Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nature Trail: From the All Saints Tract to Herrontown Woods

One of the entryways into the long corridor of preserved land called Princeton Ridge East, including Herrontown Woods, begins on a bikeway that heads up past Princeton Charter School on Bunn Drive. You can enjoy this asphalt bikeway's smoothness, and note that the trees are far enough away that their roots haven't made ridges in the pavement.

For anyone who's curious, a little ways up, across from the water tower, just in from the road, a native chestnut tree is hanging on in deep shade. It was discovered by arborist Bob Wells while he was inventorying Princeton's street trees, and is the only wild native chestnut that we know to exist in town.

Up the hill are the new Copperwood apartments. Though some grand old beech and oak trees were sacrificed to build it, the developer heeded strong resistance from local environmental groups and, rather than spread the allowed units out across the property, he clustered the apartments so that some 20 acres of ridge forest could be preserved.

Look down and to the right from the Copperwood entrance and you'll see a long straight trail extending into the woods. That's the pathway leading through land preserved by the municipality, county and environmental groups, with particularly significant effort put forth by DR Greenway and the Friends of Princeton Open Space.

Just in on the left as you walk down the trail is a large berm that holds back stormwater from Princeton Community Village and Copperwood. There's a slow drama underway on the berm. Woody plants aren't allowed to grow there, so the berm's floristic destiny might be native wildflowers like these late-flowering thoroughworts,

but Chinese bushclover is starting to get a foothold. It was introduced into the U.S. for use in erosion control, and promoted as offering abundant seed for wildlife. But the seeds proved undigestible, and the species has proved extremely invasive, outcompeting native wildflowers and creating inedible monocultures. With a few hours' work, the Chinese bushclover could probably be eliminated from this berm, but management doesn't tend to be proactive, which means the species is likely to increase in number until it's too intimidating to deal with. Where's that Friends of the Berm group when we need them?

Unless you're going to the imagined Friends of the Berm workday to remove Chinese bushclover, continue down the straight and narrow until you encounter one of two trail signs on the left.

These are DR Greenway signs, as part of their followup to preserving the All Saints tract. Down the hill from the preserved property is the All Saints Church itself, which is also home to the Princeton Learning Cooperative, for teens who seek an alternative to a traditional middle or high school education. Our Friends of Herrontown Woods group has partnered with them on nature walks.

Sometimes, it takes a village to maintain even a small sign like this. A resident of Copperwood told our Friends of Herrontown Woods group that he and his wife couldn't find the signs leading to Herrontown Woods. We went looking for the map, found it had disappeared, then told DR Greenway staff, who replaced it. Such is the fabric of connection that keeps Princeton's open space navigable.

Earlier in the fall, I led a walk through the All Saints tract for local digital technology educator John LeMasney and some of his friends. Along with all the beautiful moss-covered boulders of the ridge, we encountered a white oak tree that cleaved but did not break in one of the windstorms of recent years.

Here, Peter Abrams, designer of "B Homes" made of used materials like pallets, and John seek out the right angle for photographing this angled tree.

Where All Saints transitions into Herrontown Woods, we took a look at an umbrella magnolia tree, which may be the only example of this species along the Princeton ridge. The Institute Woods hosts a larger population.

These trails can also be accessed from the Herrontown Woods parking lot, down the street across from the entry to Smoyer Park (where another friend of John's showed off a manual chain saw, which could be useful for invasive shrub removal), and from Journey's End Lane, off of Terhune Road.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A "Wishing (the Earth) Well"

One approach to backyard composting is a modified version of a leaf corral that I've been demonstrating in our front yard on busy Harrison Street. The full meaning of the sign in the photo may be lost to some passersby, who may see only "wishing well" out of the corner of their eye. A leaf corral is a way of wishing the earth well. Add a leaf, and make a wish.

Though it has a well's characteristic shape, it works in the opposite direction. Rather than being an ongoing source of cool fresh water from the giving earth,  the Wishing (the Earth) Well channels nutrients back into the soil from which they came.

This is a dream come true, not only for urban soils and the nearby trees, but also for the homeowner who needs an ongoing place to put leaves and yard clippings, because the leaf corral is a bottomless container. The leaves quickly settle, decompose, and disappear back into the ground, steadily making room for more. Settling makes more room within a week; decomposing happens over the course of one summer. We might even call it "Bottom's Dream", after Nick Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream, because it is a dream that "hath no Bottom".

The first Wishing the Earth Well went next to the sidewalk, because otherwise the only visible leaf management behavior people see in town is the piling of leaves in the street, where they become a nuisance. A friend pointed to all the leaves on the lawn around it, and wasn't very convinced it could hold them all. Good point, so I integrated another corral, 6 feet across rather than 3, into the landscaping elsewhere in the front yard,

and that provided more than enough capacity for all the leaves our two big oaks, elm and silver maple generated this year. Installing it even served as a prompt to finally get some flower bulbs into the ground, which otherwise might have sat on the back porch all winter, unplanted.

With capacity to spare, I ended up adding the leaves that had fallen along the curb. Having a leaf corral as a clear destination for leaves serves as added motivation to clean them up from the yard.

Here you can see how differently the various kinds of leaves behave. The whitish leaves from the silver maple, and an elm leaf in the lower right corner of the photo, begin decomposing before they're even raked up. If those quick-decomposing leaves are put in the street and not picked up for a week or two, they'll start start rotting, releasing nutrients that then get swept down stormdrains in the next rain, polluting waterways. The oak leaves are more resistant to decay, but in a leaf corral even they turn into rich compost in less than a year if they are moist.

I have two designs thus far. One is a regular leaf corral, with a couple stakes and a length of 3 or 4 foot high green fencing wrapped in a circle. The fencing is nearly invisible in the garden, so blends very well.

The other is something of an innovation that serves a dual purpose. To the regular leaf corral is added a central cylinder made of critter-proof hardware cloth. Into the central cylinder go vegetable scraps from the kitchen. Leaves go in the rest of the corral, so the foodscraps are completely hidden by the surrounding leaves.

A friend walking by happened to have a banana peel, and contributed it to the central food scrap column. A hubcap looks unexpectedly classy and sun-disk-like as a lid. A sundial of the right size would make a good lid, too, and speaks to the potential for leaf corrals to become sculptural elements in the urban landscape. The 20 pounds of leaf compost in the flower pot there were harvested from another leaf corral filled in spring and left untended until this fall. No turning necessary.

In Princeton, the widespread use of leaf corrals could have major positive implications for our ability to fund acquisition and maintenance of open space preserves. The town spends an estimated $800,000 each year to pick up loose leaves and brush from the streets. Some of that money may be coming from Princeton's open space funding (more on this later). We need to show that leaves can easily be accommodated in the yard, at no cost to the municipality.

Leaf corrals can be easily hidden in a backyard corner, but if integrated into the front yard landscaping, they show neighbors and the community that leaves should be treated as a gift to our yards, and not something to be hauled away.

Some tips for using the Wishing (the Earth) Well:

  • Leaves decompose best if the leaves are moist. Either load them in while they are wet, or poke holes through the settled leaves with a narrow rod so rainwater can penetrate. 
  • Tree roots will invade from the bottom if the leaf corral is never emptied, which is fine, but if you want to use the compost elsewhere, remove the fencing some day in the fall, rake away the layer of leaves and shovel out the rich inner core of compost created over the summer. Put the fencing back in place and the corral is ready for a new fall harvest of leaves.
  • The outer ring of leaves will keep reducing in size. This is good--it shows that the leaves are decomposing--but it also means the inner column of foodwaste will become exposed if one doesn't keep adding leaves or garden clippings to the outer ring. 
  • Late one summer, a cantaloupe began growing inside the leaf corral from a seed in the food scraps. It developed an edible melon before first frost--a nice bonus.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Tipi Sprouts in Princeton

Where are we? Camping in our tipi under a giant cottonwood next to the Little Bighorn River in Montana?

The tree's big enough to date back to when American Indians still roamed freely across the Great Plains, but it's a tulip poplar--an eastern species--and that skyline behind it is not exactly the Rocky Mountains. We're actually on Princeton University campus during November, which President George H.W. Bush in 1990 proclaimed to be National American Indian Heritage Month, also known as Native American Heritage Month (I notice that the museum in Washington, DC is called the National Museum of the American Indian, so am going with that terminology).

In recognition thereof, according to a facebook page dedicated to the event, two members of the Apsaalooke tribe of Montana raised the tipi earlier in the month, with help from a grounds crew and students. The event included a talk "about the significance of the tipi to the Plains Indian and how it is used in a modern context.", as well as "the Native significance of Prospect House and the University in general." The event was co-sponsored by the Natives at Princeton and the Carl A. Field Center.

A tipi is one of my all-time favorite structures in the world, elegant in look and function, portable but comfortable enough for long stays. I built one once out of three old tents and some young trees stripped of their bark, while working at Camp Innisfree overlooking Lake Michigan in the 1970s. You see those poles that angle up along the outside? Those control the flaps for the hole at the top, where the smoke escapes. The flaps can be adjusted for wind direction, and closed if it starts to rain.

A tipi marries the indoors and the outdoors, a protective enclosure with the romance of a campfire and a view of the stars. Anyone who has sat around a campfire knows that the wind can continuously shift, making the smoke hard to avoid. But there's no wind inside a tipi, so the fire built in the middle of it can be better enjoyed. At night, seen from the outside, a tipi with a fire inside glows like a chinese lantern, casting shadows of the occupants on the walls, like shadow puppets.

The circle of poles rising above a tipi appears allied to the trees nearby, in this case a gingko tree in full autumn color.

I suspect that tipis began as a bunch of poles leaned against a tree, like you see kids make in the woods. Then, with the bison of the great, treeless plains beckoning, someone figured out that the tree wasn't necessary if all the poles are set just right.

There is so much that is fortuitous about a tipi's design. When I lived in one, first in Michigan and then briefly near Black Duck, Minnesota, I would be lying in my sleeping bag, gazing up at this wonderful confluence, and the sky beyond. What better way to represent the closely knit community of tribal living, with each person an individual and yet tightly linked, playing a vital role in something larger than oneself. Take one pole away, and the structure begins to weaken.

The tipi on campus has a basic frame composed of four poles tied firmly together with rope, which I recalled from my 1970s tipi book means it's of Crow origin. The design for my tipi had a three pole frame--a Sioux design. Turns out that "Crow" is an outdated term for Apsáalooke.

So the four pole core is raised and set in place, and then all but one of the individual poles are added, like the ribs of a whale, making this matrix. The long rope that tied the first four poles together is then wrapped around the poles, to hold them tightly together.

The fabric is tied to the last and largest pole, and that pole is then raised up and set in place on the backside of the tipi. (the pole at the top in this photo)

Then the fabric is wrapped around the framework and tied in front, not unlike clothing that buttons up in front. Is a tipi symbolic of a tree, or a tribe, or a person, or all three?

I like this view of the giant tulip poplar out the front door,

though a SUV or pickup truck might be a more common site now, wherever tipis are used. Notice that the fabric is stretched into place with stakes. When I first made a tipi, I didn't bother with putting many stakes in. Then I was sleeping in it one night and a big storm blew in across our bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. I was lying there all cozy, as the winds howled and the rain pelted down, congratulating myself on how dry the tipi was keeping me even in such a phenomenal downpour, when a big, blustery gust came and ripped my paltry staking out of the ground. The tipi pivoted, the back poles flew up and over my head, and my protective enclosure vanished from above me in an instant, as if setting sail in the darkness. One moment, comfortable and dry, the next, completely exposed and drenched to the bone.

I made haste to the farmhouse nearby, and sat in the living room for awhile, not sure what to do at 3 in the morning. A book lay on the table, which turned out to be the story of the Cherokee's forced march from their beloved Carolina to a bleak exile in Oklahoma. I learned of the Trail of Tears as water dripped from my hair, my own forced eviction adding an extra layer of meaning to a sad chapter in American history.

My tipi survived its short flight in the night, to rise again the next day, with better staking. And it's good to see this most elegant and practical design-for-the-ages grace the Princeton campus, even if only for a month.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Plainsboro Preserve is Anything But Plain

(This is an elaboration of a previous post.) A trip to the Audubon Society's Plainsboro Preserve this fall turned a number of notions on their heads. Plain became rich. Far became near. Small became large, and down became up. Reattach the "s" to "plain", and you get "plains", as in fruited plains, and a better sense of how Plainsboro got its name. For those of us who seldom venture beyond Princeton's bubble, it's a surprise to learn that New Jersey's inner coastal plain begins just across Route 1 from the hilly last hurrah of Princeton's piedmont. And with that geologic transition comes a floristic transition I had mistakenly thought would begin much farther south, not within the fifteen minutes it takes to pull into the Plainsboro Preserve's parking lot.

Witness fall colors like these, reflected in an improbably large lake, and any lingering notions of "plain" as in plainness quickly dissipate.

My intrepid guide for this journey of discovery was James Degnen, who has been visiting the preserve for years and has informally adopted a lesser known trail around the lake's eastern side. The trail fades at times, but it's impossible to get lost if one keeps the lake close on one's left.

The first surprise came with a glance down at the ground. Sand and gravel--strange to find so close to Princeton's clay.

He showed me a series of sandy beaches (a sandy beach in inland NJ?), which would be an inviting place to swim, if not

for the sheer dropoff just a few feet out. The quarry operation, now long gone, cut some 60 feet down into the sandy plains.

Though those little bluestem grasses in the photo can be found growing in Princeton,

this bushy bluestem cannot. Also known as Andropogon glomeratus, it's a resident of coastal plains and can be distinguished by its swollen plume on top.

Nor does Princeton host a field like this, radiant with blueberry bushes. Why haven't the trees shaded these blueberries out long ago?

Credit or blame goes to the beavers, whose habitat work is evident everywhere along the edges of the lake.

We may love sweetgum trees for their fall color,

but the beavers love them for their inner bark laden with sweet gum. Their preference is so strong, and the sweetgums so numerous, that we saw no other species of tree being touched by the beavers.

Some sweetgums they leave standing, to cling to life with only small strands of intact bark to maintain flow between root and canopy. One could say this is detrimental, but by sabotaging the normal progression to mature forest, the beavers are maintaining a younger landscape of shrubs and forbs that is every bit as important and beautiful a habitat.

At water's edge, the green of alder mixed with the yellow of summersweet (Clethra) and the sweetgum's bright red.

We found a few freshwater clams, or at least the remains, whose identity might be found in the master plan recently completed for the preserve.

In the gravel near the shore, the impressions left from fish nesting in the spring are still evident.

And what's this glistening white along the shore? Feathers, of geese, of which skilled bird counters counted 25,000 one evening a year or two ago. Through the winter, they use the lake as an overnight refuge after foraging all day in corporate landscapes that dot the NJ landscape.

Two winters ago, when an extended cold snap froze most open water to the north, 2000 snow geese took up brief residence on the lake, an awe inspiring sight, with their brilliant white against the dark background of winter woods.

On our visit, only four Canada geese gave the slightest hint of such abundance.

Plainsboro Preserve is a study in contrasts, between thick woods and open field, and most of all between areas that have been radically altered and those that have not. We walked through mounded landscapes, where dirt was piled up, back in quarry days. Some might point to the trees as evidence that the disturbed areas are now mended, but the area remains stripped of its plant diversity, with little more than Japanese stiltgrass to populate the ground.

In low ground, made passable by dry weather, tussock sedges build their pedestals,

remnant cables sprout and big steel boxes once used as anchors now anchor themselves as permanent mementos of a bygone era.

One anchor actually looks like an anchor, now being slowly grown over and around by a tree.

In contrast to the radically altered areas, a beautiful glade on the far side of the lake sprouted wildflowers rather than cables, and the same lichen that grows an hour south in the pine barrens.

Add to these the summersweet, blueberries, bushy bluestem, the sandy soil, and this field of switch grass, and you have a pine barren in miniature, albeit without the pines, just fifteen minutes from Princeton.

Further around the lake is the outlet, where pipes have been added over time to deal with the overflow from ever larger storms. It's interesting to check out google maps, and learn that the water that leaves this lake in Plainsboro Preserve travels westward, ultimately draining into Lake Carnegie. In this way, Plainsboro is connected hydrologically to Princeton, even though it's closer to the ocean and in a different geologic zone. The Princeton Environmental Resource Inventory , a book I helped to write, provides some useful related info on p. 17.

One sight that rankled a bit, after a glorious walk most of the way around the lake, was Chinese bushclover, which lines the trail on the west side of the lake. Its small seeds are said to be indigestible by wildlife, so the plant's aggressive displacement of native species creates a largely inedible landscape. A big, big problem in North Carolina, where it has escaped from erosion control plantings, it's becoming more numerous in NJ.

There was some evidence that land managers are taking a cue from the beavers and cutting down invasive shrubs like autumn olive.

This plant looked really familiar, seen decades ago in the northeast.

This is where most people walk--a wide path leading back to the visitors' center,

where a row of bee hives

begets rows of honey.

Always nice to have informative signage,

and a good harvest of color in the mind, to last us through winter.

Check out the programming, like monthly moonlit walks, on their website.