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.

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.

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 VeblenHouse.org 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.