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.

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.