Natural Selections: Braiding Phragmites

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By Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

For 5,000 years, Iraqis in the marshes of Mesopotamia have been building mudhifs, large guest houses constructed entirely out of reed grass and used for town gatherings and ceremonies like weddings. This summer, for the first time ever, a mudhif will be built in Roxborough. And you can help create it.

You can meet the artists building the mudhif virtually on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. as part of the Schuylkill Center’s ongoing Thursday Night Live series of events. Seattle environmental artist Sarah Kavage and Iraqi designer (and current Roxborough resident!) Yaroub Al-Obaidi will share their cutting-edge environmental art project Al-Mudhif: A Confluence.

The artists will not only speak about traditional reed practices, methods of eco-friendly harvesting, and how you can volunteer in eradicating it to increase marsh biodiversity, but also about their creative vision of their thatched sculpture designed with nature at its heart.

This summer at the Schuylkill Center, Sarah Kavage and Yaroub Al-Obaidi will braid together these Phragmites reeds into 20-foot-long posts, crafted lattices, and interwoven mats, and create a guest house you can visit in the Schuylkill Center’s forest. Simple in its material yet complex in its traditions and designs, the sculpture is meant to be a welcoming space for intercultural encounters and hospitality, a place of healing for veterans from American, Native American and even Iraqi immigrant communities to share their experiences and discover a sense of belonging. As a recent immigrant from Iraq, Yaroub is optimistic that Al-Mudhif can “positively change communities for a better future” while reshaping our socio-cultural biases towards invasive species.

A perennial wetland grass, Phragmites australis has been rapidly expanding and changing landscapes over the past 150 years. Cultivated around the world for its resistant and medicinal qualities, Phragmites are used in traditional practices from thatched roofs in the Netherlands to woven boats in Bolivia, from medicinal tinctures in China to musical instruments in the Middle East. In North America, however, the wetland grass was mainly planted in ornamental displays for its signature fluffiness and on distressed lands for its soil-filtering capacity. Unfortunately, the plant has been very successful in growing in waterways across the country, crowding out and impacting native species. Research suggests that the main factor for its exponential growth is the pollution and soil salinization caused by human activities.

You can help the Schuylkill Center harvest Phragmites for the mudhif by joining our Phrag Fest, an event held at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum on Saturday, Feb 27 from 9:30-12:00 p.m. and additionally on Friday, Feb 26th from 12:30-3:00 p.m.

Al-Mudhif – A Confluence is part of a larger art initiative, Lenapehoking~Watershed with Sarah Kavage by the Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE), funded by the William Penn Foundation. Sarah will create multiple site-specific, temporary installations along the Circuit Trails network, exclusively using natural materials such as meadow grasses and invasive Phragmites. Each installation will be “a momentary response to the specific environmental conditions of each site,” she underlined. “I want to understand how we shape and are shaped by our surroundings and learn how to heal our eroded relationship with the land and each other.” Each installation will function both as sculptures and as public spaces for locals to build relationships with the land and the water, as well as with each other.

The evening also serves as the 10th annual Richard L. James Lecture, an annual event established in memory of the Center’s founding executive director as a forum for today’s cutting-edge environmental issues. Dick helped found the Schuylkill Center in 1965 and remained on its staff into the 1990s. Among many things, he wrote a weekly syndicated column, This Week Outdoors, that appeared in the Review for years; some of our readers may remember it. He also offered memorable radio essays and weather reports on WFLN-FM. Both the columns and radio essays contained Dick’s signature wit, which won him a loyal following.

Al-Mudhif – A Confluence is sponsored by the Schuylkill Center’s environmental art department; find out more about this project and all our environmental art work at

And join us virtually on Feb. 18 at 7pm for our 10th annual Richard L. James Lecture presenting environmental artist Sarah Kavage and Yaroub Al-Obaidi. Please RSVP at Come help us braid Phragmites!

Tina Plokarz directs the Environmental Art program at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough. Mike Weilbacher, Dick’s successor and the regular author of this column, returns next week.


Richard L. James Lecture on Feb 18, 2021 at 7pm

Traditional Iraqi Mudhif. Image printed in: Almusaed A. (2011) Vernacular Architecture from Hot Regions (Basrah, Iraq). In: Biophilic and Bioclimatic Architecture. Springer, London.