Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Winds and Trees in Princeton

Today at noon, the author of "Wind Wizard", a book about how wind navigates the natural and built landscape, will give a talk at the Princeton Public Library. I'm hoping to gain some insight on whether the curved, airfoil shape of Jadwin Gym's roof, combined with the direction and speed of Hurricane Sandy's winds, could have led to the devastation of old but very healthy trees in the hidden valley between the gym and Washington Road.
Specifically, this spot in the roof is directly "upwind" of a long progression of trees that fell.
You can see the root balls and also the big gap in the canopy that wasn't there before.
This tree, with its upended root ball spreading 30 feet across and 15 feet high, appears to have been of the vintage of others with documented ages approaching 200 years. These sorts of linear blowdowns have happened elsewhere without any buildings nearby, but it's interesting to speculate on the impacts downwind if a building shaped like an airplane wing catches hurricane winds just right.

By coincidence, a sustainability display at the university's Frist Center describes the importance of urban microclimates created by buildings, whose impact can be highly localized,
or community-wide. Perhaps there's something to be learned from the valley just a few hundred feet downstream of the display.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Shetland Pony Near Herrontown Woods

Approaching the Veblen House neighborhood on Herrontown Road near Snowden, I saw a man and boy in the distance, walking down the road with what looked like an improbably large dog. As we approached, the dog turned out to be a Shetland pony walking calmly beside the man. (This photo is a public domain domain photo from Wikipedia.)

Always interested in any farmlike activity out that way, I parked and ran back down the road to say hello and find out more. The man said hi and then turned away, less than friendly.

With uncanny timing, a big pickup truck came to a stop in front of us, at the corner of Snowden and Herrontown, and a man got out. I recognized him as Princeton's animal control officer, who had helped me get some raccoons to move out of the Veblen House attic some years back. He asked the man with the pony whether he had a permit. "This is not a horse," replied the man. "I wasn't born yesterday," responded the animal control officer, "That's a horse."

It turned out the man had a permit, and the necessary three acre parcel to keep the pony on.

I had hoped for a more positive, informative encounter with the pony's owner, perhaps a photo-op with the beautiful beast (more attractive in coloration and thick mane than the above stock photo) and a story of how they came to have a pony, and whether they put it to some use. The story on the internet is that Shetlands are very intelligent and as strong as their broad bodies and thick legs suggest. Given their abundant hair and small stature, it's not surprising that they developed on islands off of Scotland, and were used for work, including in the tight quarters of coal mines to pull wagons.

Another miniaturized island creature is the key deer, which still has enough habitat to survive on the Florida Keys. The female grows barely beyond two feet at the shoulders.

As global habitat shrinks, perhaps all creatures should shrink as well, including humans, to fit into tighter and tighter spaces. Farms could be shrunk with dwarf fruit trees, pygmy goats, bantam chickens and Shetland ponies pulling miniature wagons of miniature produce, but humans will have to be content with shrinking their footprints.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Chickens, Fish and Swimming Pools in the Not So Wild West

(First posted at my PrincetonPrimer.org site) 

Abandoned swimming pools, like this one that has stood empty in a Princeton backyard for years, are a sad sight. What to do with them? Surprisingly, these symbols of high-maintenance leisure are at the forefront of a grow-your-own movement out west. The following is a post on islands of sustainability in the super-heated urban world of Arizona. The last few paragraphs describe a clever adaptation of swimming pools.

My nephew in Arizona always has interesting news about homesteading out west. Raised in a house with a wood stove in Vermont, his career took him away from the warm fire and into the frying pan of Phoenix, where he and his wife are raising three kids, along with chickens and rabbits--all on what sounds like a small residential lot. The chickens and rabbits play the role they once played on a farm, offering a way to sustain a family and do right by the planet.

He says he likes to run nutrients through as many steps as possible before they exit his property. For instance, chicken feed and kitchen scraps become chicken manure, which fertilizes the garden, which feeds the rabbits. At each step along the way, some sort of food heads for the kitchen, be it eggs, garden vegetables, or rabbit meat. The ladies, as he calls the hens, provide sufficient eggs for breakfast omelets and a weekly dose of egg salad. A periodic batch of male chickens, raised from chicks, end up in the freezer. The coop can be partitioned into two, to keep the males and hens separate. Otherwise, the nine hens have the whole coop to themselves.

It sounds like a lot of work, adding a layer of animal care and periodic feather plucking sessions on top of all the effort involved in raising three young kids and making a living. But they are essentially applying to everyday living the can-do spirit that in mainstream society only surfaces briefly during crises. People become heroic, community-minded and resourceful in the wake of (un)natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, then quickly return to a status quo in which any mention of sacrifice or inconvenience is dismissed with a groan. Meanwhile, the status quo is brewing ever larger and more frequent disasters in the future. By using our formidable capacity to adapt and prevail only during emergencies, we miss the opportunity to adjust our lifestyles in ways that would steer us clear of a dystopian (new word in my vocabulary) future. One positive thing about sacrifice is that one can get good at it, until it hardly seems sacrificial.

Phoenix, actually, is already living in a super-heated dystopian future. Summer temperatures average 100 degrees. Though temperatures may drop 60 degrees at night in the countryside, city dwellers are denied that relief. Because of the heat-island effect, where asphalt and buildings absorb the day's heat and slowly release it through the night, urban nights can remain in the 90s. Opposite of the north woods, cabin fever strikes towards the end of summer. Only in winter do people venture outside for extended periods. How the chickens can survive the heat is something I'll need to ask next time.

The importance of night-time temperatures will become increasingly noticeable in New Jersey as summer temperatures rise. Attic fans have been one low-energy way to keep a house cool, by blowing the day's accumulation of hot air out of the house and pulling the cool evening air in. As summers get warmer and areas of unshaded pavement expand, the cool evenings and the relief they bring will become increasingly rare. Natural cooling augmented with an attic fan will become less of an option, making people even more dependent on energy-guzzling air conditioners.

In Phoenix, swimming pools are common, while solar panels are rare--the opposite of what you'd expect in a desert. Such is our upside down world, where obvious problems are maintained while obvious solutions are shunned. Part of the reason why solar panels are rare may have to do with Phoenix not being a very comfortable place to live. More transience means less long-term investment in one's home, which means people are reluctant to sign a 20 year lease on solar panels, knowing they'll have to then find a buyer willing to assume the lease.

Some people, feeling a bit guilty about having a swimming pool fed by unsustainable water supplies, have begun converting them into highly productive habitats to grow food. A chicken coop is suspended over the pool. The droppings fall into the half-filled pool, stimulating growth of duckweed, algae and other plants, which in turn are fed on by tilapia. The water, which would otherwise get fouled with excess nutrients, is then pumped through a hydroponic garden where plants extract nutrients. Solar panels power the irrigation system. There's info about these systems on the web, including this post and video, produced with some support from Whole Foods Market.

Closer to home, a similar approach is used by Will Allen and his GrowingPower group in Milwaukee. Will has visited Princeton a couple times to give presentations.

My nephew hasn't converted his swimming pool yet. There's a difference between having a chicken coop in a corner, and converting one's whole backyard into a minifarm. Still, this pushing of the sustainability envelope suggests there's hope for abandoned swimming pools after all.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hedge Notes, and the Incredible Shrinking Shrub

Here's an evergreen hedge that is not an evergreen hedge, but instead is a deciduous hedge with an evergreen vine growing over it.

Hard to say if the owner has noticed or would even care that the green leaves are those of Japanese honeysuckle that has grown up through and overtopped the privet bushes

lined up all neat in a row.

(Somewhere I have a series of photos over several years, tracking the slow collapse of a bush as honeysuckle vine overtopped it and starved it of sunlight. The mass of evergreen vines looked like a healthy shrub, but actually began shrinking as the real shrub's structure rotted away underneath, leaving in the end a blob of vines on the ground.)

Privet minus an overtopping of J. honeysuckle vines looks like this,

with clusters of small blackish blue berries.

Other evergreen vines using deciduous shrubs as a substrate are the exotic autumn clematis,

and climbing euonymus.

The seedpods identify this hedge interloper as Rose of Sharon, related to the native wetland wildflower Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). Though Rose of Sharon sprouts new plants all over a garden, I have not seen it invade nature preserves. It makes a good vertical large shrub for defining edges of properties where there's enough sunlight. This one here is able to bloom a bit, despite being part of a closely cropped hedge.

Boxwood shows up in hedges as well,

here adding a bit of color to a privet hedge.

Hard to think of a more narrow and effective screen than arborvitae which grows very dense with adequate sunlight.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Veblen House Presentation Sunday, Feb. 10

The 2013 Princeton Environmental Film Festival ends this weekend.

As part of tomorrow's programming, at 11am Sunday, Feb. 10 at the Princeton Public Library, I'll give my presentation on the legacy of Princeton visionary Oswald Veblen and the 1920 prefab house, 1870 farm cottage, and 95 acres of Herrontown Woods nature preserve he and his wife, Elizabeth, left to Mercer County. More info at VeblenHouse.org.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Symphony of Soil - Film Preview

Symphony of Soil, is a documentary showing this Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7pm as part of the library's Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Here's a review I wrote after previewing the film a few months ago:

Great film. Long but well worth it. Maybe could be tied to a discussion of how homeowners can better handle their kitchen scraps and so-called yardwaste. (Judith Robinson will lead a panel of soil experts afterwards.)

At first, this film seems like mostly scenery and symphony, but soon begins digging deeper and deeper, so to speak, until it really gets down to the nitty gritty of what's going on with soils around the world, and how to shift the trajectory from degradation to regeneration. Somehow, it covers a huge amount of ground (these are not intentional puns) without seeming to jump around, dropping in on farms all over the world, with common refrains of a generation of farmers turning away from the dependence on chemicals and plow, and all the ways they are restoring the health and balance of the soil. Lots about nitrogen, soil bacteria/plant interactions--a highly digestible combination of science, experience, passion and beauty. 

The researchers at Rodale in Pennsylvania provide a beautiful demonstration of how soil health and mulch affect the quantity and quality of runoff, and how much water percolates down to recharge the aquifers--all very relevant to Princeton homeowners who tend to dump their yards' organic matter out on the asphalt for the town to haul away.

The chemical industry is not allowed to speak in its defense, but the depiction of pesticides' and chemical fertilizer's downside is not an angry vilification but more an explanation of why there's a better way. It's also refreshing to have nearly all of the many talking heads outdoors getting dirty, rather than sitting in their offices.

The camera work is excellent, and the editor included a couple spontaneous moments: one in which a shaggy dog lies down on the potato plant being discussed, and another with a child that made for an ending that goes straight to the heart. Actually, the ending is reminiscent of Truffaut's 400 Blows. I was taken back to books by Louis Bromfield (about restoring a farm in Ohio) and Ruth Stout (a pioneer in the use of mulch), written in the 40s but that became popular again in the 70s, questioning conventional wisdom and showing a better way.
As an aside, it's interesting to note, as one who has worked at restoring native plant communities, that some of the "good guys" on the farm, e.g. earthworms and high fertility, can actually work against biodiversity in the wild. Many species of earthworms are exotic and tend to eat through the organic matter in a forest too rapidly, depriving the forest soil of a protective litter layer over the soil and increasing the leaching of nutrients. Too much nitrogen, which reaches wild areas via air pollution, can shift the balance of species. Some of the most biodiverse habitats have very poor soil. There are some cases of serendipity where biodiverse habitats associated with poor soil types were inadvertently spared the plow, since farmers sought out richer soils elsewhere.

Wild Turkey in Potts Park

A few Princetonians know about the little pocket park just off busy Harrison Street, at the corner of Tee-Ar Place and Erdman Ave. Though not much more than an acre in size, and with little beyond turf and spruce trees for habitat, this morning at 7:15 it attracted a distinguished visitor. My daughters saw it first from the second story window, its dark brown body contrasting with the light dusting of snow. They were impressed by the wild turkey's size, but apparently it was not very impressed with the park's offerings. Having caught a glimpse of it, I ran to get a camera, then returned to find it already gone.

Evidence that it wasn't a phantom remained in the fresh untrodden snow. It entered the park through the main gate like the rest of us.

Here's a better sense of its footprint's (considerable) size.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Poultry Policy in Princeton

Start asking around if chickens are allowed in Princeton, and you're likely to get a different answer each time. I worked my way from friends to township and borough zoning officers, and finally to Princeton's animal control officer, who seemed to have the most definitive answer.

The quick answer is that they are allowed, but for anyone considering having them, it's worth knowing some of the background.

What little is written in the ordinances is not very encouraging. Even though the borough and township have consolidated into one Princeton, their respective ordinances still apply until a unified ordinance is worked out.

For those living in what was the borough, the most relevant ordinance reads: "Keeping domestic animals as pets; provided, that not more than five animals over six months old shall be kept on any lot, and that no animals except dogs or cats shall be housed or penned within fifty feet of any street line or lot line, except within the principal building." (Boro Code: Land Use, XI:Zoning, 17A--228 Uses permitted as of right, C--accessory uses, 3)

Staff I spoke to do not think of chickens as "domestic animals", and interpret the ordinance as not permitting, or at least not relevant to, chickens.

I'm told that the township ordinance says that chickens can only be kept on lots of three or more acres. An internet search led to this item in the township ordinance: Sec. 10B-276 states: "Farm buildings such as chicken houses and stables and barns, and educational buildings such as classrooms and laboratories which are difficult to convert to dwellings may be so placed without zoning lots." (I think this means that you don't have to subdivide your lot to have a coop, which makes sense.) There may be some regulations about the type of coop one constructs. A structure that is affixed to the ground may come under some restrictions, whereas a mobile coop (coops with wheels, like a big wheelbarrow) does not.

Even though the ordinances appear to discourage having chickens, the informal, unified policy according to the animal control officer allows them. The informal policy, which I was told is okay to post, is this: Anyone can have chickens, in township or borough, without having to register, but if neighbors complain then some sort of action has to be taken, either to correct the problem or to remove the chickens. There is no particular number restriction. There was no mention of how close the coop could be to the property line.

For example, someone on Linden Lane, who has since left town, had chickens, but a rat problem developed. The animal control officer advised the owner on how to clean things up, and she was then able to continue to have chickens. Someone else had ducks, which the officer says are messy birds. They were making too much noise and were frequently flying over the fence into the neighbors' yards. The ducks had to be removed.

Everyone I spoke to in town government was fine with the public schools having chicken coops, as long as the relevant principals and the superintendent buy in to the idea and consistent care can be worked out. Princeton Day School has had chickens housed next to its expansive garden, and has found them to be a wonderful education tool. The kids love them, but only some high schoolers who have been trained are allowed to touch or care for them.

Though I had thought of lobbying for an ordinance that would make more official the policy on chickens, the experience of Hopewell Township gives pause. They anguished for three years to develop a chicken ordinance, suffering worldwide ridicule over the rule about visitations by roosters (roosters are not needed for egg production), and then only had two applications in the years since the ordinance has been in place. The Hopewell staff person I spoke to suggested that a better route is to go with a variance--people wanting to have chickens get the support of neighbors and then request a variance.

But what Princeton apparently has is even more flexible. My understanding is that there is no permit required. To avoid the trauma of losing the chickens, one checks with one's neighbors, maybe even gets support in writing, and then proceeds with a modest number of chickens, knowing that the town could make one give them up if they become a nuisance.

My experience is that chickens make wonderful, quiet "pets with benefits" with care requirements somewhere between a cat and a dog. So, if you're considering it, study up, consult with neighbors (bribery with eggs can help), and my sense is that if you run into any problems the animal control officer's first response will be to help try to work things out.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

My Life as a Turkey

I neglected to post about the wonderful movie showing today at 1pm at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, entitled My Life as a Turkey. I had not wanted to mention this endearing depiction of wild turkey life during the holiday season, lest it complicate enjoyment of festive dinners, after which the post became deeply buried in the "Draft" folder. If you miss today's viewing, it can be watched online here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/full-episode/7378/.

The film traces Joe Hutto’s remarkable experiences during the year he raised wild turkey hatchlings to adulthood.

Here are some thoughts on the movie:

As in films shown last year at the film festival--The Whale, Dolphin Boy and Buck--the recurrent theme in this movie is qualities the turkeys have that point to gaps in our own awareness and feelings. We learn not only about the animals but something new about ourselves as well. What Joe discovers, as he raises the birds and takes them on walks to forage in the oak savannas of Florida, is that they are born with a complete knowledge of the forest--what to eat, which snakes to avoid and which will do no harm. The birds help him to see the forest differently. Suddenly, whether because the birds are more perceptive or because wildlife views Joe as less of a threat when he is with a flock of turkeys, he starts noticing many snakes in a woods where he had thought they were rare. (There is no negative connotation given to snakes in the movie. In fact, the birds tend to play games with them, staying just beyond their reach.) The turkeys find each change in the woods to be a matter for serious discussion, whether it be a newly fallen branch or a cut stump with its unnaturally flat top.

Joe realizes after many months with the turkeys that they live every day fully, unlike people, who can have a tendency to dwell in the past or invest in what might be in the future, and thus miss the present. The faith a turkey must have, that the world it inhabits will dependably provide for all of its needs, is one of its necessary limitations, but also a source of joy that for people is much more difficult to experience. The movie explores the boundaries of wildness and tameness, the depths to which people can connect with another species but also the barriers. Joe essentially learns to "talk turkey", which turns out to be a very complex language with many subtle inflections that carry distinct meanings.

I've heard that Hutto's book is even better than the film. From an online interview, here's part of his answer to a question about turkey intelligence:

What are the top 3 surprises in your studies?

Top three surprises? Getting the eggs of course was the biggest surprise but at the top of the list would be the overwhelming complexity of these creatures that I encountered. I was already somewhat of a casual authority on these birds– but I found so many interesting surprises. In particular, an extraordinary intelligence characterized by true problem solving reason, and a consciousness that was undeniable, at all times conspicuous, and for me, humbling.