Friday, November 11, 2022

Nature at the Princeton Battlefield

(Thanks to those who commented. Scroll down for an update.)
As a lover of both nature and history, I experience the Princeton Battlefield differently than most. There's gratitude for its preservation, along with some grieving for the way the land is managed. Nature here is pushed to the fringes, as if to replicate a giant ballfield. But the battle took place on a working farm, not an athletic field. 

The Clark House has been restored, its 18th century charms highly valued. So why would the landscape not be similarly treated? In the winter of 1777, the soldiers would have been treading through corn stubble, or pasture, or an orchard. 

One answer would be that visitors and re-enactors benefit from a clean surface. The question then would be how much to mow and where, so that people could enjoy a lawn, but also have areas that evoke more a feeling of the 18th century. 

As I walk across the field, I feel a sense of space more than place. Perhaps if I tried I could feel grandeur, or solemnity. Graveyards are mowed, after all. A big sky and a big field help us to understand that something big happened here, when a nation was being born, its future stretching far off towards the horizon. Maybe the landscape works in some spiritual way to evoke freedom and possibility. But as I walk these hallowed grounds, I'm also feeling a sense of a long ways to go before reaching anything interesting. Okay. Perhaps that long trudge could generate some appreciation for the long overnight march of Washington's amateur army from Trenton to Princeton. 

One tree stands in the middle of the giant lawn, an offspring of the great Mercer Oak that had witnessed the battle and lived through two more centuries before falling to a windstorm in 2000. Trees growing at the time of a great battle are called witness trees. The soldiers who fought that pivotal battle are long gone, but centuries later a tree, especially the long-lived white oak, could still claim "I was there!"

The offspring was donated by Louise Morse, spouse of Marston Morse, a mathematician who Oswald Veblen helped bring to the nearby Institute for Advanced Study in the 1930s. It was Veblen's initiative to acquire the 600+ acres behind the Battlefield that later became the Institute Woods.

The sign tells the story of the white oak and General Mercer. What I've come to look at, though, is not the highly symbolic tree but a thin sliver of golden brown in the distance. 
Beyond the lawn, towards the back of the Battlefield, is a meadow that is mowed once a year. For some reason they mowed the edge of it this fall but have left the rest, perhaps as winter cover for wildlife.
Taking a closer look, I'm surprised to see that, among the blackberries and prairie grasses, goldenrods and asters, are myriad sassafras sprouts, most of them bright orange this time of year. The meadow is a giant clone of sassafras--one root system with ten thousand heads. Can't say I've ever seen that before. 

To the left of the field is a bedraggled woods, dominated by the skeletons of ash trees killed by the introduced Emerald ash borer. A heroic American tree species silently meets its demise.

Behind the Clark House, and also across Mercer Street to the left of the pillars, more signs of introduced invasive species abound. Rampant invasive porcelainberry is stifling the 1976 bicentennial plantings--flowering dogwoods and daffodils around the edge of the field. As is typical of the landscapes we daily tread, the Princeton Battlefield invests in mowing the grass, while leaving the unmowed areas untended and overrun. Each year the Sierra Club organizes a spirited volunteer day to battle against bamboo near the Clark House. In the past, I would lead a group to cut the aggressive porcelainberry vines off of the bicentennial flowering dogwoods, but it's hard to make lasting progress when unsupported by the state agency that views grounds maintenance of this state park as "mow and go." Now all I do is make annual visits to snuff out a small infestation of mile-a-minute I spotted some years back on the Battlefield grounds.

Surely the soldiers who fought here knew their plants better than most people do today, and would feel disoriented by today's massive lawn surrounded by alien weeds. If I were to envision a battlefield landscape that sought to provide a more historically authentic botanical and horticultural context, I'd imagine some portion of the massive lawn being given over to the sort of landscape the battle was actually fought upon--pasture, orchard, corn field, whatever research shows to have been likely at the time. Along the edges would be native forest rather than tangles of kudzu-like nonnative vines. 

According to its mission statement, the Princeton Battlefield Society seeks to "restore the lands and cultural landscape." Maybe once other admirable goals are achieved, someone in the group will get interested in showing people an authentic 1777 landscape, and get the state parks department to help in the effort.  

To acquire, protect, preserve, and restore
the lands and cultural landscape related
to the Battle of Princeton of 1777;

To enlarge and improve the
Princeton Battlefield State Park;

To educate the public about the Battle
of Princeton, the Ten Crucial Days,
and the American Revolution.

Update, Dec. 23, 2022 : It's not hard to find accounts of the chronic underfunding of maintenance for NJ's state park system. This cuts both ways for Princeton Battlefield State Park. It explains why invasive species run rampant along the fringes of the park, but doesn't explain the large investment in mowing. One could have a mowed area around the house and for the areas of the land used for re-enactments and other events, and for visitors to explore the park (we used to fly kites there). Surely that still leaves large areas that could be managed for meadow. 

Nearby the Institute for Advanced Study grounds provide an example of large areas requiring only an annual mowing. 

Ribbons of mowed grass through meadow at the Battlefield would not only reduce mowing but also invite visitors to explore the full extent of the park. Walking across a vast lawn gives little sense of progress, departure, or arrival, and thus doesn't encourage exploration the way a mowed path does. 

The current management, in which nature is either suppressed by mowing or neglected along the fringes, does not reflect the view of nature held by the battle's greatest hero. George Washington was, among many things, a farmer. He believed plants were so important to a nation's future that he "had a dream of a national botanic garden and was instrumental in establishing one on the National Mall in 1820." 

In our era, when most people suffer from plant blindness, it must seem incongruous that the United States Botanic Garden is located immediately adjacent to the U.S. Capitol building. Plant blindness, according to the botanists who coined the term, "results in a chronic inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs."

With this in mind, some rethinking of how vegetation is managed at the Princeton Battlefield could add to the visitor's experience, and shift some funds from mindless mowing to a mindful restoration of a more historically authentic landscape.


  1. Thank you. I so appreciated this writing!

  2. It's called "Battlefield Park." A trip to Google reveals that the word "park" is basically an "enclosed area," although what's in that area can be many different things, except you don't see the word "farm" or "farmland." So maybe they shouldn't have made it into a park, but something else. But what could that be?

    And what does the Princeton Battlefield Society mean when it says it wants to "restore the lands and cultural landscape?" This certainly isn't a restoration.

    My guess is that with American customs, the simplest and least expensive solution is to make a grassy lawn that can be mowed to look clean, open, and welcoming - an invitation for visitors to contemplate the historical event, without distractions that nature can cause. It's no longer for nature, but for people, a space primarily devoted to the historical event. I'd say it's worth it.