Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A New Botanical Garden at Herrontown Woods

The native plants of Princeton will be featured at a new installation next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot. A clearing was created near the parking lot when an old pine grove blew down in storms over the past few years.  Invasive species moved into the gap, but as volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods began removing these over the past year, we gradually realized we had a lovely setting for introducing visitors to Princeton's diverse native flora, and the pollinators so in need of summer wildflowers in this densely forested corridor.

The site's mix of wet and dry, sun and shade will provide the varied habitat needed to support a wide range of native wildflowers, shrubs, grasses, sedges, and rushes. Identification signs are already going up on trees that survived the storms. Most of the downed trees are being left to tell the story of their long lives and the winds and ice storms that finally brought them down. In a way, this is a Phoenix Garden, growing out of the ruins of the pine grove likely originally planted by Dr. Veblen himself.

As more species are planted, some are already blooming, like this bladdernut, a rarely seen shrub whose seeds will be encased in what looks like a green Chinese lantern.

A purple blossom found on the ground turned out to be from one of the few nonnative species being left to grow--a Princess Tree. The tree's early spring flowers attracted the attention of a hummingbird seen perching nearby.

Some seeds planted by pre-schoolers from the Jewish Center have already sprouted. At the end of that workday, we saw a bald eagle soaring by, high overhead, and decided to take it as another good omen.

One of the species given to the kids to plant is rose mallow, Princeton's native hibiscus, which flourishes along the canal and now is taking root in the botanical garden.

Seeds from a native swamp rose were tossed on the bare ground left by an uprooted pine.

Though the site is likely a couple acres, weeding has thus far been manageable, with scattered garlic mustards and the ubiquitous Japanese honeysuckle getting pulled as we plant natives.

The cool, wet spring has helped ease the weeding and sustain the plantings, with additional water coming from a nearby creek or the back of a Prius.

Spring Nature Walk, Saturday, May 12, 2pm

Update: Nature walk is on, though may be shorter due to potential rain later in afternoon. Be ready for some mud here and there.

On Saturday, May 12 at 2pm, the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) will host a nature walk at Herrontown Woods in Princeton. The walk will include a brief intro to the native botanical garden being created at Herrontown Woods by FOHW volunteers, a walk up through the boulder fields of the Princeton Ridge, and end with refreshments.  Showy orchid and other rarely seen wildflowers of the Princeton ridge should be in full bloom.

The walk will be co-led by botanists John Clark and Steve Hiltner. John L. Clark teaches at the Lawrenceville School, and recently gave a talk at DR Greenway about discovering new species in Equador. Steve Hiltner is a naturalist who writes about nature at, and is president of FOHW. 

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, off of Snowden Lane, opposite Smoyer Park.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Princeton Charter School Service Corps Helps Out

One of the most satisfying aspects of tending to a nature preserve is the opportunity to work with local schoolkids. We were grateful on a recent afternoon for help from members of the Princeton Charter School Service Corp, who came out to do some much needed spring cleaning. First stop was the kiosk, for an intro to our mission.

Then it was up the trail, past the Veblen Cottage and over to the Veblen House, where the grounds were strewn with branches from winter's last nor'easter.

A couple students cleaned off Oswald Veblen's wooden walkway leading to the house.

One of the main goals of any workday is to get kids to work together, anticipating each other's needs. Even something as seemingly simple as carrying a log includes some built-in learning about mass and balance and logistics.

Students learned how to keep a saw from binding, as charter school's principal, Larry Patton, cut up a branch that had fallen out of the big eastern red cedar in the front lawn. History teacher Katelyn Schmitt (left) organized the workday and provided most of these photos.

An hour of intense effort left the Veblen grounds cleared, the better to appreciate the daffodils that Elizabeth Veblen loved so much. Most of the daffodils that once graced the lawn around the Veblen House had been lost over the years, due to crews beginning to mow before the daffodil leaves had absorbed enough energy to bloom the next year. This particular daffodil is one of many planted by Friends of Herrontown Woods last year, in ruts left by vehicles that had strayed onto the lawn. It's one of the ways we seek to make lemonade from lemons.

Thanks so much to the PCS Service Corp for their help!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Soul Made of Wood, Rocks, and Water

Late winter is a special season at Herrontown Woods. Even under gray skies, even in a cold, slow rain, or especially then, the woods has a radiance. Though buds have yet to open, the woods is alive with the sound of clear water cascading down boulder-strewn slopes. Winter's light still pours in through the leafless canopy, illuminating nature's artistry. Each boulder has its own distinct pattern of mosses and lichens, and each pool contains a world of reflection.

Froth is not always a sign of detergent, but can be a natural stirring up of organics.
Take a closer look, and find that each bubble contains its own reflection of the canopy above, and even catches the photographer catching the photo.

A late-winter woods clings as if with affection to a few mementos from the fall before.

There's beauty in a beech tree's reluctance to let go.

Wood, rocks, and water come together in such serendipitous ways on this cold, gray day. For anyone who has worked to open up the channels of creative self-expression, the abundance of groundwater seeping from the slopes and merging into a cascading stream registers as full-bore creativity, a soulful song of Herrontown Woods.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 Accomplishments

Through community support and a lot of volunteer effort, 2017 was a breakthrough year for the Friends of Herrontown Woods. Some key acreage was added to the preserve, the Veblen House and Cottage were saved from demolition, and important steps were taken to restore and improve the preserve's trails and habitat. Thanks to all who have donated time, skills, and resources to make these achievements possible. 

Please consider a year-end DONATION to support our work, and may the new year bring a steady supply of positive energy and joy.

  1. Convinced Princeton officials to accept a gift of land that expands Herrontown Woods by 7.2 acres. 
  2. Completed proposal and cost estimate for repairing the Veblen House and Cottage.
  3. Rallied community support to stop imminent demolition of the Veblen buildings, and convinced town officials to acquire the buildings along with Herrontown Woods, from the county.
  4. Began meeting with town officials to work out an agreement for FOHW to begin repairs.
  1. Introduced visitors to previously unseen areas of Herrontown Woods by rerouting the blue and red trails through drier and more interesting terrain. Trails previously unaccessible during the wet season should now be useable year-round.
  2. More cutting of invasive shrubs, with new boulder-strewn vistas opening up in the preserve. 
  3. Volunteers planted another pawpaw patch and some rescued hazelnut shrubs near Veblen House. 
  4. Made the trail from the main parking lot up to Veblen House useable again.
  5. Volunteers pulled up invasive garlic mustard on the Veblen House grounds before it could go to seed.
  6. Made additional improvements to the trail map.
  7. Got to know the black vulture family that resides seasonally at the Veblen farmstead.
  8. Started clearing area for a botanical garden near the main parking lot.
  9. Hosted a girl scout troop for a workday.
  1. Hosted well-attended periodic nature walks, with 50 people showing up to learn about Herrontown Woods' magnetic rocks.
  1. Began building list of entities interested in using Herrowtown Woods and Veblen House.
  2. Maintained and expanded following on FOHW's Facebook page.
  1. Received an anonymous pledge of $25,000 over three years, and a $1000 donation from the Whole Earth Center.
  2. Added to our list of members.
  1. Posted additional historical research on the Whiton-Stuart family at
  2. Recovered some early history of Herrontown Woods a neighbor discovered a large binder with correspondence from a Herrontown Woods friends group from the 70s/80s.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Supporters of Veblen House Initiative Turn Out for Public Hearing

Strong support for the transfer of Herrontown Woods to Princeton municipality was expressed at the public hearing Nov. 29th in council chambers at town hall. About fifteen supporters of the Friends of Herrontown Woods were on hand, several of whom spoke in support of the transfer and FOHW's initiative to repair and utilize the Veblen buildings for public benefit. In the photo, Mia Sacks tells of the connection she developed to Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings, walking there as a kid growing up in Princeton. Mercer County planning director, Leslie Floyd (in red), conducted the public hearing, with Princeton town manager, Marc Dashield, there to assist in answering questions.

One question came up was about the access road for the main parking lot off of Snowden. Turns out the road is on private land, with a publicly owned easement.

FOHW is working with the town on an agreement that would allow FOHW to begin making initial repairs to the Veblen buildings even before the 4-6 month transfer process is complete. According to Green Acres rules, official transfer of the preserve cannot take place until three months after the public hearing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Public Hearing on Transfer of Herrontown Woods to Princeton, Nov. 29

A public hearing will be held this Wednesday, Nov. 29, 7pm, in council chambers, on transfer of Herrontown Woods to Princeton. The Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) has been restoring and maintaining trails and habitat in the preserve since 2013.

We are encouraging members of the public to attend and speak in support of the transfer and FOHW's efforts to repair the Veblen buildings, and to thank town council for the support they are showing for FOHW's efforts. Written comments can also be sent to the address given in the public notice, below.

Mercer County is transferring ownership of Herrontown Woods to Princeton municipality, 60 years after receiving the first 82 acres as a gift from Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen. Swayed by supporters of the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), the town decided to accept transfer of the Veblen buildings along with the land. Though the county is including $85,000 in case any of the buildings need to be demolished in the future, FOHW is negotiating with the town to lease and repair the historic structures.

FOHW sees this transfer as a homecoming for what in 1957 was Princeton's first nature preserve. Though Herrontown Woods may well have been the first preserve donated to Mercer County, predating and possibly inspiring the creation of their Parks Commission, it is located at the far north end of the county, and in time the county shifted its interest and resources as it acquired other parkland more centrally located.

Below is a quote from an article on the transfer:
“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,” Hiltner said. “The Veblens loved nature, and loved bringing people together. It’s fitting that they left behind a house and cottage that can serve as a gathering place along the magnificent corridor of preserved open space in eastern Princeton. We’re thankful to all those in the community who 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.”
Below is the online public notice with additional information.

TAKE NOTICE that the County of Mercer has filed a request with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Green Acres Program, proposing to transfer ownership of certain parkland owned by the County of Mercer to Princeton.

The parkland to be transferred, known as Herrontown Woods Block 2901 Lots 1&2, and Block 3001 Lot 7 & 8 consists of 143.5 acres and is subject to Green Acres restrictions.. Block 3001 Lot 11 containing 2.6 acres is currently under contract for county purchase. This lot will also be transferred to Princeton once acquired. The Green Acres restrictions on the parkland will be transferred with the parkland and will run with the property in perpetuity. Following the transfer, the property will continue to provide passive public access as a Princeton park.

Pursuant to N.J.A.C. 7:36-25.5(a)3, a hearing to obtain public comment on this request will be held at:

Princeton Municipal Building
400 Witherspoon Street Princeton NJ 08540
Main Meeting Room, Council Chambers
Wednesday November 29, 2017 7:00 pm

All information submitted by the County of Mercer and Princeton to the Green Acres Program in support of these requested parkland transfers are available for public inspection at 1) the Mercer County Planning Office 640 S. Broad St., Trenton NJ 08650 and on the Mercer County website and 2) Administrator’s office Princeton Municipal Building 400 Witherspoon Street Princeton, NJ 08540 website .

Any interested party is invited to appear at the hearing and provide public comment in accordance with the rules of the County of Mercer and Princeton. Written comments on the parkland transfer request may be directed to Mark Dashield Princeton Administrator at 609-924-5176 and Leslie Floyd, Planning Director, Mercer County at 609-989-6545. Please send a copy of any comments submitted on this request to the NJDEP Green Acres Program, and Bureau of Legal Services and Stewardship, Mail Code 501-01, P.O. Box 420 Trenton, NJ 08625-0420.

Public comment on these parkland transfer requests will be accepted during the public hearing or until December 14, 2017. On or after February 27, 2018 the County of Mercer and the Princeton may each take formal action to approve the proposed transfer of parkland, subject to approval of the transfer documents by the Green Acres Program.

Press coverage:

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Girl Scouts Help Out at Herrontown Woods

Thanks to Girl Scout Troop 72905 from the Princeton Service Unit, led by Pallavi Nuka, for joining us for a workday at Herrontown Woods.

The girls worked together to clear brush and cut invasive vines in an area of the preserve that will be planted with native wildflowers and shrubs that cater to the needs of pollinators in summer. Dense forests have few flowers in summer, but this area near the parking lot was a pine grove decimated by wind and ice storms, creating sunny openings for habitat that will complement the surrounding forest.

Workdays are a great chance to work cooperatively and learn how to use a saw or a pair of loppers safely and effectively. The kids and parents brought a lot of positive energy and capability, and got a tremendous amount done.

Afterwards, we went on a walk to see some of Herrontown Woods and show them where Oswald Veblen once lived, the renowned mathematician and colleague of Einstein. Veblen loved to clear brush, and would involve fellow faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in the enterprise. He and his wife Elizabeth donated all this land back in 1957 for us to care for and enjoy.

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 1966-7. It was published by the StonyBrook/Millstone Watershed Association, which speaks to how central was Herrontown Woods as Princeton's go-to for nature walks back then. Focus began to shift away from Herrontown Woods in the late 1970s and 1980s, as Princeton Township and Mercer County acquired additional open space. Our work represents a reawakening of interest in this long eclipsed preserve, and the generous couple that bestowed it upon us.

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 nou-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.