Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Hidden Life of Trees, and Other Deeply Flawed Books on Nature

There are some very misleading books, articles and opeds out there, claiming to give you the inside scoop on what nature is really like. Nature is very complex, involves a long learning curve to gain some understanding, and thus many readers prove vulnerable to cherry-picked evidence used to promote skewed points of view. 

Over the years, I've reviewed many of these false characterizations of nature, on another website and at Amazon and Goodreads, and reached out to some of the authors and editors. I'd like to think that I've played a role in diminishing the prevalence of one strand of skewed thinking: invasive species denial. I encountered it first in opinion pieces in the NY Times, then came across misleading books like The Rambunctious Garden, Beyond the War On Invasive Species, The New Wild, and Inheritors of the Earth. I also critiqued and reached out to the radio show, You Bet Your Garden, which was pretending that invasive species aren't a problem. 

Interestingly, one strand of invasive species denial springs from a blanket condemnation of pesticides, much as climate change denial is often motivated by a distaste for government. If the solution is objectionable, then deny the problem. Now, I don't like herbicides--Rodale's Organic Gardening Encyclopedia was my bible back when my interest in plants centered around growing food--but their targeted use is critical when dealing with invasive species on any meaningful scale. What works on an organic farm is not fully transferable to a nature preserve. There is an understandable desire for purity in our sullied world. Consider, though, the pragmatism with which we view western medicine and our own bodies. Just because antibiotics are abused by the meat industry doesn't mean we vilify all antibiotics everywhere, or refuse to take them if needed.

One book that's highly misleading is The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. Though it doesn't fit in the category of invasive species denial, it does use similar techniques to manipulate readers. It seems like a gentle book, but has an underlying logic that is not so pretty, as described here in a small excerpt from my review:

A book will garner more interest if it has an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. In this case, the applecart is antiquated views of trees, and the "Others" to look down upon are narrow-minded scientists and commercial foresters. Another common ingredient is to let the reader off the hook by suggesting we as individuals need expend no energy to compensate for all the ways human activity has thrown nature out of balance.

Nearly all of these books are written by non-scientists and reviewed by non-scientists, leaving the public unprotected from any misinformation the books may carry.

Though invasive species denial seems to be fading, Wohlleben's book remains very popular. Many of these books get very high ratings on Amazon and elsewhere. Though the Amazon review section for a book is a useful place to break people's bubbles, I've noticed that the reviews that Amazon labels as "top critical review" are neither the strongest nor the most informative and recommended negative reviews on the site. Here's an example, in which the most highly recommended negative review is buried below others.

2020 has definitively demonstrated just how hard it is for truth to compete. In politics, a preponderance of the misinformation is being generated and consumed by the rightwing, but it's instructive to witness how those who care deeply about nature can also prove vulnerable to false narratives.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Piano Talk -- Original Compositions and Thoughts About Self and World

Maybe not everyone reading this blog knows that, in addition to botanizing and nonprofit leading, I've been a professional jazz musician and composer since college days. Though my main instruments are saxophone and clarinet, I started studying piano in my 20s and got good enough at it to compose music, and even taught piano for awhile to beginners/intermediates in Ann Arbor and later in Durham, NC. 

I've composed hundreds of tunes--ranging from jazz to latin, classical, and blues--and some of the shorter piano pieces I've started recording along with some thoughts on how the tunes work and what they mean to me. With the music comes personal stories, like how I started playing jazz, and thoughts on how the music speaks to our time. The videos are recorded in the unglamorous milieu of my "mancave", where decade-old newspapers are still waiting to be read.

Four of them can be found on my youtube station. Their names are Palindrome, which is built on a musical palindrome, Why Am I So Happy?, which explores how music can simultaneously carry happiness and sadness, Con-tin-u-ing, which is a musical portrayal of long unsolved problems in our world, and The Daughter's Song, which sounded when I wrote it like the theme for a daughter in a play about climate change. 




Diggings in the Lawn

Earlier in the fall my friend Gail reported that her backyard was getting torn up this year--something that had never happened before. One interesting  clue as to why this was happening now and not before was the death of three ash trees just across the fenceline in the neighbor's yard. This year, multiple experiences have made clear for me the dramatic impact active trees have on soil moisture. Trails at Herrontown Woods dried up as soon as the trees and shrubs leafed out and began drawing moisture from the ground. The death of many ash trees in Princeton is changing soil conditions, allowing sun to warm the ground and water from rains to remain in the soil longer. The dead tree roots are also a food source for underground organisms. 

I claim no expertise on which animal is doing the damage, nor on how to stop them. Here's an organic approach. The internet puts the blame mostly on raccoons and foxes, as they search for grubs and earthworms. Both have upped their game in Princeton in recent years. That, along with heavier rains, warmer weather, and the loss of trees could be leading to more digging. Skunks also dig, but are more precise in their digging, making smaller holes that limit damage to the lawn. The photo below is from another homeowner's lawn near my house. This damage was noticed only a couple weeks ago, late in the fall. 


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Towpath Nature Trail Loop in Late Fall

A walk along the towpaths's nature trail loop near Harrison Street a couple weeks ago had an unexpectedly uplifting effect on my spirit. Nature has played a big role this year in keeping people emotionally afloat through the pandemic, and even as nature shifts towards dormancy I felt gratitude for the patterns and small bits of color it still offered. 

The trail is not as wide as it was in years past, since there's been a breakdown in who is responsible for mowing, but foot traffic has kept it open. Just by walking along it, you do the trail a favor.

A splash of burgundy from a blackberry.


The remnants of a common milkweed's seedpod.
The deep lobes of pin oak leaves still bright.
Bright yellow of a solitary Norway maple. Gratefully, Norway maples haven't invaded natural areas in Princeton for the most part, though they do tend to take over along fencelines in people's backyards.
The stunted red leaves of a multiflora rose afflicted with rose rosette disease. For those of us who have had lots of run-ins with multiflora rose's barbed thorns, a little help from a disease to curb the aggressiveness of this shrub is good news.
Along the shore next to this memorial bench are some plants I always check out. 
Looks like the nightshade had a good year. It's related to tomatoes, but don't eat the berries.
The seeds of native Hibiscus are held suspended over Lake Carnegie in cup-like capsules. Its preferred habitat is the banks of streams, but it flourishes in a garden if there's enough sun.
Of the many shrub dogwoods adapted to wet ground, silky dogwood is the one found locally. It's less red than red osier dogwoods.

Even botanists can find grasses intimidating, but if you steer clear of the giant tomes with mind-boggling plant keys, and simply take note of their shapes and colors, the more common ones can be easily learned. It's like recognizing someone from a distance by the way they walk, even if their back is turned. Plants have body language that can be learned.

Wood reed is a common native grass in shady lowlands.
Broomsedge--it's a grass, not a sedge--takes on a nice bronze look in the fall. 
Deertongue grass is very common here along the trail, often growing in masses. Note the broad leaf.

Where the trail takes a sharp meander there's a wonderful gathering of hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye-Weed growing in the open shade of giant oaks. A few seeds still cling to their tops, taking the mind backwards to the bright flowers of July, and forwards towards new plants to come.

We're used to seeing a sharp division between open fields and dense forests where little ground vegetation can survive. What's special about this nature trail is that trees are more scattered, allowing sun-loving wildflowers to flourish underneath. This savanna-like habitat would have been much more common in the past, when trees were harvested more selectively, or fires were allowed to sweep through, killing some trees and leaving others to grow. In the more recent past, the state parks crews would mow this habitat once a year in late winter to limit woody growth, but the past few years I haven't had luck getting it done. The strategic, episodic maintenance needs of native habitats, e.g. mowing once a year, seem harder to integrate into maintenance crews' schedules than the recurrent once-a-week mowing regimes that are far more expensive but can be routinized.

There were some ornamental plantings done long ago, probably in the 1960s, and some of these persist. A row of fragrant honeysuckle makes super-fragrant little white flowers in February. Though other shrub honeysuckle species are invasive, I've never seen Lonicera fragrantissima spread beyond where it's planted.
The fluffy seeds of the nonnative vine autumn clematis are quite a sight when backlit. The native version, virgin's bower, is distinguished by its toothed leaves, and must be more tasty for wildlife than the nonnative version, given its relative rarity. 
Take the short stub trail to the lake and you find a stump suspended partway out over the water on a tangle of roots. This is the remains of a sweetgum tree that used to serve as a roost for dozens of cormorants. The site was impressive and haunting at the same time. The tree finally succumbed, whether from erosion of its roots by the lake, too much fertilizer from the birds, or some other cause. Not sure where the cormorants went.
Those horizontal lines in the bark are the prominent lenticels of an ornamental cherry tree.  
These giant ornamental cherry trees, evocative of the cherries in Washington, DC, remain from the university's plantings long ago. This one marks the western entrance to the loop trail, closer to Washington Road.

Learn to identify some plants, and even a walk through the stripped down nature of late fall can stir an energizing mix of recognition, memories and anticipations. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Second Forest of Institute Woods


In the Institute Woods, towards the end of the day, towards the end of autumn, it's not just the trees that cast long shadows. In the understory, a shadow forest grows, composed mostly of nonnative shrubs--winged euonymus, linden viburnum, asian photinia, shrub honeysuckle, multiflora rose and privet. Having evolved on a different continent in a different climate, they hold their leaves long after most of the native woodies have dropped theirs. Dominating the understory, these shrubs and vines constitute a second forest that serves up a second autumn, shedding their conformist green to show late-season reds and golds. 

There are second forests all around Princeton and beyond. The light green close to the ground in this photo is honeysuckle shrubs along Terhune Rd.
Here, viewed from the Streicker Bridge over Washington Road a week or two ago, are Norway Maples pushing up into the canopy of mature native oaks, beech, and blackgum, some of which are two centuries old. 


Bamboo at the Princeton Battlefield, bordering the Institute lands, offers another variation on the theme.

The different colors of the second forest provide a convenient code for easy long-distance identification. The pink here, down near the Friends Meeting House entrance to Institute Woods, means you're looking at winged euonymus. If it were growing in full sun, the color would be a vivid red, from which comes its other common name, burning bush. 
Here the pink of the winged euonymus mingles with the still green multiflora rose. 
Linden viburnum has its own distinctive fall color, 

as does Asian photinia, whose leaves tend to be broader towards the tips. It's usually more golden than this photo shows, and in Mountain Lakes and along Princeton Pike has turned whole woodlands golden this time of year. 
Mingling with the photinia here is the viny ever-green Japanese honeysuckle. 

Wineberry, with its fuzzy purple stem, is another Asian species with lingering green in late fall. 
Privet holds onto its green as well, here growing up around the tan stem of a shrub honeysuckle. 

Add global warming, which is bringing unusually warm and comfortable autumn days, and the feeling of gratitude for unseasonal warmth and color begins to  mix with a foreboding about the ecological consequences. Awareness creates an emotional undertow pulling against the uplifting effect of weather and color. The second forest flourishes in part because it is inedible to wildlife, which prefer and depend upon native species for food. The colors that greet our eyes this time of year signal a diminishing edibility for the forest's inhabitants. 



Four plaques tell the story of how the Institute Lands were saved from development in 1997, a half century after they were acquired. Though a couple key elements are left out--the Lenape Indians and Oswald Veblen--it is an extraordinary story, listing the major donors, 
the Taplins who led the way,
the coordination of governmental, institutional, and nonprofit entities that in NJ has been so effective in saving land. 

You can click on each photo to hopefully make it large enough to read.


Here, on this plaque, would have been a good place to mention the Lenape Indians as early occupants and stewards. A whole additional plaque could be dedicated to telling of Oswald Veblen's role as primary instigator of acquisition. As partially told on the IAS website, and more fully told by George Dyson in a talk at DR Greenway, Veblen convinced the early Institute leadership to acquire the land, then did the legwork necessary to bring all the parcels together. Over ten years, beginning in 1936, Veblen laid the foundation for open space in Princeton, with the acquisition not only of the Institute lands but also the 100 acres on the east side of Princeton that he and his wife Elizabeth later donated as Princeton's and Mercer County's first nature preserve, Herrontown Woods.

It's interesting to look at the chronology of open space initiatives in the Princeton area. The Institute lands were acquired between 1936 and 1945. In 1949, the Stonybrook Millstone Watershed Association was formed. Around 1959 Herrontown Woods was officially opened. In 1969, the Friends of Princeton Open Space came into being. In 1989, the DR Greenway was formed. Whether there's meaning in the 20 year increments of their foundings, all three nonprofits played a role in purchasing from the IAS the conservation easement that now protects the Institute lands from development.

Preservation tends to be celebrated more than management, so it's good to see there's a plaque celebrating maintenance, at least of the trails. The leadership and persistence needed to keep the woods accessible was first provided by Veblen, then later by mathematician Paul Dirac, then still later by what appears to be lasting funding in 2008 provided by Addie and Harold Broitman.  

Though the land is preserved, and the trails continue to be kept clear, and the richness of the Institute Woods has been researched and documented by Henry Horn and others, there is still a missing element for insuring the Institute Woods' longterm health. It's not clear that the woods hold the same biological richness seen in Veblen's time, or even Henry Horn's. With habitat restoration and deer management, we might lose the colors of the second forest, but gain a second preservation, this time saving the flora and fauna not from developers but from ecological imbalance and attrition of native species over time. 

The first preservation, in 1997, prevented intentional alteration of the woods by developers. But the woods is still being altered indirectly, unintentionally, through the invasion of introduced species and the banishing of predators that once kept deer numbers in check. The second preservation takes responsibility for the unintentional changes humanity has unleashed, and requires us to be active and informed participants in the forest's ecology. Clearing the invasive species that crowd the forest, and reducing the intense browsing pressure of deer, would begin to bring back the lovely vistas and sweeps of wildflowers that surely helped inspire the community investment in saving the land more than twenty years ago. 

Friday, November 06, 2020

In a Hidden Valley, Sudden Abundance, and a White Squirrel

Some of my favorite memories in nature are of sudden abundance. Day to day, walking through a woods or stepping into the backyard, we tend to see one or two of this or that bird or flower. The dispersed, low-key nature we typically see contrasts with accounts from long ago, when endless flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky, and herds of bison stretched to the horizon. As a kid, I read of distant streams or lakes teaming with fish. "Where lunkers lurk just below your boat" was one memorable headline. On a few occasions I convinced my father to drive me to them, trips that repeatedly ended in disappointment. 

Serendipity, however, has served up sudden abundance a few times in my life. One fall day early on in my small Wisconsin hometown I was walking home from school when I happened to look up and saw the whole sky filled with monarch butterflies heading south for the winter. There was the small inlet we canoed into in the Quetico, where we happened to look down and saw the shallow water was thick with a school of walleye, from which we quickly caught a delicious dinner. During our time in North Carolina, there was the time when hundreds of cedar waxwings enlivened our neighborhood for a couple days with their antics. And each year in the fall, I'd hope to be around when a large flock of migratory robins, with a few scarlet tanagers mixed in, would descend upon our yard, strip the flowering dogwoods of their ripened berries in an orgy of consumption, then be gone. Even the small park behind our house here in Princeton served one evening a few years ago as a stage for sudden abundance, when winged ants began emerging from the ground, attracting hundreds of dragonflies which in turn attracted a flock of swallows, spectacular fliers all.

This summer, serendipity served up sudden abundance in the most unlikely of places: a hidden valley in Princeton Junction. One afternoon I was standing outside a strip mall with a few minutes to kill, and decided to check out the woods behind the row of businesses. In retrospect, I was just following the flow of the pavement like any self-respecting raindrop would have done, but this going with the flow was taking me away from the human mainstream into another world.

There, beyond the edge of the asphalt, the land dropped down into a woodland like no other I have ever encountered. Perhaps only a botanist would have recognized the extraordinary nature of the nature that stretched before me. Clethra as far as the eye could see. Okay, let me explain. Clethra alnifolia, summersweet, sweet pepperbush, call it what you will, is a native shrub with a fragrant flower sometimes used in landscaping. 

Now, if you're into native plants, you may start to wonder where they typically grow in the wild. Many of the more popular ones--like Clethra, or Virginia sweetspire, bottlebrush buckeye, oak-leaved hydrangia, purple coneflower--have proven rare or non-existent in the wilds I've explored over the years. This could be due to the myriad ways in which we have transformed the landscape, from development to draining to fire exclusion. Or it could be that their home habitat is remote from places I've lived. In the case of Clethra, I had never seen it in the wild save for one sorry specimen holding on next to the towpath along the banks of Lake Carnegie. 

It was a surprise, then, to step behind a pizza joint just up from the Princeton Junction train station, and find myself gazing out on a sea of Clethra, growing like a weed. 

Ostrich fern is another plant I've rarely seen in the wild, and here it too was growing in abundance, giving the woodland a tropical look. 

Returning later with a pair of rubber boots, I waded out into the mud to explore this hidden valley, several times almost losing my boots in the thick muck. 

Here are a few other sudden abundances and rarities--plant, animal, and human--that I encountered:

On the hammocks of high ground surrounded by the mucky soils, Hydrangeas were in full bloom, reaching up to 17 feet tall.

Under a canopy of black gum, red maples and oaks, there were lots of Magnolias

and highbush blueberries.


Netted chain ferns, which bear a resemblance to the much more common sensitive fern, were tucked in among the massings of ostrich ferns.

A small, bent over tree with a curious compound leaf caught my attention. It wasn't a walnut or ash or anything else I could think of. I was excited at the thought that I had discovered a very rare tree, and stumped several botanists before sending a photo to Bob Wells of Morris Arboretum. He promptly identified it as poison sumac--something I hadn't encountered since field botany days in Michigan. The ID explained the skin rash I had been dealing with since handling it.

As with the poison sumac, there was just one Styrax, which showed the remains of its pendulant flowers, and one native azalea. All of these are rarely seen in the wild.
Only towards the other side of the valley did it become clear why this habitat was so different from what can be encountered in Princeton. Most of the stormwater runoff from the strip mall is somehow channeled to the far side of the valley, where it has eroded the stream and exposed the underlying gravel and sand. Simply by crossing Route 1, I had left the piedmont clay of Princeton and entered NJ's sandy inner coastal plain. Though erosion has changed one side of the valley, the other side is fortunately bypassed by the runoff, allowing the mucky soils and hammocks to persist in something close to their pre-development state.  


I had just counted my 30th wild hydrangea blooming in the valley when I saw a man with a white beard walking down into the woods. Scampering about 30 feet ahead of him was a white squirrel. I had already encountered so many unusual plants in this valley, and now I was seeing a white squirrel for the first time in my life. 
It's distinct appearance lent magnificence to its every move, as if a spotlight were upon it. This photo is the best I could manage with my cell phone as the man continued down the slope. The white squirrel can be seen in the lower right corner. 
He didn't seem to notice me, so I called out to ask him something about the squirrel. He turned and began telling me about a white squirrel he had befriended some years back. It had been a true albino, with pink eyes, and he had trained it to come to him for food. It had gotten to the point where it would come inside. He said that he'd start opening the door for the squirrel to go in his house, and the squirrel would push it further open and come in. He said the true albinos supposedly can't see as well, and that's one reason why it might have allowed itself to be tamed. One day it disappeared, and a friend told him it had been hit by a car. 

The white squirrel I had just seen was one of the albino's offspring. Actually, he explained, they are called silver squirrels, because they have a little gray on their backs, but are otherwise white. Squirrels are really smart, I interjected, expecting him to marvel at how remarkable squirrels are, but my thoughts on their intelligence made him think instead of how you can't keep them out of a house, and how squirrels had gotten into an old neighbor's attic and nearly destroyed her house. He was clearly not one to romanticize animals.


I asked him if this hidden valley is protected, and he said they have had to fight to keep the developers out of it. They lost about 60 feet of it when the strip mall developers wanted to build off the back. Lots of trees lost. He later said there's no organization, just the neighbors who border the property. He had a t-shirt on that said "REAL MEN DON'T NEED INSTRUCTIONS". I asked to take a photo of the shirt, as an excuse to photograph him. He said yes, and pointed out the hammer on the shirt, accidentally cut in two by a table saw. His name was John.

We walked down to the stream, where he said there had been a bridge that got washed out. The bridge turned out to be a long timber, 8x8, which he lifted back into place with some effort, but still impressive for his age. He said the neighborhood is called Berrien City

I told him how amazing this valley was for a botanist like me. He said when he'd first heard about the house they bought, and heard it was in Princeton Junction, he pictured something urban. But finding this valley behind it changed his mind. He asked if I'd seen the pond, and when I said no he offered to show me. 

As we maneuvered through the woods thick with sweet pepperbush, he began telling me about his early days, living on the outskirts of Langhorne, PA. He had wanted to be off the grid back then, bought a house that hadn't been lived in for 30 years, had a hole in the roof, one bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. They had a 2 year old son. Their water came from a spring up the hill. A number of them living there dug underground pipes to direct the water to their homes. He said he was at the bottom of the line, and had 600 feet of regular garden hose that the water flowed through to get to his cisterns--one of concrete and two of stainless steel. The cisterns were always full and overflowing, and to keep the water flowing through the hose in winter he had to keep the faucet open in the kitchen. If the hoses froze, he had to gather up all 600 feet and bring them in next to his woodstove to thaw out. He heated completely with wood until their son was seven. The house had 30 amp service, and there was some sort of radiant heater he could turn on to warm the outhouse seat before he headed out there in the winter. They heated water on a stove, and bathed in a tin tub in the kitchen. They ate squirrel and raccoon. The raccoon, he said, actually tasted good. A possum they tried, though, tasted like a McDonald dumpster. He still chops wood. His son, a policeman, still heats his house with wood, even though they have a regular furnace. His son uses a woodsplitter, though. 

The subject of raccoons got him talking about how he used to pay his mortgage with roadkill. Raccoon pelts fetched $50 back in 1980, and fox $75. He'd keep them in his freezer, skinned or sometimes not, until he had enough to make a delivery. It didn't take many to come up with 300 bucks. 

John told me more stories as we stood next to the stormwater pond, in this otherworldly valley hidden behind the loading docks and clustered storefronts of a strip mall that looked like any other in America. I wished I had turned on my phone's recorder to capture his voice and more fully document his story. Much of it involved his life in the fur trade in the 1980s, driving fur traders along a circuit from NY City out to North Carolina, north to Ohio and Pennsylvania, then back to New York, sometimes with $100,000 worth of furs in the back of the truck. It sounded like an updated version of trade in the 18th century. As a line of work, it probably met its demise in the 1990s, when animal cruelty concerns came to the fore. And I doubt a mortgage could be paid off in the 21st century with roadkill. 

Heading back to my pickup afterwards, as if to bend my mind once more before emerging from the woodland, I saw another white squirrel, or perhaps the same one, racing up a tree.