Sunday, October 31, 2010

Stony Brook Pedestrian Bridge Dedicated

From earlier in the month:

Auspicious weather accompanied a gathering on October 3rd to dedicate the new pedestrian bridge over the StonyBrook behind Hun School.
Funded mostly through a federal grant, the bridge is a vital link in a circum-Princeton trail originally envisioned by a small group of trail advocates in town, including Helmut Schwab and Ted Thomas, long time trustees with Friends of Princeton Open Space.

The bridge would not have been built if not for the persistence of Helmut Schwab. At the dedication, Helmut gave an account of how the bridge came into being. It was first imagined by local architect Ron Berlin, one of four people who explored the perimeters of town in search of routes for the circum-Princeton trail. Though the township successfully applied for a $500,000 federal grant, the project remained in limbo for many years for lack of a plausible way to make the bridge handicapped accessible--a stipulation of the grant. Helmut was finally able to solve the puzzle, gaining help and cooperation from FOPOS, DR Greenway, the Hun School, Princeton Township, Jazna Polana, and the owner of a key parcel of land that allowed room for the switchback trail needed for handicapped accessibility. In his speech, Helmut urged everyone to make a difference in the small part of the world each of us navigates.

I don't know everyone here, but can tell you that Helmut Schwab is on the left, followed by former township mayor Phyllis Marchand and Bill Rawlyk of D.R.Greenway. Chief township engineer Bob Kiser is in the far back. On the right are members of Bob's engineering staff, Anthony Soriano--writer of the grant application--and Deanna Stockton, who attended to the myriad details of the construction project.
Friends of Princeton Open Space provided a bench to be placed next to the bridge, honoring Helmut's work.

The bridge can be accessed from a small parking lot just down from the Jasna Polana golf course, or from a beautiful trail that follows the Stony Brook down from Greenway Meadows Park.

Leaves and Relativity

Before the leaves leave the trees, a bit of gratitude.

Long Ago

Long ago,
When all was elemental,
God said to the beginnings of life,
“Take water and air,
And make sugar with the sun.
That should be good for a nice long run.”

Without Leaves

Without leaves,
There’d be no us, no we,
No I or me.
There’d be no irony,
No victory, no Theory of Relativity.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Plants of Mt. Tammany

 When I was a kid, I had the good luck to spend some quality time on top of mountains. They all had telescopes on them, which was my dad's work, but I was more drawn to the vistas, the rocks, the smell of dry earth. On one fantastical evening, I walked to the edge of a mountain in Chile to find an infinite expanse of fog stretching out below like a frozen ocean illuminated by moonlight. Yes, mountain tops are a fine place to be.

I've long wanted my kids to know the pleasure of climbing a mountain. What is life after all, but a long and challenging hike towards a view of the infinite? So news of a substantial mountain only an hour and a half away, combined with the promise of fall colors, prompted me to pull my family out of its weekend routine for an autumn jaunt.

Recognizing the plants that make the mountain home adds tremendously to the meaning of a walk up a mountainside.

First plants to catch my eye were the witch hazels, blooming incongruously in late October, their flowers mixing with the yellow of the leaves.

The chestnut oaks, very common in this woodland of thin moutainside soils, are easy to identify just by the bark, which looks like gray blocks stacked one upon another.

The leaf of a chestnut oak is somewhat reminiscent of the chestnut leaf, but broader and with rounded lobes.

As the trail got steeper, I was beginning to wonder how all those very heavy rocks had magically arranged themselves conveniently in stepwise patterns, when we encountered a volunteer crew fixing a section of trail. With techniques harkening back to a pre-machine era, they had strung a heavy cable between trees and were in the process of pulling a substantial rock (left in photo) across the mountain slope and into position on the trail.

A pack animal, too, hinted at an era long past. It's good to see that terriers are assuming the role, now that mules are hard to come by.

The first panorama was downstream along the Delaware River. The rock bluff to the left was covered with columbines, which would be quite a show in the spring.

The summit appeared sooner than expected. Walk down the slope a ways to get a clearer view up and downstream. From here, basking in the sun, we watched a pair of ravens soar and play high over the gorge. Two more joined in, their game seeming to be to see how close they could get to each other without colliding. Vultures, of less mind than ravens, soared peacefully in the distance, showing little interest in games.

Vistas like this are made to be drunk in, to fill the mind with immensity and color until the next chance comes along.

Shifting focus to the close at hand, it was time to see what kinds of plants can eke out a living in this spectacular but thin-soiled setting. There was a hawthorn or two,

winged sumac (note the "wings" along the central leaf axil),

and an alder of some sort, though I'm accustomed to finding alder in a floodplain.

Underfoot was a squiggly grass that's probably poverty oat grass (Danthonia).

The way down on the blue trail starts by going slightly up, along the spine of the mountain. Lichens grow on rocks and tree trunks, making them seem part of a whole. Growing amidst the rocks is a native, fine-leaved evergreen grass that may have been the main constituent of early American lawns.

One of the real delights encountered on the broad mountain top is lowbush blueberry, which turns radiant red in fall.

This open woodland of chestnut oaks with a thick understory of blueberries is reminiscent of savannas that once were common in the east. It's easy to imagine black bears gorging themselves on the berries in August. I've seen similar oak/blueberry pairings in the NJ pinelands under a mix of oak species, and in the piedmont of North Carolina under post oaks. All these locations had in common a very poor soil.

Sometimes the trees imitate the meandering trails.

I was glad to encounter an old and rarely seen friend, the striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum), more shrub than tree, with white and green stripes on its trunk.

Mountain laurel mixes with the blueberries in the understory, and becomes more numerous as the blue trail begins to descend.

Wintergreen, which my daughter said smells like toothpaste, grows under the mountain laurels.

The blue trail merges with the Appalachian Trail at the base of the mountain, where a stream cascades down through a lush valley of Rhododendrons, ferns, native wild hydrangeas and purple-flowering raspberry.

A note about the trails. The trailhead for the "Red Dot" trail is accessed from I-80 as it heads into the Delaware Water Gap. There are two parking lots several hundred feet apart, the second of which has very basic facilities. Most people take the "Red Dot" trail up and down, but the "Blue" trail, which is a bit longer but gentler in slope, is a great way to hike down the mountain. It's easier on the knees, escapes the traffic noise rising from the Gap, and passes through the savanna woodland at the top and a gorgeous valley of waterfalls down near the bottom.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Poetry Trail Dedication

Who knows what you'll find sprouting from a London Plane tree? In an allee of these trees, just up the hill from the soccer fields at Greenway Meadows Park, some 30 poems have sprouted from the ground to draw the attention of passersby.

On October 17, a perfect Indian Summer day greeted attendees at the dedication for the Scott and Hella McVay Poetry Trail.
On hand was no less than Paul Winter, of Paul Winter Consort fame, to frame in melody the ceremony and assorted readings by poets whose works have magically drifted off the pages of books and into the full light of the Princeton landscape. Afterwards, maestro Winter explained to me how music, alternating with poems, allows the audience more time to digest the imagery of the poems, and shift activity from one side of the brain to the other.

The poetry readings and music mixed with the soft breeze and the distant chatter of the soccer games to make a pleasing and memorable impression on all present. The park can be reached by heading out Rosedale Road and turning left into the parking lot just before the Stonybrook bridge.

Washington Road Stream Restoration

Members of the Princeton Environmental Commission (that would be me) and the Planning Commission got a chance to tour the sight of an upcoming stream restoration in the valley between Washington Road and the new Princeton University chemistry building. In the shade of giant blackgums, oaks and beech trees, most of which will be saved, Randy, a specialist in stream restoration at Rutgers, explained the concept and the detail drawings.
The stream, which drains much of the campus, is very "flashy", meaning that the buildings, roads and well-trodden ground shed water quickly in a storm. The resulting powerful surges of runoff have been busy eroding the streambanks near Washington Road. A healthy stream tames and dissipates the power of storm runoff by overflowing its banks and spreading out into the floodplain. But an eroded stream eventually becomes too deep to overflow, meaning that all the runoff goes surging down the stream channel, dissipating its energy by causing even more erosion.
This is an upstream shot of a "headcut", which describes the process by which a stream burdened with unnatural doses of stormwater runoff cuts deeper and deeper into the ground. The headcut is the sudden dropoff--a transition to a new depth that starts at a downstream point and actually migrates up the stream channel until the whole length of the stream has become more deeply incised. As a stream cuts more deeply, it drains the surrounding groundwater, drying out the valley and stressing the plants. This stream is an example of how the town's "hardscape" of buildings and roads has been slowly transforming the local stream corridors.

The goal of the restoration is to prevent headcuts like this, re-establish a natural meander and a floodplain into which the stream can spread out and dissipate the energy from storm surges. Overall, the result should be a stable and naturalistic stream.

Though exotic plants in the stream corridor will be replaced with native species after the streambed is recontoured, there are exotic shrubs and trees on the upland slopes that need to be removed. I'm hoping to work with university staff to organize removal of these, and also rescue native wildflowers like horsebalm (photo) that would otherwise be bulldozed as part of the stream work.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Native Bluestem at the Princeton Battlefield

In an expanse of exotic turf grass at the battlefield, a few clumps of native bluestems pop up between mowings to show what used to be there in centuries past. Little bluestem, big bluestem, broomsedge, Indian grass, purple top and switchgrass are all tallgrass prairie species that can be found growing in Princeton in meadows and along right of ways where annual mowing keeps tree species from moving in.

I periodically contact the battlefield caretakers with the idea of restoring the landscape there to a more historically authentic condition. They have it in their longrange plan. The mowed grass is great for flying kites and throwing frisbees, but there's far more mowed expanse than I've ever seen actually being used.
One section--in the distance in the first photo--is mowed annually, allowing the bluestems and other prairie species to grow to maturity.

Baccharis in Mercer County

 What's that bright, beautiful white bush blooming with the goldenrods, up the road from the Mercer County fire training facility behind Quaker Bridge Mall? Why, it's Baccharis halimifolia, the groundsel tree, up from the coast.

Baccharis is native to the coast, and gloriously beautiful, but when I lived in North Carolina, it had traveled up the highway corridors from its native coastal territory and had started invading the prairie openings of the piedmont in a startlingly aggressive manner.
The same piedmont extends up the coast to Princeton, so I'm a little worried that Baccharis could behave similarly here. But for now, it seems minor compared to relatively new invaders like Callery pear (on the left in this photo).

If you happen to take the train to New York over the next couple weeks, keep an eye out for Baccharis shrubs covered with white flowers, and send me an email if you see any. It would be interesting to know if it's migrating inland along the rail line.

The species name, "halimifolia", could refer to its leaf shape being similar to witch hazel's (genus Hamamelis), but this is speculation. In searching for confirmation, I found a website that describes Baccharis's invasive tendencies in Europe and Australia, as well as southeastern grazing land. The plant is toxic to animals, so its invasion of a pasture or grassland and resulting displacement of other species can render the landscape inedible over time. There are several kinds of insects that feed on it along the Atlantic coast. By migrating to the piedmont, it may have escaped the insects that normally would keep its numbers in ecological balance.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Squirrel Art

The squirrels ate all our tomatoes this summer. And I mean all. After the first couple weeks of bearing, we didn't get a one. Maybe the drought made the tomatoes seem more appealing.

Now the neighborhood squirrels have decided they can do a better job of carving a pumpkin than the humans, who of course no longer have time to carve pumpkins anyway. This looks to me like the face of a very scary rabbit.

The Flora and Tiny Fauna of Camp Sacajawea

When I was a kid, my family would drive to northern Wisconsin to help set up and take down the tents and pier at a girl scout camp. Last month, I went along with my daughter's troop to one of New Jersey's versions, down in the pinelands.

What I found, in stark contrast to the Princeton area, was a nearly all-native forest, with fields of highbush and lowbush blueberries beneath an open canopy of oaks and other hardwoods.

Mountain laurels that had the benefit of sunlight from an opening in the canopy were loaded with spent flowers, suggesting quite a show earlier in the year.
 The resident ranger was glad to know about a native chestnut tree I found there. On the left are new stems sprouting from the roots after an older stem, right, was killed by the blight. Since the blight, introduced accidentally to America around 1900, kills only the above ground portion of the tree, new shoots keep emerging, to grow until the blight again sets in.
 One reason the canopy was open enough to support a healthy understory was the attrition of some of the oaks. Though the numerous white oaks were not affected, quite a few red oaks and black oaks were succumbing. Here, the base of one of the dead trees is ringed by the fruiting bodies of a fungus, which may have contributed to the tree's decline, or merely moved in when the tree was already weakened by some other factor.
A look up into the canopy of the dying trees revealed many swollen branches. Some internet research suggests the trees were succumbing to a severe infestation of gouty oak gall, perpetrated by a tiny, non-stinging wasp. The adult wasp lays eggs in new stems in the spring. Chemicals emitted by the wasps fool with the tree's growth chemistry, causing the twigs to swell into convenient houses for the wasp larvae to live in and feed on. This one we decided looked like a snowman, or an ant.
Speaking of ants, the kids and parents were very surprised to learn that there was a thriving ant lion community beneath their feet. The ant lions are little insects that make small cone-shaped craters in the sandy soil along the edges of roads and paths. When an ant accidentally stumbles into one of the craters, it slides down to the bottom, where it is grabbed by the mandibles of an ant lion hiding in the sandy wall.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

YouTube Video About Friends of Princeton Open Space!

Today, PrincetonNatureNotes goes multi-media, with its first video. Back in June, students taking a class on sustainability and the media came to Mountain Lakes to interview me about my work there, and to shoot some footage of the landscape and wildlife. The result was a five minute video about the value of open space, posted on their website and on YouTube.

The summer course is run by the Student Environmental Communications Network (SECN), in the Princeton University Office of Sustainability. More student videos can be found on the SECN website. Thanks to the students and teacher David Benin for all their informative portraits of sustainability in the community.