. My petition list filled easily as people lined up to sign.

One woman, however, decided it was time to teach me some manners. She told me I should be more polite. I should say, “Excuse me. Do you have a moment?” I should wait for an answer and then continue. Of course, she was right. My mom taught me not to speak to strangers with clipboards. I tried the approach for a while but it didn’t work. This has to be stopped now and I am afraid I will have to be blunt with people.

This reminds me of the time my home was invaded. One morning on Thanksgiving eve at 3 a.m. the silence was shattered by the sound of breaking glass. Someone had smashed the window of my basement door and was now up the stairs rattling the door into my kitchen.

Instead of screaming, “Hey Mabel, pass me the shotgun! We got varmints in the cellar,” I should have politely asked the invaders if, perhaps, they had the wrong address. Actually, I did what most would do. I called 911. In less than three minutes a posse of Philadelphia’s finest came to my rescue.

Sad to say, the police won’t come to the rescue this time.

Meanwhile, back to the wood thrush. This reclusive species is extremely sensitive to forest fragmentation, and its numbers are steadily declining. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Population surveys from 1966 to 2009 show a continent-wide decline of almost 2 percent a year – suggesting an overall decline of some 50 percent in that period.”

This development will disrupt another 7-10 acres of wood thrush habitat. However, considering the “edge effect” the area of disruption is far greater. Ecologists have learned that human activities compromise neighboring habitat for a multitude of reasons. Invasive species are introduced, foraging areas are disrupted, pollution and erosion are increased, etc., etc.

I mention the wood thrush because it is so unique and charismatic. There are countless less obvious species who have a right to their homes in the forest.

No, now is not the time to be polite. What will you do when invaders come tramping through your home?

Thomas Gartside is a longtime resident of Manayunk, a member of Friends of the Wissahickon, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife.

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