Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lake Carnegie Ice

It looks like open water, but really it's a big puddle on top of the ice that formed on Carnegie Lake during a rare week of freezing weather.

There was enough ice accumulated to resist breaking with a stick, but not enough to skate on.

Once the ice is gone, we'll again be able to walk across the lake, on the backs of geese.

Here are links to some of Lake Carnegie's more inspired craftings of ice from previous years, in 2007, 2009, and 2010.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Harvesting Ice at Howell History Farm

Let's say its 1900, and refrigerators haven't been invented yet. How do you keep the ice box cold year-round? This past Saturday, the answer could be found, and participated in, about a half hour west of Princeton at Mercer County's Howell Living History Farm. I took the back roads, as zigzaggy as this post, out to witness the occasion with my daughter.

 A perfectly timed week of cold weather had frozen the small pond 4 inches deep, enough for the staff to venture out on the ice with a saw, but not the visitors.

Blocks of ice were cut, then slid over to the ramp,

where another staff member, with help from visitors, pulled them up the first ramp with a special hooked tool. The farm director, Pete Watson, explained that the antique tools had, by subtleties in their design and feel, taught the staff about how to use them, in ways that reproductions could not.

Another volunteer helped push the blocks along.

For the fourth and final leg of the journey, a hook and pulley system is used for the long trip up to the barn.

Some sawdust in the bucket is thrown on the blocks as they are placed in the deep pit of the barn, to keep each block loose and ready to be retrieved in the middle of summer.

Here's the pulling crew.

A pair of beautiful Belgian draft horses provided sleigh rides on the frozen ground. Pete told me there's a long process of selection required to find two horses with the right personalities and ability to work together as a team.

Since all the jobs appeared to be covered, we hung out next to the fire talking to Pete. Like so many who spend their lives changing the world for the better, he started out in the Peace Corps, living in a community without electricity in Africa for four years. Later, he trained new Peace Corps volunteers, in workshops based at various national parks, where old timers would give him tips on how things were done before we began our star-crossed romance with fossil fuel energy. He then got a chance to apply all this knowledge at the Howell farm, which seeks to replicate farming practices common between 1890 and 1910.

With light angling low, giving the quiet valley a golden tinge, we headed back to the visitors' center to drink hot chocolate and watch a short film of a local ice harvest in 1919. The efficient and clever approaches to getting work done without the use of gas-powered machines or electricity is inspiring for anyone troubled by our current energy dependencies.

For various posts on the Mountain Lakes dams that once were used for harvesting ice in Princeton, you can type a word such as "dam" into the search box at the top of this page. Also, Kurt Tazelaar recently posted videos of Clifford Zink's very informative presentation at the Princeton Public Library on ice harvesting at Mountain Lakes (Part 1, Part 2).

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fairy Rings and "Detropia"

Back in the 1990s, when I was living in Ann Arbor, MI, I would occasionally go to Detroit to play a gig or hear some of the great jazz musicians who live there. On one such occasion, in which Dizzy Gillespie was performing with local musicians in a benefit for Orchestra Hall, I found myself driving down bold, broad Woodward Avenue through what once was a thriving district of Detroit. How strange to see the beautiful Orchestra Hall standing nearly alone in a post-apocalyptic landscape of vacant lots dotted with empty hulks of abandoned brick mansions.

Detroit had been hollowed out as white flight sent those who could afford to out to the suburbs, which in turn sprouted their own suburbs even further out. The steady movement of prosperity outward mimicked the growth of fairy ring mushrooms, which fruit in an ever expanding ring, often leaving dead grass in their wake. (photo from Wikipedia) I imagined those empty lots in inner city Detroit being cleaned up and planted with corn, spurring an agricultural economy that would expand outward as the older suburbs too collapsed in the ever outward push of development into rural areas.

As it turns out, there is a movement of sorts to make this happen. Here's one article, found by searching the internet for "detroit agriculture". Tonight at 7pm, the Princeton Environmental Film Festival will feature the film Detropia, which tells the story of Detroit's past glories and possible future.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

To Walk a Duck

On January 25, the Princeton Public Library's Environmental Film Festival featured a DUCKumentary with spectacular footage of duck behavior, including a family of wood ducks as they travel through the seasons. 

Related to the above, ducks made a surprise entry into our lives this past fall, 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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Buildings, Trail Trees and a Sense of Place

Sense of place is the theme for this year's Princeton Environmental Film Festival, which begins its three weekend stand at the public library this Thursday. In adapting that theme to my presentation about the mathematician/visionary/outdoorsman Oswald Veblen, on the last day of the festival, I followed a trail of thoughts that led surprisingly to my birthplace near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The thoughts took this cross-country route:

Walking the boulder-strewn slopes of Herrontown Woods in northeastern Princeton, it's easy for those who haven't learned the trails well to get lost. Detours around the many storm-blown trees make it even harder to keep one's bearings. Several of the trails, though, converge on a 19th century farmstead where Veblen had his study. Out with my family recently, not completely sure of where we were in the preserve, I was relieved to finally catch sight of the red barn in the distance.

Across town, the house and restored dams at Princeton's Mountain Lakes Preserve serve the same role, as a reference point for walks in the woods.

The houses that often come with preserved land, then, do not necessarily detract from the natural setting but instead provide landmarks--a sense of place, a feeling of departure and return. Historical structures add even more to a natural area, endowing a spot with a story and an added dimension of time.
Sometimes fictional stories have particular power, such as the belief that Veblen's study had actually been lived in by Einstein.

The opposite of this, a spot with no sense of place, no stories to tell, might be a deep, flat woodland without any boulders, streams or other features to distinguish one direction from another.

This led to the memory of so-called trail trees--the trees American Indians would bend over, forcing the saplings to grow sideways and up in a distinctive shape, to mark a little used trail or the direction to a water source. White oaks, which can live for hundreds of years, were commonly put to this purpose.

The tree in the old photo is shown in a wikipedia post describing a series of trail trees that once led north from what is now Illinois up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which happens to be where I grew up.

Another photo on that webpage showed a trail tree in Traverse City, Michigan, close to Camp Innisfree, where I first developed an interest in learning wildflowers. Whether this trail tree still survives, it's still doing its job, helping navigate to places of great meaning in the deep forest of memory.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Year of the Chicken

2012, according to the Chinese zodiac, was the year of the dragon, but by the time the Chinese dragon had traveled all the way to our household in Princeton, NJ, it had lost its teeth, its snarl and habit of breathing fire, and had become a chicken. Or several, to be inexact.

In order to enter our household, said chickens had to pass customs, or at least one custom, of parents saying no repeatedly to a 12 year old's seemingly impractical requests. But pass they did, as very cute chicks, which quickly grew through the summer into beautifully feathered chickens with the promise of eggs to come.

How could we have known, all these years, that the patio's old brick walls and slate-topped counter were really meant to be the roof and front entrance to a chicken coop, fashioned from scavenged wood and extended into palatial homegrown extravagance with scrounged corrugated fiberglass roofing? Finally, a use for all those fine building materials spared from a trip to the landfill.

And how were we to know how gentle and ingratiating chickens would turn out to be? Our yard, which had otherwise gone underutilized and underappreciated, proved to be perfect habitat for these birds.

Through the summer, they showed an endless fascination with the good earth beneath the wildflowers, the tangles of squash vines, and dense shrub borders. Hens all--roosters being too noisy, and unnecessary for the miracle of daily eggs--they chased with passion any stray bug stirred by their rousting about.

Once fall came, and eggs began to appear, colored brown, blue or pink, (the golf balls were placed in the nest to inspire the chickens) what seemed like completion turned out to be prelude to more appeals, for a bird of a different feather, which given the approaching winter seemed all the more impractical, and had to navigate past even more stringent customs officials posing as parents.

But navigate they did, arriving by mail from California in a box: ducklings, uncannily rubber duckie-like but very thirsty. Though only a day or two old, they were improbably ready to waddle behind us for miles if need be, instinctively trusting we'd lead them to water.
The ducklings were soon living outdoors in an insulated "room" of the chicken coop.

Our dog is still appreciated despite the competition, and is finding the backyard considerably more interesting these days, as are we all. If he had been a puppy this year, Leo might have grown up thinking himself a chicken, with his Flying Nun ears, and spent his life wondering why he couldn't lay eggs.

Note: I've researched Princeton policy on having chickens, and will elaborate on this and provide other demystifications in upcoming posts. It's important to have your neighbors on board (eggs can help with this) and, of course, be able to provide consistent care for the birds. Roosters aren't allowed, but aren't necessary for eggs.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Astrov in Uncle Vanya

Up until a few months ago, a photo of the playwright Anton Chekhov would have seemed the last image to include on a blog about nature. But this past fall, after theatrical scenes for a tragicomedy on climate started coming to me, I decided to enroll in an acting course at the adult school in town. Though the experience was completely different from anything I had tried before, the character I was asked to play, Astrov in Chekhov's 1897 play, Uncle Vanya, bore an uncanny resemblance to a modern day environmentalist. He's a doctor who loves forests and struggles to save them from wholesale destruction.

In the quotes below are prescient mention of climate, the beneficial effect of a healthy natural world on people and culture, the satisfactions of restoring woodlands, and the unending conflict between the human power to create and the economic imperative to destroy for short-term gain. As remains common today, Astrov's pronouncements about nature and its value are met with a mix of praise and skepticism by the other characters.

From Scene 1:

SONIA. No, the work is thrilling. Dr. Astrov watches over the old woods and sets out new plantations every year....................He says that forests are the ornaments of the earth, that they teach mankind to understand beauty and attune his mind to lofty sentiments. Forests temper a stern climate, and in countries where the climate is milder, less strength is wasted in the battle with nature, and the people are kind and gentle. The inhabitants of such countries are handsome, tractable, sensitive, graceful in speech and gesture. Their philosophy is joyous, art and science blossom among them, their treatment of women is full of exquisite nobility——

ASTROV: ........I don't object, of course, to cutting wood from necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. ....................Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the game is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day. [To VANYA] I read irony in your eye; you do not take what I am saying seriously, and—and—after all, it may very well be nonsense. But when I pass peasant-forests that I have preserved from the axe, or hear the rustling of the young plantations set out with my own hands, I feel as if I had had some small share in improving the climate, and that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I will have been a little bit responsible for their happiness. When I plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into young green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride .......

From Scene 3: (spoken to his love interest, Yelena, who has her mind on other things)

ASTROV. I have my own desk there in Ivan's room. When I am absolutely too exhausted to go on I drop everything and rush over here to forget myself in this work for an hour or two. Ivan and Miss Sonia sit rattling at their counting-boards, the cricket chirps, and I sit beside them and paint, feeling warm and peaceful. But I don't permit myself this luxury very often, only once a month.

[Pointing to the picture] Look there! That is a map of our country as it was fifty years ago. The green tints, both dark and light, represent forests. Half the map, as you see, is covered with it. Where the green is striped with red the forests were inhabited by elk and wild goats. Here on this lake, lived great flocks of swans and geese and ducks; as the old men say, there was a power of birds of every kind. Now they have vanished like a cloud. Beside the hamlets and villages, you see, I have dotted down here and there the various settlements, farms, hermit's caves, and water-mills. This country carried a great many cattle and horses, as you can see by the quantity of blue paint. For instance, see how thickly it lies in this part; there were great herds of them here, an average of three horses to every house.

[A pause] Now, look lower down. This is the country as it was twenty-five years ago. Only a third of the map is green now with forests. There are no goats left and no elk. The blue paint is lighter, and so on, and so on.

Now we come to the third part; our country as it appears to-day. We still see spots of green, but not much. The elk, the swans, the black-cock have disappeared. It is, on the whole, the picture of a regular and slow decline which it will evidently only take about ten or fifteen more years to complete. You may perhaps object that it is the march of progress, that the old order must give place to the new, and you might be right if roads had been run through these ruined woods, or if factories and schools had taken their place. The people then would have become better educated and healthier and richer, but as it is, we have nothing of the sort. We have the same swamps and mosquitoes; the same disease and want; the typhoid, the diphtheria, the burning villages. We are confronted by the degradation of our country, brought on by the fierce struggle for existence of the human race. It is the consequence of the ignorance and unconsciousness of starving, shivering, sick humanity that, to save its children, instinctively snatches at everything that can warm it and still its hunger. So it destroys everything it can lay its hands on, without a thought for the morrow. And almost everything has gone, and nothing has been created to take its place.

(translation from, photo of Chekhov from Wikipedia)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ivy Claims a Tree

This tree was leaning against a neighbor's fence after Hurricane Sandy, and had to come down. It looks like it was some sort of flourishing evergreen tree, but the tree itself had dropped all its leaves well before the hurricane arrived. What remains green, and what was likely responsible for giving the hurricane winds leverage to push the tree partly over, is english ivy that had found the tree trunk to be a perfect substrate for supporting its vertical aspirations.

You can see that the tree was holding up not only itself, but also a similar weight of vines clinging to its bark. The vine is not a vampire. It doesn't feed on the tree's sap. But its roots compete with the tree's for water and nutrients, and its leaves eventually extend up and out to where they begin competing with the tree's leaves for light. The tree becomes weakened even as its burden of vines increases.

Meanwhile, the vine was happily producing tens of thousands of berries along the full length of the tree.

The tree company gave me the firewood--black locust burns very hot and clean after being cured for a year. Nice to have firewood, but the tree would still be shading the yard if the owner had simply cut the vines off near ground level every couple years. Neglect and deferred maintenance strike again.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Hawk Does Lunch

Yesterday, a red-tailed hawk took a leisurely late lunch, perched on a Kentucky Coffee Tree overlooking North Harrison Street. Just below, cars streamed by on their way to or from the shopping center, oblivious to the lone diner. The winter menu being slim, the hawk had selected the day's special, raw rodent, from a neighbor's self-serve, backyard buffet. Hawks, it seems, don't make lunch dates but prefer instead to dine alone.

I like to think that the unlimited choice of perches, each with a commanding view, make up for any monotony in the diet. If people had the keen eyesight and dull tastebuds of a hawk, our restaurants might dispense with chefs and invest instead in vistas. Towns would inventory and protect their viewscapes to insure that all could feast their eyes to their souls' content.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Radical Change Comes To Hidden Valley

There's a small valley in the middle of Princeton, unseen though thousands pass close by every day. The  stream, its channel badly eroded over time by stormwater from the hardened campus landscape, underwent an elaborate restoration (previous posts here and here),with boulders set in specific configurations to make a series of pools and riffles.

In contrast to most of Princeton's forests, which grew up on agricultural lands abandoned as recently as the 1960s, this valley's beeches, oaks, tupelos and white ash are nearly 200 years old. A few were sacrificed to reconfigure the stream and make room for the big equipment necessary to place the boulders in position, but many remained,

that is, until Hurricane Sandy came along. The nicely crafted stream channel is now clogged with fallen trees. If left uncleared, the trees will divert flow away from the carefully engineered channel.

I counted some twenty mature trees down, reminiscent of Pearl Harbor's battleship row after the Japanese bombing in 1941.

Included in the carnage were some of the giant old trees, their extensive, healthy root systems no match for winds that may well have been 20 mph faster than anything these trees had been exposed to in the past.

One theory I have, which may or may not be valid, is that the winds were not only stronger but also came from a somewhat different angle than our forests have been exposed to before. In this google map photo, the blue meandering line marks the hidden valley (next to Washington Road), and the purple line marks the direction of the hurricane winds, which being from the east had an unhindered path on Carnegie Lake to gain speed before slamming into the valley. It's also possible that the curved roof of Jadwin Gym (the white object above the tip of the purple arrow) served like the airfoil of a plane's wing to increase the wind velocity.

The few gaps in the canopy made by the stream restoration have now expanded, increasing the future exposure for those trees that remain.

Many young trees--this is a beech tree-were planted as part of the restoration. A more mixed-age forest should take shape over time. The trees will be cut away from the channel, and the hidden valley will still have its beautiful aspects. We can still admire the great trees left standing.

But the loss of so many grand, old, and still very healthy trees may be a local example of what is happening worldwide, as the radicalization of weather exposes forests to conditions they have not had time to adapt to. Seldom mentioned in discussions of changing climate is the extraordinary speed with which the human-caused changes are occurring. What might have happened over tens of thousands of years is now coming to pass in a century. In what has been lost here, it's hard not to see a warning. The more we cling to the status quo, the more the world around us will change.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Flocking Birds

Birds seemed scarce during this long spell of cold weather, but three days ago a flock of small birds was doing a bird's version of Spanish tapas on Linden Lane, converging on the top of a hemlock, feasting, conversing, then quickly moving on to another conifer down the road. There was a contagious, buoyant optimism in their treetop society, their jazzlike mixture of individuality and collective coherence.

It was a small flock--maybe 20 or 30 birds in all--but it's refreshing to see any sort of expression of abundance among what were likely native birds. Abundance is more commonly associated with some human-induced imbalance, like the introduced starlings that suppress native bird populations by competing for food and nesting sites. This small congregation on Linden Lane was a bit of good news cast against winter's gray.

I wanted to know what they were, which proved an inconvenient urge. Knowing more, I might have immediately recognized something defining in their call or body language. Knowing little, I was stuck peering up at their dark, backlit silhouettes, detecting what might be some color in their necks. A photo didn't help. That smudge there is the last bird flying away as I finally got a good angle.

Thinking there might be some particular species most likely to be found gathering high in the hemlocks on a winter's day, I emailed local birder Fred Spar for ideas. He offered many: "... leading possibilities are Juncos, House Finches, or White-throated Sparrows. All are pretty common right now and tend to move in flocks. Male House Finches are reddish-purple on head and neck; Juncos are dark on the head and chest, but with a white belly; White-throated Sparrows have, predictably, white throats, but also very distinctive yellow marks from the eye to the base of the bill. All would make some cheeping/chattering sounds as they communicate with each other while feeding. Junco calls tend to be much higher pitched. Goldfinches or Purple Finches (a bit larger and more rosy colored than the House Finches) are also possibilities, but are not as plentiful as the others. Cedar Waxwings have been pretty scarce this winter, but can usually be identified by very high-pitched lisping sounds. They'd probably also be seen higher up in trees with berries. Could be some more exotic finches or sparrows: There have been Red and White-winged Crossbills in NJ this winter. These are small finch-sized birds with a lot of pink coloring. Maybe Redpolls? These are small birds with a distinctive reddish cap. Pine Siskins are a possibility, too, but they've been scarce since Sandy."

Maybe a finch.

The next day, more abundance paid a visit: a flock of what looked to be a hundred or so robins in trees across the street, with a woodpecker or two thrown in.

By the end of the day, though, abundance had reverted to stereotype, with hundreds of starlings descending on the backyard, like flecks of pepper from a shaker, seeming to gorge on phantoms in my desolate backyard.