Friday, February 27, 2015

Come to the (Climate Change) Cabaret!, March 13, 7-9pm

It's time to forge comedy out of angst, to take carbon and make carbonation, to have some serious fun with a subject that people feel so strongly about yet talk about so little. Attend the premier of the 

*** Climate Change Cabaret ***

to gain fresh perspectives on Carbon (a seductive renaissance atom, but beware--not all carbons are the same!). Meet the new, improved, and highly lovable Mr. SustainableWitness a man's tragicomic breakup with his car. Take an Ironic Ride to the Dinky, and explore Earth Logic in Space. These theatrical sketches were born and raised in Princeton by writer/director Steve Hiltner, better known as me.

The music portion of the evening will be provided by members of the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, featuring a wind-powered saxophone and an incredibly acoustic piano, with a special appearance by Princeton High School's fabulous a cappella group Around 8. There may even be a Special Delivery at the end--a surprise solution to all our earthly problems--followed by light refreshments. The event is free! (We're all working on the carbon-free part.)

This trail-blazing, consciousness-raising event is being hosted by the 2015 Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Friday, March 13, 7-9pm, in the Princeton Public Library Community Room.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trenton Students and Science Mentors, Healing the Earth and Themselves

Last month, I found myself sitting at a table in the NJ State Museum, with a budding hyacinth for a centerpiece and a conference room full of high school students showing a budding interest in science. This trip to Trenton began with a surprise email that had arrived out of the blue two months prior:

"My Name is Tatyana and I am in a program called Science Mentors where teens are paired with a mentor and come up with a question that they will solve in order to enter their experiment and project into the Mercer Science and Engineering Science Fair. My mentor and I are very interested in the environmental factors of floods and while searching around the Internet we came upon a little information on water gardens. After visiting your blog we found out how knowledgable you are on this topic. Would you be able to meet with my mentor (Lisa Olson) and I in order to give us more information on water gardens and even be able to give us a tour of your water gardens so we could see them in person?"

So Tatyana came up to Princeton with her mentor for a tour of Princeton High School's ecolab wetland (fed by the school's "Old Faithful" sump pump) and the recreated stream corridor in my backyard. That gave her some ideas for two spots in Trenton, one being the empty lot next to her house, which gets lots of sun and could have some water directed to it from nearby roofs. 

The other is an empty field downtown with a river that runs through it. Well, actually, the river is a creek called Assunpink Creek, and it's been flowing underneath the field rather than through it, ever since the creek was buried to make room for urban development. That may change before too long, if plans put together by the city and the Army Corps of Engineers to daylight the creek are finally realized. 

We discussed what would be a good project having to do with raingardens. Identify what plants are growing in the field? Create a small raingarden there? I encouraged Tati and Lisa to consider inventorying the existing raingardens in Trenton, and see how they're doing. There's a great feeling of promise and achievement when a raingarden is planted, but birth is only the beginning. For a raingarden to thrive, it needs periodic infusions not only of rainwater but also of a love that expresses itself in the form of plant knowledge and periodically remembering to stop by to pull a few weeds. 

Science Mentors operates on a similar principal, that kids will thrive if given ongoing attention and caring. "If you have unconditional love, you can achieve anything, " says Maureen Quinn, the nonprofit's leader and soul. It was touching to see science so clearly paired with the healing power of love, and the awareness that one receives through giving. That is, after all, what drives a raingarden, and our lives.

Each student spoke in front of the group, describing their project.

You know, the world doesn't lack for sad stories. In the corridor leading to the museum's conference room, the story is very well told of the loss of the Carolina Parakeet,

and the passenger pigeon.
But those sad endings only make more moving the stories of thriving and renewal, stories that continue to be told through organizations like Science Mentors.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Water for the Birds

With temperatures consistently below freezing, the outside of our chicken coop has become littered with big "ice bowls", which are like ice cubes but bowl-shaped. We give the chicken and duck fresh water, it freezes up, then later in the day we cast out the frozen remains and refill the bowls. A heated water dish would involve running a long cord out to the coop. One post that made me feel better about not having a heated bowl can be found here. It also makes me feel better about not having covered every last crack where the wind can get in. Warmth is less important than adequate ventilation, as long as the coop isn't drafty.

I periodically search the internet for a solar water heater for birdbaths or chicken coops, but no luck thus far. Seems like there should be a system in which a small solar panel hooks up to a heating element in the winter, and a water fountain for an outdoor pond in the summer.

Wild birds are apparently either getting water from the snow and frozen berries, which requires expending their own energy to do the melting, or heading down to the local stream. It drives home the importance of "daylighting" urban streams, which have often been buried and are therefore not accessible for birds to take a winter's drink.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Winter Fun: IceLax, and a Hidden Dinky Rink

A couple other blogs I write had nature-themed posts this past weekend. One explains this mysterious pattern we found in freshly fallen snow while skating on Carnegie Lake.

Another explores the origins of this dinky rink and other sculpted features of Herrontown Woods.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hawks and Chickens

In New York City's Garment District, a giant hawk-like creature stands proud and somewhat menacing, as traffic swirls all around. "Crafted from maple saplings", it is one of five "Avian Avatars meant to indicate transformation, encouraging the public to heed to the stories about current human impact on the changing natural world."

This particular one represents a falcon named The Taste Maker, described as "an idealist, a philosopher and an opinionated vocalist with a social vision." Sounds like the falcon should have a blog.

Out here in the suburban wilds of central New Jersey, nature is less filtered through myth. This Coopers hawk too stands proud, while indicating a transformation much more localized than climate change. Any ideals it might hold can't compete with the exigencies of hunger in a less than generous winter landscape. As for social vision, it goes along with the driving vision of nature, which in all its beauty and generosity is built on passing energy from one trophic level to the next. One creature dies so that another may live.

The hawk's most recent visit marked the end of an era, in a way. The backyard ponds still freeze and thaw, wax and wane. The native wildflowers planted along our reconstructed miniature tributary of Harry's Brook will rebound in spring. But one of our two chickens was less lucky.

We started several years back with four chickens--the ardent brainstorm of our younger daughter who I think was inspired by a movie she saw at school. Once parental resistance was overcome, the birds turned out to be a delight. We got them locally at Rosedale Mills, where they sell chicks in the spring so the birds have enough time to grow up before winter. Finally, a pet that truly enjoys the (fenced in) backyard, inspecting every square inch for any morsel of food. Skittering insects, wiggly worms, stray seeds--all were eagerly gobbled up and transformed into eggs with dark orange yolks. The hens got the run of the place all day, before being closed in the coop for the night.

Their success prompted followup requests for ducks--pleas so persistent that we finally caved, despite the seeming impracticality. The one-day old ducklings arrived in a box at the post office, in November--not prime time for frolicking in the backyard. They were unbelievably cute, like windup rubber duckies that followed us everywhere--endearing traits that surely contributed to their survival, first in a spare bathtub and later in a box in the sunroom, until spring came.

The ducks, too, flourished in the backyard, adding a complementary appreciation of water features to the chickens' preference for the backyard's terra firma. They loved the ponds, and thereby made a mess of the ponds, in much the same way our love of, and appetite for, the earth and its resources has made a mess of things. But at least their droppings on the lawn, unlike those of geese, were liquid enough to disappear into the ground, sustaining a landscape that was still people-friendly.

There was some attrition along the way. The first loss was a chicken early on, the one night we left them out. They had looked so happy perched up on a brick chimney on the patio that we got lax. A neighbor claimed to have seen a fisher that night. Raccoons seem curiously absent, perhaps because we have a dog. The second loss was to a Coopers Hawk one afternoon, in the fall, after the protective backyard foliage had dropped off. That daylight attack above all brought home the tough choice between giving the birds a high quality free range life and keeping them safely cooped up. Our grief was mixed with an awareness of how extraordinary are these wild predators, living by their wits.

Then there was a long spell of stability, as it seemed that the large, white Pekin duck, with its exaggerated waddle, big voice and intimidatingly pokey beak, was making all predators think twice. Along with this "guard duck", we had a smaller, more graceful runner duck and two remaining chickens, and were rolling in eggs, so to speak. Each duck produced daily, while the Aracana chickens each produced two blue or pink eggs every three days or so. We worried the ducks were talking too much during the day, but neighbors would tell us they loved hearing them. Their backyard calls were a welcome relief from the frontyard din of traffic along Harrison Street.

Whatever powers our guard duck had were not enough to deter a red-tailed hawk that finally shattered the sense of backyard calm on the evening we returned from the Climate March in Manhattan. I had been gone for five days, perhaps reducing the human presence in the backyard long enough to embolden the hawk. This time it was the runner duck, more upright, with more grace and less waddle than other ducks. It was enough to bring one closer in understanding of what a rancher feels after a sheep is lost to wolves.

By this time, my daughter had grown to highschool age, with her interests largely flown elsewhere than the backyard chicken coop. I had become, as with the family dog, the default caretaker. When a Coopers hawk last month claimed for its meal her favorite chicken, a brown beauty called Buttons, she took things more philosophically.

Do these losses take an emotional toll? Should we have kept the birds penned in rather than expose them to the risks, freedom and richness of the yard? I really can't say if we'd do things differently. There have been some hard lessons about how nature works, but a lot of joy and delight.

Our last remaining chicken, Buffy, keeps Daisy the Pekin duck company. The duck suddenly stopped laying last fall, and for awhile we had no eggs at all until Buffy started laying her baby blue eggs again, undeterred by winter's cold or the memory of the 2004 Kerry/Edwards campaign she perched next to at night. All those plastic signs left along the road can find new purpose winterizing chicken coops. Democrat, Libertarian--it matters little in this second life. I like to think that the air chambers in the hollow signs help insulate the coop a bit. Signs with hollow slogans might be even more effective.

One creature dies so that another may live. I'm not ready for that personally, but I'm ready to sacrifice, personally and collectively, so that changes don't overwhelm the lives of generations to come. There can be joy in that, too, a feeling of connectedness with those who follow--joy that comes with less risk, not more. Maybe that's the message to all who walk in the shadow of the looming falcon in Manhattan.

Past posts about our backyard chickens include the Joyce Carol Oats connection.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Walking On Ice

Yesterday, with sidewalks made slippery by freezing rain overnight, my daughter made her early morning departure to walk to the high school. My first thought, hearing the door close behind her, was that I should have offered to give her a ride.

Usually a second thought is more cautious than the first, but my second thought was comforting. Walking on ice is a skill best learned when young, when reflexes are quick and bones resilient. With practice, one learns how to minimize the risk, how to test the traction as one goes, and the eye learns to identify the ice's subtle differences in texture and shade that determine where best to put the next foot. "Testing the ice", having to do with how kids can safely learn about risk, is a concept Richard Louv speaks of in his book "Last Child in the Woods".

My own walk on morning ice involved crossing the backyard to feed the duckens (we're down to one duck and one chicken). Each step on ice-coated snow required a calculation so quick it merged with instinct. Partway across the yard, my muscles remembered this particular style of walking that must have been learned during long winter treks to school as a kid, a style that combines small quick steps with forward momentum, so that weight doesn't linger on any one foot. It speeded me safely across the treacherous frozen snow, water and food in hand.

Later in the day, we got an email from the Princeton Public Schools superintendent, apologizing for not calling for a delayed school opening, given the icy conditions. He had a good excuse. The ice didn't form until 7am--too late to delay the opening--and a predicted late-morning freeze had made it sound like a delayed opening might be more dangerous than beginning at the regular hour.

All students reportedly made it safely to school, and I'll bet that a lot of learning happened even before school began, as those who walked gained valuable experience with walking on ice--experience that will remain in their muscle memory and serve them well in years to come.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Winter Weekend Report, and "Snowbound Language" Reprise

First, an ice update. As of this morning, the Princeton Recreation Dept. is sticking with its Thursday announcement that Lake Carnegie is open for skating, but the other locations are not safe. Check the hotline, (609) 688-2054, before heading out, and also check the flags next to the lake/ponds. Red flag means not safe.

Snow this winter has been persistent, but less creative than in previous years. It's doing an excellent job of recycling the season's meagre light, which would otherwise get absorbed by the drab browns and grays of land and sky. If you're feeling a little socked in, or a wee bit precarious and annoyed as you negotiate unshoveled sidewalks, some comic relief can be sought in a post from last year entitled Snowbound Language. To compete with the Eskimos by expanding our snow vocabulary, consult Principitation--a glossary of playful terms for the myriad varieties of snow that have decorated Princeton in previous years.

Gardening Event at Library Today, Saturday, Feb. 7

A last minute notice for anyone happening to read this blog this morning. I'll be at the Princeton Public Library's gardening event today, Saturday, from 11 to 12, in my capacity as member of the Princeton Shade Tree Commission. The event runs from 11-3, and includes representatives from various local organizations involved with gardening. It's meant to jumpstart your planning for the coming growing season.

Another inspiration is an article in the NY Times friends have been mentioning to me in the last few days. By Anne Raver, it focuses on a talk given recently by Douglas Tallamy, about an approach to gardening that fosters native plant-insect interactions, which in turn supports other wildlife as well, particularly birds that need insect proteins to feed their young. According to Tallamy, “In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.” Tallamy spoke at DR Greenway previously, and I wrote a post about him in 2009. The research he and his students at U. of Delaware have done has provided compelling evidence for the ecological importance of native plants.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Snow Forts and Memories

On a recent walk around the block, I encountered three boys building a complex of snow forts in the front yard. My first thought was, "You mean kids still build snow forts?" It brought back memories of all the dramas we superimposed on the landscape I ranged over as a kid.

Within those protective walls, we'd have stacks of snowballs ready to hurl at any who dared attack. My free-range childhood territory included windswept fields where the observatory's facilities crews would erect snowfences to keep snow from blowing over the sidewalks. Snow would gather in drifts five feet deep on the lee side of the fences, perfect for excavating and augmenting, following much the same impulse as the gophers that were hibernating in the ground below.

Like hunting, which I really enjoyed until I actually killed something, our building of the snowy equivalent of a Maginot Line was fun until war actually broke out. There was one traumatic day when our fort complex was attacked, by a couple college students who penetrated the flurry of snowballs and proceeded to destroy our carefully crafted fort. Those were some big bullies.

Here was the other scene during the walk around the block that brought back memories. Start with a small clump of snow, push it across the grass, gathering snow with each revolution. When the snowball was too big to budge any further, we knew where the snowman or the fort would stand. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, that we are snowballs, making tracks through time, experiences sticking to us as we go, gaining character, or at least characteristics, until we find ourselves outstanding, or at least out standing, in a field.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Dam Nation" Film Showing Friday

The Princeton Environmental Film Festival, scheduled this year for March 19-29, has other film showings scattered through the year. One is coming up this Friday at 7pm, with a showing of "Dam Nation" at the Princeton Public Library, followed by a talk by StonyBrook-Millstone Watershed Association staff. They've been trying to get a couple small dams removed along the Millstone River, which the StonyBrook merges with at Carnegie Lake. The Millstone flows towards the ocean, past Kingston and Princeton's wastewater treatment plant, then merges with the Raritan River 20 miles further downstream, just before contributing water to the treatment plant from which Princeton's drinking water comes. This is a working river, serving us in so many ways, but it also has some nice scenic stretches, almost all of which can also be accessed by riding a bike along the canal towpath.

Removing dams allows migratory fish like shad and eels to get where they need to go. One question I'd have is, if the lower dams are removed, how do the fish get over the Carnegie Lake dam? You can get to know the mighty Millstone a bit in a post about a fun kayak trip we took down the river four years ago--our journey to the source of Princeton's drinking water.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Patterns in Carnegie Ice, 2015

Some of us laid low by the flu hadn't noticed Lake Carnegie's quiet transformation this week into the ultimate sustainable ice rink. Sustainable, that is, in terms of low carbon footprint. A friend whose home overlooks the lake called to tell me, and the town hotline at (609) 688-2054 confirmed the good news.

We dug out our skates, went down to have a look, and found the ice looking right back at us in its own mysteriously retinal way. "Here's lookin' at you, kid."

(The university website stated that this was the first skating since 2007 (see Winter in Residence), but posts on this website document more recent opportunities, including February, 2014January 2014, and January 2009. There was some exquisite, though not skate-worthy, ice back in 2010, a photo of which made it into a traveling exhibit as part of Princeton University's Art of Science collection.)

Along the far shore, the ice was white with lots of smaller ganglial patterns below the surface.

This large vein of dark ice, too, was sealed beneath a smooth skating surface, like a giant coffee table with patterns protected by a glass top.

Bubbles large and small were suspended in solid ice.

Towards the Washington Road bridge was a cluster of bubbles that appear to rise in columns

from some unknown source below.

Elsewhere, shallow imprints suggestive of goosefeet but too varied in size and shape, possibly created as the surface softened then hardened again.

More slight imprints, finger-sized,

and larger plates of ice more easily explained as fragments from an early freeze that broke apart on a warm day, then were captured in a more recent, deeper freeze.

This shard was ten feet long.

A white line of crinkly ice extended towards the Harrison Street bridge, suggesting a seam where giant plates of ice rub against each other.

Every now and then, in various locations on the lake, an indescribable sound would zip by beneath us--not a big crack or a boom, but an elastic sound, more like when you kick a doorstop spring. Probably arises out of a slight shift in the ice as it adjusts to forces of expansion and contraction.

The beavers sure looked like they'd been busy over near the towpath, but more likely maintenance crews have been doing tree work along the canal and simply broadcast the chips rather than haul them away in a truck.

The glow of the western sky captured the feeling of gratitude for water's wizardry, as some particularly organized families and friends gathered to share a warming drink beneath the spreading limbs of an ash.

(Weather looks conducive at least through this Saturday, but call the town hotline before heading out (609) 688-2054. There are also flags on the shore that signal whether conditions are safe. Ponds at Smoyer Park and Community Park North are not safe as yet, according to the hotline.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Skating Today (Jan. 15) On Carnegie Lake

I'm just re-emerging from a long bout with the flu, and a friend calls and says the ice is glorious, deep and dark. Check Princeton Recreation Dept. hotline, (609) 688-2054, for details.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

New Dimension in Playground Equipment

Playground equipment is typically a 3-dimensional structure built on flat, 2-dimensional ground. What happens when the ground itself becomes 3-dimensional?

The result is that the ground itself becomes playful, so that the kids interact at least as much with the ground as with the play equipment, rolling down the slopes, exploring the play of gravity on the suddenly niche-rich topography. Though carpeted with artificial turf, the pockmarked appearance is to some extent more natural than flat, given that American forests become pockmarked by the uprooting of trees in storms. The park is in Washington Square in Manhattan.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Remembered Path

One of the photographs in an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz's photography at the NY Historical Society gallery (next to the Natural History Museum) is of the "Sandwalk" that Darwin would walk several times daily. It was his "thinking path", one of many examples of how walking in nature has long been associated with expediting thought. Writing about the exhibit at the VeblenHouse website stirred a childhood memory of another scientist who loved walking in the woods so much he continued to do so even after going blind:

Growing up next to Yerkes Observatory, on the outskirts of a small town in Wisconsin, I would walk to school along a path used fifty years prior by the astronomer Edwin Frost to get from his home to the observatory. He became blind later in life, but would still walk through the woods to his office every morning. A wire was strung from tree to tree along the path, so he could guide his way with the crook of a cane held against the wire. Pieces of the wire could still be found in the trees when I was exploring around there as a kid. For many years, my youthful mind mixed one Frost with another, believing that the Frost who walked that path was Robert Frost, the famous poet.

There were many wildflowers, planted or growing naturally, along that path. Walking it years later, in my twenties, the canopy of oak/hickory was full of birdsong, one of which sounded just like a lick Charlie "Bird" Parker would often end his phrases with, using the third, fifth and second notes of the major scale. Old articles, easily found now on the internet, describe the blind astronomer's ability to tell temperature by the tempo of cricket sounds. One goal for the new year, along with working on trails at Herrontown Woods, is to revive some of these stories of connection to nature.

A happy new year to all whose paths cross with Princeton's nature and PrincetonNatureNotes.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Some Good News About Monarchs

We didn't get a Christmas tree this year. The kids weren't interested, apparently having entered a post-materialist world where the smartphone cornucopia renders most other possessions unnecessary. To fill the void where a Christmas tree once stood, I'm imagining evergreen trees in a forest high in the mountains of Mexico, densely decorated not with lights and tinsel but with monarch butterflies.

Not until this month did word arrive that the monarchs had finally made it safely to their mountain forests of Mexico. November 26, more than three weeks later than usual, the main population showed up, larger than last year's record low, but still with a long way to go to recover. Among them may be the few scattered monarchs seen in Princeton in late summer. May they have a safe overwintering, and much milkweed in the new year.

Addendum, Dec. 30: We may have a concept here, that each gardener, by planting milkweed, and each farmer, by allowing milkweed to grow, might contribute to the decorating of oyamel fir trees in that small mountainous area where monarchs congregate each winter. What other species engages so broadly with a continent, then congregates in such ornamental fashion to make its status known each winter?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Needle Ice Creates a Vaulted Pebble Palace

Heavy rains followed by a hard frost December 7 made the garden path crunchy underfoot. A closer look revealed miniature pillars of ice with pebbles on top.

Water flows up from the soil via capillary action, with the upward motion continuing above ground as a column of ice fed from below. Needle ice is a surface form of the frost heaving that can loosen soil, slowly lift rocks towards the surface, and work mischief on asphalt.

The capillary action that allows water to move upwards in the soil is counterintuitive, and helps explain how trees completely surrounded by asphalt and concrete can still get water.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some Horticultural History: Dogwoods at Princeton Battlefield

Here's a little story that shows how the past can enrich the present and inform the future. Two years ago, I was over at the Princeton Battlefield, in that immense mowed field on the north side of Mercer Road (the side with the columns), and noticed a pattern in the wooded edges of the field.

It's most obvious during April, when these flowering dogwoods advertise their position, but you can see it as well in the autumn when their leaves turn radiant colors.

The dogwoods are spaced all around the edge of the field, but on the left side they've been completely overgrown by vines. It's a matter of time before the shade and weight of the vines weaken and ultimately kill the trees.

Hopefully, a workday to cut the vines can be arranged soon with the Friends of Princeton Battlefield. Recent Veblen-related research of old newspapers has solved the riddle of who planted the trees and when, and may provide further impetus for action to save the beautiful trees. Turns out the trees were donated back in 1976 by the Dogwood Garden Club, which still exists. Among its current projects is care of one of the gardens near the Princeton swimming pool entry. The relevant text from the article is in bold.

Town Topics, 2 December 1976
The annual Christmas Auction and Bake Sale of the Dogwood Garden Club will be 5 held Thursday, December 9. 1 in the home of Mrs Michael ; Jensen, 18 Riverside Drive ' West Co-hostesses will be Mrs William Alston, Mrs. Joseph Pierson, Mrs. Richard Olsson and Mrs. Frederick Wightman Jr. Mrs. Dudley Clark will serve as auctioneer. All articles to be auctioned have been made by the members and all proceeds will be used in cooperation with the Mercer County Park Commission to continue the restoration and maintenance of the memorial garden around the home of Mrs. Oswald Veblen in Herrontown Woods. In honor of the Bicentennial the club recently gave 25 dogwood trees to the Princeton Battlefield Preservation Society to be planted on the grounds. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Teaching 9th Graders About Invasive Species

I was invited by my daughter's 9th grade biology teacher, Alexis Custer, and her colleague Jayne Ricciardi, to come in and speak to four classes over the course of a day at Princeton High School. The subject, invasive species, is full of subtleties and contradictions. Plants are good. They're the producers, ecologically speaking, while we're among the consumers. And yet, some of the thousands of imported plant and animal species are wreaking ecological havoc.

Though our culture tends to associate destructive consequence with ill-intent, most or all of the destructive consequence of invasive species was unintended. For example, the burmese pythons now altering the ecology of the Everglades were introduced by pet owners who released their exotic snakes into the wild when they got too big to keep at home. The collective consequence of seemingly humane individual acts can undermine a whole ecosystem.

Adding to the irony, an overabundance of one of the most beautiful and iconic native creatures of our woods, the white-tailed deer, is magnifying the damage by eating primarily native species, giving the invasives a big competitive advantage.

A more positive side of the story is that people can have a positive, healing effect on nearby ecosystems, by restoring balance. Most satisfying was telling the students about the high school's wonderful ecolab wetland, which is fed by an "old faithful" sump pump that keeps the wetland wet year-round with groundwater steadily being pumped out of the school's basement, several stories below their classroom. It's a great example of how people can create rich, productive habitats for plants and wildlife by working with nature, rather than against it.

The kids were attentive through the 45 minute talks. School curriculums, when they teach ecology, often focus on distant ecosystems like the Amazon or the arctic. This was a great opportunity to introduce the students to the ongoing ecological drama waiting to be explored in the town where they live. I hope they get out and walk the trails leading through Princeton's many nature preserves.

And what a sweet thank you note came in the mail from all the kids!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

A Thanksgiving Weekend Walk Through New-Old Herrontown Woods

The parking lot was packed for our Thanksgiving weekend walk in Herrontown Woods. Forty people, all told, most of whom stayed for the full two hour venture up and over the Princeton ridge and back again. I explained that the preserve had, as in a fairy tale, gone into a deep slumber over the years. The trails had become overgrown with thorny multiflora rose, and blocked by fallen trees. The house and cottage were boarded up. Landmarks like the cliff had become obscured and forgotten. Then two years ago, what came to be known as the Friends of Herrontown Woods set about clearing the trails and making the preserve welcoming again.

Neighbor Ed Simon, who leads stewardship efforts at nearby Gulick Park, added some context, describing how a corridor of preserved open space in northeastern Princeton extends from Bunn Drive eastward through Herrontown Woods, with Smoyer Park nearby and Gulick Park beyond that. An overarching vision would be to develop synergy and connectivity between all of these elements, which include nature trails, history, the active rec of Smoyer Park, and remnant farm elements.

One of my favorite parts of the walk came early on, when I mis-spoke. Our first stop along the trails was at a solitary hazelnut shrub growing beneath a grove of trees with dark, chunky bark. As I was telling everyone about these trees, which I identified as tupelos (black gum), I gazed up into their canopies far above and noticed what looked like fruits on the twigs. Tupelos would not have that sort of thing. What I was seeing was beginning to contradict the words I was saying. Then one of the participants presented me with the fruits of persimmon that she'd found on the ground. Hmmm, there must be a persimmon tree around somewhere. Then I realized. The trees we were looking at were persimmons, not black gums. Though possibly wild, this dense grove of persimmon trees could also have been planted long ago as part of the farm. Impressively, they had grown fast enough to keep up with the forest rising around them after the farm was abandoned.

Second stop was the Veblen cottage, then a side trip to the Veblen House, where I got to tell a bit of the history of the Veblens and the first owners of the house, the Whiton-Stuarts.

Then a hike up the slope of the ridge to the cliff, where everyone enjoyed the view from the thirty foot dropoff. That's Sally Curtis holding the camera.

From the cliff, we crossed the pipeline right-of-way and entered the beech forest, which looked like a wonderland with the tawny beech leaves still attached to the trees. Not far in, we hung a right, heading off trail to the north, where a mysterious expanse of water was recently discovered by some of us in the Friends of Herrontown Woods.

Here, in this flat pancake of land at the top of the ridge, which serves as a giant sponge that captures rainwater then slowly feeds it to the tributary of Harry's Brook that flows down through Herrontown Woods, a bulldozer long ago dug an L-shaped pool. A lively discussion ensued about its original purpose. Had they used the bulldozer to push up rocks for use somewhere else in Princeton? Seemed to me there were plenty of boulders available on the surface of the ground, with no need to dig. I used a stick to push down through the muck to solid bottom. Three feet deep.

For now, I'm sticking with the swimming pool theory, but it would make a great skating rink if we get a cold spell.

We then headed back to the trail, past the boulder field, and down along the creek whose broad, flat headwaters we had just visited. What a treat to lead such a walk, and introduce or reintroduce so many people to this reawakened preserve.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Monarch Status and Glyphosate, Part 2

As mentioned in a previous post on this year's monarch migration down to Mexico, the weekly migration updates on the Journey North website stopped abruptly on November 11, with the main mass of monarchs still not having arrived in the mountain groves. No more news? What happened? Did the monarchs ever arrive? I emailed the website on Nov. 28, and got a same-day response from an Elizabeth Howard, with this good news:
"We're been waiting for news that the mass arrival has occurred--and just received word yesterday (that it happened the day before). We will be updating the sites soon-- maybe before Monday."
Great, the monarchs arrived, though nearly four weeks later than usual, and I'll feel better when their website is actually updated.

Another communication received, far less friendly, was an anonymous comment concerning the use of the herbicide glyphosate in habitat restoration. Part of the fallout from the massive use of glyphosate on genetically modified "Roundup-Ready" crops has been the demonization of glyphosate and everyone who uses it. The targets of criticism, in some people's minds, should include not only Monsanto and farmers, but also managers of nature preserves who may put a dab of glyphosate on the stumps of invasive shrubs so they don't grow back. Sure, I wrote, in what I thought to be a fairly insightful post, lets rail against the massive use of glyphosate on more than 100 million acres of farmland that once offered monarchs enough scattered milkweeds to prosper. But it's the massive use, not the chemical itself, that is the problem.

Antibiotics provide an analogous situation. Their power can be wisely used in medicine, or abused when indiscriminately given to animals in their feed. It would be unfair to vilify a doctor's careful prescribing of antibiotics because of industrial agriculture's wild excess. And the vilification of preserve managers, who use micro amounts of highly targeted herbicides in their work, is similarly unfair.

Personally, I haven't used herbicides of any kind in years, but any serious attempt to restore balance to a forest, to take on a monstrous, smothering stand of wisteria or thousands of winged euonymus and honeysuckle choking a hillside, will necessarily require some use of herbicide, well-timed and minimally applied.

If the anonymous commenter or anyone else would like to send an email, with name attached, I'd be glad to correspond on this subject. Maybe we can learn something from each other. In the meantime, a hope that the monarchs did in fact arrive and will be safe through the winter.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Nature/Culture Walk This Sunday at Herrontown Woods, 2pm

With temperatures predicted to climb into the 50s, I'll be leading a nature and culture walk through Herrontown Woods this Sunday, Nov. 30, at 2pm. We'll be exploring the remarkable features of Princeton's first nature preserve, including a hidden cliff, a boulder field, quarried stone, the traces of an 1870 microfarm, and a mysterious large excavation that may have been intended as a swimming pool.

The event is the first since the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) received official nonprofit status. Members of the group have made critical interventions at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation over the past two years, clearing and improving long-blocked trails, and taking steps to save and repurpose the buildings left behind by the visionary mathematician Oswald Veblen and his wife Elizabeth, who began Princeton's open space movement by donating Herrontown Woods as a public preserve in 1957.

Meet at the parking lot for Herrontown Woods, the entrance to which is across from Smoyer Park, near the eastern end of Snowden Lane. For any questions, check the "About Me" info up on the right of this webpage for contact info.