Friday, October 29, 2021

Celebrating the Life of Dorothy Mullen

Many in Princeton and beyond knew and loved Dorothy Mullen, for her spirit, generosity, community activism, and her many initiatives, most notably the school gardens and the Suppers Program. 

A memorial service will take place this Saturday, Oct. 30, at 10am at the Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ. The service will likely be very crowded, but there will also be an opportunity to witness the occasion via zoom

I wrote a song called Dorothy's Garden after seeing Dorothy for the last time, back in the fall of 2019. The song on the video starts about two minutes in. I will play a recording of the song at the open mic after the service, and recite the lyrics. Here's the sheet music, transposed to G for easier reading, and a post from a couple years ago about the garden she created in her front yard, which is now being tended by the new owner of her house.

Lyrics to Dorothy's Garden
Take a walk in Dorothy's garden, In the springtime in Dorothy's garden. Sleepy seeds in the dirt so mellow, Dreaming flowers of white and yellow. Come and see in the garden, Dorothy's garden, Kale and peas and carrots. And some peace you will find there, Always find where the weeds are a feint memory. There are children in Dorothy's garden, Finding free figs in Dorothy's garden. In the strawberry patch they linger. Quiet joy their presence brings her. And the bees on the asters, flying past her-- She is the master gardener. And the okra and sunflower feel her love As they grow towards the sun far above. Someone's learning in Dorothy's garden. Worms are churning in Dorothy's garden. Plants are turning in Dorothy's garden Into Suppers from Dorothy's garden. And the roots they will roam, always finding a home, In the loam, under Dorothy's garden.

Princeton Finally Plants its Fuel Tank Raingarden

The raingarden in front of the municipality's fuel tank on Witherspoon Street finally got planted. Like just about every piece of real estate in Princeton, large or small, this raingarden has a long and turbulent history. It was presumably created to receive runoff from a roof the town had built over the fuel tank. The roof was meant to protect staff from rain while they poured fossil fuel in their gas tanks, but spurred passionate complaints from neighbors, who complained about the visual blight upon a main entryway into town. 

Thus began a long period of deliberation and rethinking, leading to the removal of the much-maligned roof, and consideration of whether to spend even more money to move the raingarden somewhere else, for whatever reason.

While humans hemmed and hawed, nature began populating the bare dirt with various weeds, leading to a post on this blog called Princeton's Fuel Tank Raingarden Wannabe, identifying the various weeds and discussing which would be worth keeping. If one knows and loves plants--knowing and loving being very much intertwined--it's pretty easy to develop a new raingarden planting simply by editing what pops up on its own, augmented by taking excess plants from an existing raingarden and planting them in another. Planting one raingarden makes the next one all the easier to create at no cost beyond time spent.

The town has its own logic, however, for better or worse. The raingarden was left untended for a couple years until the brick facade disguising the fuel tank was completed, and then in mid-October a host of plants were purchased and installed, along with a thick layer of mulch. 

Soft rush were densely planted at the lower end, with purple coneflowers and black-eyed susans on the slopes. 

Though the men may not have been overjoyed at the task, it was good to see public works employees working with hand tools, away from all the rumbling machines that burn the fossil fuels hidden behind this raingarden. 

Beyond the benefits of raingardens--filtration of runoff, groundwater recharge, food for insects and birds--they are above all a quiet space. Raucous lawn mowers and leaf blowers are of no use in a raingarden, where only quiet tasks like weeding and planting are needed. 

The relentless racket of custodial lawncare that people so resent in our neighborhoods is the sound of machines simplifying and dominating nature while they feed climate change. When was the last time you saw an employee, public or private, quietly using hand tools in a garden? That's what made this scene along Witherspoon Street special. 

A Threatened Old Bridge, and Dead Fish Along Harry's Brook

We mostly hear about collateral damage, but there can be a lot of collateral discovery in the actions we take to care for nature or history. 

When I saw a young man named Galdino tuckpointing some stonework along Snowden Lane a couple weeks ago, I asked him if he would look at an old bridge that straddles a tributary of Harry's Brook just down the hill. 

Before a new bridge was built beside it in 1965, this old bridge was used by the Pynes of Drumthwacket to reach their horses at "Pyne Ridge", and by the Whiton-Stuarts, the Veblens and Einstein to reach what we now call Veblen House. The bridge carried Princetonians out to Herrontown Woods during its first years of existence.

It's a beautifully made bridge, built of arched stones, and as you can see it is starting to slowly come apart, flood by flood, stone by stone. If it were to collapse, the town would have a big mess on its hands, with the stream blocked by rubble.

I have suggested that the bridge be preserved, repaired, and used as part of a bike/pedestrian route to give the Little Brook neighborhood safe access to Smoyer Park and Herrontown Woods. Currently, anyone walking or biking needs to "run the gauntlet" where Snowden Lane narrows between steep ditches from Overbrook out to Van Dyke. 

But town engineers claim the bridge is now owned by the neighbor. Curious that a private homeowner would be responsible for a bridge whose collapse would block a New Jersey waterway.

The collateral discovery was that we noticed a number of dead fish in the stream. I put one next to a walnut for scale, and sent the photo to a young naturalist named Felix who is learning about fish in the local streams. He told me it's a creek chub.

Hard to say what's going on. Fish kills can be caused by bacterial outbreaks, or low oxygen when the water gets too warm. Maybe the misuse or overuse of pesticides played a role.

What IS known, however, is that this lovely old, carefully crafted bridge is not going to mend itself. Galdino pointed out that the stone arch work is not just on the facade but extends the full width of the bridge. Proposed development upstream could increase the runoff headed towards this fine piece of history that speaks to a time when Snowden Lane was considered a country road.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

A Beautiful Release Dove Lingers on Franklin Avenue

It's gone now, but for ten days, a beautiful white dove lingered at the street edge in front of a recently vacated house on Franklin Avenue in Princeton. 

The first time I saw it, I thought it strange, but kept driving. The next day, it was there again, and I stopped.

The fact is, I don't remember ever seeing a bird quite like this. It wasn't a rock dove, or a mourning dove, or a seagull. It looked like a displaced pet, yet when I approached, it suddenly flew up like a bolt of lightening, and made a breathtaking arc far above. It began to circle back, saw I was still there, then headed north beyond the trees. I had never seen such a fabulous flight. The next day, it was there again. The neighbors who told me the dove had been there a week and a half said it "looked like it was waiting for an Uber."

Might it have been a pet of the people who had just moved out? Maybe its homing instincts are such that it escaped during their move and returned to what it considered home. But neighbors didn't think the previous residents had had a pet bird. The dove walked about on the pavement, pausing to peck at the ground. 


After several days of seeing it there, and asking neighbors, none of whom knew where it had come from, I finally got serious about wondering what this bird was. Some internet research yielded two names for the bird: "release dove" and "java dove". Apparently they sometimes get included in wedding ceremonies, the idea being that the dove or doves will be released at a celebratory moment and fly up in the same breathtaking manner I witnessed, symbolizing the hoped for trajectory of the marriage, then dutifully fly up to 600 miles back to their owners until the next wedding gig comes along. They can also make symbolic appearances at funerals and public ceremonies. 

The wikipedia page reflects disagreement about the tradition of release, with concerns raised about the fate of the birds following the release--the logic being that the birds are white and therefore particularly vulnerable to attack by hawks and other predators. Breeding for the pure white feathers may cause attrition of their homing instinct, making them more likely to get lost rather than return to their homes. It's conceivable that's what happened in this case, though the bird looked very sure it was in the right place.

There's even apparent disagreement about the latin name for the bird, with one sentence calling it a domestic rock dove (Columba livia domestica) and another calling it a barbary dove, (Streptopelia risoria). 

Photos from 1950 show a dovecote near the Veblen House in Herrontown Woods--the metal structure on the right that looks like a rocket. Most likely dating back to the 1930s when the Whiton-Stuarts owned the property, the dovecote could have housed doves for eating, carrier pigeons for messaging, or pigeons that were bred for display. 

The dovecote is long gone from the Veblen House grounds, and the fate of the release dove on Franklin Avenue is a mystery. It may have flown off in search of food, been found by its owners, or been caught by a predator. But one thing now is deeply known and felt, and that is how astounding a dove's flight can be. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Phyllis Marchand and the Benefits of Deer Culling

This past Sunday, Oct. 17, my Sustainable Jazz duo performed at a tribute to Phyllis Marchand at the DR Greenway's Johnson Education Center. 

Phyllis was mayor of Princeton Township for 14 years. For those accustomed to Princeton having an all-Democrat town council, it's astonishing to read that when Ms. Marchand was first elected in 1986, she joined a township committee that had been all-Republican.  Her long tenure preceded the merging of township and borough. Since I lived in the borough, she was not really my mayor, but her environmentalism has had a lasting impact on the natural areas I've helped to manage over the years. 

Among her many achievements, her courage in starting a deer culling program 21 years ago had all kinds of longterm benefits--dramatically fewer car accidents, recovery of native plant species, improved wildlife habitat, and a healthier deer herd. The culling program was very controversial at the time, with Mayor Marchand and other supporters having to endure heated criticism and personal attacks. 

The data are very strong on the benefits of annual culling by professional hunters. Here is some data collected for a post about deer hunting in 2013. Deer killed in roadway collisions dropped from the high of 342 in 2000 down to 68 in 2010. In 2019, 555 deer were killed in the township by vehicles and amateur hunters. In 2010, after ten years of professional deer management, the total number killed by vehicles, hunters and professionals had dropped to 286. Thus, one can say that investing in professional deer management actually has served to reduce the total number of deer killed each year. 

The township tried to save money by cancelling the deer culling in 2014, but deer numbers rapidly increased and the annual contract with professional hunters was quickly reinstated.

Given all of Phyllis Marchand's contributions to society through her long life, I had assumed that the deer culling issue was larger for me given my primary interest in nature. But the NY Times began its lengthy obituary with a detailed account of the controversy surrounding deer culling, including one sentence that is demonstrably false:

In the end, town officials declared the program a success because it had reduced collisions between deer and vehicles by 40 percent. But it didn’t solve the problem. The deer remain abundant, and while Ms. Marchand had contracted with White Buffalo for only five years, the town is still using its services.

The contract has been in place every year since 2000 except for one, and the deer herd is now small enough that many native plant populations have been able to recover. The obit doesn't mention the ecological benefits, but the article it links to does. Spicebush--a native shrub that is particularly important for bird habitat--is a dramatic example of recovery, once liberated from intense deer browsing. And the reduced browsing pressure has allowed many native wildflowers to bloom and provide nectar and pollen for insects. Having banished wolves and other predators of deer from the landscape, we then bear the responsibility to keep deer numbers in some semblance of ecological balance. Hunting is a way of stepping in to fill the void in natural predators. Mayor Marchand understood this twenty years ago, and weathered the storm to institute a policy that has proven its worth.

Phyllis Marchand, I've learned through her family, was a great fan of music sung by Nat King Cole and others. Sustainable Jazz usually plays all-original jazz and latin, but we added some of Phyllis' favorites from the American song book, including High Hopes, first sung by Frank Sinatra--a song whose lyrics can grow on you if you happen to have a dream. It's interesting to read in wikipedia that John F. Kennedy used a version of High Hopes as a theme song in his presidential campaign in 1960. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

What to Think of Black Vultures?

The other day, I was thinking about how much I love chipmunks, and how much my sister hates them. How do we reach opposite opinions about the same animal? Are the chipmunks that now run amok in her vegetable garden the same chipmunks I fondly remember from childhood, scampering over rocks, their cheeks puffed out with their latest gleaning of nuts? 

Vultures also tend to get mixed reviews. Some find them creepy; others laud their soaring skills and their ecological role of cleanup crew. There are two types in Princeton--the common turkey vultures and the less common black vultures that have been expanding their range to the north over time. Many people look up, see a bird soaring, and think it must be a hawk. More often it's a vulture, usually a turkey vulture, which is black with a feint streak of silver along the back of the underside of its wing. Black vultures' wings from below appear to be tipped with silver.

For years, black vultures have perched on the chimneys of the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods. At first we considered them a bad omen, but then as we learned more about them we gained respect and began to appreciate their presence. The photo is by Julie Tennant, a neighbor to the preserve who has taken an interest in the birds. The vulture still has a ring of fluffy immature feathers around its neck.

Each spring a pair of black vultures raises its young in the corncrib next to the cottage. People of course want to take a peek inside to see the chicks, but we worry that loose dogs and too many visitors could ultimately scare the vultures away.
It looked like that had come to pass this summer when the vultures disappeared for awhile, but then we saw a chick out for a walk on the cottage grounds, its plumage very much in transition.
Four years ago, one of the two chicks was slow to mature, causing the family to linger far longer than usual, often perching on the chimneys of the Veblen Cottage. We were won over by the patience the parents showed as they waited for the second chick to mature.
It was odd, then, having learned to care about the vulture family, to encounter an article in the NY Times entitled 
"Black Vulture Attacks on Animals May Be Increasing." Ranchers out in the midwest are claiming they are losing newborn livestock to black vultures that have been moving north into new territory. 

It's not clear from the article whether the ranchers are losing healthy livestock, or if the vultures are moving in on calves that were stillborn or dying. 

We're used to thinking of animals as occupying distinct categories. Predators kill, scavengers do not. But it would be interesting to explore how much overlap there is between the two roles. I've been struck by how black vultures's bodies look more raptor-like than the bodies of turkey vultures. And there's a bird we'd see along roadsides in Patagonia called the Chimango caracara. By its appearance it looks like a hawk, and yet it more often plays the role of a scavenger.

American black vultures are also expanding their range in Patagonia, potentially competing with Andean condors for food. Articles like these could work against the trend of our feelings about black vultures, which in Herrontown Woods have evolved towards affection. For us, they are fascinating birds, wild and yet drawn to live on the edge of our world, raising their young, and perching on the roof of nearby All Saints Church. (photo by Peter Thompson)

Monday, October 04, 2021

Help Your Local Trail Crew -- Sew a Rock Net

Here's an indoor way to help out the volunteers who take care of nature trails in your local nature preserve. Sew a "rock net" for carrying the big stepping stones that help hikers get across streams and through muddy patches. I was corresponding with Alan Hershey of DR Greenway to update trail info for Herrontown Woods on, and somehow the conversation turned to rocks--big rocks, the kind that work really well for trails--and how to get them to places too rugged for a hand truck. He recommended a rock net--a kind of cargo net developed by Deb Brockway, who has made several and steadily improved the design.

Below are instructions for anyone who has a knack for sewing and is looking for a good project. I know we could use one of these at Herrontown Woods, and other organizations could benefit as well. Thanks to Deb and Alan for this information.

The rock net, sometimes called a cargo net, looks like this:

Here are instructions from Deb:

Below are some helpful ideas from Deb on where to find materials:

"It is possible to buy a custom-made cargo net but they are relatively expensive, which is why I decided to make them. I have used 2-inch width recovery tow straps. The first straps I used I bought at Home Depot, which allowed me to feel the weight and clearly see the weave of the webbing. Those straps were no longer available from Home Depot, so I bought the next ones from Amazon and was not as pleased with the quality of the webbing (though there are lots of options, so I’m sure there are some with a tight weave). Next time around I will go to one of the online webbing sites to purchase it. That is a less expensive option and some of those outlets will cut all the pieces to requested lengths for no additional charge as compared to cutting a single entire length. The added benefit is that all of the ends would be (or should be) heat sealed when they arrive. If you cut the webbing you will need to melt all the cut ends to prevent fraying.

The attached document has additional information and sketches for cutting, assembling, and sewing a net like the orange one in the photo.

FYI… another option is to tie a net using thick rope. A trail crew I have worked with created such a net fashioned after a fishing net. It had a diamond net design, with knots tied at the junctures and some sort of gummy substance covering the knots."