Saturday, February 17, 2024

Coming in March: Three Princeton Adult School Classes at Herrontown Woods

Through the Princeton Adult School, I will be leading or co-leading three classes at Herrontown Woods this March. Classes meet on Saturdays, 10-12. 

To sign up, scroll down through the list of Tours and Nature Walks being offered this spring by the Princeton Adult School. Discount available if you sign up for all three.

Class Descriptions

March 2: The Herrontown Woods Experience: Hiking and Exploration (Princeton Ridge Geology and Magnetic Rocks) - Why do magnets stick to some of the rocks in Herrontown Woods?Hydrogeologist Jon Johnson discovered magnetic rocks in Herrontown Woods and tracked them back to the mother lode. We will retrace his journey, learning about the Princeton ridge's surprising geology and ecology along the way.

March 9: The Herrontown Woods Experience: Hiking and Exploration (Signs of Early Princeton Along the Ridge: Quarries, Smallholder Farms, Timber Harvest) - The mix of nature and culture at Herrontown Woods provides a window into the past. Hidden in what today is a forest are clues to a time, a century ago, when Princeton's ridge was a patchwork of small farms, woodlots and quarries. Participants will learn to recognize these clues, and the history behind them.

March 16: The Herrontown Woods Experience: Hiking and Exploration (Salamanders and Frogs in Herrontown) - Herrontown Woods is a center of amphibian life along the Princeton ridge. We'll visit some of the vernal pools where frogs and salamanders gather in the spring to lay their eggs, and learn about their varied life cycles, as well as efforts to help them survive road crossings during spring migration.

Encountering Old (Plant) Friends at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden

Among the many surprising encounters we had during a visit to the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden--during a holiday spent in Coconut Grove, more than a year ago now--was the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with the celebrated writer and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She's aging well. After a brief bout with death in 1998, by which time she had reached the age of 108, she still looks to be going strong 25 years later. Sitting alone on a bench, she looked like she wanted company, perhaps to tell me about her seminal book, The Everglades: River of Grass, and how she helped found the Fairchild Gardens.

Walking the paved trails that wind through 83 acres, I felt suffused with a bloom of happiness. Maybe I was empathizing with all the happy plants. In Princeton, things can be bleak in winter, but even in summer there is evidence everywhere of trees dying back due to introduced insects and diseases. This patch of Florida is by comparison exuberantly florid. 

Or maybe it was the endearing mix of impeccable and casual, which perhaps reflects the Garden's varied founders, who range from an accountant/businessman to a worldwide explorer to environmental advocates like Douglas. The grounds are at once formal and informal. Paved trails have imprints of leaves and fruits. Encountering no clear route from the parking lot to the visitors' center, we ducked through a shrub border. The lawns are manicured, and yet the plant labels are low-key, well-aged and aging well. 

Structures range from  a sophisticated greenhouse hosting tropical plants and myriad butterflies to this authentic-looking thatched roof pavilion. 

Along the winding paths, there were old friends, like this thriving ombu. Lacking true wood, it is really an overgrown forb masquerading as a tree. I first encountered it in Argentina, where stories tell of it giving shelter to gauchos out on the pampas. Its latin name, Phytolacca dioica, shows it to be in the same genus as our pokeweed. If you saw it blooming, as I did once in a park in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, you might think you're looking at a pokeweed 50 feet high.
How often do we get to see a baobab tree, and a massive one at that? 

Witnessing this assemblage of plants from around the world stirred all sorts of memories of past travels. This tree reminded me of a hike up into the hills outside Medellin, Columbia, in 1974, where a patchwork of hand-cultivated onion fields gave way to small hilltop forests of tree ferns and hummingbirds. 
Petrified wood triggered memories of visiting a petrified forest during a long drive through Argentine Patagonia.
And this swollen trunk brought the name "palo borracho" to mind, a name that translates to "drunken stick", in reference to the bottle-shape of the trunk. They are common along the streets of Buenos Aires. I think this one is Ceibe speciosa, the silk floss tree, closely related to the kapok tree.

The Garden's 83 acres were donated by an accountant and businessman named Robert Montgomery, who counted among his friends the globetrotting plant collector David Fairchild, who lived next door and supplied many of the plants. The garden's website describes how Fairchild "visited every continent in the world (except Antarctica) and brought back hundreds of important plants, including mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboos and the flowering cherry trees that grace Washington D.C." 

The National Tropical Botanical Garden goes even farther in describing Fairchild's legacy: 

"Avocado, mango, kale, quinoa, dates, hops, pistachios, nectarines, pomegranates, myriad citrus, Egyptian cotton, soybeans, and bamboo are just a few of the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of plants Fairchild introduced to the United States."

The desire to import plants that could prove useful for food, fiber, and other uses dates at least back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but gained intensity during the golden age of travel--the late 19th century when Fairchild began his career. Plants were considered so important to the economy and security of the nation that the U.S. Botanic Garden--a particular passion of George Washington's--was placed next door to the Capitol building. That's it down in the lower left of this map. 

To 21st or even 20th century eyes, the proximity of a botanical garden to the nation's center of legislative power feels odd in the extreme. Plants are more likely now to be viewed as quaint decoration to soften the edges of our hardened world. When I visited the U.S. Botanic Garden, probably in the 1990s, the conservatory looked a bit down in the mouth, largely serving as a refuge for the homeless. More respect for George Washington's dream has been shown since then. 

Those must have been heady times, early in the 20th century, when Fairchild oversaw the import of more than 100,000 species of plants from around the world. Their utility and beauty promised to enrich our country by diversifying our farms, gardens and kitchens. Few, including Fairchild, wanted to think about the downside, as some of these imports escaped gardens and ran wild over the landscape, displacing native species. A botanical enrichment has contributed over time to an ecological degradation. 

I looked into whether David Fairchild ever came to terms with the potential for introduced species to run amok, and plan to write about it in a separate post. He was aware that some nonnatives like kudzu and lebbek were spreading aggressively, but there is no verifiable evidence as yet that he sounded a warning. 

It's heartening to see that the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden itself has evolved to take the threat of invasive species very seriously. According to multiple sources, it monitors closely its collection of exotic plants and takes action to prevent spread beyond the Garden's borders. I want very much to believe all this is true and will continue to be true, the better to enjoy the memory of my visit there, encountering so many old (plant) friends from my earlier travels around the world. 

The Lost Forest of Rogers Refuge

This past November, I received a request to look at a lost forest in Princeton. 

The request came from what may be the oldest open space organization in town--the Friends of Rogers Refuge. Dating back to 1967, FORR has been working with the town, and the water company that owns the land just down from the Institute Woods, to sustain the refuge's role as premier habitat for a tremendous diversity of birds.

Over the years, I've been able to witness and collaborate with a progression of leaders who have overseen stewardship--the Southerlands, Tom Poole, the Spars, the Varians, and most recently David Padulo. 

At annual meetings, discussions have tended to focus on the refuge's central feature, the surprisingly extensive marsh--how to keep it wet enough and protect it from the super-aggressive Phragmitis.

But this year, concern now extends to the floodplain woodlands surrounding the marsh--also vital bird habitat. One of these woodlands, thriving four years ago, has lost its trees.

This was not a forest classically lost to logging. The trees were not cut down but rather strangled over the course of several years, then left standing, each tree a monument to its past life. 
Few have seen the now ubiquitous strangler, the Emerald Ash Borer accidentally introduced to the U.S. from Asia. It's larvae work quietly under cover of bark, feasting on the ash trees' circulatory tissues. 

That a whole forest could die speaks to how common ash trees once were. The most numerous tree in Princeton up until just a few years ago, comprising more than 10% of the tree cover, the ash tree's skeletons can be found throughout the canopy of residential and open space lands. Ash were particularly good at colonizing abandoned fields, to the point of dominating one area of what is now Rogers Refuge. 

As the botanist in an organization of birders, I was asked what the longterm prognosis for this lost forest might be. Winnie Spar, Joe Melton, and I walked the red trail to have a look.
One striking feature is what I call "poison ivy trees." These are dead trees, still standing, that have been scaled by poison ivy vines, with their classic "hairy is scary" stems. In order to bloom, poison ivy must climb a tree, sending out lateral flowering shoots along the way. The branch-like laterals give the tree the look of still being alive, even though all the leaves are now poison ivy. The flowers produce berries that, birders will enthusiastically tell you, serve as important food for birds.
Another feature of a lost forest is the shrub growth that now thrives on the infusion of sunlight previously claimed by the tree canopy. Much of this shrub growth, unfortunately, is nonnative and inedible to wildlife, like this Asian Photinia. At least it can be said that the invasive shrubs are not as thick at Rogers Refuge as they are at the Institute Woods just up the hill.
A few other native tree species fill a small portion of the void. In early November, the occasional silver maple and pin oak still had many of their leaves. Mixed in were a couple elms, and a red maple. 

Used to the numerous red maples at Herrontown Woods on the other side of town, I was surprised to find instead an abundance of box elder of every size growing in this broad floodplain of the Refuge. Related to maples, box elder are not the most statuesque of trees, but their soft wood can make good bird habitat. They now stand as the main hope for rebound in this patch of former forest. 

The walk being with such knowledgeable birders, attention never strayed far from bird life. We saw a couple pileated woodpeckers, a coopers hawk and a couple other larger hawks. Winnie kept up a running monologue about the status of this or that bird. Mockingbirds have been around for a long time, but the catbirds keep them out of their territories when they are present. While a warming climate is causing many birds to extend their ranges northward, ravens, surprisingly, are moving south. She's seen some in the Refuge. Warblers love something about the spicebush flowers, whether it's the flowers themselves or an insect in them. Blue gray knatcatchers were mentioned, along with many other bird names that didn't register in my botanical brain.

There's a lot of concern that last year's fires in Canada have been very hard on migrating birds that nest up there. A woman who catches and tags migrant birds had been having very few birds coming back down from Canada, but her catch/tag/release activity, conducted on Sundays, was hampered by rains every weekend this fall. One day she got only ten birds, total. 

But then Winnie is quick to add that she saw Cape May Warblers in the Refuge for the first time, several in fact, with immatures, and they too nest in Canada. Winnie is one to accent the positive, while acknowledging that migrant bird numbers are down 50-90%. 

This lost forest, the decline in bird numbers, accelerating changes in climate, democracy under threat--in many ways, America is losing its memory of what it once was. The soil, for its part, holds memory through the seeds that remain dormant within it. Back when the seed bank--this stockpile of seeds yet to sprout--was dominated by the seeds of native species, succession as an ecological phenomenon featured an orderly and predictable progression of species, from grassland to shrubland to mature forest. But the soil under our feet has lost its memory, whether by plow, development, intense browsing, or displacement of native species. Invasive lesser celandine, poisonous to wildlife, coats the ground in the spring, followed by inedible stiltgrass and its billions of seeds in late summer. Invasive shrubs and deer combine to limit native species and thwart the once timeless process of succession. Though the tree canopy is still dominated by natives, these are under increasing attack from introduced insects and disease.

Even healthy trees can be overwhelmed by vines of porcelainberry and wisteria.

Given the circumstances, it's fair to ask what sense there is in persevering. What I find is that the native growth force, if often smothered and badly abused, remains intact. When given a chance to prosper, native plants and wildlife still can thrive. In Rogers Refuge, we've seen a tremendous rebound of spicebush since the town began culling deer to reduce browsing pressure. That in turn has improved habitat for birds. FORR has paid contractors to successfully set back the Phragmitis and porcelainberry. 

Through periodic interventions over a number of years, the Varians have virtually eliminated the one patch of invasive Japanese knotweed at Rogers Refuge. 

We pick our spots, time our interventions strategically to have the most impact for the least amount of effort, and look for opportunities. Despite the tragedy of losing ash trees, the new openings in the canopy could potentially allow native shrubs to grow, flower and bear in ways they haven't since being shaded out decades ago. 

Our inherited environmental mindset is that nature, if protected from intentional depredations like logging and draining, will heal itself. As FORR's webmaster Laurie Larson points out, "when Charles H. Rogers and the Southerlands started birding the “Water Company” in the 60s and 70s it was a landfill." The initial fight was to put an end to dumping. But now, at Rogers Refuge and many other places, the main depredations (invasive species, climate change) are unintentional, and the healing must be helped along by intentional effort. That effort could seem a sacrifice, but the primary feeling is one of gratitude, for the chance to work with nature--the greatest and most generously creative collaborator of all. 

Monday, January 29, 2024

Princeton University Students Study Local Nature

A recurring observation, which this blog has long sought to make less common, is that many people go through life knowing little about the natural world all around them. Kids can navigate the school years without gaining acquaintance with more than a handful of native plants. Princeton University students can tend to remain cloistered on campus, studying distant continents while leaving the local unexplored. 

A salve for this concern came this past fall when twenty Princeton University students gathered for a walk through Herrontown Woods. They had signed up for professor Andy Dobson's Ecology of Fields, Streams, and Rivers--a course that combined standard lecture with field trips to "local sites of ecological interest," including Herrontown Woods, Mountain Lakes, the Institute Woods, Terhune Orchards, and lands preserved more recently by the Ridgeview Conservancy.

What a delight to show them the all-too-rare forest opening in the Botanical Art Garden, where wildflowers team in the gaps between scattered trees. They witnessed the rebound of spicebush, as browsing pressure from deer has been brought more into balance, and the foundational, enduring open space legacy of the late great professor Oswald Veblen and his wife Elizabeth. 

In turn, the students taught us a few things two months later, when Andy invited us to witness their presentations of individual research projects. 

I hadn't known, for instance, that the Lenape valued the red mulberry, and that this tree species I had considered weedy is actually becoming rare, in part due to interbreeding with the introduced white mulberry. My increased respect may lead to identifying and propagating remaining local red mulberries, for planting in an open understory at Herrontown Woods.

Another student explained how the invasive barberry can serve as a tick haven. The nonnative shrub's dense, low growth provides a humid habitat for white-footed mice, which in turn harbor the ticks. 

We learned a new word, "solastalgia." Coined less than 20 years ago, the word captures a kind of loss we are becoming more and more familiar with. If nostalgia is a longing for a place or time left behind, solastalgia is the distress felt when the world we thought we knew does the leaving. The word captures the present era, as climate change steals the seasons, rapid development transforms once familiar landscapes, and even foundational systems like democracy become threatened.  

Another presentation told of the peach-clematis aphid, which lives two lives--one on peach-related trees, another on the non-native autumn clematis vine that blooms bright white in yards and in the wild. Andy pointed out that the resourceful aphid reproduces sexually on one, asexually on the other. This interaction between a nonnative insect and a nonnative plant is reminiscent of how the spotted lanternflies are drawn to the tree of heaven (Ailanthus)--the two having evolved together in Asia before being transported here. 

It was satisfying to see, as well, that Andy's course led one student to discover the fascinating world of fire ecology, that is, how plants of many sorts have adapted to and even become dependent upon the periodic presence of fire in the landscape. Her presentation brought back memories of my first happening upon the concept in my second year in college, exactly 50 years ago. I was on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Savannah, wondering why the pines were burying themselves in pine needles so thick that no new pines could grow. The answer, discovered pre-internet in books and articles, was that the pines dropped persistent needles as an evolved strategy to promote periodic fire that would leave the pines intact while exposing the mineral soil for seed germination and killing the pine's less fire-resistant competitors.

By teaching a course on local ecology, Professor Dobson is in part building on the great tradition of one of his predecessors in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Henry Horn, who frequently reached beyond the university's borders to lead walks in local preserves. Some engaging videos of Henry's walks are online, and Henry's wife, Elizabeth Horn, continues to teach a wildflower course at the Princeton Adult School. I looked back and found another great example of university students learning from local habitats: when history professor Vera Candiani had architectural historian Clifford Zink and me introduce her students to Mountain Lakes' flora and history.

Courses past and gratefully present demonstrate the potential for synergy between town, gown, and outdoors, and somehow brought to mind the imperative found long ago in the Grateful Dead's song "Truckin'": 

"Get out of the door and light out and look all around."

Most of what stuck with me from college happened outside the classroom. And though the distant world may beckon, there's a whole lot of truckin' and learnin' to be done just beyond one's doorstep.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Fountain Park--Ancestral Connection to an Eternal Spring

It is my sister-in-law Edna, not my siblings and I, who has taken particular satisfaction in researching our family's ancestry. She traced one lineage on my father's side back to Lord Hempleman of Hesse-Kassel. If my parents had known there was a Lord in our family's past, they might have called on me to show more regal bearing as a kid. Though it's flattering to learn of some royal ancestry, the most exciting find was another lineage, on my mother's side, extending seven generations back to an eternal spring located one hundred miles west of Princeton. 

In Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, there is a fountain that flows nonstop, year-round, without aid of any pump. It's water rises from a spring perched on the hillside, then flows down the hill to a fountain where residents of the town still come to have a drink.

The fountain was part of an innovative underground system of wooden pipes that transported water from the spring down one side of a valley and up the other to provide drinking water in wooden troughs on the town square. 

According to some literature:
"The water company in Schaefferstown has the oldest gravitational conveyance system by underground pipes in the United States. The water system was constructed sometime between 1744 and 1750 by the founder of the town, Alexander Schaeffer."

It's also called "the oldest Chartered Waterworks still in operation in the United States."

This ancestral connection has all sorts of resonance in my life. Water holds an attraction for most people, but in my life it has been a recurring theme. I grew up near beautiful Lake Geneva, WI, got a masters degree in water quality, founded a watershed association, turned a soggy field in a public park into a wetland garden, dug a series of miniponds in my backyard, and favor wildflowers that thrive in wet soil. As a kid walking home from school when winter was finally giving way to spring, I loved to build dams out of wet snow to hold back the snowmelt along the curb. Clearly, all this time Alexander Schaeffer's genes have been whispering encouragement to his great-great-great-great-great grandson.

The eternal spring is in a park that also feels eternal, appropriately called Fountain Park, 

Halfway up the hillside is the spring house, which looks more like a mound of earth, with a wall on the bottom end, its own picket fence
and its own caretaker--one in a long line of caretakers dating back to the mid-1700s
Peer in through the door in the wall, 
and you'll find what looks like a small indoor swimming pool--a durably crafted stone chamber where the water collects before flowing down to the fountain. 

One enduring mystery, which I'm hoping a hydrogeologist who strays upon this post can explain, is why springs tend to emerge not at the bottom of a hill but halfway down. 
Climb up this hill and you quickly reach the top, where there hardly seems to be enough land to feed such a copious and consistent spring--not much more than a small farm field, with the land beyond lower and flowing off in different directions. 
German immigrant Alexander Schaeffer laid out the town in a way reminiscent of those he knew in Europe, and initially called it Heidelberg, after one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. 

Water from the spring still feeds troughs along Market Street, bringing back memories of ancient Roman water works seen in Italy.

The park is owned and maintained by residents of Market Street. Buy a house on Market Street, and you also become part owner and steward of the park. 

While in town, I met one of the owner/stewards, Ann Ginder, who gave me some copies of this pamphlet. At the time--my visit was in 2018--her husband, Andy, was president of the group of residents along the street who take care of Fountain Park. Carl "Cork" Meyer, who I didn't meet, is the one who does most of the physical work to maintain the park. 

On the town square, Alexander Schaeffer built what still stands as a tavern called Franklin House, and it was there that I met what proved to be a distant cousin of mine, Howard Kramer. Our ancestral connection to each other and the town's founder can be tracked back via gravestones variously populated with names like Meyer, Moyer, and Meier. Ann Ginder calls Howard the "unofficial mayor" of Schaefferstown.

Schaeffer's house and farm on the outskirts of town are being restored as a historic site, with summer festivals to celebrate the town's history. It's not just the unique drinking water system and a long line of advocates and stewards that has saved the town's historical features. As one website explains,

"Because the area was left isolated from rail lines, canals, and modern highways, the town did not grow appreciably in the 19th or 20th centuries. This greatly influenced the small-town look and feel that the area maintains today."

Thanks to my sister-in-law Edna for discovering our ancestral link to this special place, founded by my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. And thanks to those who care enough to cherish and sustain that history. Howard wrote to me that "years ago there was a steady line of people getting their drinking water here and at the fountain mid-way up Market St." Even now, with all the world's turbulence, radical change, and myriad threats to what we once thought of as forever, there is an improbable spring perched above a Pennsylvania valley where the water still flows.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Native Bamboos Once Common in the Southeastern U.S.

This post isn't about the tall bamboo you often see growing around town. That would be golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), native to southeast China, cultivated in Japan for centuries, and first introduced to the United States in the 1880s. In our neighborhood, I sometimes see people of asian descent harvesting its young shoots in the spring. (If you're looking for a clever way to get rid of it, or want to eat it, or both, scroll through my various previous posts that actually ARE about the nonnative golden bamboo.

Nor is this post about the bamboo you are confronted with when you pull out of the Spring Street parking garage behind the Princeton Public Library. That one's probably the nonnative arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica), which lacks the towering, thick stems. Instead, it grows into a dense mop of evergreen foliage, seldom rising much beyond ten feet high. It's rarely seen in Princeton, but was a common feature in neighborhoods where I used to live, further south in the piedmont, in Durham, NC. We'd find it thriving in shade, and in that Princeton back alley it does an excellent job of screening the homes beyond it from the sight of cars pulling out of the parking garage day and night. 

This post IS about what that patch of arrow bamboo reminded me of: native bamboos. Yes, there are native bamboos that once dominated vast stretches of the southeastern U.S., but which are now largely lost from the landscape.

The photo shows a patch of native bamboo, cane so-called (Arundinaria sp.), that I planted 20 years ago in a nature preserve we created in Durham, NC. Called "17 Acre Wood," the neighborhood preserve straddles Ellerbe Creek--good floodplain habitat for native cane. A scientist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Roger Hansard, had given me the plant. (He was also the one who showed me the last remnant of another little known, long-lost feature of the eastern U.S.--extensive native grasslands. There once was a great native meadow just south of Princeton, called Maidenhead Meadows.) 

Prior to western settlement, early European explorers in what is now North Carolina documented not the unbroken forest of lore, but a mosaic of grasslands, forest, and canebrakes. The canebrakes were dominated by native bamboos. 

There are three species of native bamboo. A Name That Plant article gives a quick overview of native (Arundinaria sp.) and nonnative bamboos in the U.S.. 
Differences in distribution and vegetative characteristics help to distinguish among Arundinaria species and from non-native species. Typically river cane is more widely distributed in the southeastern US, switch cane in coastal plains and lower elevations, and hill cane in higher elevations (Appalachian Mountain region).
The Tennessee Conservationist has an excellent writeup on the river cane that until the 1700s formed "the dominant ecosystem in the Cumberland River valley." Dense stands of river cane, growing from 5-40 feet tall, served as important resources for American Indians, excellent forage for bison and later cattle, and hiding places for escaped slaves. They postulate that some of these massive canebrakes were the result of cane reclaiming corn fields abandoned by "prehistoric Mississippian peoples" many centuries prior, as major droughts led to the breakup of an early civilization. In turn, the canebrakes proved easier than forests for newly arrived western settlers to turn into farm fields.

If you've never seen bamboo blooming, it's because it can grow for decades without blooming at all. Then a year finally comes when the whole patch will bloom at once, then die. I've seen a whole city block suddenly die in this way. 

The cluster of roots and leaves of native bamboo that I planted alongside Ellerbe Creek some 20 years ago in Durham has grown into a patch 30 wide. Maybe someone will come along and use it as a source for replanting the Cane Creeks of the world, named for what was once abundant and now is seldom seen.

That's what I was reminded of a few weeks ago, pulling out of the Spring Street parking garage next to the public library.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

A Rose Blooms in Brooklyn

 Quite the surprise, arising the morning of January 1st,

to find a rose blooming in a Brooklyn backyard. My first thought on this first day was, "Why is this rose blooming? Doesn't it know it's winter?" And such a large, beautiful rose!

Then I looked up and was surprised again, by two tall towers--iron exclamation points--rising along the back fence between two backyards in this row of brownstones. "What were those towers?," I asked my hosts.

Turns out that long ago, these towers anchored an elaborate web of clotheslines that stretched back to the apartments. I'm guessing the lines were mounted on pulleys, so that residents could hang laundry all the way out to the towers, then "pulley" it on back when it was dry.

It looked something like this--not unlike a harbor full of miniature sailboats. 

Sailing and line drying clothes are both ways to collaborate with nature. Both require being tuned in, aware of the outdoors, alert to shifts in the wind and the weather. Lacking an outdoor clothesline, I can still collaborate by hanging my clothes on a rack, then return the next day to find that nature has effortlessly dried them. 

Machines have stolen us away from collaborations with nature, yet, embedded in concrete, these iron towers remain, soaring skyward like the masts of idled sailboats, still standing ready to launch us back to a more sustainable lifestyle. Patiently indifferent to a changed world, they teach the rose to bloom in January.

More about what it was like to hangdry clothes out the back window can be found in a post on Ephemeral New York. 

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Handling Rainwater Runoff in My Yard--a Video

I was one of the hosts for a highly successful Green House Tour in Princeton this summer, organized by the Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC) and Sustainable Princeton. While other tours were of homes that demonstrate how to shift away from fossil fuel dependence, my tour was of my yard, and all the ways to utilize rainwater runoff to feed native plants in the landscape. The organizers made four excellent videos of the various tours, including one of my yard, below. Devan Sekaria did the filming, with editing mentorship by Seth Mellman.

 (A good companion piece to the video is a post from ten years ago about how to incrementally shift your lawn to garden, called "The Incredible Shrinking Lawn, Thanks to Cardboard.")

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Default Landscapes That Lack the Touch of a Human Hand

Much of the land in central Jersey has been highly traumatized, first by agriculture, then by suburbanization and invasive species. During the agricultural era, plowing erased the land's memory of what it once had been, not altogether unlike the erasure of Native American culture through forced assimilation. On this traumatized land now live many people who have lost connection to the land around them. Land that long ago lost its memory--its seedbank of native species that once flourished upon it--has now lost the touch of a human hand. 

Tended only by machines, this landscape of turf and tiny cannonball shrubs is what can be called a cultural default landscape, with closely mowed and trimmed plants kept in an eternal infantile state. The values expressed here are neatness and simplicity. Nature, being neither neat nor simple, becomes the tacit enemy of the suburban landscape. Subdivisions like this remind me of the motels we would plop down on the Monopoly board.

Heightening the sense of disconnection, this development, with houses dropped on the land as if they were spaceships from another planet, also lacks any clear physical connection to other developments around it. West Windsor at some point becomes East Windsor, their names suggesting they are west or east of something, and yet Windsor itself--once called Centerville because it is located at the center of the state--has barely 300 residents. 

In Princeton, there is more sense of connection, with a downtown nearby, and a few trees have grown up, but otherwise the default anti-nature landscape of house plus sterile lawn tended by machines is the same.

Here is another cultural default landscape, and by that I mean a landscape whose relative sterility is enforced by engrained cultural expectations. This is perhaps the largest detention basin I have ever seen, meant to capture runoff next to a public school. My guess is that the school cannot use the area for sports, and no one will think to turn it into a meadow, so it is destined to remain a barren mowed lawn in perpetuity.
Surprisingly, this large field across the street from the mansions has been left to grow up in broomsedge--a native grass. Not a high quality grassland by any stretch, but the less frequent (probably annual) mowing at least allows the grasses to reach sexual maturity.
Over near the hospital in Plainsboro, a vacant field demonstrates another kind of default landscape, where engrained cultural imperatives of farm or turfgrass have ceded control to invasive species. Cultural abandonment allowed three classic weeds to move in: mugwort, Chinese bushclover, and late flowering thoroughwort. Those first two are nonnative, with the mugwort being crowned "most likely to succeed" in abandoned fields. 

It is astonishing to witness the hegemony that mugwort can achieve. Monocultural stands of mugwort stretch for miles along roadsides in the Plainsboro area. This can be called an invasive species default, in which aggressive nonnative species fill the void left by past agricultural trauma followed by neglect. 

Chinese bushclover appears to be newer on the scene in NJ. In the North Carolina piedmont, where I used to live, this highly aggressive species was planted by the Dept. of Transportation to reduce erosion along roadsides. Solving one problem, the DOT created another, as Chinese bushclover has since invaded native grasslands across the eastern U.S., and is now displacing other species along rights of way and on vacant lots in the Princeton area.

How does one counter the cultural and invasive species defaults in our area? One approach is to knock out the worst of the invasive species--the mugwort, Phragmitis, and Chinese bushclover--and then plant deer-resistant natives like late flowering thoroughwort and wild senna. These in turn will produce seeds that can start shifting the seed bank back from nonnative to native. It's all we've had time for thus far, in this field next to Herrontown Woods, preserved but otherwise forgotten. Maybe one day it can be a shining example of a native grassland, that, unlike so many others, has received the steady, ongoing, healing touch of a human hand.