Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Botanical Garden for Princeton

One volunter project that has taken a leap forward during the pandemic is the Botanical Garden next to the parking lot for Herrontown Woods. Families seeking safe diversions and learning opportunities are discovering the garden and the deep woods beyond, which together serve as an introduction to Princeton's flora.

Now in its third year, the garden's collection of more than 100 native species continues to gain in signage and diversity. 

Whimsical, rock-lined trails and craftings of wood delight the kids while the parents check out what's in bloom. 

Visitors can work at the names--"Joe Pye Weed", "Ironweed", "mountain mint"--or just check out the colors and the many pollinators that the wildflowers now sustain.

The botanical garden is in turn sustained by volunteers who come Sundays 10-12, and Wednesdays as well from 4-6. Social distancing is maintained, while families can work closely together. All victories in gardening are provisional, but we're having surprising success weeding out the invasive plants that would have surely taken over if not for human intervention. Though many people equate nature with trees, this storm-damaged clearing allows sunlight to reach the ground, where the many native flowers, grasses, and shrubs that need direct sunlight now have a place to thrive.

The garden site's history is also an important part of its habitat. Snags and fallen trees provide habitat for insects and birds. Small tree trunks provide the makings of a tripod that holds a mobile made of the craggy roots exposed when a tree falls.

Next to one of the snags, a Princeton University professor recently mounted a sensor designed to measure rain and sense whether plants around it are healthy.  The sensor is part of a class experiment, producing data that will automatically be posted online. 

Several families of volunteers collaborated to make a little frog pond. They dug and dug until a small plastic tub would fit in the ground, then lined the area with flat stones and moss, adding a small solar powered fountain that spurts water when the sun reaches the panel. Local frogs have given the pondlet their seal of approval,

as did some kids who were passing by.

Even the root balls of fallen trees, jutting up from the ground, have become backdrops--one for a lovely meditation garden, and this one--a mother/daughter project displaying native plants and bones found in the woods. 

A contribution of local stones, some Christmas ferns, and moss gathered from a roof gave it a more formal look.

Projects like this help shift the balance at the site from aggressive plants, like Japanese stiltgrass and native blackberry, to plants that "play well with others" even though they can be considered wild. 

Over time we hope to give visitors an experience of the abundance and variety nature is capable of when given the chance.

Regular workdays are on Sunday mornings, 10-12. All are welcome.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Herrontown Woods Gets a Bike Rack, and a Boat

Two fine Princeton institutions have donated interesting objects to Herrontown Woods. Thanks to the Princeton Recreation Department for delivering a bike rack to the Herrontown Woods parking lot. It's always great to see people reaching Herrontown Woods by bike, and now they have a place to put them. There's also a bike rack at Autumn Hill Reservation, Herrontown's companion preserve just up Herrontown Road.

Take a close look at the photo and you'll see a curious object just beyond the bike rack. 

It's a dugout canoe donated by Princeton High School. We'll tell a fuller story in the future, once we get enough people together to drag it up into the botanical garden for display, perhaps next to the yurt. Suffice it to say that some high school freshmen built it as part of their Odyssey project for english class. Once the class project was successfully completed and the english class moved on to other topics, the very heavy boat sat behind the school, reportedly for years. Overcome by inertia, it's real and fictional journeys seemed to be over. 

But FOHW board member Peter Thompson had the idea for another odyssey for the vessel, to Herrontown Woods. The school principal and english teacher got on board, so to speak, the students had long since abandoned their remarkable creation, and so we assembled a hearty crew of Kurt, Andrew and Steve to set sail eastward to Herrontown Woods' botanical garden, where the boat will either grow wildflowers or grow imaginations.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Veblen's Legacy and FOHW's Work Featured in Princeton Magazine

Don Gilpin's article entitled The Extraordinary Legacy of Oswald Veblen, in the summer edition of Princeton Magazine, tells the story of Oswald Veblen in this 140th year since he was born. The article also gives prominent mention of our nonprofit's efforts to restore the gifts the Veblens left to the public: Herrontown Woods and the Veblen House and Cottage. 

Thanks to Princeton Magazine for telling Veblen's story and letting people know about our work! 

More on the article can be found at FOHW's companion website, VeblenHouse.org.


Saturday, July 11, 2020

FOHW Celebrates the Veblens' Birthdays With Jazz and Candlelight

On a lovely summer evening, the Friends of Herrontown Woods celebrated the birthdays of Elizabeth and Oswald Veblen, who donated the nature preserve and their homes more than 60 years ago. Research revealed that their birthdays are two days apart, on the 22nd and 24th of June. For Oswald it was his 140th, his legacy still going strong.

2020 marks our third annual birthday celebration. Normally, we would invite the public to attend, but this year mostly board members came to test the concept of “distanced gathering,” dispersed beneath the tall trees surrounding Veblen House.

Two days before the event, we still lacked tables, until our artist in residence Victorino came to the rescue, carving sturdy and attractive tables out of a fallen red maple in front of the house. Candles and flowers from FOHW vice-president Pallavi's garden added a festive ornament.

The event was the brainchild of board member Inge Regan, an ER doctor who labored long to come up with protocols that would keep everyone socially distanced.

A pandemic causes us to behave more like trees, keeping our distance one from another, though of course couples were still able to cluster.

On the edge of the celebration was the Sustainable Jazz duo, performing its original music for the first time since COVID changed everything. Herrontown friend Perry provided a battery to power Phil Orr's piano, and FOHW president Steve Hiltner explored the enhancing acoustical effects of a reverberant forest on his saxophone and clarinet. Since the Veblen House can't be used yet, they were termed the "Near the house band."

As the evening progressed, candlelight merged with the fireflies to create a magical effect, with the Veblen House playing for now the role of landmark to loosely congregate next to. Happy birthday, and thank you, to Elizabeth and Oswald Veblen!

House Wren Votes Kiosk #1 Bird Habitat

We have a kiosk at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, built by the county many years ago in such a sturdy fashion that it will surely rival the boulders up on the ridge in longevity.

The kiosk was for a long time, like Herrontown Woods, a blank slate, but we have finally populated it with maps and photos and information, and realized some of its possibilities.

No matter how solidly built, the kiosk still has a soft spot for nature, as we discovered not long ago when we stood near the kiosk long enough to notice a house wren's comings and goings. The reason for its visits became clear only when the young chattered loud enough to hear, and a closer look at the rafters revealed

a hole in the hollow metal beam that fit the house wren's needs.

The reason for lingering around the kiosk long enough to notice the nest was the installation of a gutter to direct runoff from the kiosk into a cistern. There have been long dry spells this summer, necessitating bringing gallon jugs of water from home to water new plantings at the botanical garden next to the parking lot. Half the kiosk's small roof is more than enough to fill the cistern during a good rain.

The cistern was donated by board member Peter Thompson. The gutter and a small section of hose needed to repair the cistern were found on the curb, and the wood to elevate the cistern is rot-resistant black locust from a tree that fell in a neighbor's yard. Serendipity serves both people and birds.

Photo below: A scene in the Herrontown Woods botanical garden, with beebalm and wild senna, the "walking tree", and a yurt that some highschool students built earlier this summer.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Celebrating the Giving of Nature and People on the 50th Earthday

From this vernal pool, close by Herrontown Road, arises the stream that flows through Herrontown Woods. It is the cleanest tributary of Harry's Brook, fed by the rainwater of eastern Princeton on its journey to Carnegie Lake. Herrontown Woods is "lucky with the water." Even as we play the role of beasts of burden, hauling stepping stones up to muddy sections of trails deep in the preserve, there's a feeling of wealth as the slopes spawn rivulets that merge and nurture the life all around them.

There is an artistry and generosity too in rocks and wood, each boulder distinctively patterned with moss and lichen, and trees deepening in distinction with age.

There is artistry too in the volunteers who give so freely of their time in this timeless place. So many to thank, from our board members to Kurt who has volunteered from the beginning.

More recently, Victorino has brought his skills and vision to our evolving botanical garden next to the main parking lot. Crafting structures out of wood already onsite, he's constructing a welcoming arch,

and has completed a boardwalk

that kids follow on its whimsically meanderings towards a vernal pool inhabited this time of year by tadpoles.

Andrew has also been applying his artistry, adding trails and crafting borders and benches.

A volunteer who lives nearby, Rachelle, is using a fallen pine tree's massive rootball as a backdrop for a meditation garden.

During recent weekends, volunteers have maintained social distancing while cutting invasive shrubs and pulling the weedy garlic mustard from the grounds of Veblen House. The work feels all the more satisfying in this constrained but more peaceful time.

Herrontown Woods was born, first of the generosity of nature and then of the generosity of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, who brought together and then donated Princeton's and Mercer County's first nature preserve back in 1957, thirteen years before the first Earthday. Those are the wellsprings of generosity that we tap into and add to, feed and are fed by, in a very giving place perched high on the ridge.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Herrontown Woods is Open During the Pandemic (thus far)

Though state and county parks have been closed, Princeton's nature preserves are still open. That includes Herrontown Woods, since its ownership was transferred from Mercer County to Princeton two years ago.

On the web, however, many sites still state that the preserve is owned by the county. Since the "Herrontown Woods Arboretum" location on google maps still shows Mercer County as owner, the preserve was incorrectly marked as closed.

FOHW is working to get the google maps location transferred to Princeton municipality, to avoid any future confusion.

Interestingly, as of this morning, April 9, the "temporarily closed" label has been removed.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers have been continuing to restore some of the muddier trails, adding stepping stones and installing "water bars" to divert runoff away from the trail.

Daffodils on the Veblen House grounds. Some of these daffodils date back to the 1950s, when Elizabeth Veblen and caretaker Max Latterman were caring for the grounds. We've cleared the invasive shrubs and vines so that they are visible again.

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.