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.

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

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.