Monday, January 29, 2024

Princeton University Students Study Local Nature

A recurring observation, which this blog has long sought to make less common, is that many people go through life knowing little about the natural world all around them. Kids can navigate the school years without gaining acquaintance with more than a handful of native plants. Princeton University students can tend to remain cloistered on campus, studying distant continents while leaving the local unexplored. 

A salve for this concern came this past fall when twenty Princeton University students gathered for a walk through Herrontown Woods. They had signed up for professor Andy Dobson's Ecology of Fields, Streams, and Rivers--a course that combined standard lecture with field trips to "local sites of ecological interest," including Herrontown Woods, Mountain Lakes, the Institute Woods, Terhune Orchards, and lands preserved more recently by the Ridgeview Conservancy.

What a delight to show them the all-too-rare forest opening in the Botanical Art Garden, where wildflowers team in the gaps between scattered trees. They witnessed the rebound of spicebush, as browsing pressure from deer has been brought more into balance, and the foundational, enduring open space legacy of the late great professor Oswald Veblen and his wife Elizabeth. 

In turn, the students taught us a few things two months later, when Andy invited us to witness their presentations of individual research projects. 

I hadn't known, for instance, that the Lenape valued the red mulberry, and that this tree species I had considered weedy is actually becoming rare, in part due to interbreeding with the introduced white mulberry. My increased respect may lead to identifying and propagating remaining local red mulberries, for planting in an open understory at Herrontown Woods.

Another student explained how the invasive barberry can serve as a tick haven. The nonnative shrub's dense, low growth provides a humid habitat for white-footed mice, which in turn harbor the ticks. 

We learned a new word, "solastalgia." Coined less than 20 years ago, the word captures a kind of loss we are becoming more and more familiar with. If nostalgia is a longing for a place or time left behind, solastalgia is the distress felt when the world we thought we knew does the leaving. The word captures the present era, as climate change steals the seasons, rapid development transforms once familiar landscapes, and even foundational systems like democracy become threatened.  

Another presentation told of the peach-clematis aphid, which lives two lives--one on peach-related trees, another on the non-native autumn clematis vine that blooms bright white in yards and in the wild. Andy pointed out that the resourceful aphid reproduces sexually on one, asexually on the other. This interaction between a nonnative insect and a nonnative plant is reminiscent of how the spotted lanternflies are drawn to the tree of heaven (Ailanthus)--the two having evolved together in Asia before being transported here. 

It was satisfying to see, as well, that Andy's course led one student to discover the fascinating world of fire ecology, that is, how plants of many sorts have adapted to and even become dependent upon the periodic presence of fire in the landscape. Her presentation brought back memories of my first happening upon the concept in my second year in college, exactly 50 years ago. I was on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Savannah, wondering why the pines were burying themselves in pine needles so thick that no new pines could grow. The answer, discovered pre-internet in books and articles, was that the pines dropped persistent needles as an evolved strategy to promote periodic fire that would leave the pines intact while exposing the mineral soil for seed germination and killing the pine's less fire-resistant competitors.

By teaching a course on local ecology, Professor Dobson is in part building on the great tradition of one of his predecessors in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Henry Horn, who frequently reached beyond the university's borders to lead walks in local preserves. Some engaging videos of Henry's walks are online, and Henry's wife, Elizabeth Horn, continues to teach a wildflower course at the Princeton Adult School. I looked back and found another great example of university students learning from local habitats: when history professor Vera Candiani had architectural historian Clifford Zink and me introduce her students to Mountain Lakes' flora and history.

Courses past and gratefully present demonstrate the potential for synergy between town, gown, and outdoors, and somehow brought to mind the imperative found long ago in the Grateful Dead's song "Truckin'": 

"Get out of the door and light out and look all around."

Most of what stuck with me from college happened outside the classroom. And though the distant world may beckon, there's a whole lot of truckin' and learnin' to be done just beyond one's doorstep.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Fountain Park--Ancestral Connection to an Eternal Spring

It is my sister-in-law Edna, not my siblings and I, who has taken particular satisfaction in researching our family's ancestry. She traced one lineage on my father's side back to Lord Hempleman of Hesse-Kassel. If my parents had known there was a Lord in our family's past, they might have called on me to show more regal bearing as a kid. Though it's flattering to learn of some royal ancestry, the most exciting find was another lineage, on my mother's side, extending seven generations back to an eternal spring located one hundred miles west of Princeton. 

In Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, there is a fountain that flows nonstop, year-round, without aid of any pump. It's water rises from a spring perched on the hillside, then flows down the hill to a fountain where residents of the town still come to have a drink.

The fountain was part of an innovative underground system of wooden pipes that transported water from the spring down one side of a valley and up the other to provide drinking water in wooden troughs on the town square. 

According to some literature:
"The water company in Schaefferstown has the oldest gravitational conveyance system by underground pipes in the United States. The water system was constructed sometime between 1744 and 1750 by the founder of the town, Alexander Schaeffer."

It's also called "the oldest Chartered Waterworks still in operation in the United States."

This ancestral connection has all sorts of resonance in my life. Water holds an attraction for most people, but in my life it has been a recurring theme. I grew up near beautiful Lake Geneva, WI, got a masters degree in water quality, founded a watershed association, turned a soggy field in a public park into a wetland garden, dug a series of miniponds in my backyard, and favor wildflowers that thrive in wet soil. As a kid walking home from school when winter was finally giving way to spring, I loved to build dams out of wet snow to hold back the snowmelt along the curb. Clearly, all this time Alexander Schaeffer's genes have been whispering encouragement to his great-great-great-great-great grandson.

The eternal spring is in a park that also feels eternal, appropriately called Fountain Park, 

Halfway up the hillside is the spring house, which looks more like a mound of earth, with a wall on the bottom end, its own picket fence
and its own caretaker--one in a long line of caretakers dating back to the mid-1700s
Peer in through the door in the wall, 
and you'll find what looks like a small indoor swimming pool--a durably crafted stone chamber where the water collects before flowing down to the fountain. 

One enduring mystery, which I'm hoping a hydrogeologist who strays upon this post can explain, is why springs tend to emerge not at the bottom of a hill but halfway down. 
Climb up this hill and you quickly reach the top, where there hardly seems to be enough land to feed such a copious and consistent spring--not much more than a small farm field, with the land beyond lower and flowing off in different directions. 
German immigrant Alexander Schaeffer laid out the town in a way reminiscent of those he knew in Europe, and initially called it Heidelberg, after one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. 

Water from the spring still feeds troughs along Market Street, bringing back memories of ancient Roman water works seen in Italy.

The park is owned and maintained by residents of Market Street. Buy a house on Market Street, and you also become part owner and steward of the park. 

While in town, I met one of the owner/stewards, Ann Ginder, who gave me some copies of this pamphlet. At the time--my visit was in 2018--her husband, Andy, was president of the group of residents along the street who take care of Fountain Park. Carl "Cork" Meyer, who I didn't meet, is the one who does most of the physical work to maintain the park. 

On the town square, Alexander Schaeffer built what still stands as a tavern called Franklin House, and it was there that I met what proved to be a distant cousin of mine, Howard Kramer. Our ancestral connection to each other and the town's founder can be tracked back via gravestones variously populated with names like Meyer, Moyer, and Meier. Ann Ginder calls Howard the "unofficial mayor" of Schaefferstown.

Schaeffer's house and farm on the outskirts of town are being restored as a historic site, with summer festivals to celebrate the town's history. It's not just the unique drinking water system and a long line of advocates and stewards that has saved the town's historical features. As one website explains,

"Because the area was left isolated from rail lines, canals, and modern highways, the town did not grow appreciably in the 19th or 20th centuries. This greatly influenced the small-town look and feel that the area maintains today."

Thanks to my sister-in-law Edna for discovering our ancestral link to this special place, founded by my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. And thanks to those who care enough to cherish and sustain that history. Howard wrote to me that "years ago there was a steady line of people getting their drinking water here and at the fountain mid-way up Market St." Even now, with all the world's turbulence, radical change, and myriad threats to what we once thought of as forever, there is an improbable spring perched above a Pennsylvania valley where the water still flows.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Native Bamboos Once Common in the Southeastern U.S.

This post isn't about the tall bamboo you often see growing around town. That would be golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), native to southeast China, cultivated in Japan for centuries, and first introduced to the United States in the 1880s. In our neighborhood, I sometimes see people of asian descent harvesting its young shoots in the spring. (If you're looking for a clever way to get rid of it, or want to eat it, or both, scroll through my various previous posts that actually ARE about the nonnative golden bamboo.

Nor is this post about the bamboo you are confronted with when you pull out of the Spring Street parking garage behind the Princeton Public Library. That one's probably the nonnative arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica), which lacks the towering, thick stems. Instead, it grows into a dense mop of evergreen foliage, seldom rising much beyond ten feet high. It's rarely seen in Princeton, but was a common feature in neighborhoods where I used to live, further south in the piedmont, in Durham, NC. We'd find it thriving in shade, and in that Princeton back alley it does an excellent job of screening the homes beyond it from the sight of cars pulling out of the parking garage day and night. 

This post IS about what that patch of arrow bamboo reminded me of: native bamboos. Yes, there are native bamboos that once dominated vast stretches of the southeastern U.S., but which are now largely lost from the landscape.

The photo shows a patch of native bamboo, cane so-called (Arundinaria sp.), that I planted 20 years ago in a nature preserve we created in Durham, NC. Called "17 Acre Wood," the neighborhood preserve straddles Ellerbe Creek--good floodplain habitat for native cane. A scientist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Roger Hansard, had given me the plant. (He was also the one who showed me the last remnant of another little known, long-lost feature of the eastern U.S.--extensive native grasslands. There once was a great native meadow just south of Princeton, called Maidenhead Meadows.) 

Prior to western settlement, early European explorers in what is now North Carolina documented not the unbroken forest of lore, but a mosaic of grasslands, forest, and canebrakes. The canebrakes were dominated by native bamboos. 

There are three species of native bamboo. A Name That Plant article gives a quick overview of native (Arundinaria sp.) and nonnative bamboos in the U.S.. 
Differences in distribution and vegetative characteristics help to distinguish among Arundinaria species and from non-native species. Typically river cane is more widely distributed in the southeastern US, switch cane in coastal plains and lower elevations, and hill cane in higher elevations (Appalachian Mountain region).
The Tennessee Conservationist has an excellent writeup on the river cane that until the 1700s formed "the dominant ecosystem in the Cumberland River valley." Dense stands of river cane, growing from 5-40 feet tall, served as important resources for American Indians, excellent forage for bison and later cattle, and hiding places for escaped slaves. They postulate that some of these massive canebrakes were the result of cane reclaiming corn fields abandoned by "prehistoric Mississippian peoples" many centuries prior, as major droughts led to the breakup of an early civilization. In turn, the canebrakes proved easier than forests for newly arrived western settlers to turn into farm fields.

If you've never seen bamboo blooming, it's because it can grow for decades without blooming at all. Then a year finally comes when the whole patch will bloom at once, then die. I've seen a whole city block suddenly die in this way. 

The cluster of roots and leaves of native bamboo that I planted alongside Ellerbe Creek some 20 years ago in Durham has grown into a patch 30 wide. Maybe someone will come along and use it as a source for replanting the Cane Creeks of the world, named for what was once abundant and now is seldom seen.

That's what I was reminded of a few weeks ago, pulling out of the Spring Street parking garage next to the public library.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

A Rose Blooms in Brooklyn

 Quite the surprise, arising the morning of January 1st,

to find a rose blooming in a Brooklyn backyard. My first thought on this first day was, "Why is this rose blooming? Doesn't it know it's winter?" And such a large, beautiful rose!

Then I looked up and was surprised again, by two tall towers--iron exclamation points--rising along the back fence between two backyards in this row of brownstones. "What were those towers?," I asked my hosts.

Turns out that long ago, these towers anchored an elaborate web of clotheslines that stretched back to the apartments. I'm guessing the lines were mounted on pulleys, so that residents could hang laundry all the way out to the towers, then "pulley" it on back when it was dry.

It looked something like this--not unlike a harbor full of miniature sailboats. 

Sailing and line drying clothes are both ways to collaborate with nature. Both require being tuned in, aware of the outdoors, alert to shifts in the wind and the weather. Lacking an outdoor clothesline, I can still collaborate by hanging my clothes on a rack, then return the next day to find that nature has effortlessly dried them. 

Machines have stolen us away from collaborations with nature, yet, embedded in concrete, these iron towers remain, soaring skyward like the masts of idled sailboats, still standing ready to launch us back to a more sustainable lifestyle. Patiently indifferent to a changed world, they teach the rose to bloom in January.

More about what it was like to hangdry clothes out the back window can be found in a post on Ephemeral New York.