Monday, March 30, 2015

Upcoming Changes in Shade and Runoff at the Princeton Shopping Center Parking Lot

I was recently elected chair of the Princeton Shade Tree Commission. One of our first tasks this year is commenting on proposed changes to the Princeton Shopping Center's parking lot. Some existing trees will be removed and new ones planted as part of a reconfiguring of the parking and access lanes. Because we often aren't conscious of what trees we pass as we drive or bike around town, it's useful to document what's already there with photos. This post, then, is basically an inventory of what exists now, with a midway reflection on how we tend to be individually thoughtful but collectively thoughtless when it comes to the world we live in.

Along Harrison Street, there's a grove of pines and a long line of sycamores.

The southwest corner of the shopping center has three large, healthy locust trees and a few struggling weeping cherries.

One big honey locust stands near the old gas station, along with a dense hedge of winged euonymus--a non-native shrub that has invaded the local nature preserves.

Though the architectural drawings are hard to read, it looks like the tree slated for removal on the west side of McCaffery's is the struggling pine tree closest to the building.

This treeless zone along the west side will be redone.

Nearly all the existing "islands" in the parking lot are planted with red maples, a native bottomland species that is actually doing quite well here. Trees like red maples that are adapted to the low-oxygen conditions of wet ground often do well in parking lots and along streets, where the soils are low in oxygen due to compaction.

Though the whole parking lot needs a facelift and more shade, it's the backside that particularly needs a "revisioning". Trees growing under the powerline are getting hacked up. The one extending way out may look contorted, but at least it's providing some shade over the pavement.

One question is whether the islands could be redesigned to receive runoff from the pavement, thereby providing some water for the trees, and capture and filtration of at least a small portion of the massive stormwater runoff.

The shrubs lining the "lower east side" of the parking lot are full of trash.

In a way, this blight is a good sign, in that the plastic bags and other refuse are being prevented from heading down Harry's Brook into Carnegie Lake. If it were someone's job to clean up this mess periodically, this unintentional "filtration" of litter from the stormwater would help reduce plastics pollution of the watershed.

While I was taking these photos, drivers passing by were very polite and thoughtful, slowing down or stopping in case I was trying to cross the road. It's a good example of how people as individuals tend to be kind and generous, while we are at the same time collectively creating problems like all of this degradation of Harry's Brook via litter, pollution and flooding.

The parking lot is in one of the headwaters of Harry's Brook, and you can see that a lot of stormwater runoff (polluted with oil, heavy metals, salt, and whatever else is left behind by car culture) flows straight into the creek, completely unfiltered. The building roof and parking lot shed massive amounts of water during heavy rains, all of which charges down Harry's Brook, flooding residential neighborhoods before emptying into Carnegie Lake and continuing to the ocean. Princeton contributes to the pollution of the oceans like every other community. The shopping center was built before any stormwater controls were required.

The south side of the parking lot, bordering the back side of houses on Clearview, has a mix of trees growing along the fenceline.

And more islands with red maples provide a tiny bit of shade in the vast expanse of blacktop.

These islands will be removed and shifted to accommodate a change in traffic pattern, meaning that the existing trees will be toast. Figuring out what sorts of trees other than red maples can grow adequately in such a tough location has been a big question. Honey locusts are doing well elsewhere in the parking lot. Hackberries have been mentioned, and an Asian species, Zelkova.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Duck Gets a Taste of Spring

Our Pekin duck has been finding more reason to venture out of the coop this week. There's mud to probe with its beak, and the luxury of a bath in one of our backyard ponds swelled by snowmelt from neighbors' yards. She had no problem breaking through the thin layer of ice left by last night's freeze.

Earlier in the month, finding water in its liquid state was more of a challenge, as she took sips from the fillable-spillable minipond catching water from the roof.

She keeps a sharp eye out for hawks, turning her head to get a better look at the sky. Usually, that turn of the head means something's flying over, be it a vulture, crow, hawk, or a jet headed into Newark Airport.

Meanwhile, the duck's companion, a chicken of similar feather, was laying another robin's-egg-blue egg. We often get two a day now, as warmer temperatures and longer days have broken the winter drought.

Ducks and chickens made multiple appearances in movies this weekend at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, particularly in the excellent documentary on permaculture, "Inhabit". The ducks were said to be excellent at keeping the slug population down on an outdoor shitake mushroom farm, and the chickens happily batted cleanup in one of the crop rotations, eating any seeds that eluded harvest.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Getting Kids Together With Nature

One theme on this last weekend of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival is how to bring nature back into children's lives on a more consistent basis. To understand what an extraordinary challenge this is, consider the story a teacher at a local daycare told me yesterday after one of the movies. The kids in the daycare were having ongoing fun playing in a mud puddle on the playground. They took delight in an earthworm and other creatures they found there. Then an inspector came and declared the puddle was a violation and had to be filled in. We think of accreditation as a comforting thing, and yet it comes at a price, paid by the kids themselves.

The film we had just seen was "School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten", about a Swiss "wald" kindergarten that is completely outdoors, rain or shine, winter or spring. The kids adapt to the weather, play in the woods, make stuff, learn to get along. While the American school system keeps kids indoors and cuts back on recess in order to launch young kids into academics, the Swiss wait until age seven to begin formally teaching reading, writing and math. By age ten, according to the movie, the Swiss kids have caught up. The closest thing in Princeton to this approach would be the Waldorf School. Other schools represented in the audience were the Princeton Learning Cooperative, which is based next to Herrontown Woods in Princeton, and a new school that is evolving out of programming at Hopewell's community center, called Hope and Wellness.

The movie provides a vivid contrast between American indoor education and the forest kindergarten approach that is offered as an option in areas of Europe. The film's trailer provides a good sense of it. By focusing on active outdoor play and learning, kids develop a core of skills that serve them well through the rest of their lives. Gross motor skills become much better developed, kids learn how to get along and problem-solve, and see nature as a source of wonder rather than something alien to fear. The expensive playgrounds we construct begin to look sterile and impoverished compared to a woods with its endless variety of leaf litter, trees to climb, and creeks to explore.

Other related events at the library this weekend are a child-oriented presentation on raingardens that includes a reading of Jared Rosebaum's The Puddle Garden (sounds like something that would get playground inspectors nervous), and two showings of Project Wild Thing, an excellent movie about a father who decides to become nature's marketing agent.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mark Johnson--Princeton's Animal Control Officer No More

Mark Johnson, who served as Princeton's animal control officer for more than twenty years, was recently offered a separation agreement by the municipality. Animal control services have been outsourced to Montgomery. The reason for the separation, according to articles at, has nothing to do with his field work but instead with record keeping and his handling of rabies vaccines supplied by the state.

Other decisions about his employment remain shrouded in mystery, as far as I know. He was shifted from the health department to the police department a couple years ago for no clear reason, and within the last year or so I read that he was no longer allowed to make house calls to assist homeowners with animal control issues.

His house calls were a great service. My interactions with Mark were always positive. He helped us get raccoons out of the historic Veblen House attic, and his policy on keeping chickens in the backyard was a pragmatic one, allowing chickens (no roosters) as long as bordering neighbors approve. He was my go-to person for information on coyotes and other wildlife in Princeton. He also had to endure criticism coming from those who oppose Princeton's deer policy--a policy that, given that we long ago eliminated the natural predators necessary to control deer population, has greatly benefitted Princeton's forests, dramatically reduced car accidents, and insured a better balance between deer numbers and available habitat. His was not an easy job.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Shade Trees and Street Safety

I don't profess any blind adoration of trees. Though they provide summertime shade, coolness and beauty while absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, they also tend to steal sunlight from some of my favorite wildflowers and vegetable garden. But I just added another benefit of trees to the long list the other day while crossing Franklin Street in late afternoon. The crosswalk I was on was clearly marked, yet the car approaching from the east wasn't stopping. I pointed at the crosswalk markings with a touch of righteousness, as if to say "Puh-LEEZE! Don't you know cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians?" The driver stopped, and then I realized that he had been slow to see me because he was driving straight into the late afternoon sun.

Late winter and early spring can be a dangerous time to drive, because the sun is regaining prominence yet the trees haven't leafed out to shield us from the sun as it drops towards the horizon. With the time change, the low angling rays are in full force during morning school traffic, when streets near the high school become crowded with drivers rushing to drop off students and get to work on time. Streets become a little safer when the trees leaf out.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Monarch Update -- March, 2015

There's a drama going on right now, some 2000 miles south and west of here, that will affect our summer to come. Though we're still caught in snow, the monarchs are struggling to begin their journey north from their overwintering sanctuary in the mountains west of Mexico City. I say "struggling" because they were doused by two days of heavy winds and rains just when they would normally head north en masse.

Journey North on provides weekly updates that described bustling activity in the first half of March as the Monarchs flew in crowded masses on the forested slopes, then mated prior to beginning migration. Though last summer's ideal conditions allowed the population to rebound somewhat from the previous year's record low, numbers overwintering were still only a fifth of what is considered average--the whole eastern migratory population covering a mere three acres. This map shows how the monarchs are concentrated in El Rosario, the main tourist location, with the rest scattered at various other locations nearby.

With the passenger pigeon the stuff of legend, it's remarkable to live in a time when a species still masses in such numbers that a March 5 update can still say 
"The monarchs would come out of the trees each time that cumulus clouds covered the sun. They reached almost unbelievably dense numbers, flying out over the llanos. The trees were nearly emptied at such times. Literally every cubic foot of air held at least one monarch."
A report of "Massive mating..." comes on March 12. But the next week's report is less sanguine. By March 16, the leading edge of the migration typically crosses over the Rio Grande into Texas, but this year the departure has been delayed. A March 19 update reported that cold weather is delaying departure, and "Terrible weather at the sancturies" was reported on March 16, as heavy rains and strong winds plagued the sanctuary for two days straight.

Five decades ago, we didn't even know where the Monarchs overwinter. Only when things start to go wrong does one have to start figuring out how something works, whether it's a car engine, one's body, or a wondrous annual migration. What once was dispensed free of charge by a generous nature now might not survive without human intervention.

Working in local habitats, I've seen what nature can do when a restored balance unleashes the native growth energy. The Monarchs are one more example of the tremendous capacity of nature to thrive, if only we give it a chance.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Climate Change Cabaret Launched On a Journey To a Magical Planet (Earth)

Friday the 13th was one wild and crazy night at the Princeton Public Library as the Climate Change Cabaret launched, if not into space, at least into the space better known as the Community Room.
Seven actors, a Princeton High School acappella group, a jazz pianist, and three singers bearing an uncanny resemblance to Doris Day filled the full house with wonder, joy and laughter--perhaps not the sort of response you'd expect from material dealing with climate change, but there it was.  

The evening began with a piece called Complaint Training, in which The Three Grouseketeers offered to provide instruction in how to rant higher, rant lower, rant longerrrrrr. Carbon made an appearance as a seductive renaissance atom with a dark side. A guy struggled to extract himself from his relationship with a car with an addiction. Mr. Sustainable found a joyous and gallant way to make peace both with his spouse and future generations, after a long-running thermostat war.

A Plan to solve our earthly problems arrived just when all seemed lost, sustainably wrapped in a cardboard box.

And for the singalong, Doris Day appeared in triplicate to lead a stirring rendition of "Que SoLAR, SoLAR, the future is ours you see, if only we're carbon free."

The actors who breathed life into the scripts, in alphabetical order, were John Abrams, James Degnen, Kim Dorman, myself, Cheryl Jones, Basha Parmet, and Eric Schroeder.

Landis Hackett led Princeton High School's Around Eight acappella group in sustainable versions of Turn (Out) the Lights and Thrift Shop, along with something I wrote called 99 Too Many Cars On the Road. Sustainable Princeton provided two of the three Doris Daze (my plural of Day, though I hear they're going to call themselves the SoLAR Sisters)--Christine Symington, Diane Landis, and Jeanne Devoe.

The sponsor of the event, the upcoming Princeton Environmental Film Festival 2015, known to many of us as PEFF, debuted its film festival trailer. And the Princeton Environmental Institute came through with a handy poster showing the stabilization wedges that might steer us away from a very risky course. I'd also like to thank Steve Gaissert and the actors he was able to summon for a first reading of the material this past January. Their encouragement and comments provided much needed momentum.

Thanks to all, and to PEFF's Susan Conlon and Kim Dorman, for their assistance and faith in this project.

First and third photos by Karla Cook and Susan Conlon.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

When Snowmen Take Over the World

When snowmen take over the world, they will lounge comfortably on the patio in snow-cushioned chairs, munching on snowburgers.

Having had their fill, they will venture out to mend snowfences,

practice up for the next game of snowlax,

take a dip in the snow-lined minipond, ever so briefly so as not to melt,

and, when there is sno more for a snowman to do, take a snooze and dream of snowstorms to come.

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.)