Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Encountering Nature, Science and History in Herrontown Woods


The Friends of Herrontown Woods and Princeton Veterans of Science and Technology co-hosted a science history and nature walk at Herrontown Woods Sept. 10. Reversing the usual sequence of events, we fueled up on refreshments and conversation next to the Veblen House before heading up the trails.

Some of the many books related to Oswald Veblen's mathematical and environmental legacy were available for perusal. George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral devotes a chapter to Oswald Veblen's contributions to early computer development. Veblen's on the cover of local writer Linda Arntzenius' book about the Institute for Advanced Study, and Steve Batterson's book about the Institute's early years, entitled Pursuit of Genius. A new book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, doesn't mention Veblen, but author and IAS director Robbert Dijkraaf was kind enough to sign a couple copies to Veblen, "The first professor of the IAS", and "who brought the IAS to Princeton!" The Veblens are part of Sylvia Nasar's description of Princeton in the "Center of the Universe" chapter of A Beautiful Mind. And Theory of the Leisure Class is the most well-known book of Veblen's uncle Thorstein, who influenced economic and social thought in the early 20th Century and coined the term "conspicuous consumption."

Another book that made the trip is Herrontown Woods: A Guide to a Natural Preserve, by Richard J. Kramer, a Rutgers grad student who wrote the book as part of his dissertation research back in 1971.


Stan de Riel gave an impromptu talk about pawpaws and puffballs, including some pawpaws to taste.

Along the blue trail, we first heard and then saw a pileated woodpecker, and the vertical, rectangular evidence of its past feastings.

It's been a good year for dodder, a parasitic plant that wraps its orange stems around more normal green plants, the better to feast upon them.

It was heartening to see how the dodder was preying upon the massive expanse of invasive mugwort extending along the gas pipeline right of way that divides Herrontown Woods in two. If the mugwort could be discouraged somewhat, other plants would have a chance to share the space.

The new blue trail route passes by many cavities in the ground where the diabase rock was quarried long ago.

Drill marks show how the rocks were split into manageable blocks for toting away to places as yet unknown. One approach was to drill a series of holes in a long line, then put dry wooden pegs in the holes and add water. The expansion of the wood would provide enough pressure to crack the rocks. This imitates the way tree roots extend into cracks in rocks, then slowly expand with each year's growth until the rock splits. Small amounts of pressure well applied can have great power.


This mushroom is about a foot high, and very solid.

It's growing out of the cavity left by a fallen tree, much like a similar one found during last year's mushroom walk.

One of the walkers mentioned how bats use shagbark hickories for roosting at night. Sure enough, the internet is full of testimonials, by people if not the bats themselves.

2017 is a great year for stalking wild hickory nuts, Euell Gibbons-style. All sorts of fruits and nuts are offering up bumper crops this year--pawpaws, Chinese chestnuts, hickories...

Passing by this highly photogenic beech tree along the neu-blue trail, friends Jeff and Fairfax expressed a strong interest in seeing the cardinal flowers, which appropriately are further into the woods on the red trail.

We headed over that way and, though I could not see it with the naked eye,

my camera captured the celestial light that bathed them as they encountered the cardinal flowers growing where this most pure of Harry's Brook's tributaries flows from the preserved headwater lands of Herrontown Woods. It's amazing what iPhones can detect.

Here is the cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis for long.


On the way out, hikers helped themselves to pawpaw plants, grown from local wild seed by Stan. The remaining seedlings will become another pawpaw patch in Herrontown Woods.

Thanks to all who participated and made this another pleasurable walk through lands preserved long ago by the far-sighted Veblens.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Science/Nature Walk, Sunday, Sept 10, at 10am

The Friends of Herrontown Woods and Princeton Veterans of Science and Technology will co-host a science history and nature walk at Herrontown Woods this coming Sunday at 10am. Meet at the main parking lot, across from the entrance to Smoyer Park on Snowden Lane. We'll first head up to Veblen House, to discuss Veblen's role in bringing great scientific minds and nature together in Princeton in the 1930s. A walk through Herrontown Woods will follow, with refreshments afterwards next to Veblen House.

In other news, some posts with recent research on Veblen House:

Writers Stephen Dixon and E.B. White, and the Veblen Cottage in Brooklin, Maine -- The Veblens spent their summers at a beachfront cottage in a small town known at one time for its herring (think Herringtown). Correspondence with writer Stephen Dixon, who rented the cottage after the Veblens were gone, has given us insight into the cottage's special qualities. E.B. White lived in Brooklin year-round, five miles north of the Veblens, and based Charlotte's Web on his farm, which happens to be for sale.

Black Vultures Close Up--A Photoshoot and Princeton History -- Like the spider in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, the black vulture couple that raised its two fledglings at the Veblen Cottage this year was surprisingly engaging. The weaker of the two fledglings was slow to fly, and was still at the cottage this week.

Happy Birthday, Christine Paschall Davis Stuart -- Daughter-in-law of the Whiton-Stuarts--the builders and first residents of what later became Veblen House--Christine was the daughter of Norman Davis, ambassador-at-large for President Roosevelt, and led the Red Cross during WWII.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

At Long Last, a Chance to Repair Veblen House!

It's official! Mercer County and Princeton have come to an agreement to transfer ownership of Herrontown Woods to the town. Princeton has agreed to include the buildings in the transfer, and work out an agreement to allow the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) the opportunity to repair and utilize them for a public purpose.

After years of opposing plans to demolish the Veblen House, farm cottage, barn and corncrib at Herrontown Woods, FOHW is thrilled that we will now be allowed to take the next step, and begin realizing the Veblens' vision for the buildings. Princeton gave our group permission to restore the trails and habitats over the past four years, and we have long wanted to apply that restorative energy to the buildings as well. The Veblens loved nature, and loved bringing people together. They donated the house and cottage to serve as a gathering place along what has become a magnificent corridor of preserved open space in eastern Princeton.

We're thankful to all those in the community who have expressed their support, and to the mayor and town council for giving this initiative the chance it deserves. We look forward to working with the town to make Herrontown Woods and its cultural legacy a great asset for Princeton. FOHW has received sufficient donations and pledges to fund Phase I of the renovations. Additional tax-deductible donations and pledges will be needed to make the house a place for public gatherings. Please consider supporting our initiative online or by mail.

Filling a gap in stewardship in our community, we like to think of ourselves as The Little Nonprofit That Could.


Here's some of the latest news about our doings, beginning with an upbeat article in the Town Topics three weeks ago.


The following Sunday, we led a nature walk along the newly reconfigured Blue and Red trails in Herrontown Woods. Portions of these trails were chronically wet during winter and spring, but board member Kurt Tazelaar found drier and more scenic routes for them, and led workdays to do the rerouting. We stopped at an old "swimming pool" dug in the 1960s, which now serves as excellent habitat for amphibians.


A frog sits well-disguised, in what looks more like abstract art than mud.

Here's a closer look.


Another project that's coming along well is the native meadow at Smoyer Park, across Snowden Lane from Herrontown Woods. In response to a suggestion by FOHW, the large detention basin that receives runoff from the parking lot was planted last year with native grasses and wildflowers by the federal agency, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, with permission from the town. The Friends of Herrontown Woods has done the followup work, removing invasive species before they can get established, and adding additional wildflower species.



Herrontown Woods, which in 1957 became Princeton's first nature preserve, is full of natural and cultural history, of which the buildings are a vital part. Along with all the hands-on work to care for the nature preserve and its buildings, FOHW is also researching the fascinating lives of those who lived at Veblen House. The Veblen House was built by a patrician family from Manhattan in the 1930s, the Whiton-Stuarts. The cottage, more frequently seen because it's located along the main trail at Herrontown Woods, was built by subsistence farmers in 1875. Together, they offer a portrait that stretches across economic classes and centuries. Some of the remarkable history, with connections to the great scientists, politicians and philanthropists of the 20th century, can be found at VeblenHouse.org.




Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Nature Walk Sunday, July 16, 1pm


Join the Friends of Herrontown Woods on Sunday July 16 at 1pm for a celebratory and interpretive walk along the "new blue trail", which winds through mature forest and early 20th century quarry sites in a seldom seen area of the boulder-strewn preserve. Board member Kurt Tazelaar worked hundreds of hours this spring to find a drier and more interesting route for the Blue Trail, which was impassible in late winter and spring. The walk will end at Veblen House, the historic house and grounds of the renowned mathematician, visionary and close colleague of Einstein, Oswald Veblen. FOHW is restoring the grounds and negotiating to save the finely crafted house.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, off Snowden Lane, across from the entrance to Smoyer Park. Maps can be found at this link.


Photos are of black cohosh, blooming now along the ridge of the preserve, and green-fringed orchid, discovered by the Friends and protected from mowing on the Veblen grounds.

The most recent research on the remarkable lives of former occupants of the Veblen House can be found in a post entitled, Happy 111th, Sylvia Jean Whiton-Stuart Hatch Turnure Olcott.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Removing Invasive Species at Herrontown Woods

Thanks to Scott Sillars, Julia Eizenkop, and Dylan Regan for helping pull garlic mustard this past weekend before it goes to seed. The garlic mustard seedpods, visible in the foreground of the photo, are still green and are now safely bagged up. If this is done every year, the garlic mustard diminish in numbers each year until their reservoir of seeds in the soil is exhausted.

The threat posed by invasive plant species has been greatly reduced over the past couple years, including the Wisteria, a pretty but much too aggressive vine that until recently had been smothering trees and the Veblen House grounds. FOHW has also worked with neighbors of the park to prevent the spread of lesser celandine into the preserve, and FOHW board members Kurt and Sally have continued to open up long-obscured vistas by cutting down invasive honeysuckles, privet, barberry, and especially the winged euonymus.

These volunteer efforts have been augmented by the town's hiring of a professional crew to remove Japanese aralia and other less common invasives in Herrontown Woods and in other Princeton preserves like Mountain Lakes.

Invasive species are often considered an intractable problem, but we find that by being strategic and persistent, a great deal of progress can be made.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Garlic Mustard Pulling This Sunday, June 11


Join us at the Veblen House this Sunday, June 11 at 10am, before the day heats up, to pull garlic mustard before its seedpods have a chance to burst. We'll have some refreshments on hand, the better to socialize while snipping off the seedpods. Veblen House is up the gravel driveway across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd, or walk up from the main Herrontown Woods parking lot off of Snowden (map here).

The Friends of Herrontown Woods has transformed the grounds of the Veblen House in recent years, removing invasives, opening up sight-lines and exposing interesting historic features. A crew hired by the town of Princeton also assisted this past summer, removing the very thorny Japanese aralia. Removal of garlic mustard is an important step towards repopulating the property with native plants.



UPDATE ON VEBLEN HOUSE:

Thanks to the town's intervention, the county has at least temporarily suspended movement towards demolition of the Veblen buildings. FOHW is seeking to work with the town and county in the interim to determine a way by which FOHW could begin repairs on the structures and put them to use. FOHW is proud of having taken the initiative over the past four years to restore and maintain Herrontown Woods, and believes it has proven itself up to the task of repairing the buildings as well.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

FOHW Asks Princeton Council for Support

Eleven supporters of the initiative to save the Veblen House attended the Princeton council meeting last night, and spoke during public comment about their love for Herrontown Woods, and the important role the Veblen buildings play as landmarks and gathering places in the landscape there. Important points were made, about living up to the Veblens' wishes as described in their will and deed, recent fundraising achievements, the questionable cost estimates in the county's Conditions Assessment, and the need to apply creativity and resourcefulness to the dilemma of the houses, when a one-size-fits-all approach has not yielded solutions.


Afterwards, the thought occurred that those legally responsible for Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings have viewed them through a prism of liability rather than responsibility, and it is the Friends of Herrontown Woods that has come along and taken the responsibilities as described in the Veblen will and deed seriously. We are, in a sense, like unofficial foster parents who stepped into a void of care and have for four years provided the care the land and trails needed. Now we wish to take on the buildings as well, and are offering a way to "parent" the buildings. It's an approach that takes the buildings as they are, recognizes quality and potential where others point to flaws, sees worth in them at every step along the way, rather than deeming the buildings worthless unless they attain a certain level of achievement.

Thus far, as we fulfill each requirement to be judged fit for this new "parenting" role, another requirement is added. We understand it is a serious undertaking, but we believe the hurdles should not be made overly rigid and onerous, and that we should be recognized and respected as the one entity that has taken seriously the caretaker responsibilities.

Thanks to Pam, Sally, Margaret, Mia, Inge, Wendy, Lee, Stephanie, Victoria, and Huck, for attending and speaking out.

Note: Attendance at the next council meeting, May 22, may prove important as well, if a formal resolution to support FOHW's initiative is introduced, discussed, and voted on.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

May Showers, May Flowers, and a Bright Red Barn Rising in the Woods


Our Saturday morning walk at Herrontown Woods, one of three in Princeton to celebrate Sophie Glovier's newly updated and republished book, "Walks Across Princeton", was wet and wonderful, as advertised. We sidestepped patches of mud, hopped from stone to stone, and in the muddiest patch, Zoe Brooks demonstrated proper trail etiquette by picking up a friend with less mud-friendly shoes.


The muddy patches seemed a minor tradeoff for all the joys that water brings to Herrontown Woods. The day before, after a long rain, the abundant flow added its own art to the moss- and lichen-patterned boulders, cascading down from the preserved headwaters of this tributary of Harry's Brook.

Dormant rivulets came to life, and stones laid for stream crossing disappeared as water became ascendent.

These timeless patterns of nature inspire even as the Friends of Herrontown Woods is working full steam ahead to save the Veblen House and other structures from an undeserved demolition. The Little Nonprofit that Could is straining at the seams as it pulls its train of logic up the hill, seeking to convince the powers that be to allow it to begin needed repairs to make these wonderful buildings an enduring part of Herrontown Woods' natural and cultural landscape.

(Proofreading this post, I see that the photo is saying "full stream ahead", a nice bit of serendipity.)

During the walk, while some of us identified wildflowers along the path, others carried on conversations about fundraising strategies.


The full streams of the day before had receded in time for yesterday's walk, allowing us to see some of the wildflowers along the way. There are only two spots we know of where this special wildflower grows along the Princeton Ridge. It's called showy orchis, and we hear stories of how crowds of photographers would gather at Herrontown Woods to capture its beauty when it was in bloom.

Another plant that has only been found growing wild in two spots in Princeton is the hearts 'a bustin (Euonymus americanus). Deer love it, therefore its rareness, compared to the ubiquitous nonnative winged Euonymus.

There's a caterpillar that also likes the native species, dealing a blow to most of its leaves. Ecosystems work by having the solar energy captured by plants move up the foodchain, e.g. as insects eat the plants and birds eat the insects. The nonnative Euonymus doesn't get eaten, outcompetes natives, and the forest becomes progressively less edible to wildlife. We've been "eating" the winged euonymus with our loppers, and interestingly, the deer have begun collaborating to some extent by eating the resprouts after we cut down the large bushes. The resprouts may be more edible because they haven't had time to manufacture the chemicals that put off the deer. In any case, we hope to make the native hearts 'a bustin more common, if a balance between plant and the wildlife that consume it can be struck.

There are also only two patches of a mysterious Viburnum species, still unidentified, and two Hepaticas known to grow along the ridge (not found during this walk), and two houses (the Veblen House and cottage--still there, at least for now).

Further into the walk, we stopped at the cliff, which is at the end of a short side trail that's not on the map. One participant saw a patch of blue in the distance and asked about it. That, I explained, is the blue tarp protecting the Veblen Cottage from rain until we can get access to do repairs. There's something very appealing about seeing a building in the distance, surrounded by woods. Many of the vistas at Herrontown Woods have been restored in recent years, as Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers cut down the invasive shrubs that have blocked the views over time. The cliff, itself, was rediscovered only a couple years ago, when we happened to be working on a trail down below it, and saw a rock edifice that we'd only heard stories about. Herrontown Woods reveals its secrets slowly.


Heading towards the Veblen cottage and house, I happened to see a tiny flower along the trails edge. It's a parasitic plant called one-flowered broomrape. Here's a short article found online about parasitic plants.


This photo of the barn was taken the day before. One of the walk participants, Margaret, who grew up near Herrontown Woods and visited it many times, told of her earliest memory of the preserve. She was walking up from the parking lot, and saw for the first time the bright red barn, surrounded by woods. It's one of many stories told of how the buildings add meaning to people's visits to the woods.

Syth told of a photo his parents took of him and his sibling with the barn in the background. When he in turn became a parent, he took a photo of his own sons from the same angle.


We headed over to the Veblen House to socialize. It, too, is pegged for demolition, even though it is a solid house with a fascinating history and beautiful woodwork inside, and is said by all architects and builders who have seen it to be unique in its construction and design elements. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but it has a double wall, which means that the tattered exterior wall can be removed like a scab and replaced. Photos from the 1950s show that the original color was a more attractive brown and black two-tone, with ornamental stairway and balconies.

While we delved into refreshments and conversation, a robin was feeding its young on a window sill. Our nonprofit is asking Mercer County for a chance to fix up this and the other wonderful structures that the Veblens donated long ago for public use. The robins know a good thing when they see it, and we think we do, too.

The photo below, taken several weeks ago, shows how someone planted daffodils to ornament the red barn and corncrib. The flowers were an act of love by those who preceded us at Herrontown Woods. What meaning would they have if the buildings were to be torn down? We need to honor this legacy, so that children in the future can wander into Herrontown Woods for the first time, and be surprised by a bright red barn rising up among the trees.


Friday, May 5, 2017

Nature Walks This Weekend

The Friends of Herrontown Woods will host two nature walks this weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10:30. Saturday is the walk related to Sophie Glovier's newly updated and republished book, "Walks Across Princeton". She'll be available for book signing at DR Greenway at 10am, Saturday, and 11:30am at Mountain Lakes House. (If Mercer County allows us to begin repairs on the Veblen House, then eastern Princeton will have a place for booksignings in the future!)

For both walks, meet in the Herrontown Woods main parking lot off of Snowden Lane (see map). Its a beautiful time of year, and we may see some rare wildflowers blooming. There may be some wet-but-wonderful spots, so wear appropriate footwear.

The photo below is of the 1875 farmstead bought and preserved in 1936 by renowned mathematician, visionary, and Einstein colleague, Oswald Veblen. The Friends of Herrontown Woods is immersed in a campaign to forestall a proposed demolition of this lovely red barn and other buildings donated for public use by the Veblens. Join us to learn more about these structures that add so much to the experience of visiting Herrontown Woods.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Enjoying a Mix of Nature and Culture at Herrontown Woods

Sunday's nature walk mixed the serene beneficence of the awakening forest with the charged drama of the county's determination to tear down Veblen House, even after the Friends of Herrontown Woods submitted a detailed proposal to begin repairing the house and other buildings donated by the Veblens long ago for public use. We had a surprise special guest for the walk, retired professor Henry Horn, who spoke about the preserve's geology and helped with identification of flora and fauna. We had about 25 on the walk, with only a few days notice, and lots of curiosity about all the plants and creatures encountered.



We saw the various wildflowers shown in the virtual walk at PrincetonNatureNotes.org, and a Sigmoria millipede, which usually smells strongly like black cherry, but did not. That's a wineberry stem in the background.

Professor Horn suggested that the millipede may only emit the odor when it feels threatened. I asked if there were any nature haters willing to come forward and hold the millipede in a threatening manner, but none volunteered.

Afterwards, we gathered near the Veblen House to have cider, chips and cookies, with many discussions about the battle to save the house. Lots of good ideas and leads were offered.

Thanks to all who came, and particular thanks to professor Henry Horn for sharing his wealth of knowledge.