Friday, May 19, 2023

A Mothers' Day at Herrontown Woods

Mothers' Day, on May 14, coincided with our regular Sunday workday at Herrontown Woods. It was a day of beauty and serendipity as we mixed weeding with socializing with families out for a walk in the gorgeous weather.

This boy found a 4 leaf clover in the field next to Veblen House. Some people just have the knack. And while I chatted with his parents, he found lots of cool rocks, too. His parents told me he was already up for two hour long nature walks at the age of two. Looks like we have a budding naturalist here.
New volunteer, Kalyan, who has been helping pull up garlic mustard across the stream from the Barden, came across a box turtle in the area where we've been subduing a giant clone of wisteria.

Hard to capture in a photo, but it was a pleasure to gaze across this newly created vista: a valley coated with skunk cabbage and ferns, now relieved of privet and other invasive shrubs by volunteer Bill Jemas and other members of our Invasive Species of the Month Club, led by FOHW board member Inge Regan.

There were flowers large and small. The fragrant snowbell (Styrax obassia) 
was in full bloom behind the Veblen House. 
A tulip tree flower on the ground caused us to look up at all the others blooming high up.
Tiny blue flowers near the ground are called blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhinchium), 
though their flat stems show they are really related to irises, not grass.

The pagoda dogwoods we planted in the Barden are now big enough to bloom.
One of the pleasant tasks for the day was digging up volunteer native plants that have sprouted in the paths of the Barden. We can clear the paths while gaining a new plant to put elsewhere. Environmentalists love win-wins.

Still working on the installation of this little pond, but it's already attracting frogs. A vernal pool naturally formed by a fallen tree nearby was full of tadpoles and salamander larvae.
A new feature in the Barden, and also next to the Veblen Cottage, are arrow trees that tell of significant places associated with the Veblens' lives and legacy. 

So much to enjoy and be grateful for on a Mothers' Day in May.

Monday, May 1, 2023

A Misty, Moisty Morning at Herrontown Woods

It can be a delight to visit the Herrrontown Woods after a heavy rain. This past weekend, we had several heavy rains, with pauses inbetween that were ideal for seeing the preserve when it is rich with water. 

May Day, and the azaleas are blooming once again in the Barden. Though common in the past,  no native azaleas would bloom now in Herrontown Woods if not for human intervention to rescue them from deer and heavy shade.

I found a soaked frog puppet lying on the trail, and gave it a good perch to dry out upon.
Ostrich ferns from Rachelle's garden contrast with the fallen tree behind.
Rachelle and Andrew created this Zen Garden, with a small pond that swells in the rain. Rivulets flow through the Barden from higher up in the preserve, pausing on their journey here and there before feeding the natural vernal pools down the hill. The water that periodically flows through the Barden could be a nuisance, washing woodchips off of pathways, but we find ways to direct its flow, to play with it, so that it feeds and beautifies the landscape.
Victorino's bridge, hewn from fallen trees, leads towards the red trail. 
Blackhaw Viburnums are common in the woodlands around the Barden, blooming with the flowering dogwoods and, it can be dreamed, a growing abundance of native azaleas. 
The one cluster of trillium--the only trilliums I've seen growing in Princeton--has bloomed again this year, up on the Veblen House grounds.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Girl Scout Troop 71837 Points the Way at Herrontown Woods

Girl Scout Troop 71837 has returned this spring to Herrontown Woods to build on their good works two years back

This time, the project was to design and paint arrows that will point towards significant places in the history and legacy of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen--the couple who donated Herrontown Woods for public use 66 years ago. 

The colorful arrows will be attached to a tall pole. Points of interest are Veblen House, Veblen Cottage, the Barden, the Institute for Advanced Study (where Oswald was a founder and first faculty member), Old Fine Hall (now called Jones Hall, which Oswald designed), Iowa (where Oswald grew up), Valdres in Norway (where Oswald's ancestors came from), England (where Elizabeth came from), and Einstein's house (from whence Einstein would travel to visit Herrontown Woods). 

The signs were made using a special kind of pen writing on a special kind of paint. We generate lots of fun ideas at Herrontown Woods. Thanks to the scouts and their leaders, Danielle Rollmann and Heather Harnley, for making these signs a reality. 

Postscript: One of the girl scouts' projects two years ago--birdhouses--got cleaned a few weeks ago and are ready for another season.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Boy Scout Troop 43 Helps Out at Herrontown Woods

Thanks to Leone Robbins and his fellow members of Scout Troop 43 for joining us at our weekly workday at Herrontown Woods this past Sunday. 
They along with some family members helped with a number of tasks that we had long wanted to get done. They raised our boardwalk higher so that turtles and other wildlife will be able to pass underneath, 
and cleared a better spot for our picnic table. That's our caretaker Andrew doing some followup.
For the morning's final finale, they carried a very long and heavy pallet from the boardwalk area
over to where it can serve as the base for a new gathering spot at the lower end of the Barden. 

Days later, it occurred to me that Scout Troop 43 sounded familiar. Sure enough, the troop had been active twenty years ago at Autumn Hill Reservation, which FOHW also takes care of. 

Birdwalks and May's Cafe Draw a Crowd

Thanks goes to many people for our birdwalk and May's Cafe event at Herrontown Woods on Feb. 19, which drew about 70 people in all. To Fairfax Hutter and MaryJoan Gaynor for helping lead the birdwalks; to the Princeton Public Library for helping to promote this event, 

and to Nicole Bergman and Joanna Poniz for organizing and hosting February's May's Cafe the same morning. 
These muffins were a highlight, and the 45 participants for the three walks were happy to discover the cafe still open and offering warm drinks and baked goods when they emerged from the woods.

The event was timed to coincide with the Great Backyard Birdcount. Fairfax documented what birds her and MaryJoan's groups saw. The "bird of the day" was a hermit thrush "with solid brown upper parts, rusty tail, and spotted breast observed hover gleaning berries in vines above stream edge of utility ROW."

Many of us lingered long in the Barden afterwards, enjoying the day and the company. 

Friday, February 17, 2023

FOHW Receives Land Ethics Award for Best Community Effort

The Friends of Herrontown Woods is proud and honored to receive a 2023 Land Ethics Award from Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve. Our Botanical Art Garden--Barden for short--received their award for Best Community Effort. At Bowman's Hill's annual Land Ethics Symposium, Santino Lauricella read at length from our application about how the Barden evolved to become a gathering place for native plants, art, whimsy, and people of all ages. Next to the main parking lot off of Snowden Lane, the Barden's paths are lined with 150 species of native plants, many of them labeled.

Santino particularly liked the last paragraph of our application:
The Barden was not planned, but instead evolved through a dialogue between people and the land. As thickets of invasives were cleared, the topography and fallen trees suggested where the next pathway might go. Each new volunteer brings ideas and passion to influence the mix. We try to adopt theater’s “Yes, and” approach that promotes positive interactions and allows ideas to grow. “Building community through stewardship” is the group’s informal motto. A garden is viewed not so much as something installed but as a relationship formed. For someone who loves nature and people of all ages, the Barden can feel like a paradise, where we can combine physical work with intellect, as the Veblens did, and collaborate with nature-- the most generous and creative force of all.

I found Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve to be inspirational when I first moved to Princeton back in 2003. In reading the history of Bowman's Hill on their excellent website, it occurred to me that the Veblens' land acquisitions in the 1930s and '40s--both at Herrontown Woods and through the IAS for what later became the Institute Woods--could conceivably have been inspired in part by Bowman's Hill as well. The Veblens bought the cottage property in 1936, two years after Bowman's Hill was formed.

The award announcement can be found on the Bowman's Hill website at the bottom of this webpage.

Observing the Heavens at Herrontown Woods

This story contains elements of community, serendipity, astronomy, and history, and gives a sense of how we get things to happen at Herrontown Woods. For more than a year, a friend and Herrontown Woods volunteer, Jim Manganero, had been telling me about a telescope he was given by a friend. Jim is a retired engineer and was a close friend of John Nash, the great mathematician, and John's wife Alicia. Jim has come to some of our volunteer days at Herrontown Woods, and one particularly memorable day he showed me how to wield a hedge trimmer against the formidable invasive multiflora rose, whose thorns make it otherwise perilous to approach and subdue. 

Jim would remind me periodically about his telescope, and each time we agreed it would be great to figure out how to work it and to invite people to look through it some night at the preserve. But not being particularly adept with technology, I wouldn't follow up--this despite my being the son of a distinguished astronomer, W. Albert Hiltner, and having spent considerable time around observatories as a kid.

Then one day this winter, two women were walking past Veblen House and we got to talking. Somehow astronomy came up, and one of the women, Gitanjali Bakshi, said she knows an astrophysicist at Princeton University who loves the outdoors and community involvement, and might well help us with the telescope. 

His name is Gaspar Bakos, and when I sent him an email, he happened to be down in Chile, on a mountain top, building a special kind of telescope he had designed that will watch the whole night sky, with the aim of detecting anything out of the ordinary. As it happened, he is building his telescope high on a mountain within a few miles of the twin Magellan Telescopes that were my father's last design project. 

Gaspar agreed to meet with us after returning to Princeton, and quickly got the telescope up and running. Jim ordered some additional parts, and we were ready to observe. 

At last, the long awaited night arrived to try out the telescope. Gaspar oriented the telescope using two stars far apart in the sky.  The telescope could then navigate on its own to any star he typed into the remote control. 

The night skies in Princeton, as Gaspar will tell you, are highly polluted with waste light from buildings and streets, robbing us of a good view of the heavens. Nevertheless, we were able to see the Pleiades, and hear Gaspar's fascinating story of how cultures all around the world share the same mythology--which astronomy has helped determine to be the oldest mythology of them all--about Orion and the Seven Sisters. 

Gaspar is an advocate for dark skies, which involves convincing people and communities to minimize the waste light that bleeds upward, washing away what once was a magnificent view of the universe. He describes what we are missing in a wonderful video, entitled The Lost Wonders of the Night Sky

When we finally aimed the telescope at the moon, Gaspar captured the image on a piece of paper held up in front of the eyepiece. Now that we have the telescope functioning, the next step is to organize an evening of observation at Herrontown Woods. That's the goal, but as you can see, the journey is as pleasurable and meaningful as the destination. 

Advocating for Trail Access to Herrontown Woods

Two developments bordering Herrontown Woods were required to build publicly accessible trails to connect to the preserve. One was Stone Hill Church, whose trailhead leads in to our Red Trail from the back of their parking lot. The church has done a great job of maintaining that trailhead, which gets frequent use and proved critical for hauling in the stones and boards necessary to make our Red Trail more walkable during the muddy season. The other is just being installed at Windy Top, the cluster of seven homes built on Snowden Ave across from Smoyer Park. 

The Friends of Herrontown Woods has worked with the Windy Top developer, Liping An, for many years. He allowed us to scavenge hundreds of flat stepping stones to make muddy trails passable, and we convinced him to donate 7.5 acres of woodland behind the development to the town to expand Herrontown Woods. 

Windy Top's public trail into Herrontown Woods was designed to skirt this detention basin at the back of the development.

Recently, I was surprised to find that trees had been planted around the detention basin where the trail had been designed to go. 

I called Cindy Taylor, the town's open space manager, who organized a meeting with Liping and others to figure out what to do. It was agreed that the trees would be moved, and a 4 foot wide bed of woodchips would be applied to make clear how hikers can access Herrontown Woods from the Windy Top cul de sac. 

When installed, this woodchip trail will connect with the purple trail that Kurt Tazelaar built in the 7.5 acre donated woodland. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

To Walk a Duck (repost)

By chance, I happened upon this post from my blog, in which my younger daughter and I took one of our pet ducks for a walk in Herrontown Woods exactly ten years ago, on January 24, 2013. That would prove to be a momentous year, for the Friends of Herrontown Woods would come into being that summer. When ducks are young, they will follow you anywhere, and can walk great distances. This is one of a whole raft of posts I wrote about the ducks we had in our backyard.

January 24, 2013:
Ducks made a surprise entry into our lives this past fall (2012), when our younger daughter began asking to get ducklings. We made what seemed like compelling arguments against. Winters are cold, ducks are messy, and then there's the question of longterm care. To all these concerns she offered answers gleaned from the internet. She broke down our resistance with her persistence, passion, and finally a sophisticated powerpoint presentation that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Youtube's surprisingly rich offering of poultry videos may also have inspired the request to take one of the ducks, which had grown quickly after emerging from the box they arrived in from California, on a nature walk.

This fleet-footed "runner duck" had no problem keeping up with us, and appreciated the occasional puddle we encountered in Herrontown Woods. I didn't even try to teach it the subtleties of winter-time tree identification. It seemed content just to explore on its own.
Happiness is a duck in the lap and a cell phone in the hand.
Despite having scaled the Princeton Ridge and scurried under and over countless fallen trees, the runner duck led the way back past the Veblen farmstead towards our car. Molly, as this runner duck is called, can be described as liking to take long walks in the woods, frolic in the backyard minipond when it's not frozen, and is considering a career in egg laying. Hopefully we didn't violate any leash laws.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Advocating for Safe Bike and Pedestrian Access Up Snowden Lane

The Friends of Herrontown Woods has for many years been advocating for better bicycle and pedestrian access to Herrontown Woods and Smoyer Park. This past week, the last stretch up from town along Snowden Lane got a little safer.

A strip of asphalt was laid down for bikes and pedestrians in front of the Windy Top development at the top of the hill. Though in the original plans finalized years ago, the walkway was only added after the last of seven houses was finally built. 

The portion at the very top of the hill is especially welcomed, since a pedestrian was hit and badly injured there some years back, perhaps due to the limited sight lines at the crest. 

The walkway deadends at either end, however, at the edge of the Windy Top property. Extension to the entrances to Herrontown Woods and Smoyer Park will likely be the town's responsibility. 

And extension of the walkway down to Van Dyke will likely need to wait until the housing development being built on the larger corner property there is completed. 

Even when that happens, there will still be what we call "the gauntlet" that extends from Van Dyke down across the bridge to Overbrook Drive. Building a walkway along that stretch is critical for anyone in the Littlebrook neighborhood wanting to access Smoyer Park and Herrontown Woods in anything other than a car. 

Long ago, Snowden Lane was a charming country road with a little stone-arch bridge over the stream. With all the houses going in, the charm of the narrow road with steep ditches on either side is giving way to a need for safe access to the preserved public recreational lands at the top of the hill.   

One remnant of that distant rural era that we'd like to see preserved and repurposed is the old stone bridge over the stream. FOHW has alerted the town to the existence of the bridge, and is advocating for finding a way to utilize it for bike and pedestrian access up Snowden Lane.