Thursday, January 28, 2016

Snowbound Landscapes and Language

Five days after the big snowstorm, and memory finally returns of the comic "Snowbound Language" piece posted two years ago, in which the language becomes as snowbound as the landscape. In the story, Snaddy, his snife, snaughter and snarking snog deal as best they can with the deluge of snow that has laid siege to their snouse. A lexicon for snowbound language can be found in a post called Principitation, which provides names for all the sorts of precipitation that is made special by having fallen on Princeton. There's snuff, snirt, snapples, snazzycakes and snight (snow that falls at night), snizzle and snool. The inspiration was a mix of the extraordinary variety of snow we got in early 2014, which made clear how the Eskimos could develop so many different words for snow, and Victor Borge's classic Inflationary Language, which allows language to inflate along with the economy. Create becomes "crenine", wonderful becomes "twoderful", and sofifth.

The storm this past weekend brought a whole lot of one kind of snow, rather than the crazy variety of formulations that fell two winters ago.

This year's storm made it hard to compost the food scraps in the frontyard Wishing (the earth) Well,

made it look like our house is balding,

made our roofs into glacier-capped mountains,

collaborated with the sun to fashion a shadowy snow angel with the head of hosta seeds,

served up a birdbath snowcone,

fashioned a leaf corral snowman who looks like he should have Pinocchio nose,

and availed itself of the comfort of our lawn furniture. A little sculpting and we'd have a pair of very content snowmen.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Carnegie Ice Before the Snow

Though there are cross-over recreationists who love both skating and skiing, you know you're in the skating camp if an approaching snowstorm brings wistful thoughts of all that gorgeous Carnegie Lake ice about to get covered up.

It wasn't thick enough to skate on, but most of the lake was covered with a glistening smooth initial layer. The winter's brief history, about to be buried under two feet of snow, could be read in the rough ice that got blown into a southeast corner, on the left in the photo.

It told stories of how frozen waves formed, seeming to lap at the hibiscus-lined shore, like a Seward Johnson sculpture,

and of water's restless shifting from solid to liquid and back again, that gathered these chunks together for one in winter's long progression of still-lifes.

Our backyard minipond caught some runoff to make a miniature version of Carnegie Lake, with similar patterns of dark and light ice.

Nice to have H2O as the artist-in-residence in the backyard, with a new snow exhibit about to open, up and down the east coast.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Vine That Bushed the Bush

It looks like a bush,

but it's really a vine.

And this one, too,

is only a vine,
that borrowed the bush, until the bush
was bushed,
and left its structure behind
to be used by the vine.

Whatever it was,
it's Japanese honeysuckle now.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ice Can Be Naughty or Nice

Work with nature, or it can work against us. That's a truth whether the nature is inner or outer.

This backyard minipond swelled in recent rains, then froze to make attractive patterns.

A different scenario plays out on Linden Lane, where a sump pump discharges into the street, creating a hazard. Meanwhile, the high school's sump pump, a few blocks away, plays the role of ecological hero, discharging serendipitously and safely into a detention basin we converted into a wetland that sustains native plants, frogs, and crayfish.

A shrub like buttonbush can grow right in the water of a backyard minipond. The ice patterns arise from the slow seepage of pond water into the underlying clay, causing the ice to sag.
There's a tendency to want to get rid of sump pump water and runoff as quickly as possible, often adding to downstream flooding. More fun, and beauty, comes from a collaborative approach with nature, finding ways to use the water in the landscape.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The "Living Well" Leaf Corral

My sister-in-law, Edna, must have been reading my mind, which was puzzling over possible additional uses for a leaf corral. After being filled in the fall with leaves, a corral needs to sit through to the following autumn before harvesting the rich compost generated within. Snow, rain and decomposition cause the leaves to settle considerably. Might the corral do something more than just sit there through the summer, looking half filled?

Edna answered that unspoken question by sending me a photo of her leaf corral in mid-summer, resplendent with the growth of potatoes. She took some store-bought potatoes that had started to sprout, buried them a few inches down in the pile of leaves, and let the potatoes do the rest. Because the potatoes weren't grown in the standard way in soil, they were much easier to clean. She mentioned having prepped the leaf corral by watering some Milorganite into the leaves, to add nutrients and speed decomposition. A product produced near her suburb of Milwaukee, Milorganite is described on its website as "composed of heat-dried microbes that have digested the organic matter in wastewater." That's a 90 year success story in and of itself, but I'm thinking of skipping the Milorganite in favor of a few shovelfuls of rich dirt or compost sprinkled on top over the winter. With decomposers migrating up from the soil, and nutrients infiltrating down from above, there should be plenty for potato roots to feed on, sustained through droughts by that moist, spongy realm inside a leaf corral.

Riffing on the "Wishing (the earth) Well" name for one of our leaf corrals, the potato-bearing corral can be called the "Living Well", which feeds nutrients back into the earth while growing food out of the top.

Friday, January 08, 2016

The Christmas That Stole Spring

At least in one yard, Princeton had a white Christmas, with snow-covered evergreen and a few inflatable penguins playing hide and seek.

Elsewhere, the 65 degree weather turned a lot of flower buds into suckers--a botanical morphological miracle of sorts. For these cherry-like trees planted along Walnut St., 2016 will be a growing year, with no blooms in spring.

These blossoms fit, at least colorwise, with the wreath on the door in the background.

Winter jasmine (Jasminium nudiflorum) took the warm weather bait. Though considered a vine, it could easily be mistaken for a forsythia shrub in a neighbor's yard on Stanley Ave.

Also showing up for the unexpected party was some heather on the hill,

and sweet alyssum,

and a stray aster over at Westminster's parking lot. Not shown is the asian witch hazels, which also started blooming. Native plant species--all or nearly all--remained dormant.

A flock of robins, drawn north by the warm weather, made a surprise Christmas day visit, in search of any insects beneath the leaves.

On a day made all the more peaceful by a lack of traffic noise, the warm weather drew us out as well, for an evocative, misty walk along the canal.

These oak leaf hydrangia leaves were doing their part to express holiday cheer.

Our thermometer was expressing more the spirit of El Nino.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Grounds Tour and Pawpaw Patch Planting Party Sunday at Veblen House, 2pm

Posted this at, but forgot to post it here.

Tomorrow, Sunday, Jan. 3, come by Veblen House in Herrontown Woods, where our Friends of Herrontown Woods group is hosting a gathering to show off the recent transformation of the Veblen House landscape. Should be a beautiful day, but cool, so dress warmly, and we'll have something warm to drink. In addition to touring the grounds, you can participate in a planting of pawpaws to symbolize new beginnings, not to mention future harvests of delicious tropical-tasting fruits. We'll be there 2-4pm.

Directions: Reach the Veblen House by entering the gravel driveway across from 443 Herrontown Road in Princeton (look for Rotary sign wrapped around a tree), or by taking the trail from the Herrontown Woods parking lot up to the farm cottage (cedar shingle siding) and taking a right through the fence. Veblen House appears as a small white square on this map, north of the parking lot.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The OK Leaf Corral

One way to wrap up the year and leave 2015 behind, as we ride December off into the sunset, is with a cowboy-tinged leaf rap -- an advertisement for the latest
in our ever-expanding line of sustainability products. 
Yee haw!

The OK Leaf Corral

By Stephen Hiltner

Is your lawn
Beneath a sea of leaves?

Is there brown on the ground
That you don’t want around?

Well, resist that urge
To purge the surge.
Them leaves that’s fallin’
Have a higher callin’
Than to fill up the streets
And leave traffic stallin’.

So when you’re feelin’ inundated
And your yard looks second rated,
It’s good to know
That you have a pal
In our OK brand 
Of leaf corral.

Our OK brand 
of leaf corral 
is guaranteed 
to be 

It’s the solution 
to pollution!

No curbside muss or fuss, now. 
No piles in the aisles. 
No cars swervin', 
or curvin' 
'round foliage undeservin' 
of a fate so unnervin'. 

‘Cause our sophisticated 
leaf-sensin' fencin' 
will keep your leafy fleet 
in a discreet 
of the yard. 

The OK Leaf Corral 
is a leaf corral 
you can trust, 
not to rust. 

So keep that leaf, 
(at your feet) 
out of the street! 

Just saddle on up 
in your “green” blue jeans, 
and start cleanin' the scene.

You can mow ‘em,
You can stow ‘em,
You can rake ‘em,
You can shake ‘em,
You can make ‘em into soil.
It don’t take any toil.

Don’t burn,
Don’t burn,
Don’t burn any oil.

All you gotta do is toss em’.
Oh, those leaves 
are simply awesome!

Just rake ‘em on up,
And tow ‘em on down.
Move 'em on back 
To the back of the yard.
To the back of the yard?
To the back of the yard!

Ride herd on them there leaves! 
Giddyap and get 'em on back 
To the OK Leaf Corral. 

Yee haw!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Another Wishing (the earth) Well in the Neighborhood

Posts on a blog and letters to the editor are released into the community to an uncertain fate. Will they lodge in anyone's mind, to any effect? Irrefutable evidence came last weekend when Peter and Suzanne, neighbors around the corner, stopped by to ask about the Wishing (the earth) Well placed in our front yard next to the sidewalk. What to do with the oak leaves, which seem not to decompose at all when left on the ground. I explained the logic of the dual purpose leaf corral--a circle within a circle, with the inner circle being a central, critter-proof cylinder into which food scraps can be put, disguised by the surrounding leaves.

Peter thought about what fencing he had left over from other projects, went to the local hardware to buy stakes, and later the same day sent me a photo of their new leaf corral next to the back fence. Instead of wire fencing for the leaf-containing outer ring, it uses plastic, which is probably cheaper and appears to hold its shape just fine. Given how ideas tend to incubate for long periods, this quick turn around, from idea to reality in a couple hours, was truly refreshing.

Another neat feature in Peter and Suzanne's yard is a mini minipond, fed by sump pump water that is pumped into the small cisterns next to the house, then gravity fed to the little pond. A pink flamingo stands guard, perhaps to intimidate any great blue heron that might stop by. The screens are there to catch any heavy snow we might get this winter, and they may help discourage the raccoons and fox from stealing goldfish.

With the solar panels mounted on their roof, that means they're utilizing the sun that shines on their house, the sump pump water that comes from underground, and the leaves that fall from the trees. It all makes life, and the yard, a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

PawPaw Patches Proliferate in Princeton

My friend Stan, who has a knack for collecting and growing out seed of local fruit trees, gave me about twenty pawpaws (Asimina triloba) he grew from local populations of this remarkable native species. Though adapted to the north, the pawpaw bears a fruit reminiscent of mango. Hard to store and ship, the fruit has proven hard to turn into a cash crop, so it remains at the margins of our diets and awareness.

I delivered three to Mountain Lakes, for planting there, then called up my friend and author-of-note Clifford Zink over at Harrison Street Park, to see about starting a pawpaw patch over there.

Last month, we planted three in a swale that receives water from a nearby parking lot--a good urban version of the floodplains that are the pawpaw's preferred habitat.

Around the same time, Bill Sachs gave me some white cedars and hemlocks he'd grown in his backyard. Bill has been leading efforts in town to bring back the native chestnut and butternut. Since white cedars are adapted to swamps, two of them ended up in the Princeton High School ecolab wetland, thanks to environmental science teacher Tim Anderson and his students.

Most of the pawpaws are being saved for planting a pawpaw patch out at the Veblen House site, part of a PawPaw Patch Planting Party, public invited, tentatively scheduled for the first weekend of the new year, El Nino weather permitting.

(Other pawpaw posts can be found by typing pawpaw into the search box at the top of this website.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Some Local Parks "Leave the Leaves"

According to a report by councilman Patrick Simon at the December Princeton Environmental Commission meeting, the town recreation department (Princeton has no parks department) is changing its management to "leave the leaves" in 8 of 15 parks in town. That means that leaves will be mulch-mowed back into the turf on non-sports fields, and left in back areas under trees. This represents an important step away from the notion that leaves are litter that must be exported from town, and a step towards acknowledging the important ecological role leaves have in the landscape, for nutrient recycling and as habitat that benefits birds and insects like fireflies.

After mulch mowing (most any mower blade will cut leaves into bits as it cuts the grass, and therefore "mulch mow"), the park looks like this.

The decision follows a number of emails I sent to director of recreation, Ben Stentz, requesting that the maintenance crews shift away from the noisy and labor- and fuel-intensive practice of blowing leaves into piles and then hauling them out of town to the composting site.

Because of this new approach, neighbors will no longer need to listen to a morning's worth of leaf blowing each year, rec staff will have more time for other work, and there will be less burning of carbon-based fuels to export nutrients from town parks. This is what they call a win-win-win-win.

The photo shows how the mowed bits of leaves nestle inbetween the leaf blades, and will begin to behave as slow-release fertilizer for the lawn.

In my emails to staff and council members, I had also requested permission to build and fill leaf corrals in a couple local parks, to demonstrate to park users this sustainable and easy approach that, like mulch mowing, helps homeowners "leave the leaves" on their property.

That proposal was not approved, so I'm using my front yard on North Harrison Street to demonstrate the benefits of leaf corrals. As the three leaf corrals of various sizes in the front yard show, they can be proudly displayed out in the open, integrated into perennial borders, or hidden behind shrubs. As the post at this link shows, leaf corrals can be used either to generate high quality compost for the homeowner, or to simply channel nutrients back into the yard.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Big Bird That Got Away

This is one of those old fish crow stories, about hearing a fish crow in the backyard this morning, going "uh uh"..."uh uh", again and again, with that call that sounds like it's contradicting everything you happen to be thinking. "Uh uh. That's a lousy idea," it seems to be saying. "Uh uh. You don't want to do that." And so I go out on the back patio to see what all the "uh uhs" are about, and locate the fish crow, seemingly alone in the top of the silver maple tree, and while I'm looking up, out of the corner of my eye I see a great blue heron lifting itself up out of the shrubbery screening the chicken coop and fly off in its heavy, gangly way, swooping around an evergreen tree to drop back down to the ground a couple doors away. We have no fish, nor any pond this time of year to even offer hope of fish. Was it remembering ponds and goldfish past? Or was it hanging out with the chickens, who also were clustered under the shrubs? Maybe some kind of big bird affinity happening there. And why was the fish crow making that steady, repetitive call, as if monitoring the situation and letting fellow crows know what gives? I went over to my neighbor's. He has a pond with a pump-driven waterfall. The great blue heron was gone.

That was a good photo that got away, and if the neighbor had any fish in his pond, a couple long-necked gulps may have left his pond as empty as the tree in this photo.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Capturing Mountain Lakes in a Camera

The Friends of Princeton Open Space, partnering with REI, held a "Give Thanks for Nature Photo Contest" a week ago. The weather cooperated, and I hear they had a good turnout for this 1st annual event. Since photographers could only submit one photo each, below are some of the photos I took whose compositional potential I didn't really see until after the submission deadline.

Though open space preservation groups have tended to shy away from preserving buildings that come along with open space acquisitions, I find that Mountain Lakes' cultural legacy--the 1950s house and the 1900 dams that were part of an ice harvesting operation--play a complementary rather than antagonistic role in this nature preserve, adding meaning to the landscape and many of the photos thereof.

Reflections on Mountain Lakes House 


Liquid Garland

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral


Nature's Tears


Thursday, December 03, 2015

The "Second Forest" -- Fall Version

The second forest is a term I use to describe the understory layer of exotic invasive shrubs that populate most of our forests. It is essentially a second forest superimposed on the landscape, composed of non-native species that, being largely inedible to wildlife, do not support the local foodchain. You can see it this time of year, when the native species have lost their leaves but the exotic honeysuckle shrubs are still green. Note that the honeysuckle sticks to the higher ground in the distance. The second forest can be attractive, but ecologically it causes problems because the exotics not only stay green later into the fall but also green up early in the spring, shading out our native spring ephemeral wildflowers before they've had a chance to absorb enough solar energy to sustain them through to the next year. The photo is from Princeton's Mountain Lakes Preserve.

As the Emerald Ash Borer begins to kill off the many ash trees in our preserves, the canopy will develop many gaps, allowing more summer sunlight to reach the shrub understory. If that understory is largely exotic invasive species, then all that solar energy will go into generating foliage that is largely inedible to wildlife, and which produces berries of significantly less nutritional value than those of native species. The consequent reduction in functional acreage of open space is why it's so important to be taking action now to shift the understory from exotic to native species, so that our preserves can actually support diverse native plant and animal life.

I made this case as a member of the Princeton Open Space Advisory Committee this year. Hopefully, the committee's report will help town leaders see the strategic importance of habitat restoration, given the dramatic changes coming to Princeton's forests.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nature Trail: From the All Saints Tract to Herrontown Woods

One of the entryways into the long corridor of preserved land called Princeton Ridge East, including Herrontown Woods, begins on a bikeway that heads up past Princeton Charter School on Bunn Drive. You can enjoy this asphalt bikeway's smoothness, and note that the trees are far enough away that their roots haven't made ridges in the pavement.

For anyone who's curious, a little ways up, across from the water tower, just in from the road, a native chestnut tree is hanging on in deep shade. It was discovered by arborist Bob Wells while he was inventorying Princeton's street trees, and is the only wild native chestnut that we know to exist in town.

Up the hill are the new Copperwood apartments. Though some grand old beech and oak trees were sacrificed to build it, the developer heeded strong resistance from local environmental groups and, rather than spread the allowed units out across the property, he clustered the apartments so that some 20 acres of ridge forest could be preserved.

Look down and to the right from the Copperwood entrance and you'll see a long straight trail extending into the woods. That's the pathway leading through land preserved by the municipality, county and environmental groups, with particularly significant effort put forth by DR Greenway and the Friends of Princeton Open Space.

Just in on the left as you walk down the trail is a large berm that holds back stormwater from Princeton Community Village and Copperwood. There's a slow drama underway on the berm. Woody plants aren't allowed to grow there, so the berm's floristic destiny might be native wildflowers like these late-flowering thoroughworts,

but Chinese bushclover is starting to get a foothold. It was introduced into the U.S. for use in erosion control, and promoted as offering abundant seed for wildlife. But the seeds proved undigestible, and the species has proved extremely invasive, outcompeting native wildflowers and creating inedible monocultures. With a few hours' work, the Chinese bushclover could probably be eliminated from this berm, but management doesn't tend to be proactive, which means the species is likely to increase in number until it's too intimidating to deal with. Where's that Friends of the Berm group when we need them?

Unless you're going to the imagined Friends of the Berm workday to remove Chinese bushclover, continue down the straight and narrow until you encounter one of two trail signs on the left.

These are DR Greenway signs, as part of their followup to preserving the All Saints tract. Down the hill from the preserved property is the All Saints Church itself, which is also home to the Princeton Learning Cooperative, for teens who seek an alternative to a traditional middle or high school education. Our Friends of Herrontown Woods group has partnered with them on nature walks.

Sometimes, it takes a village to maintain even a small sign like this. A resident of Copperwood told our Friends of Herrontown Woods group that he and his wife couldn't find the signs leading to Herrontown Woods. We went looking for the map, found it had disappeared, then told DR Greenway staff, who replaced it. Such is the fabric of connection that keeps Princeton's open space navigable.

Earlier in the fall, I led a walk through the All Saints tract for local digital technology educator John LeMasney and some of his friends. Along with all the beautiful moss-covered boulders of the ridge, we encountered a white oak tree that cleaved but did not break in one of the windstorms of recent years.

Here, Peter Abrams, designer of "B Homes" made of used materials like pallets, and John seek out the right angle for photographing this angled tree.

Where All Saints transitions into Herrontown Woods, we took a look at an umbrella magnolia tree, which may be the only example of this species along the Princeton ridge. The Institute Woods hosts a larger population.

These trails can also be accessed from the Herrontown Woods parking lot, down the street across from the entry to Smoyer Park (where another friend of John's showed off a manual chain saw, which could be useful for invasive shrub removal), and from Journey's End Lane, off of Terhune Road.