Showing posts with label Virtual Nature Walks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Virtual Nature Walks. Show all posts

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Towpath Nature Trail Loop in Late Fall

A walk along the towpaths's nature trail loop near Harrison Street a couple weeks ago had an unexpectedly uplifting effect on my spirit. Nature has played a big role this year in keeping people emotionally afloat through the pandemic, and even as nature shifts towards dormancy I felt gratitude for the patterns and small bits of color it still offered. 

The trail is not as wide as it was in years past, since there's been a breakdown in who is responsible for mowing, but foot traffic has kept it open. Just by walking along it, you do the trail a favor.

A splash of burgundy from a blackberry.

The remnants of a common milkweed's seedpod.
The deep lobes of pin oak leaves still bright.
Bright yellow of a solitary Norway maple. Gratefully, Norway maples haven't invaded natural areas in Princeton for the most part, though they do tend to take over along fencelines in people's backyards.
The stunted red leaves of a multiflora rose afflicted with rose rosette disease. For those of us who have had lots of run-ins with multiflora rose's barbed thorns, a little help from a disease to curb the aggressiveness of this shrub is good news.
Along the shore next to this memorial bench are some plants I always check out. 
Looks like the nightshade had a good year. It's related to tomatoes, but don't eat the berries.
The seeds of native Hibiscus are held suspended over Lake Carnegie in cup-like capsules. Its preferred habitat is the banks of streams, but it flourishes in a garden if there's enough sun.
Of the many shrub dogwoods adapted to wet ground, silky dogwood is the one found locally. It's less red than red osier dogwoods.

Even botanists can find grasses intimidating, but if you steer clear of the giant tomes with mind-boggling plant keys, and simply take note of their shapes and colors, the more common ones can be easily learned. It's like recognizing someone from a distance by the way they walk, even if their back is turned. Plants have body language that can be learned.

Wood reed is a common native grass in shady lowlands.
Broomsedge--it's a grass, not a sedge--takes on a nice bronze look in the fall. 
Deertongue grass is very common here along the trail, often growing in masses. Note the broad leaf.

Where the trail takes a sharp meander there's a wonderful gathering of hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye-Weed growing in the open shade of giant oaks. A few seeds still cling to their tops, taking the mind backwards to the bright flowers of July, and forwards towards new plants to come.

We're used to seeing a sharp division between open fields and dense forests where little ground vegetation can survive. What's special about this nature trail is that trees are more scattered, allowing sun-loving wildflowers to flourish underneath. This savanna-like habitat would have been much more common in the past, when trees were harvested more selectively, or fires were allowed to sweep through, killing some trees and leaving others to grow. In the more recent past, the state parks crews would mow this habitat once a year in late winter to limit woody growth, but the past few years I haven't had luck getting it done. The strategic, episodic maintenance needs of native habitats, e.g. mowing once a year, seem harder to integrate into maintenance crews' schedules than the recurrent once-a-week mowing regimes that are far more expensive but can be routinized.

There were some ornamental plantings done long ago, probably in the 1960s, and some of these persist. A row of fragrant honeysuckle makes super-fragrant little white flowers in February. Though other shrub honeysuckle species are invasive, I've never seen Lonicera fragrantissima spread beyond where it's planted.
The fluffy seeds of the nonnative vine autumn clematis are quite a sight when backlit. The native version, virgin's bower, is distinguished by its toothed leaves, and must be more tasty for wildlife than the nonnative version, given its relative rarity. 
Take the short stub trail to the lake and you find a stump suspended partway out over the water on a tangle of roots. This is the remains of a sweetgum tree that used to serve as a roost for dozens of cormorants. The site was impressive and haunting at the same time. The tree finally succumbed, whether from erosion of its roots by the lake, too much fertilizer from the birds, or some other cause. Not sure where the cormorants went.
Those horizontal lines in the bark are the prominent lenticels of an ornamental cherry tree.  
These giant ornamental cherry trees, evocative of the cherries in Washington, DC, remain from the university's plantings long ago. This one marks the western entrance to the loop trail, closer to Washington Road.

Learn to identify some plants, and even a walk through the stripped down nature of late fall can stir an energizing mix of recognition, memories and anticipations. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Lost Meadows of Maidenhead Meadows

Last week we happened upon an often passed but little known nature preserve just outside Princeton. It began with a spousal call for woodchip mulch for the garden, which meant a trip to the Lawrence Township Ecological Center out on Princeton Pike. The website said they're open until 2:30pm on weekdays, but I called to make sure. Two days later, we finally headed out there in my 94 Ford Ranger, which I launch like some old ship for strategic errands around town. A lot was changing day to day as towns responded to the spread of coronavirus, and sure enough, we arrived to find that even an outdoor operation like the composting center was closed. With my heightened awareness of climate change, I hate to waste even a short drive out of town, and was not happy at the prospect of returning home empty handed. A compostable expletive escaped my lips as I pulled into the driveway across from the Ecological Center.

Before I could turn around, though, we realized that the driveway I had just pulled into was the entryway for a park. Maidenhead Meadows, the sign said. Township of Lawrence. With the world shut down by a virus, we had time on our hands, so why not?

The broad, flat cinder trail winds through what some might call a second growth forest. But "second growth" assumes that there was a "first growth" forest here long ago, which is not necessarily the case. The name of the preserve stirred memory of a map seen many years back on the wall of Brearley House, the historic house that stands just a little further down Princeton Pike. Being an enthusiast of prairies, I had taken particular note of an expansive meadow on that map.

There's a widespread and persistent misconception that the eastern U.S. was one big forest prior to colonization. More likely it was a mosaic of woodlands, oak savannas and prairies, tended to by Native Americans and their horticultural tool of choice: fire. Evidence can be found along our gasline and powerline right of ways, where periodic mowing keeps trees at bay. There one can still see swaths of the same grasses munched on by bison out in the prairie states: Indian grass, switchgrass, little bluestem, purpletop, and an occasional big bluestem.

Below is a portion of the wonderful old 1776 map, showing the "Maidenhead Great Meadows"

A brief history of Brearley House is the only description I've found thus far of this great meadow that pre-existed colonial times. The 1761 Brearley House "was erected on the Great Meadow, a farming and grazing land of the first residents of Lawrence - the Leni-Lanapi People."

A little box of text on the old map gives more details about how this meadow was used by colonists.

There was a similarly large early America meadow, just west of Durham, NC, where I used to live, with stories of colonists harvesting hay from its fields. Years ago, Roger Hansard, a friend in the Natural Resource Conservation Service, took some of us out there once to see the big bluestem grasses surviving along a roadside--one last remnant of what once was a broad sweep of grassland habitat called Meadow Flats. Prairie enthusiasts spend a lot of time scrutinizing roadsides, especially under powerlines, because that's the only place prairie species have survived through a century or more of fire-deprivation and tree growth.

Back in NJ, the current state of Maidenhead Meadows reflects neither its history nor its name. Rows of trees offer evidence of an old nursery (these look like white birches struggling to hold on), and are a reminder that most trees planted in a nursery grow to unwieldy size before anyone can get around to transplanting them.

Someone took care long ago to plant the trees in impressively straight lines.

Maidenhead Meadows is worth a visit. It's a strange mix of abandoned tree nursery, mega-invasion of autumn olive, and some more natural-seeming woodland. Partway down the trail, I had my first sighting in NJ of sourwood in the wild, a tree that turns brilliant red in fall and is more common in the southeast U.S.. Hard to say whether it was part of the nursery.

Knowing that the site had once been a grassland, I wondered if they might attempt to make it so again. It certainly has the feel of a landscape that lost its way long ago. The writeup on Brearley House offers a partial answer as to what went awry after 1800:
"Over the next 150 years, the lack of natural drainage resulting from the construction of the DR Canal and the building of many major and secondary roads caused the Great Meadow to become a wooded wetlands."
In other words, the landscape's predisposition to be grassland was undermined by a change of hydrology. There's a poetry to how water moves through a landscape whose underlying drainage patterns have survived unaltered. I've seen it at Herrontown Woods, and in a few other headwaters over the years. Water flow drives a landscape, whether it's a backyard or a nature preserve.

Maidenhead Meadows may have lost some of its underlying poetry, but I hope they try to bring its historical identity back to life, particularly in the areas overrun by autumn olive. Mercer Meadows, five miles away, is an example of how management can restore these grassland habitats, and even bring back the fire that helped create and sustain them in centuries and millenia past.

Lawrence township has preserved a lot of cultural and natural heritage down Maidenhead way, accessible in part by bike via the towpath--Brearley House, the massive Brearley Oak down next to Bristol-Myers Squibb, and a system of trails that increasingly link it all together. Hopefully someone's cooking up an effort to reconnect the habitat to its past glory.

Woodchips remain on hold, but the open space still invites us to walk and dream.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Solace and Beauty, Peace and Quiet at Herrontown Woods

As a big economy is brought to its knees by a tiny virus, many of us larger species have been getting outdoors to find solace and beauty in a nature that quietly perseveres, largely unfazed by an economy's wild swings. With the machine world's background din newly subdued, there's a greater depth to the peace and quiet to be had during a walk in the woods.

At Herrontown Woods, we've made a few changes in response to the public health crisis. The popular walking sticks are now in storage for the duration,

and the chairs at Veblen House are practicing social distancing.

It can be reassuring to find simple pleasures in small things. Remnants of Elizabeth Veblen's english garden are being protected and restored. These are a few of the many daffodils planted last spring. Others of her own plantings are coming back, simply through our holding off on mowing until the leaves have had a chance to recharge the roots for next year's blooms.

A few snowdrop blossoms remain from the broad sweeps of blooms earlier in the spring.

I glanced up from work at the botanical garden next to the parking lot, and saw this blossom that finally revealed the identity of a mystery tree that has been growing there, tilted almost horizontally--a willow.

This small patch of frizzy grass growing near Veblen House looks to me like poverty oats grass--a native species of Danthonia. Most turf grasses are non-native, but I've long speculated about what a native lawn might look like, populated by Danthonia, Dichantheliums, and the soft fescue one can still find in older lawns.

Diminutive American hollies stand out in the winter woods. They remind me of the hemlocks in the New Hampshire forests that would remain small for decades in the dense shade, ready to launch a burst of growth if and when the death of a nearby tree allowed some sunlight to reach the ground.

These little leaves could easily be mistaken for some diminutive wildflower or weed, but they are the leaves of Hearts 'a Bustin', a shrub that can reach 10 feet high but which has been laid low by deer browsing. It's an old story: the nonnative Euonymus alata shrub dominates in much of the preserve, while this native Euonymus americana barely survives, all because deer prefer to eat the native. We've taken a few of these remnant nubbins and planted them in cages in the botanical garden, so people can see what they are supposed to look like.

It's hard to capture in a photo the expanding flower buds of a highbush blueberry. They tend to be loners in the understory, hard to tell from other shrubs unless you develop an eye for their fibrous, brownish bark low on the stem.

The hazelnuts we planted are already busy, with their male catkins hanging down. Blueberries, hazelnuts, pawpaws, plums, butternuts, persimmons--these are part of the edible forest concept that is appealing even though it has, so to speak, yet to bear fruit.

This rock, along the yellow trail, seemed to be looking back at me. Was it chance that gave it acorn eyes?

In March, it's very easy to see what I call the "second forest." Having come from different climates, introduced species tend to leaf out earlier than the natives. This photo shows a broad swath of privet leafing out in the understory, beneath native trees still in their dormant brown.

The "second forest" is also visible in the fall, when the nonnative privet, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle remain green after the natives have dropped their leaves.

The combination of winter forest and brightening days makes for a wonderful time of year to explore patterns, like this corky bark, unusual for an ash tree. This may be an example of a tree's bark getting more distinctive with age.

With nature as the consummate artist, each boulder in Herrontown Woods tells a story that weds life and stone, organic and inorganic, present and past.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Stone Sculpture Earthworks by Susan Hoenig

Earlier in the fall, when the spicebush was still thick with green, artist Susan Hoenig invited me to join one of several walks she led through Graeber Woods in nearby Franklin Township.

There she has fashioned an Ecological Sculpture Project, making rock sculptures patterned after the leaves of the tree that towers over each sculpture.

Photos on the project's facebook page show how the sculptures are dynamic, changing with the seasons as snow falls, or leaves and fruit gather between the rocks.

The sculptures become a way of focusing attention in the landscape, a frame that lends additional meaning to its contents, as Susan plucked a wild grape leaf from among the rocks and pointed out the pattern a leaf miner had made through its tissues.

Graeber Woods lends itself well to the project, with tree species seeming to cluster--a grove of tulip poplars here, a gathering of black walnuts there. Beneath much of it is a lush growth of spicebush, with leaves that give off a citrony smell when crushed.

Susan Hoenig's website describes her many works, in lands near and far, and in various media. I think of her work as exploring the connections between inner and outer nature. She describes her process this way:

"In my paintings I explore the union between my inner self and the birds that I observe. I feel the fragility and plight of a bird’s life that is so vulnerable, so exquisitely beautiful. In nature I study theirprofile, the shape of the head, the bill and markings. I become one with the bird, then I paint their portrait."

For me, understanding nature involves an integration of science and art, for nature is the ultimate artist, with each day bringing new creations in infinite shape and mood, from microscopic to universal in scale. We are forever nature's apprentice, seeking to emulate, work with, understand, and to some degree restore, given how nature's endless generosity has been exploited and abused.


Below is info on the Bunker Hill Natural Area and its Environmental Education Center. I was told that the education center has been dormant since the Franklin Township Public Schools had to make some funding cuts, but there's still contact info on the school website. There's also a frisbee golf course there, which appears functional, and a caretaker's residence.

The entrance to Graeber Woods is at 287 Bunker Hill Rd.

Frisbee golf!

Caretaker's residence.