Showing posts with label Princeton parks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Princeton parks. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Leaves and People Win in Princeton Parks

You could say this is just a photo of a local park with a lawn and a couple trees, but that would be missing the big picture. What we have here is a win-win-win-win. Now, I've always wondered why win-wins, not to mention win-win-win-wins, don't get people more excited. Anyone interested in making the world a better place knows that, given what a fix the world is in, and how busy people tend to be, if we just get one win at a time there's no way we'll ever reach our goal in time to kick back and enjoy a nice cool drink on the veranda. With all the forces conspiring to make the world a worse place, we need wins in big batches--twos, threes, as many as we can get.

So, please, show a little excitement when I point out all the wins in this photo. They all have to do with those magical things called leaves. For twelve years, I've watched those white oaks grow, each year extending their branches to offer more shade for the picnic tables beneath them. As if calibrated to the shade, birthday parties seem to grow in size and frequency each year, centered under the trees and radiating out across the park. Clustered there next to the sandbox, they are the right trees in the right place, and whoever planted them should be given an award for creating an oasis of beauty and comfort where people can come together.

But what to do with those leaves when they fall, albeit very slowly through the winter, being oaks. That's where the other wins reside, for there was a time when the town would swoop in with a big crew and a big truck, then spend most of the day blowing the leaves into a pile, muscling them into the truck, and hauling them out of town to the compost center. Nice compost, you might think, but at what expense? There's the man-hours spent, the truck to buy and maintain, the extra time to drive out of town, the export of nutrients from the park, and all the while, greenhouse gases being scattered to the winds to further trouble the earth.

A few years ago, seeing all these negative impacts on budget, park and planet, I asked the parks director if the town (okay, "municipality") could return to the old borough approach of simply mowing the leaves back into the lawn. That way, the parks department would be modeling what its environmental commission has been recommending all along, that people utilize their leaves rather than blow them to the curb.

What a joy, then, to see that this year the parks department has adopted this approach in Potts Park and elsewhere. In this photo, you can see the mulch-mowed leaves nestled between the grass blades, where they will decompose, feed the lawn, reduce runoff, and maybe even make the ground a little softer when kids fall. There's a brown tint to the lawn, but that will quickly transition back to green.

This far into the blogpost, I've lost count on how many wins this simple change in lawncare has achieved, and the tally wouldn't even include all those lower priority tasks the parks crews will now have time to do. So, grab a mower or fashion a leaf corral, and see how many wins you can gather in your own yard, and later, while sitting on the veranda, make a toast to a better world.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Gulick Park: It Takes a Fantasy Village

The stereotype is that "kids these days" tend to stay indoors, discouraged from outdoor adventure in part by woods that have become impenetrable thickets of thorny invasive shrubs. A striking counter-story to that stereotype played out in Princeton's Gulick Park this past summer. Some of Princeton's open space has very little native plantlife on the forest floor, due to past plowing. In areas where the invasive shrubs haven't filled the void, the combination of trees, sticks and empty ground can make an appealing canvas for the imagination--essentially a natural playground for kids. Some schools, such as the Willow School in Gladstone, NJ, and the Princeton Friends School, incorporate natural playgrounds into their campuses. Attendees of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival will remember a wonderful documentary called School's Out about a completely outdoor kindergarten in Switzerland. Princeton's evergreen forest in Community Park North, planted back in the 1960s, was a natural playground until most of the trees blew down during Hurricane Sandy.

My first inkling that not all kids were spending the summer huddled in front of computers and lounging on sofas with cell phones came when biking through Smoyer Park. There, in the open woods near Snowden Lane and Van Dyke was a shelter carefully constructed out of sticks. The workmanship, or workpersonship, was impressive.

Weeks later, during a nature walk I led through Herrontown Woods, the leader of the informal Friends of Gulick Preserve, Ed Simon, told me of a whole village constructed there by teenage girls. He mentioned Narnia as a possible inspiration. (Update: Though mentions of Narnia are being left in the post, the actual inspiration for this village was other books. See comment below, sent by one of the daughter's parents.)

Here's what I found on a recent visit. There were promising signs of construction along the main drag, a broad trail that extends into the woods from a little deadend fragment of Terhune Rd near Dodds Lane.

Those lean-to structures are mere prelude to the village further in. Small abodes fashioned of sticks and yarn--shall we call it Yarnia?--stretch along leafy trails that hint at a matrix of streets. Might the streets have names, and if so, would they be like Princeton's tree streets, except that Sweetgum Lane would actually have sweetgums growing along it? Or would the streets have far more fanciful names from some other world entered only through the imagination?

This one reminds me of a shelter that some friends and I made deep in the woods when we were kids. The project ended when my face broke out in a poison ivy rash from digging roots out of the ground to make a nice floor. Poison ivy roots have the same oil as the leaves, apparently. The rash gave me Nixon-like jowls for a week. Still, it's a very positive memory.

At times like this, it would have been helpful to have read fantasy fiction, to better understand whether these pebbles are a literary quote or, perhaps, some sort of currency for use in transactions with other forest dwellers, with protective netting to keep the Rock Doves from stealing them.

A bit of speculation here, that the village's proximity to Gulick Preserve's pond is not coincidence. Wikipedia tells of the Wood between the Worlds, "a pond-filled forest in The Magician's Nephew (1955), the sixth book in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Each pond is a portal that provides instant transportation to a "world" such as ours and Narnia's."

The kids must have been surprised, one fateful day in early September, to step into the pond and be instantly transported to school.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hidden Nature and Drama at Quarry Park

It doesn't look like much of a nature trail, this paved walkway that makes a broad circle around the perimeter of Quarry Park.

But what's this? On one recent visit, it was clear some youthful imaginations had turned this peaceful park into something far more dramatic. There was evidence of defenses assembled against attack, Swiss Family Robinson-style. A wall of sticks had been constructed across the trail, to slow any invaders, and caches of ammunition the size of small cannonballs stashed here and there. It took me back to my own childhood landscape, stashing horse chestnuts in strategic spots for later use. I don't remember any actual attacks, but the preparations were serious business.

A stump and a clearing near Spruce Circle are the legacy of another bit of drama, when powerful winds swept through a few years ago, knocking down a grove of trees.

One of the resprouts, a black locust, bears thorns that may once have provided vital defense, but now seem, like the kids' defenses, to be aimed at imaginary foes.
Head down the path at the lower end of the park, and the plain lawn yields to some diversity. Here's a smooth sumac,

and a white pine dropping its older needles.

It's been a good year for white snakeroot, whose scientific name was recently changed from Eupatorium rugosum to Ageratina altissima, apparently to vex botanists who commit scientific names to memory. The plant is common in part because it is toxic, discouraging the deer.

Japanese knotweed can form dense, exclusionary masses along the banks of the StonyBrook elsewhere in Princeton, but on this upland soil in the shade it seems benign,

with attractive seed structures.

Sure enough, growing in the midst of a default thicket of honeysuckle shrubs at the bottom of the park, one osage orange tree, bearing not oranges but these curious green balls, which may once have been dispersed by megafauna, but now clearly get around thanks to kids. The tree has a rich history, with remarkably dense and rot-resistant wood used for bows and fenceposts.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

What a Little Dew Can Do

Here's a bit of serendipity. Shadows play upon the grounds of Princeton Battlefield, charmed with dew on a Saturday morning.

Ever the resident tourist, a shadow selfie with Mercer Oak II. Had no luck getting the shadow to smile.

Sorry, but you can't look at any screen--TV or computer--without at least one obligatory car commercial popping up. The sound track runs something like, "If George Washington were alive today, ...", though he might eschew fossil fuel altogether and stick with a horse. Those founding fathers thought about long term consequence. What ever happened to that kind of thinking?

The original motivation for stopping during a drive by of the Battlefield was documentation, not aesthetics: to photograph the invasive porcelainberry overgrowing flowering dogwoods planted as part of the nation's bicentennial celebrations in 1976.

One of my recurrent cause celebres is to save the Dogwood Garden Club's dogwood legacy from the aggressive vine growth. From the green/yellow of the porcelainberry vines crawling over the red leaves of the dogwoods, you can see who won this year's skirmish. The Dogwood Garden Club doesn't know who I am, and for all I know they've forgotten that they ever planted these trees along the field's edge in the first place.

There was also an obligatory photo of the great disappearing bamboo patch. Two years ago, this was a thick clone of bamboo growing out over the path down to the Quaker Meeting House, but a series of well-timed cuttings with magic loppers over the past couple years have sapped vigor from the bamboo's giant root system. The decisive strategic intervention came this past June, when Kip Cherry and I cut down the regrowth from a cutting in the spring. It was some inconvenient toil, but deprived of any payback from that big investment in regrowth--two years in a row--the bamboo has nearly given up. A visit next spring should be light work, followed by a refreshing beverage on the Clark House porch.

Dew was also working some magic on the vista on Quaker Road near the towpath. Scattered pin oaks in a field of goldenrods.

Thanks goes to my daughter Anna for getting me out that way early on a Saturday, to drop her off for a busride to Philadelphia to do some canvassing. Otherwise, that encounter with morning dew would have never happened. Finally, a reason to be thankful for this election season.