Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Brisk and Beautiful Walk in Herrontown Woods

Sometimes cold weather makes for a good nature walk. The forest is filled with light, the frozen ground eases navigation, and the woods is filled with vistas and the evidence of seasons past and future.

We hiked to the cliff, then when someone asked about springs in Herrontown Woods, we hiked to a spring that had been dug out to make a swimming pool of sorts in the 1960s. Now it serves the amphibian community as a dependable vernal pool in the spring.

On the way back, we walked through a cratered landscape where water had accumulated in sizable holes in the ground and frozen in ornate patterns. This beauty, too, like the amphibians' use of the old swimming pool, was a collaboration of nature and culture. The craters were formed back when some of the large, partially sunken boulders in Herrontown Woods were cracked into blocks and hauled away as part of a quarrying operation. Water accumulates in the cavities left behind, and freezes in the winter. But as the ice is freezing, the water below is also slowly seeping into the ground, leaving the ice with less and less water beneath to support it. The result is a lovely terraced effect.

Having seen some of the special places in the woods, some of our hardy party headed to Veblen House afterwards for cider, hot cocoa and cookies provided by Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Nature Walk This Sunday, Dec. 9, 1pm

Naturalist and FOHW president Steve Hiltner will lead a nature walk this weekend, on Sunday, Dec. 9 on what promises to be a brisk but sunny day. Meet at 1pm at the main parking lot for Herrontown Woods, down the short road opposite the Snowden Lane entrance to Smoyer Park.

The woods this time of year is filled with light and vistas, the better to see the rocks, water and wood of the eastern Princeton Ridge.

Dress warmly and wear shoes for hiking.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Early Autumn Colors in Herrontown Woods

Sometimes the best way to know what trees you're walking under is to look down at the fresh carpet they are laying at our feet. Sweetgum leaves can turn brilliant red, but these are yellow. The female tree drops the distinctive prickly golfball-sized "gumball" fruits (lower left in the photo).

Black gum trees, also called tupelos, are starting to sprinkle flashes of orange on the forest floor wherever they grow.

The abundant red maples can be distinguished by the V-shaped notch between lobes. Sugar maples have U-shaped notches, as do Norway maples found in residential neighborhoods.

Hickory leaves and nuts are strewn throughout the woods. This is single leaf with five leaflets.

White oaks with their rounded lobes, will later turn a rich burgundy color.
(leaf photos by Inge Regan)

And a human touch of fresh color, as volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods start sprucing up the Veblen Cottage with new window covers, thanks to some carpentry by board member Perry Jones.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Princeton Takes Ownership of Herrontown Woods

It's been a good week for Herrontown Woods. Princeton council voted on Monday, July 16, to approve acquisition of the 140 acre preserve from Mercer County, a nice article about our work appeared in the Town Topics, and early on the morning of Friday, July 13, a monarch butterfly was seen visiting the new native garden next to the parking lot. It was the first witnessed there, sipping nectar from a purple coneflower just planted this spring.

Mercer County has owned the preserve since the original gift of 82 acres by the Veblens in 1957. That unprecedented gift may well have prompted the county to form its parks commission, which at first used Herrontown Woods for educational programming, but has since focused its resources elsewhere in the county. The transfer to Princeton brings Herrontown Woods home to local ownership, where it is much more likely to be given the attention it deserves.

That first documented visit by a monarch fits well with the native garden's concept, which has evolved over the past year. Planted this spring, more than 80 native species now call the garden home, gathering solar energy that will then travel up the foodchain to insects and birds.

As if he had read the minutes from our board meetings in which we discussed how to get kids to use their cellphones to learn about nature, this boy led his mother from the parking lot to a flower graced by a butterfly, and showed her a photo he had taken of it.

The butterfly was an eastern tiger swallowtail, which lingered on this bottlebrush buckeye for more than an hour. Another premise of the garden is that pollinators like this butterfly are not currently well served by Princeton open space. Thick woods, though it serves some species well, provides few flowers in the summer, and this garden can be home to the many summer-blooming native flowers that thrive in sunny places.

Another appealing visitor was a clear-winged moth that hovers expertly like a miniature hummingbird.

That day we also witnessed a fledgling robin making perhaps its first, shaky flight, from one tree to another.

The garden, growing amidst the ruins of a white pine grove felled by storms in recent years, would not have been possible without a lot of removal of invasive brush over the winter, clearing the way for planting. It can be said that the acquisition of Herrontown Woods by the town also clears the way, for more good things to happen at Herrontown Woods.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Veblen's First Annual Birthday Picnic at Veblen House

Nothing like throwing a party to stimulate some sprucing up. In preparation, the Veblen House got some fresh paint, a couple new raingardens, some restorative excavation, judicious mowing, new trails and, at the last minute, keeping with our guiding philosophy of re-use, some balloons left over from the Princeton High School graduation.

Volleyball, played on the mowed footprint of a former barn, was a big hit.

Croquet, not so much, though in mowing the field we discovered and protected two green-fringed orchids. Not every lawn sprouts native orchids.

Friends supplied lots of food, and grilled hotdogs scented the air. Thanks to all who came out to celebrate Oswald Veblen's 138th birthday. Along with our core supporters, we met new neighbors and distinguished guests from the Institute for Advanced Study.

To complement the gathering of people, there was a gathering of plants in the newly planted raingardens. Perry Jones and his fiance Alison thoughtfully brought plant labels to help the different species get to know each other.

After all was said and done, cooked and eaten,  the plant labels stayed on, with some QR codes to give post-picnic visitors access to information on our websites and

For the newly planted Rose Mallow Hibiscus, protected from the deer by fencing, every day is a picnic at Veblen House.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Update on Veblen Birthday Gathering Sunday, 2-5pm

Bringing food/drink is optional for Sunday's birthday celebration. We'll provide some basics if anyone's hungry, along with some displays about Veblen House past and future, tours of the grounds, and some games.

The grounds have been getting more attention in recent weeks than perhaps at any time in the past 20 years, with rock walls getting rebuilt, the ground being restored to original grade, and paths being mowed to the edible forest plantings and to historic features like the horse run. This work builds on past clearings of invasive brush that reopened the views across this peaceful woodland setting that the Veblens called home.

"Windows into the Past" exhibits will include the stories of Herrontown Woods' magnetic rocks, a ten-year ecological study underway in the preserve, the Whiton-Stuart family that originally built and lived in the house, and some of the many facets of Veblen history.

As previously mentioned, park at the main parking lot off of Snowden Ave, across from the Smoyer Park entrance, then follow signs up to the house. Useful maps are at this link. We'll have refreshments and grill some hotdogs.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Weeding and Seed Bombing--A Girlscout Workday at Herrontown Woods

(Note: Join us for the June 24 Veblen birthday picnic.)

Thanks to Girl Scout Troop 72905 from the Princeton Service Unit, for participating in a spirited workday on a cool misty day. They started at the new botanical garden next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot, pulling out Japanese honeysuckle that would otherwise overwhelm the native species being planted there.

Then it was a short walk up to Smoyer Park, where the Friends of Herrontown Woods is taking care of a native meadow planted in the detention basin that catches and filters runoff from the fields and parking lot. The scouts mixed seed of native floodplain wildflowers and sedges into a shovelful of dirt, then made balls of a good size for throwing. "Seed bombing" is an activity originally mentioned by scout leader Pallavi Nuka, and we decided to give it a try.

Here, the merry gardeners are literally aiming to increase the plant diversity in the wet meadow.

It's a hail mari-gold approach to seed planting, although marigold wasn't in the mix. Species included rose mallow hibiscus, wild senna, ironweed, cutleaf coneflower, and several types of sedges. Already flourishing in the basin are big and little bluestem grasses, Indian grass, partridge pea and black-eyed susan.

The logic of the detention basin is to detain stormwater runoff long enough for it to seep into the soil and feed the groundwater reserves, rather than add to local flooding. The basin also makes a great place to show off the many native plant species that thrive in wet, sunny habitats. Kids, too, thrive in wet, sunny habitats, especially when they have rubber boots.

After the seed bombing, the girls stepped over the berm, behind the basin, to explore a seepage slope where consistently wet ground supports a lush natural wetland of sensitive fern, soft rush and sedges. With enough care, the basin could someday look this good.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Veblen Birthday Celebration on June 24, 2-5pm

Update: This event was originally posted as a potluck, but there's no need to bring food or drink. We'll provide refreshments and hotdogs. 

Come one and all to celebrate Oswald Veblen's 138th birthday on Sunday, June 24 on the Veblen House grounds at Herrontown Woods. Veblen was recently featured in a cover story by the Princeton Alumni Magazine, and the Friends of Herrontown Woods has decided to celebrate his legacy with a picnic next to the house he and his wife generously donated to the public trust.

The picnic gathering goes from 2-5pm, and will include displays about the past and future of the house and accompanying preserve, and tours of our work to restore the Veblen House grounds and create a new botanical garden. On the grounds are a horse run, the beginnings of an edible forest, and newly planted raingardens.

Park at the main parking lot off of Snowden Ave, across from the Smoyer Park entrance, then follow signs up to the house. Useful maps are at this link. We'll have refreshments and grill some hotdogs.

(The birthday picnic is a free event, but FOHW welcomes donations at this link.)

Pre-schoolers Plant Seeds at FOHW's New Botanical Garden

Four young families, part of a volunteer organization called Mini-Mitzvah Corps at the Jewish Center of Princeton, recently planted seeds of native wildflowers at Herrontown Woods. The planting was hosted by volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods (, which is creating a botanical garden next to the parking lot where visitors can learn about the native flora of Princeton. 

The children helped plant a part of the garden we're calling the Veblen Circle, named after mathematician and visionary Oswald Veblen and his wife Elizabeth, who donated Herrontown Woods in 1957 as Princeton's first nature preserve. The seeds of Joe-Pye-Weed, Cutleaf Coneflower, and other native species were collected from local wildflower populations by FOHW president and naturalist, Steve Hiltner.

Thanks to Marci Meixler for her efforts to organize the workday, and all the kids and parents who joined us for an enjoyable afternoon.

As we were finishing up planting, we happened to see a bald eagle flying high overhead, which we took as a good omen.

The seeds have since begun to sprout, with the help of some wet weather.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Oswald Veblen Featured in the Princeton Alumni Magazine

Note: We're planning a birthday picnic in honor of Veblen's 138th birthday on Sunday, June 24, 2pm. Details upcoming.

Oswald Veblen made the cover of the May 16 Princeton Alumni Weekly, looking confident and ready to change the world. At Herrontown Woods, we know him as the man who with his wife Elizabeth acquired and then donated 100 acres for Princeton's first nature preserve back in 1957. But while Veblen was acquiring and preserving open space in Princeton, he was also saving lives and careers, and in the process helping to make the U.S. ascendent in the world of mathematics. The feature article, written by Elyse Graham of Stonybrook University, tells of his tireless work in the 1930s and 1940s to find positions in the U.S. for European scholars whose careers and lives were imperiled by the Nazi rise.

Graham alludes to Veblen's many other contributions to Princeton and the world--his key roles in designing the extraordinary (Old) Fine Hall for mathematics on campus, bringing the Institute for Advanced Study to Princeton, and supporting the construction of early computers.

This photo was taken in 1936, the same year Veblen acquired the farm cottage at Herrontown Woods to use as his study. That acquisition could be considered the beginning of Princeton's open space movement.

There's been a gradual rediscovery of Veblen's quiet but deep legacy, beginning with the recognition at the 2012 Turing Centennial Celebration of his role in early computer development. George Dyson devoted a chapter to Veblen in his book, Turing's Cathedral, and delivered a talk entitled "The Institute for Advanced Study: the First 100 Years," in which he gave emphasis to the visionary influence not only of Oswald Veblen but also of his economist uncle Thorstein Veblen.

In 2013, the archive room at the IAS had an exhibit about Veblen's legacy,

and in 2017, a History Working Group at the Institute published an article crediting Veblen with overcoming director Flexner's hesitation and making the IAS a sanctuary that would welcome displaced foreign scholars.

An exhibit by the IAS History Working Group was placed in the hallway of Fuld Hall, including Veblen's role in finding a position for the great female mathematician, Emmy Noether.

These are welcome though likely temporary additions to the exhibit at Fuld Hall, which has long offered a simplified narrative that focused on founder and first director, Abraham Flexner.

The cover story in the Princeton Alumni Weekly is the second article written by Elyse Graham about mathematics at Princeton, the first being "Adventures in Fine Hall" back in January, which tells of Veblen's role in designing Old Fine Hall, and also as one of the main architects of "math's golden age."

That article offered an opportunity to write a letter to the magazine, and let Princeton alumni know about our work at Herrontown Woods.

Still more about Veblen's mulitfaceted legacy can be found in a PAW article from 2012 entitled "Before Turing, There Was Veblen, " by Jon R. Edwards.