Showing posts with label Places To Visit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Places To Visit. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Nash Park in West Windsor Needs a Loving Heart

There's a curious park that I stumbled upon in West Windsor called Nash Park, named in honor of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, John Nash, and his wife Alicia. They were longtime residents of West Windsor before being tragically killed in an auto accident in 2015. 

When you walk around this expanse of mostly grass, you may get the feeling that something is missing. What is it? Stewardship? Practicality? Trees?

In reading articles generated in 2017 soon after the park was introduced to the world, I've been able to piece together the original intent. I had been calling it "John Nash Park," but the more powerful story very much includes Alicia. 

As the Town Topics described it in 2017, "Mr. Nash, a senior research mathematician in the Princeton University mathematics department and winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics for his work in game theory, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 2002 film, A Beautiful Mind. Mrs. Nash, a mental health advocate, was credited with saving Mr. Nash’s life during his prolonged illness."

The West Windsor mayor at the time, Shing-Fu Hsueh, saw the park as a means of showing appreciation for all that John Nash contributed to mankind. He said that John Nash's story demonstrates how “Even though you have problems, you can be recognized around the world.” 

In a Community News article, township landscape architect Daniel Dobrimilsky described the initial concept, “a town green with gardens along the edges. We decided to make the space in the middle the size of a regulation croquet lawn, about a 100 feet by a 100 feet." Croquet! Now I know that I am not the only person in the universe who has long harbored a sentimental affection for croquet.

Dobrimilsky also talked about the desire to improve social life. “One of the concepts we came up with was a community garden, since it is a nice way to share traditions and understand each other better. So I came up with the idea of having an Asian-themed garden, because we had a growing Asian population, and most of the landscapes in the area really followed traditional European designs." An interview with the mayor describes him as one of the first Asians to be elected to public office in the U.S. Shing-Fu Hsueh left his position as a water quality engineer at the DEP soon after  beginning what would be a 16 year stint as mayor of West Windsor, from 2002 to 2018.

Now, six years after those articles and five years after Hsueh's departure, I see no croquet, nor any gardens beyond a shrub or two. A Grounds for Sculpture-like statue of the Nashes walking through the park side by side, for which $190,000 would have needed to be raised, has not materialized. (Update: As of 2023, a less costly version is still being pursued.)

But a number of features have sprouted on this flat square of land that otherwise has no features of its own. The Lions Club installed this welcoming sculpture.

A donated pavilion stands in the back, with a couple benches facing away from the park.

The most interesting view from the benches is up into the pagoda structure above. A plaque explains that a similar pavilion was built in Mount Emei, China, where Nash once gave a lecture. 

An eagle scout project is another landmark, adding a zig and a zag to the path that circles the park, crossing over what could be imagined to be a sandy streambed. 

And then there's this linear feature, with benches at either end as if for spectators to watch some unknown sort of sports event. 

Nothing is explained, beyond a plaque that describes the park as "A beautiful place for a beautiful mind and a loving heart," a sentiment borrowed from Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash, "A Beautiful Mind."
Picnic tables, this one painted with a faded chessboard, sit out in the field, unshaded by trees. 

The few trees, like this golden rain tree, are planted far from the seating, and look stunted.

Take a close look at the base of the trunk and you'll see why the trees aren't growing much. Evidently, the maintenance crew, in its efforts to kill weeds around the trees, has girdled the trunks with its weed whippers. 

Some tree trunks also have badly damaged trunks, whether from rubbing by deer or sun scorch. 

The park appears well positioned between business and residential neighborhoods, and maintenance crews are keeping the park neat and clean--in a kind of holding pattern. But the needs of both plants and people seem to be getting left out of the equation. As a mathematician might say, those are key variables that must be included in any equation for success. The picnic tables are unshaded. The benches in the pavilion aren't oriented to encourage socializing. There's no place for kids to play and explore. Is there a clear place to park, and a water source for anyone wishing to nurture new plantings? 

The park clearly had an inspired beginning, but now it needs someone who loves plants and loves people, and who can create spaces within it where people will naturally want to gather, and enjoy each other and the landscape around them. Like the troubled genius John Nash himself, Nash Park needs a loving heart.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Harrison Street Park: Contrasting Tales of Trees and Wildflowers

Most people drive by Harrison Street Park unawares. It's an old neighborhood park that lacks parking, and so mostly serves those who live close enough to walk there. Whenever I think to stop by this surprisingly spacious park close to Nassau Street, it's to check in on dreams living and remembered. 

One dream is bringing back the American chestnut. We've planted a number of chestnuts around town that are 15/16th native. They were originally crossed with a resistant asian chestnut, then backcrossed with the aim of ending up with a predominantly native chestnut tree that still carries the Asian species' resistance to chestnut blight. Some of these trees have proven susceptible to the blight, but two in particular have resisted the blight thus far. One of these is in Harrison Street Park, nearly 20 feet tall now. 

We also planted two native butternuts there, another native tree that has been marginalized by an introduced disease. It's good to see them thriving and starting to bear nuts. 

There's also an attempt by the town, successful thus far, to keep a grove of ash trees protected from the introduced Emerald Ash Borer, via systemic applications of insecticide. Another small grove of trees was planted through a citizen donation and collaboration with the Shade Tree Commission.

Other dreams for Harrison Street Park, involving wildflower plantings, have not done so well. Princeton Borough had great dreams for this park at one time. In 2006, they hired me to conduct an ecological assessment and write a stewardship plan. Then they hired a landscape architecture firm from Philadelphia to design improvements to the park. Neighbors offered many ideas and expressed many opinions. The old wading pool--a relic from a distant, more sustainable era when kids gathered in their neighborhood parks in the summer--was removed, the play equipment was updated, and a few new features were installed. 

Some $30,000 was spent on new native plantings that looked good for a year or two before going into steady decline. The idea was that neighbors would care for all these new plants. Of course, a drought promptly ensued. Some of the neighbors rose to the occasion to keep the plants going, but the extensive flower beds required more than an initial season of zeal. Neither the borough maintenance crews nor any of the neighbors had the training or interest to keep the flower beds weeded over the longterm. 

This flower bed is now a massive stand of Canada thistle and mugwort. 

The plant with the big leaves is a common weed in the midwest that is showing up more and more in Princeton. It looks like rhubarb, but is in fact burdock. 

There's a swale in the park that receives runoff from a private parking lot next door. These wet, sunny spots can tip the balance towards native species. A friend and I planted various floodplain species--joe pye weed, tall meadowrue, etc--but also planted Jerusalem artichoke, which is a native sunflower species with edible tubers. 

When planting an aggressive plant like a native sunflower, it's easy to believe one will follow up and keep its expansionist growth in check. That's almost never the case. The sunflowers has spread aggressively underground over the years, and have long since swallowed the other wildflowers in their dense growth. Each year the sunflower clone expands, as park crews mow around its fringe. 

We also planted a couple pawpaw trees there, but they were overwhelmed by the sunflowers. A couple black walnut trees sprouted on their own and had much better luck, somehow managing to rise above the sunflowers. Trees that plant themselves tend to be more successful than trees planted by people. On the upside, the sunflowers are so aggressive that they require no weeding, and there's a dazzling display of yellow in the fall. But, like some of the other plantings at Harrison St Park over the years, it's not what was originally envisioned. 

Monday, October 03, 2022

The Jazz Naturalist Travels to England

Botanical and musical interests merged recently, while touring England with a latin/jazz ensemble I've been musical director of for almost 40 years, called the Lunar Octet. It was a whirlwind tour, with seven gigs in five days. Along the way, I was able to catch glimpses of nature in the British Isles. 

One of our hosts, in Tunbridge Wells, has a delightful garden. The city is located in Kent, which is a county south of London. England as a country has no states, but rather lots of counties, like Hampshire, Yorkshire, and Devon, which seems to have lost its shire. Homes have addresses in England, but they are also sometimes given names. Our host lives in the Sandstone House. Are all english gardens like this? I'd be fine with it if so. Sheep graze peacefully in the front yard. Had never seen baby sheep grazing before. They're doing a great job.
Pink flamingoes are an indicator species for quirky habitat. Real flamingoes can be found in Africa and America. I once saw flocks of them at watering holes at the base of the Andes in the Patagonian desert in Argentina. Plastic pink flamingoes (Phoenicopterus plasticus) are a northern species, reportedly native to Massachusetts. 
The nylon strings draped over the front yard water feature looked at first like a sculpture, but may also be an elegant deterrent of whatever local water bird might be tempted to fly in and gobble up the fish.
There was a very scary guard dog, fortunately leashed.
And a guard bird kept an eye on us. People underestimate guard birds at their peril. 

There was a sheep patrolling the deck, looking like a character out of Wallace and Gromit. Very high security.

The garden deals with the death of trees in an interesting way. People tend to eliminate all signs of death from their gardens, but our hosts see demise as an opportunity. What's this?, you might ask.

I did ask, and was told that it's a thumb. That's a very positive thing to do with a dead tree trunk. 
And that split trunk in the distance, instead of cutting it down, 
they added a rope and called it a sling-shot.
If you've been steeped in the American ethic that trees should be allowed to grow naturally, the European treatment of trees can seem at first brutal. This eucalyptus, native to Australia, is lucky to have any limbs. Radical pruning is a means of controlling size, and is reminiscent of how grape vines are pruned back each year to not much more than a post sticking out of the ground. New growth sprouts from the tips. Pollarding is a fascinating technique with a long history, and some examples, intentional or not, can be found in Princeton.

Even more extreme pruning leaves just the trunk, as can be seen in this photo taken on the fly. It would be interesting to see how the trees respond to such extreme treatment.

There was a forest nearby that I didn't have time to explore, but the description sounds appealing.

"... a diverse mosaic of habitats: native broadleaf woodland of oak, birch, rowan, and hazel; areas of mature and younger conifer; fern-clad hollows; and patches of heathland where the heather, gorse, and purple moor-grass harbour a host of wildlife." 

"Fernclad hollows? Heather, gorse, purple moor-grass? If I had read the sign then and there, I would have launched myself up the trail for a closer look. Instead I took a photo of the sign, to ostensibly read later, and returned to the Sandstone House, still carrying the misconception that heather only grows further north, up towards Scotland. Rowan turns out to be the European equivalent of our mountain ash. Gorse looks a bit like a shrub called Scotch broom, with similarly bright yellow leguminous flowers. Both were introduced to the western U.S. and became invasive. It would have been good to see how gorse grows in its native habitat of Britain. The sign also says that Hargate Forest has its own invasive species, rhododendron, which is being removed. 

One big surprise was the presence of palm trees in southern Great Britain. The photo below was taken in Torquay (pronounced tor-KEY, home of Faulty Towers) where our band did a workshop at a boy's grammar school. A grammar school, I learned, doesn't refer to teaching grammar but to the need to test to get in. Palm trees, yuccas, Bird of Paradise--the flora along the south coast was more reminiscent of Pasadena, CA than my preconception of a uniformly cold, damp England.

A little ways north, the climate still looked to be on the mild side, with fuchsia shrubs blooming in a garden designed for butterflies. It was at the Bristol Grammar School, reminiscent of Hogwarts, with uniformed students and a grand paneled dining hall. 
In a big blackbox theater, we performed our original music, then brought the students down to learn how to play a street samba rhythm. It is tremendously satisfying to perform for a sea of bright young faces, who listened well and gave back as much energy as we gave them. 

Most jazz musicians, leaving the gig, would not have noticed the teasel growing in the little butterfly garden that was trying mightily to do its part to counter 50 years of decline in butterflies and moths in Great Britain. Apparently native to England, teasel is a plant with a striking form that unfortunately has become highly invasive in the midwestern U.S., forming thick stands along highways. It probably will become problematic in NJ over time. Typically there's a lack of indigenous herbivores and diseases to keep an introduced plant in check when it becomes invasive on other continents. Teasel is, as mentioned, a striking plant, sometimes used in dry flower arrangements. Invasive is another way of saying "too much of a good thing." It would be interesting to see how teasel behaves in the English landscape, beyond the confines of a 10 X 20 butterfly garden.
Towards the end of the tour, our hosts in Nottingham, owners of a wonderful jazz club called Peggy's Skylight, put us up at their homes. The foliage in front of one of the houses along the street was decidedly American, with pampas grass and Virginia creeper.

The wannabe urban planner in me would like to take a moment to heap praise upon shallow setbacks, which I will pretend is a botanical term for locating homes close to the street. The small front yard thus created is a manageable space for having a small garden. Princeton has some neighborhoods with these smaller setbacks, but where homes are placed far from the street, not only is it less likely one will get to know one's neighbor, but the vast front yard thus created is also too big for most people to garden. The solution most homeowners gravitate towards is a boring, sterile expanse of mowed lawn. In England, I was glad for the feeling of embrace the narrow streets and their close-in buildings create.

There's a wonderful post about Virginia creeper by a woman in London who describes herself this way: "Bug Woman is a slightly scruffy middle-aged woman who enjoys nothing more than finding a large spider in the bathroom."

The blogger's description of self begs the question: Are Brits more comfortable than Americans with self-deprecation? In downtown Nottingham, we saw the Ugly Bread Bakery, 
which was just up the street from the Fatface department store. Do words get upcycled in England, to turn a negative into a positive? Though people were not above occasional complaint, we picked up on considerable positive energy, with the word "brilliant" being sprinkled liberally upon various things and actions, the way we might use "awesome."

One plant doing very well in England is English ivy, which looks to be a bonafide native. Vines typically bloom only when they climb something, which is why you never see English ivy, Virginia creeper, or poison ivy blooming when they are only spreading across the ground.

Along with the loss of wildlife, there's also the mourning of the attrition of hedgerows in the countryside. Apparently a lot were removed after WWII, when farming shifted towards maximum production and the hedgerows were standing in the way of expanding fields. Our pianist for the week, Adam Biggs, lives in Bath and described to me how hedgerows are not so much planted as "laid". There's a whole technique to creating and maintaining hedgerows, which are promoted as important habitat for wildlife.

We were fortunate in Nottingham to have an instantly likable host named Lex, a geographer with a liking for pirates and educational t-shirts.

A closer look reveals important anatomical differences between various strains of humanity.

Their dog is a small version of a pure bred fox hound, the runt of the litter. The sort that hunts foxes, Lex explained, are much larger and specially bred. He described the tradition of fox hunting historically as more a form of warfare than sport--a means by which the upper class could demonstrate dominion over the lands populated by the tenant farmers. Fox hunting became logistically difficult as the landscape became more broken up into smallholder parcels whose owners were less willing to go along with the periodic invasion. 

While we found Robin Hood hanging out next to Nottingham Castle, built over ancient sandstone caves, he'd now have to drive an hour north to reach what remains of Sherwood Forest. There was no time for that, even though it looks like there's an amazingly old oak up there called the Major Oak.

We didn't see any fairs in Scarborough, but we did go, and did play for a thousand people at the jazz festival there. They called our music "joy jazz"--a new genre. Half the joy was in the music. The other half was in getting to see England and meet some of its people.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Chance Encounters with Trees in Lambertville and New Hope

My awareness of trees made me a mixed bag as a companion on a recent visit to Lambertville. The same eye that spots nature's wonders makes it hard to ignore tragedy.

My first find was a red mulberry tree, encountered on the Lambertville side of the bridge, draping itself over the canal. My daughter and I gorged on the berries.

Most mulberry trees grow straight up, leaving the abundant berries frustratingly out of reach, but this one grows right out of the old stone wall of the canal. Suspended above the water, its limbs grow horizontally towards the sidewalk, making for a beautiful presentation of berries to passersby.

The view down the Delaware River from the bridge was glorious, the air above the long-traveled water fresh and richly scented. It was a time to be positive, to focus on the upside, but I couldn't help scrutinizing that seemingly verdant distant hillside. 

There, mixed in with the green, was evidence of the massive dieoff of ash trees--a profound moment in history that we are living through, ever since the Emerald ash borer hitchhiked to America in the wood of packing crates twenty years ago. 

There are immense ash trees perched on the bluff overlooking the river, like the grove on the left here that shaded us as we began our leisurely walk across the bridge. They are still green enough to deceive most people, but will end up like those just to their right in the photo. These observations could have triggered thoughts of past dieoffs that transformed our forests, marginalizing once dominant trees like American chestnut and elm, but

fortunately, there was a more positive tree story to shift to. Walking across the bridge, I noticed an improbably large tree rising above the houses along the shore in New Hope that looked to be flourishing. Later, I ducked down an alley to have a closer look. A bicentennial plaque in front of it says it was alive at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. That makes it more than 234 years old.

A man living next to it, who grew more friendly once he realized we were interested in the tree, said it's a willow oak. 

When I lived in North Carolina, we had many willow oak trees. Conveniently, their narrow leaves would settle in nicely with the pine needles, and after a few years I let that mix of leaves and needles replace the lawn as a pleasing surface for the yard. 

Some of the branches of this specimen would be impressive trees on their own.

New Hope prospered early on because of the ferry, and also because of the mills powered by the steady springfed waters of the resident stream. Tucked behind the Bucks County Playhouse, which used to be a mill, this dam frames a scenic, misty cove. A great blue heron stood stockstill, scrutinizing the falling waters, waiting for the stream to deliver dinner.

As if it were an old friend, I pointed out the native indigo bush lining the shore below the theater. I didn't get much of a response from my companions, but for me, knowing the plants makes it possible to feel familiarity even in a place where one knows no one at all, and makes an extraordinary place all the more extraordinary.