Friday, December 2, 2022

Princeton Council Approves Funding to Remove Asbestos at Veblen House

November 14 was a great day for Veblen House. At the town council meeting that night, council members unanimously approved funding for removal of asbestos in the house. The funding comes from a reserve put in place when Mercer County transferred ownership of Herrontown Woods to Princeton Municipality. 

An article in Town Topics provides more details, and also reports on other ways the town has been assisting the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), including some assistance in removing dangerous trees and treating invasive species. 

FOHW leases the Veblen House and Cottage from the town, and our volunteers also maintain trails on 220 acres of public land in Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation. Though FOHW is primarily responsible for raising funds to repair and repurpose the buildings, we are grateful for the town's key assistance. 

The Return of Portapotty

Much to our individual and collective relief, the portapotty is back. Gray has been replaced by green and brown, and our fear of being liable for a $750 replacement fee has been replaced by a better understanding that mistakes can happen. 

The mystery of the disappearing portapotty, first noticed missing the day before Thanksgiving, continued through the weekend. Were we now living in a world where not even portapotties are safe from theft? 

There had been some detective work. We inspected the spot where it had last been seen. The nearby leaves were undisturbed, suggesting a clean removal. Turned out that the portapotty had not been stolen after all. Rather, one of the company's drivers had mistakenly hauled it away. 

If it had in fact been stolen, we might then have thought twice about getting another one. That in turn would get us thinking more about investing in a composting toilet, which comes up now and then as an alternative. Reportedly, there's one at Rosedale Park. Time for some field research.

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Case of the Disappearing Portapotty

Portapotty 15750, where are you?

Yes, our portapotty at Herrontown Woods has gone missing. Is portapotty theft a thing? Apparently yes, according to United Site Services, from whom we rent. Turns out that, as renters, we may have to bear responsibility for the replacement cost of the humble structure, plus delivery fee for a new one. 

Rumor has it that the half-marathon that's been going on in our part of town also had a portapotty disappear. We strain to understand the logic. Is there a black market in portapotties? Is it really that hard to find relief these days? Did someone fall in love with portapotty #15750 and decide to elope? Without regular servicing, that romance is not going to last.

Hopefully this mystery will be solved soon. The apparent theft has a potential silver lining, however. After meeting with a police officer on-site to file a report, I was about to head home when I saw a hiker emerging from one of the trails. I went over and started a conversation, thinking he might have been there earlier in the week and noticed something. He hadn't, but having first visited the preserve 25 years ago, he gave a testimonial about how neglected the preserve had been before we formed the Friends of Herrontown Woods in 2013. Then he said that he has worked at a number of historic houses, and is currently a docent and researcher at the Frelinghuysen-Morris House in Massachusetts. 

My jaw dropped a bit, because the Whiton-Stuarts--the wealthy family that first owned what we now call Veblen House--lived for some time in Morristown, and had had a parcel of property near the Frelinghuysen Arboretum there. The Veblen House is a prefab that was originally moved by the Whiton-Stuarts to Princeton from Morristown. He also said that the Frelinghuysen family had a Princeton connection. We exchanged contact info, and will talk more. It would be quite the irony if a missing portapotty led me to someone who can help solve the riddle of the Veblen House's origins and why it was moved to Princeton.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Thanksgiving Weekend Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods

Update: A big blob of predicted rain has been sitting atop the planned timeslot for a nature walk this Thanksgiving weekend, finally causing us to delay the walk by a week. It is now planned for Dec. 4, 1-3pm.

A nature walk is planned for this Thanksgiving weekend, on Sunday, Nov. 27, from 1-3pm. If the weather looks iffy, check the events page of the website for an update. 

We'll meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot at 600 Snowden Lane, across Snowden from the Smoyer Park entrance. Sturdy shoes are a good idea. Maps at this link.

The photo is of a pokeweed that came late to the fall color party.

Leaves Take Flight at the OK Leaf Corral

On a spirited Sunday morning with an invigorating chill in the air, volunteers staged a leaf roundup at Veblen House. 

Here's board member Keena, showing proper stance and form as she raked leaves onto a tarp. She's a natural, even though she grew up in the Arizona desert, where there were no leaves to rake.

Joanne didn't have childhood memories of raking leaves either, but warmed to the task as the task warmed her.

Elsewhere on the Veblen House grounds, Scott mowed leaves back into the lawn.

By chance, Richard, a neighbor who is doing a major cleaning out of his house, had just donated some tarps that worked beautifully. We hauled the leaves off to an "OK Leaf Corral," where they will quickly settle and slowly return to the soil. A leaf corral may look limited in how many leaves it can take, but the leaves quickly settle, making room for more just a day or two later. 

Though some may think of it as a task to avoid, raking leaves brings back joyful memories for me. It was a family affair. We'd rake oak leaves into a big pile at the bottom end of the yard, and then I'd run down the hill and leap into the pile. Sometimes we'd make small piles and burn them, turning the leaves into glowing skeletons. The acorns would make a big POP when we tossed them into the flames. Today the smoke is considered pollution, but back then, the scent of burning leaves was part of the romance of the season. 

The leaves we raked this fall at Herrontown Woods were wet, which makes them heavier to carry on the tarps, but helps speed decomposition after they are piled in a leaf corral. Our volunteer workdays are every Sunday, starting around 10:30am. 

Delightful Writeup on Herrontown Woods in the Nassau Weekly

On October 9th, we had a particularly serendipitous Sunday at Herrontown Woods. It was our monthly May's Cafe at the Barden, mixing coffee, baked treats, socializing, and some volunteer work, followed by a nature walk. A new attendee was Juju Lane, a senior at Princeton University and senior editor at the Nassau Weekly.

She talked to many of us, watched as we collected seed from the many kinds of native plants in the Barden, then went along on the walk, taking careful notes. 

Later in the month, she wrote up her experience, capturing the spirit of the Friends of Herrontown Woods in a wonderful piece published in the Nassau Weekly

Here, one of our volunteers, Carolyn, is collecting seed from a rose mallow hibiscus. May's Cafe takes place right in the garden, so in a way we are socializing with the native plants while socializing with people.

Bringing Dead Trees Safely Down

When a tree falls across a trail, we're often able to clear it with our electric chainsaws. But sometimes there's a need for someone with skills well beyond ours.

That's when we give a call to our chainsaw virtuoso and angel in our midst, Victorino. The ash was our most common tree before being killed by the wave of Emerald ash borers that has swept through Princeton in recent years. Though many, deeper in the forest, can be left standing to serve as habitat and carbon sequestration, some closer in need to be cut down before they grow brittle. In a crowded woodland, they need to fall in just the right direction, so as not to catch on, or damage, a neighboring tree.
Victorino came most recently in early October, when there's a lot of color in the woods. A tree that fell on its own some years back was bearing a promising crop of Chicken of the Woods. We weren't sure enough, though, to harvest it.

Another tree trunk seemed to be showing off its brilliant fall color, but in fact was a snag, up which a poison ivy vine had grown and branched out, forming what I call a "poison ivy tree." Birds feast on the berries, but we stayed away from that one.
As he carefully felled one dead ash, then another, a tree would sometimes resist falling. At that point, Victorino would cut wedges out of nearby dead wood,   
and hammer them into the cut to encourage the tree in its falling.
This one fell beautifully along the edge of a trail. Victorino learned his trade in Guatemala, where they would build a house out of the trees growing nearby. Oftentimes, he'll add an artistic touch, like this curved cut to bend with the trail.
After a couple hours of hard work, he takes a moment to rest and reflect. As Tom Lehrer, the mathematician and political satirist would say, "What good are laurels if you can't rest on them?"

It was a great relief to have those trees safely down. Thank you, Victorino!

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Nature Walk Sunday, Oct. 30, at Herrontown Woods

Fall colors beckon at Herrontown Woods. This Sunday, Oct. 30 at 1pm, I will lead a nature walk entitled "The Color-Coded Forest." This is the time of year when trees slip out of their green anonymity and reveal their identity through color and texture. Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot at 600 Snowden Lane, across Snowden from the Smoyer Park entrance. Sturdy shoes are a good idea. Maps at this link.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Hearts 'a Bustin' -- One of Herrontown Woods' Hidden Gems

Some of the magic of Herrontown Woods lies in the many treasures that have long laid hidden there, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. Veblen House was one of these. Off in a corner of the preserve, it was encountered by very few people even before the trails became overgrown. Oswald Veblen's extraordinary legacy was another. Some of the hidden gems were physical: a manmade vernal pool, the cliff, the magnetic quality of some of the boulders. Others were biological gems, in the form of beautiful plant species that had been diminished by browsing deer and deepening shade until they persisted only as little nubbins on the forest floor that even a keen eye might miss. 

One of these biological gems is a native shrub that many people, including some experienced botanists, are witnessing for the first time at Herrontown Woods. It's called Hearts 'a Bustin' or strawberry bush--common names that aptly describe its fruit at different stages. The fruits begin to look like strawberries as they ripen, then burst open in October to expose bright orange seeds. 

Close up, the fruit is reminiscent of a miniature starfish, or a Joker's hat. 
Here's what they look like in the Barden, rising to a height of 8 feet or more.
But up along the ridge in Herrontown Woods, they seldom grow more than a few inches above the leaf litter. Deep shade and the appetites of deer have laid them low. I, too, would have never noticed their existence but for a larger clump encountered ten years ago along the yellow trail. A surrounding tangle of other shrubs had allowed it to elude the deer and grow high enough to bear fruit and be seen.

A few little sprouts from that patch were transplanted to the Barden, where they have received enough sunlight and protection from deer that visitors can now appreciate their mature form. A kind of euonymus (Euonymus americanus), its flowers won't dazzle you.
But wait a few months and those flowers become transformed into exuberant fruits.

Other biological gems that have been laying low in the woods all these years are pinxter azalea, shadbush, low- and high-bush blueberries, persimmons, and hazelnut. Many of these hidden gems are now flourishing in the Botanical Art Garden next to the main parking lot. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

FOHW Hosts Its First Nighttime Concert at Herrontown Woods

History was made at Veblen House on Thursday, September 22, as the Friends of Herrontown Woods hosted our first evening concert. 

String lights were bought, the driveway, front walk, and trails leading to Veblen House were improved, and word was sent to local media as we prepared to host the Chivalrous Crickets, an inventive Celtic-based band with glorious voices and a mix of modern and vintage instruments.

There was considerable suspense as a storm passed through Princeton earlier in the day, early enough as it turned out to make the performance a go. Luminaries were placed along the path up from the overflow parking at the main lot. Our assortment of adopted chairs was dried off, the new lights turned on.

The result was a magical evening for all involved. We learned of the Crickets when two of its band members moved into a house across the street from one of our supporters in Princeton Junction. Encouraged by their new neighbor, Shefali, they visited us at Herrontown Woods and the idea of a performance was hatched. Thanks goes in particular to board member Nicole Bergman, who guided the event to fruition. 

The Chivalrous Crickets are spread across several states, and it just so happens that the one date they were available happened to be when I, as president of FOHW, was out of town. 

While the Crickets were bringing British and American folk music to Herrontown Woods, I was bringing American music to England, touring with a latin/jazz band called the Lunar Octet. The photo is from our performance in Kent.

While traveling in England, where Elizabeth Veblen was born and where the Veblens were married back in 1908, I met with the grandson of Elizabeth's brother Owen, who won the Nobel Prize in physics long ago. The grandson expressed great enthusiasm for our work at Herrontown Woods. This added to the thrill when news came, while driving up to Scarborough to perform in a jazz festival, that the first evening music concert at Veblen House had been a great success.

Thanks to the Chivalrous Crickets, to the FOHW board, and to all who came, for making history and magic next to Veblen House.