Sunday, March 29, 2020

Kurt is Back, and Other News

Welcome back to Kurt Tazelaar, who has played the leading role in trail repair and maintenance at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation since FOHW's beginnings in 2013. Kurt took a medically related hiatus over the past year, but is once again applying his strength and indomitable spirit to making enduring improvements to the trails.

Occasionally, you'll see an old stake topped with some weathered red or yellow or blue paint next to a trail. These are remnants of an earlier era of trail care at Herrontown Woods. They bring back memories of 2013, when a few of us first began piecing the overgrown trails back together. Those stakes were some of the only clues that had lingered in the forest.

Meanwhile, spring rains are once again telling us where stepping stones are needed, as we continue to distribute locally collected flat stones deep into the preserve from stockpiles at the trailheads. There are, of course, lots of rocks strewn all over the Princeton Ridge, but being of igneous origin, they are round and mostly immovable. We source our flat, more portable stepping stones from a different geological era, farther down the slopes, where sedimentary rocks have emerged at a nearby construction site. Thanks to Liping for letting us gather these "native" stones for use in the preserve.

We also appreciate the work of preserve neighbors Barbara and Alan, who have been cutting back vegetation that would otherwise grow over the trails. So often in life, when things are as they should be--trails clear and passable--we forget the care and attention that goes in to making things that way.

Herrontown Woods remains open during the pandemic, though we've had to take Andrew Thornton's popular walking sticks out of circulation for the time being.

While the plants are still asleep, new volunteer Victorino has been building an impressive boardwalk in the botanical garden, crafted out of trees blown down by storms in recent years. Kurt, Andrew and Victorino all have artistic sensibilities that inform their work and vision.

Thanks to the municipality of Princeton and Wells Tree Service for taking down trees growing too close to Veblen House. The Wells were the third family to live at Veblen House, and the first to raise children there, as tenants and caretakers from 1975 to 1998. FOHW is working on coming up with a use for the wood. 

There is a lovely pond and pasture bordering Veblen House that was preserved by Mercer County. FOHW recently cut down invasive shrubs growing next to the pond, and is collaborating with DR Greenway on management of this valuable wet meadow habitat.

A few spring ephemeral wildflowers are beginning to poke through the leaf litter along the trails. Here's rue anemone,

and bloodroot, presenting their flowers to the world before their leaves grow out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Planting Memories at Veblen House and Cottage

A donation of daffodils from our local Ace Hardware brought some of us volunteers together for a volunteer day at Veblen House and Cottage this past Sunday. Daffodils planted last year did not seem to care about being planted in spring rather than fall. They bloomed in early summer and are up and growing well this spring.

Board member Pallavi and her son Gautam added to daffodils her girlscout troop helped plant last year.

Rose, Martin, Victoria, and Andrew added some in the recently cleaned up woodland next to the Veblen Cottage. The scattered clusters of daffodils will remind us in coming years of the enforced social distancing being practiced as the pandemic reacquaints the nation with the concept of collective effort.

There was a wild persimmon tree growing too close to the cottage. We dug it up and transplanted it to a spot where many fallen and partially rotted persimmon logs made clear there once was a grove. In its place, in this spot where Elizabeth Veblen was once photographed serving tea to a young man, Anika planted some daffodil bulbs.

Below is a photo, probably taken by Oswald Veblen, who took an interest in photography late in life, of Elizabeth standing in the yard next to the cottage. Born in England, she loved gardening, hosted Dogwood Garden Club meetings each month, and especially liked her daffodils, which she'd propagate and plant in clusters all over the property. The boulder in the photo still remains, but the young, dynamic landscape with spires of red cedar and hardwoods beginning to claim the sky, has succeeded to second growth forest.

In the 1950s, when this photo was taken, the Veblens would have been in their 70s, and yet their spirits were more reflective of the young landscape all around them. From Deane Montgomery's eulogy:
Veblen remained rather youthful in his point of view to the end, and he was often amused by the comments of younger but aging men to the effect that the great period for this or that was gone forever. He did not believe it. Possibly part of his youthful attitude came from his interest in youth; he was firmly convinced that a great part of the mathematical lifeblood of the Institute was in the flow of young mathematicians through it.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

President Eisgruber Praises Veblen Legacy in the 2020 State of the University Report

2020 is looking like a good year for Oswald Veblen, whose 140th birthday we'll be celebrating in June. For those who like numbers, mathematicians or not, Veblen's life and career are framed by round numbers. He was born in 1880, began graduate work in mathematics in 1900, became emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1950, and died at his Brookin, Maine cottage in 1960.

Some deeply gratifying news came recently in the form of Princeton University's annual State of the University letter, in which President Eisgruber puts the legacy of Oswald Veblen front and center in a moving discourse on "the values and qualities that define us as a university."

Eisgruber describes Veblen as "a faculty member with tremendous vision and constructive energy" who "probably did as much as anyone to reform and improve this University." That's some high praise.

As Princeton University embarks on a new round of building, President Eisgruber pointed to Veblen's visionary role nearly a century ago:

"At a time when many Princeton professors had no offices and worked from home, Veblen imagined something novel: a building dedicated to mathematics and designed to generate intellectual community and exchange."

"Oswald Veblen understood that people are the heart and soul of a great university, and he also understood that thoughtfully designed buildings can stimulate the collaborations, activity, insights, and friendships that animate a scholarly community. His vision for the old Fine Hall, and its timely completion, attracted brilliant thinkers to Princeton and forged a scholarly legacy that remains vibrant almost a century later."
Citing Elyse Graham's articles in the Princeton Alumni Weekly about Veblen, the State of the University report also praises "Veblen's humanitarian courage," demonstrated through his early efforts to aid the careers of brilliant women and African American mathematicians, and his
"critical role in rescuing Jewish scholars from persecution in Europe. Veblen worked with the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars to accommodate refugees at Princeton and elsewhere in the country. The scholars whom Veblen helped bring to Princeton included professors of mathematics, physics, economics, and art history."
The Friends of Herrontown Woods first heard that Veblen would be featured in the President's report a couple weeks prior, when the university's science writer contacted us to ask permission to use some of the photos on our website. As our nonprofit begins repairs on the long-neglected Veblen House and Cottage in Herrontown Woods, we are tremendously heartened to witness the ongoing rediscovery of Oswald Veblen's quietly extraordinary legacy, beginning with writings and presentations by George Dyson and others at the Turing Centennial Conference in 2012, articles by Alyse Graham in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and now this wonderful tribute to Veblen woven into President Eisgruber's State of the University letter.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Clearing Brush at Veblen Cottage

We could have had a javelin throwing contest, with all the sticks piled on the Veblen Cottage grounds, or studied the arc the branches made as we tossed them over the fence, as Veblen did with projectiles when he led a crew of mathematicians during WWI that helped improve understanding of ballistics.

But our main task for a Sunday afternoon was to clear years of accumulated brush from the cottage grounds. The easiest and most rewarding thing to do with it all was to toss it over the fence. Fortunately, the land on the other side of the fence is part of Herrontown Woods as well, and the resident wildlife will still have the benefit of cover the brush affords while we clean up the cultural landscape around the farmstead Oswald Veblen used as a study.

The workday was catalyzed by Rose and her mathematician husband Martin, who contacted us about volunteering. Thanks to friends who joined in: Kathryn, Victoria, Marian, Andrew and John.

The results exceeded our expectations. Most of the branches had been from Japanese maples that, though pretty in the fall, had begun to spread into the surrounding woodlands.

A surprise find under all the brush was the remains of a persimmon grove, whose distinctive chunky bark is still recognizable on the fallen logs. This is the second persimmon grove discovered at Herrontown Woods. The first is located halfway down the trail to the parking lot, and still has some living trees.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Princeton Council Votes to Lease Veblen House and Cottage to FOHW

On Monday, Jan. 27, many supporters of the Friends of Herrontown Woods gathered at Princeton council chambers for a public hearing on Ordinance 2020.2. The palindromic arrangement of the digits would have pleased mathematician Oswald Veblen, but even more pleasing was the contents of the ordinance--language that would allow FOHW to lease and begin repairing and utilizing the Veblen House and Cottage. Already two hours into the meeting, with an agenda that looked like it would stretch far into the night, council members' faces brightened as the lease ordinance came up for discussion. A number of supporters of FOHW--Steve Hiltner, Inge Regan, Pallavi Nuka, Andrew Thornton, and Clifford Zink--rose to speak, telling council what Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings mean to them. Kip Cherry listed some of the highlights of Oswald Veblen's influential career. When public comment was complete, council members David Cohen and Mia Sacks praised the work of the Friends of Herrontown Woods. Even before being elected to council, Mia Sacks played an important role in rallying support for our efforts to save Veblen House. Council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance. 

Below is the text from comments by FOHW president, Steve Hiltner:
First I'd like to express gratitude for the work that David Cohen and Marc Daschield put in as we developed the lease over the past year. It was a pleasure to work with you, and I look forward to more interactions as we move forward. I also want to thank all of the supporters on council and in the community, the angel donors and other contributors who have stepped forward and have shown a belief in us and our work, the board members and all the other volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods who have helped us reach this point where our nonprofit can at last have a formalized arrangement for repairing and utilizing the Veblen House and Cottage for the public benefit.

We are a small organization, formed seven years ago. I like to think of us as the Little Engine that Could, because we stepped into a void that no local institution, government, or existing nonprofit was willing to fill. Back in 2013, Herrontown Woods--Princeton's first nature preserve, donated by the Veblens 55 years earlier--had been abandoned. The nature trails were impassible, the buildings boarded up and overgrown. Into that void stepped a few of us volunteers, in particular Kurt and Sally Tazelaar, who made the trails passable once again. Now, the buildings that the Veblens donated along with the land await our focused attention.
Some people may ask what value a couple old houses out in the woods could possibly have for the community. The Veblen House has been boarded up for 22 years, the Cottage for 60. We sometimes think of buildings as contrary to the goal of open space, but in fact they can be complementary. Where do people who love open space gather? Think of Clark House at the Battlefield, Mountain Lakes House at Mountain Lakes, the Johnson Education Center at Greenway Meadows, the Updike Farmstead.

All of these examples of how a historic building can complement open space are, by the way, on the west side of Princeton. On the east side of Princeton, it's a different story. We can be grateful that more than 500 acres of open space have been preserved in eastern Princeton, yet no functional building is available to complement that land. That is what the Veblens were trying to provide when they donated the buildings so long ago, and that vision is what the Friends of Herrontown Woods now wants to see realized.

I like to think of the Veblen House and Cottage as two riddles that have sat quietly in Herrontown Woods all this time, waiting to be solved. They have so many stories to tell. As we research the history of the houses, the people who lived in them, and the eras they were built in, they are becoming like a Magic Schoolbus that can take us sailing back to distant times and forgotten worlds. They are our windows into the past, and can teach lessons that will carry us into the future.

As we maintain trails and repair the buildings the Veblens left behind, we see ourselves as setting a stage at Herrontown Woods, for exploring nature and history, for learning and artistic endeavors, for social events, or for solitude and quiet contemplation.

In 2017, Princeton council stepped up and helped us save the buildings from demolition, and we thank you for your support now, as we begin finally to put these buildings on the positive trajectory they have patiently awaited and so very much deserve.

Stephen K. Hiltner, president, Friends of Herrontown Woods

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Public Hearing on Veblen Lease Monday, Jan. 27

The Friends of Herrontown Woods is encouraging supporters to come to council chambers this coming Monday, Jan. 27, 7pm, for a public hearing on Ordinance #2020-2, "authorizing a Lease with the Friends of Herrontown Woods Pertaining to a Portion of Herrontown Woods also know as the "Veblen" Property."

 The initial lease is for five years, with the expectation of a longer term lease to follow as FOHW develops and implements rehabilitation plans for the Veblen House, Cottage, and grounds.

The lease, the product of a yearlong negotiation, comes twelve years after botanist Stephen Hiltner happened upon the abandoned Veblen House while conducting a plant inventory of Herrontown Woods. In 2013, Kurt and Sally Tazelaar joined him to reopen the nature preserve's long neglected trails. They formed a nonprofit the next year, gained supporters to help fight off Mercer County's attempts to demolish the buildings in 2017, and convinced the town of Princeton to take ownership of the preserve. While waiting to gain an official arrangement with the town through the lease, volunteers have been clearing invasive species, sprucing up the grounds of the House and Cottage, and keeping the buildings secure until they can finally be put to the uses the Veblens envisioned nearly fifty years ago.

The meeting will be in council chambers at town hall, 400 Witherspoon Street, beginning at 7pm.

FOHW Begins 2020 With Front Page Article

2020 began auspiciously with a January 1st Town Topics front page article entitled FOHW Volunteers Look Forward to Veblen Property Lease.

The article quotes Mayor Liz Lempert, who described Herrontown Woods as “one of the jewels of Princeton’s park system,” which “had gone mostly untended for decades. We’re very fortunate to have the enthusiastic volunteers of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, who have already done extensive and exceptional maintenance work on the network of trails and stream crossings.”

As FOHW prepares to sign a lease with Princeton to begin rehabilitating the Veblen House and other structures left to the public trust long ago by Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, we look forward to adding to the ways the buildings can complement the hundreds of acres of preserved land along the eastern Princeton Ridge, and making them one more component of the Veblens' wonderful legacy in Princeton.

As stated in the Town Topics article:
“We’ve come to treasure being a part of Veblen’s legacy, and we want to tell people about it and about what one person can do,” Hiltner said. “Veblen saw the connections between geometry and woodland trails, between intellect and nature.”
In an example of remarkable serendipity, the article was noticed by an advocate of "dry stone walling" who lives on an island in Ontario and does daily searches for cultural heritage sites around the world. She then contacted a friend who grew up in Princeton and now builds stone walls in Vermont. The friend contacted us, came to visit, and gave us insights into how to repair walls in Herrontown Woods, including the horse run in the photo.

Remembering Daniel A. Harris

The Friends of Herrontown Woods mourns the loss of a great environmental force in Princeton, Daniel A. Harris, who died on Dec. 26 at the age of 77. A distinguished professor and poet, Daniel became active in local causes after retirement from Rutgers, advocating on issues ranging from civil rights to open space protection.

As stated in an obituary in PlanetPrinceton, "With his wife, Jane Buttars, he founded Save Princeton Ridge, which succeeded in limiting development on the Princeton Ridge in Princeton and in contributing to the creation of the Princeton Ridge Preserve."

Daniel was featured in a Princeton Magazine article entitled Uncommon Princeton Citizens for Common Causes, which describes how he, his wife and others were able to reduce the size of developments on the Princeton Ridge to protect additional acreage. Daniel combined a gentle demeanor with an iron resolve, and worked tirelessly to achieve his goals, using his writing skills and talent to make his case.

As the first individual to send a donation to the Friends of Herrontown Woods, soon after we received official 501c3 status back in 2014, Daniel would often send emails of congratulations when we took a step forward. After we successfully fought off attempts by Mercer County to demolish the Veblen House and Cottage, Daniel cheered us on:
"Wonderful news for you and all your colleagues who won a big victory for Princeton and laborious volunteerism. Bravo! I hope you feel really satisfied by your big win."
We will miss you, Daniel. Thanks for your spirit, your devotion, and a legacy of adding hard-won acreage to the protected land along the Princeton Ridge, which will remain in perpetuity for all to enjoy.

A celebration of life service will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton.

Thursday, December 19, 2019


It's been another year of moving FOHWard at Herrontown Woods. The lease we negotiated with the town for the Veblen House and Cottage awaits town ratification this January. We built a new trail and continue to restore existing trails and habitat. The botanical garden is growing into a sea of wildflowers. A girlscout troop and other volunteers contributed to improvements in the grounds and signage. Ongoing research is expanding our appreciation of the vision and pioneering spirit that helped Oswald Veblen achieve so much in the world and our community.

Please support our work, and join us out at Princeton's first nature preserve.

  • Completed negotiations with Princeton to lease the Veblen House and Cottage, beginning early in 2020

  • FOHW volunteers continue to care for 220 acres of public land at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation
  • A very wet spring prompted many trail improvements towards making trails useable year-round
  • Constructed a new trail through 7.5 acres of sloping woodland donated to Princeton in 2018 through FOHW’s initiative
  • Botanical Garden: With ongoing care, we are transforming a forest opening into a sea of native wildflowers and grasses to feed summertime pollinators, with 100 native plant species.
  • Collaborating with Town on control of invasive species

  • Keeping buildings secure and dry
  • Evaluating structures in preparation to begin repairs in 2020
  • Converting window covers to shutters to expedite window repair.
  • Redirecting runoff away from buildings and into attractive raingardens
  • Grounds around house and cottage mowed, maintained, invasive plants removed, paths installed.
  • Nurturing an edible forest of pawpaws, hazelnuts, butternuts, persimmons and plums.

  • Girlscouts Cadette Troop 72905 installed interpretive signage telling the history of the Veblen House and Cottage
  • Designed and produced educational flip cards for nature adventure backpacks available at the Princeton Public Library
  • Ongoing research and website posts about nature and the fascinating history of Veblen House at, and
  • Renewing connections with local schools
  • Regular nature walks led by area naturalists
  • Hosted our second annual Oswald Veblen Birthday BBQ in June. 

  • New board members and some particularly engaged friends of the preserve are adding their energy and expertise to FOHW’s work.
  • Had our second board “retreat” to develop strategic planning

  • Additional progress towards our initial goal of raising $100,000.

Thanks to all who have contributed to making these achievements possible.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Creative Reuse at Veblen House

Creative reuse is central to nature's vitality, and a central theme in our work at Herrontown Woods, where houses and a nature preserve, generously donated long ago for public use, had been left to languish for lack of care and attention.

As a formal lease moves towards town ratification early in 2020, we've been doing some small fixes at Veblen House and grounds, as part of our stewardship of the property. Most of the invasive species have been cut back, reopening vistas of the stonework and gardens. Some small berms and swales have nicely diverted surface runoff away from the house to feed raingardens. In preparation for last summer's Veblen Birthday BBQ, we expanded parking simply by cutting back vegetation that had long disguised the original width of the gravel driveway.

More recently, we collected lawn signs after the fall election and have used them as shingles to repair the wellhouse, which had lost its roof over the years. A few scavenged boards and the lawn signs were all that was needed to put the well house right again.

One of our board members, Peter Thompson, contributed a couple rainbarrels that are now catching runoff from gutters we added to the roof of the garage. Since there's no running water as yet at Veblen House, the collected rainwater will be handy for watering new plants during next year's growing season.

Also near the Veblen House, we've installed a leaf corral that holds leaves, but also has a critter-proof central cylinder that can hold food scraps. Once the corral is filled, the leaves will disguise the food scrap composting and provide insulation to speed decomposition. Earthworms and other decomposers rise up from the ground and into the leaves and food scraps to do their work. No turning of the contents is required.

The leaf corral, called a "Wishing (the Earth) Well" because it looks a bit like a wishing well for leaves instead of coins, made a good conversation piece at the end of our autumn nature walk.

Here's what it looks like with some snow and some leaves, which surround and disguise the inner cylinder of food scraps, brought by one of our board members who lacks a home compost bin.