Saturday, February 20, 2021

Gratitude as a Salve for Grief

The snow rests so softly on the land. I want to relax, and rest content like snow perched on a stone.

I want to enter into this photo and give in gladly to gravity's nestling pull. But I live in two worlds right now, 444 miles apart. In one world, there was an Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, who loved land and bought 100 acres of it, then gave it all away, to us, to enjoy in perpetuity as Herrontown Woods. 

In the other world, up Shoccoree Drive in Durham, NC, there is another 100 acres, similarly perched high in the headwaters of my beloved Ellerbe Creek, with similar riches of plant life rooted in geologic drama, where the Carolina slate belt drops down into the Triassic Basin. That land, which helped inspire my founding of a watershed association in pre-Princeton days, has like Herrontown Woods always felt timeless to me, unique in its splendor, resistant to the bulldozer as heartwood is resistant to rot. 

But without the vision and generosity of a Veblen, nor the collective generosity of an open space tax to pay the owner's price, even timeless land can one day find its time is up. Hills and valleys resonant with beauty and history erased beneath a cookie cutter development. It hasn't happened yet. There's still a scintilla of hope, as neighbors organize in opposition. Might I have done more to save that land, 444 miles away, somehow found a wealthy donor to spare it? Can something still be done? That is the background anguish that now intrudes on the pleasure of a walk through snowbound Herrontown. 

Surprisingly, I feel a bit sad for the landowners in Durham who are selling to a developer. It took sixty years, but the Veblens' donation back in 1957 has contributed to a rediscovery of the much larger legacy they left behind, at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, in human rights, national defense, and early computer development. Their donation of a beloved nature preserve, house, and cottage is helping keep their story alive. Who could put a price on enduring gratitude--a kind of immortality--or the joys and peace this land of rock, water, and wood brings to so many?

So, let the snow settle,


and the pin oaks cling to their leaves,
and the seeds of wild senna sleep peacefully through winter.
Let the wooden man contemplate his whitening hair,
and a house grow eyebrows in the snow.
Let quiet beauty reign here, no matter what the distant news may bring. 


Let gratitude be a salve for grief.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Recreational Trails and Resilience

The Friends of Herrontown Woods and other stewards of natural lands in Princeton have been asked to give input to the state bike/ped office and the Federal Highway Administration about trail resilience in these times of rapid change. I decided to put my feedback into a blog post. We steward trails at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation in Princeton, NJ--about 220 acres total. Fit into the categories we were asked to address, here is some of what we've learned over time:

Trail vulnerability and resilience to natural hazards

Climate change is impacting our trails in multiple ways. Trees still pull water out of the soil during the growing season, making most trails reasonably dry during the summer and fall. In the past, winters were cold enough to freeze the ground in the winter. Now, with warmer winters, trails can get wet from rains in the fall and remain wet and muddy until the trees awaken again in late spring. 

Trails are becoming more vulnerable to erosion, give the more intense, longer, and more frequent rains, and the reduction in freezing in winter. Trails on a slope can become like streams as they catch runoff from the surrounding ground and convey it downhill. This makes water bars, which serve to divert runoff from trails, all the more important to build and maintain. 

As ash trees killed by the introduced Emerald ash borer become brittle over time, they will fit in the category of natural hazards. We've been fortunate to be able to take some down in the vicinity of our botanical garden, but it would be impossible to cut down all of them in the forest. They can serve as useful snags for wildlife, at least.

Designing trails for climate change and future conditions

We ground-truth potential new trail routes during the wettest times of the year. This has become all the more important as weather becomes more extreme. It's the only way we can know whether a particular route will be usable year-round. A route that looks dry during the summer may be impassable in the spring, when vegetation has yet to pull moisture out of the soil. This is the problem with having trail consultants spend a couple days in a preserve, and then make recommendations about trail routes. Ongoing observation is really helpful.

In some of our soils, it is the roots that maintain the firmness of the soil. We've been deceived at times by a seemingly dry route that, when it becomes a trail with lots of foot traffic, becomes muddy due to the breakdown of the underlying root structure that had been holding the soil together. 

No trail can be perfectly designed. We fortunately have a source of local "native" stepping stones that we can lay down on particularly muddy patches, and we use some boardwalking. Over time, we hope this will keep trails passable even as rain increases. 

Trails providing ecosystem services

Trails provide access to areas to cut invasive species or do other stewardship work. If invasive species are controlled along trails, the trails become essentially a corridor of restored habitat. Interestingly, trails can sometimes provide the necessary combination of disturbance and additional light necessary for some wildflower to grow that would otherwise get smothered by leaves or shade in off-trail areas.  

On the downside, trails can intrude on habitat, and also provide a route by which invasive plants like stiltgrass can penetrate into otherwise uninvaded areas of the preserve. 

Use of trails during emergencies (evacuation routes, emergency vehicle access, fire suppression, etc.)

We invited the the local rescue squad to do a practice rescue in our preserve. It was very helpful in acquainting them with the lay of the land. We also showed them areas where accidents could potentially happen, and are working on a better map of the preserve showing access points. 

Trails can serve as potential fire breaks, whether for fire suppression or for prescribed burns. We have yet to use fire as an ecological tool in the preserve, but fire often has a positive and historically important role in open spaces if prescribed and carried out appropriately.

Use of recreational trails during public health emergencies

We've seen a dramatic increase in trail use this past year, as well as an increase in volunteers to help at our preserve. Though hikers tend to be conscientious about wearing masks, some will want to avoid encounters along narrow trails. That gets us looking at how we could provide at least one trail that is wider than others. 

Nature has served as an indispensable balm, refuge, and recreational outlet for people during the pandemic. The pandemic has made nature preserves ideal for those who love not only plants and wildlife, but socializing safely with people as well. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

A Rather Long Snow Storm

Here in Princeton, we have artisanal snow removal services, as in this thoughtfully crafted mohawk for the Prius.
Good news about the frontyard raingarden: it works great as a snow garden as well.



During this extended, ground-breaking, or at least ground-exposing, Snow Removal Initiative (SNI), it was important to take frequent breaks to document the innovative "shoveling" technique being used. The Royal We Committee believes this approach, if successful, could serve as a model for other homeowners to emulate. Later in the morning, we saw neighbors beginning to utilize this very method, suggesting our demonstration project could have a transformative impact on snow removal in Princeton and beyond. 


The Initiative included a research component. Careful study of this cross-section of the cliff face reveals the various strata laid down by the storm. This having been an unusually long snowstorm, it's understandable that the darker patch in the middle was at first mistakenly dated back to the early Devonian. Further analysis and some equipment tweaking showed that snow in the darker stratum likely fell during the warmer daylight hours the day before, with the lighter layers above and below having been deposited during the preceding and following nights.

Other keen observations: some of the neighbors didn't get the memo. Recycling postponed until Saturday, or the mid-Anthropocene, depending on how long the storm lasts.

What is snow good for? Enforced social distancing, for one. Not likely to have a close encounter with the neighbor for some time to come. And the kids can sort of remember what it used to feel like to get a snow day.

Other writings on excessive snow include an oldie but goodie: Snowbound Language


Monday, February 01, 2021

Sourlands as Big Bro to Herrontown Woods

When my daughters suggested a walk in the sourlands, I took it as an opportunity to test out a theory: that Herrontown Woods is in some ways a miniature version of the sourlands preserve. 

The trails are certainly larger, wider, longer than those at Herrontown Woods, with sections of broad boardwalk between stretches of familiar mud.



Some things are of similar scale. Familiar at Herrontown and the Sourlands are efforts to aid hikers through muddy patches with dense gatherings of stepping stones,
and places where the rocky landscape threatens to swallow the trail whole with its boulders.
Whereas Herrontown Woods has its boulder field, beneath and through which a gentle stream flows, making a kind of stereo music in the spring, the Sourlands has Roaring Rocks, named for the spring rush of water beneath super-sized boulders. 

My daughter provided scale for the jumble of giants spilling down the valley. 
This long, smooth boulder, like a whale surfacing for air,  is an outsized version of a similarly shaped boulder that surfaces near the Veblen Cottage in Herrontown Woods. 
This rock face, too, is a larger version of a prominent geologic feature at Herrontown Woods, 
with a higher, longer view from above.

There's a familar play of lichens and mosses on the boulders,
and a familiar mix of smooth and finely fissured rocks.

These boulders, by the way, are not a legacy of glaciers, which did not extend this far down, but of igneous upwellings exposed by subsequent erosion of the surrounding, less resistant material.
Probably not a source of pride, but the Sourlands even has its own derelict fence, newer and longer than the one at Herrontown Woods. Something there is in a woods that doesn't love a fence.

The Sourlands probably has more examples of trees perched on boulders, if anyone were to count.
It took awhile to figure out the Sourlands' system of trail markers.
A half hour in, my younger daughter had a useful insight, that these two angled squares mean that the trail is about to turn left. 
Where the blue trail splits in two, one of the routes carries a black dot in the middle. Pretty clever.
The gas pipeline right of way at the Sourlands is steeper, with a more dramatic view than the one at Herrontown Woods. My daughters pointed into the distance, where the Manhattan skyline was clearly visible. That was a surprise. 
As at Herrontown Woods, the Sourlands pipeline is a mixed bag of invasive mugwort,
and chinese bushclover, with some native species like Indian grass and tickseed sunflower mixed in. Whenever I walk one of these right of ways, I think of Leslie Sauer's The Once and Future Forest: A Guide to Forest Restoration Strategies. Therein, read long ago, she made the point that these linear openings have a different ecological impact from the small, isolated, more circular forest openings that would naturally be created by fallen trees or fire. The linear corridor facilitates the spread of invasive plants and the parasitic cowbird in ways that natural, disconnected openings do not. 

One of the invasive plants spreading along the edge of the pipeline corridor is Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven. The Ailanthus has in turn been expediting the spread of the newly arrived invasive insect, the spotted lanternfly. Cutting and treating Ailanthus--a favorite host of the lanternfly--is a way of discouraging both of these introduced species.
Sometimes smaller is better, as in Herrontown Woods' smaller problem with Ailanthus, and its smaller population of deer (thanks to the more intense management Princeton has been able to sustain), which reduces browsing pressure on native species. 

One of my favorite features at the Sourlands are these very shallow stream crossings, where there's no distinct stream channel. The water becomes like us, just one more traveler over stones, and we become like the water. 

The Sourland Mountain Preserve is ten miles from Princeton. Drive up 206 and take a left on Belle Mead Blawenburg Road.



Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Optimism, Habitat, and Landscape

If people love trees so much, then how do we explain Jill Biden's choice for a painting that was part of Inauguration Day ceremonies in the Capitol rotunda. Painted by African American artist Robert Duncanson as the Civil War was looming, Landscape With Rainbow depicts a pastoral paradise in which a young couple and their cattle head back to a homestead blessed by a rainbow. 


A closer look reveals that the distant hills in the painting are forested, but it is pasture--albeit a bit overgrazed--that dominates this optimistic landscape. Though people love trees, we also love vistas, which trees are very good at blocking. Who hasn't climbed a mountain, expecting a grand vista at the top, only to find that trees have grown to block the view? 

It seems strange sometimes that communities don't actively seek to create and preserve vistas, given how pleasing they are. If people can see into the distance, maybe they'll think into the distance as well. A vivid memory from the Sourland Mountains, just up the road from Princeton, is a view of the Manhattan skyline. It came as a complete surprise, and was made possible only by the ongoing suppression of trees along the gas pipeline right of way that extends up and over the mountain ridge. Ideally, vistas would be made possible in our world by something less linear and fossil fuel-related than a pipeline, but our approach to managing preserved open spaces seldom offers an alternative means of creating areas that are more open. 


Also running counter to open space preservation norms, the focus of optimism in the painting is a house, embraced by nature, towards which the rainbow, people and animals all point. One approach to purchasing open space for preservation is to demolish any buildings left on a newly preserved property. We had to overcome this bias against buildings embedded in open space in the process of saving Veblen House and Cottage at Herrontown Woods. 

One question, then, is how to adjust the classic view of open space--as uninterrupted forest--to consider the clear attraction we have for the mosaic of habitats depicted in this painting, where people play an active role in the landscape. What is pleasing to people can also serve the needs of biodiversity. At the Botanical Art Garden at Herrontown Woods, we are actively preventing a forest opening from reverting to the deep shade that stifles the growth of so many native plant species less gifted with height. Succession to forest need not be considered the only natural destiny for a landscape. Historically, such forest openings would have been maintained by periodic fire, in what is called a fire-climax community. 

Though a deep forest of towering native trees can evoke a sense of awe and reverence, and deserves to be preserved, many areas of preserved open space are thick with stunted, second-growth trees. Add the typically dense layer of invasive shrubs and the effect becomes cluttered and claustrophobic. As the death of ash trees due to the Emerald Ash Borer opens up the forest canopy, we may want to manage some of these openings to create a more varied habitat. If the non-native invasive shrubs can be limited, and young trees kept from reclaiming the sunlight, there are many native shrubs that could flourish in a more illuminated understory. Spicebush, hazelnut, serviceberry, native azalea, blueberries, Viburnums, Hearts-a-burstin'--these are a few of the native shrubs that would bear abundant fruit for wildlife if given more sun. 

One of the most optimistic moments I had in my life had some parallels to the Duncanson painting. I was driving out of Washington, DC after picking up a passport. The president at the time was highly competent and believed in government, and the WhiteHouse gleamed brilliant white in the afternoon sun as I drove past. On the radio was a live broadcast of Copeland's Appalachian Spring, broadcast from the Library of Congress in honor of its premier performance there some 50 years earlier. Along the roadsides as city began to transition to countryside were prairie grasses, golden in autumn. The youthful roadside vegetation resonated with the music of spring's awakening, and a sense of the nation's promise. 

Grasslands, meadows, shrublands--these are the younger landscapes, whose dynamic growth happens at our own height rather than far above. Their flowers and foliage also serve the insect community through the summer when deep forest has gone floristically silent. The aim here is to become more strategic and discerning about trees, to determine where they are precious, and where they might best be managed to serve ecological and aesthetic goals. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Video Presentation on Invasive Species

On 11.11.2020 I presented a zoom talk on invasive species as part of a series of monthly talks sponsored by the Sierra Club of NJ--Central Group. The talk was entitled "Invasive Species and the Pandemic: Thinking of Nature as a Body." Thanks to Kip Cherry for inviting me to speak, to Chuck McEnroe for film editing, and to PrincetonTV for posting the talk online.

In the talk, really two talks in one, I tell how vanquishing aggressive invasive species has often been the first step towards creating special places for native diversity to flourish and people to gather. In the second part of the talk, I discuss how my experiences in climate change theater and land management led to the concept of nature as a body. 


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Herrontown Woods News

I've been posting some Herrontown Woods news at FOHW.org. There's the saga of the moving of the gazebo to the Princeton Botanical Art Garden (Gazebo Docks With Mother Ship), and a listing of the Friends of Herrontown Woods' accomplishments this past year.



Some recent additions to the botanical art garden include a birdhouse painted with the four seasons, donated by artist Lisa Phox, 
and a mushroom garden and pinecone forest created by Andrew and Rachelle. The moss comes from a particularly productive roof.

Regular workdays are from 10 to noon on Sunday mornings, for anyone who wants to come by the main parking lot off of Snowden Lane.