Friday, February 17, 2023

FOHW Receives Land Ethics Award for Best Community Effort

The Friends of Herrontown Woods is proud and honored to receive a 2023 Land Ethics Award from Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve. Our Botanical Art Garden--Barden for short--received their award for Best Community Effort. At Bowman's Hill's annual Land Ethics Symposium, Santino Lauricella read at length from our application about how the Barden evolved to become a gathering place for native plants, art, whimsy, and people of all ages. Next to the main parking lot off of Snowden Lane, the Barden's paths are lined with 150 species of native plants, many of them labeled.

Santino particularly liked the last paragraph of our application:
The Barden was not planned, but instead evolved through a dialogue between people and the land. As thickets of invasives were cleared, the topography and fallen trees suggested where the next pathway might go. Each new volunteer brings ideas and passion to influence the mix. We try to adopt theater’s “Yes, and” approach that promotes positive interactions and allows ideas to grow. “Building community through stewardship” is the group’s informal motto. A garden is viewed not so much as something installed but as a relationship formed. For someone who loves nature and people of all ages, the Barden can feel like a paradise, where we can combine physical work with intellect, as the Veblens did, and collaborate with nature-- the most generous and creative force of all.

I found Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve to be inspirational when I first moved to Princeton back in 2003. In reading the history of Bowman's Hill on their excellent website, it occurred to me that the Veblens' land acquisitions in the 1930s and '40s--both at Herrontown Woods and through the IAS for what later became the Institute Woods--could conceivably have been inspired in part by Bowman's Hill as well. The Veblens bought the cottage property in 1936, two years after Bowman's Hill was formed.

The award announcement can be found on the Bowman's Hill website at the bottom of this webpage.

Observing the Heavens at Herrontown Woods

This story contains elements of community, serendipity, astronomy, and history, and gives a sense of how we get things to happen at Herrontown Woods. For more than a year, a friend and Herrontown Woods volunteer, Jim Manganero, had been telling me about a telescope he was given by a friend. Jim is a retired engineer and was a close friend of John Nash, the great mathematician, and John's wife Alicia. Jim has come to some of our volunteer days at Herrontown Woods, and one particularly memorable day he showed me how to wield a hedge trimmer against the formidable invasive multiflora rose, whose thorns make it otherwise perilous to approach and subdue. 

Jim would remind me periodically about his telescope, and each time we agreed it would be great to figure out how to work it and to invite people to look through it some night at the preserve. But not being particularly adept with technology, I wouldn't follow up--this despite my being the son of a distinguished astronomer, W. Albert Hiltner, and having spent considerable time around observatories as a kid.

Then one day this winter, two women were walking past Veblen House and we got to talking. Somehow astronomy came up, and one of the women, Gitanjali Bakshi, said she knows an astrophysicist at Princeton University who loves the outdoors and community involvement, and might well help us with the telescope. 

His name is Gaspar Bakos, and when I sent him an email, he happened to be down in Chile, on a mountain top, building a special kind of telescope he had designed that will watch the whole night sky, with the aim of detecting anything out of the ordinary. As it happened, he is building his telescope high on a mountain within a few miles of the twin Magellan Telescopes that were my father's last design project. 

Gaspar agreed to meet with us after returning to Princeton, and quickly got the telescope up and running. Jim ordered some additional parts, and we were ready to observe. 

At last, the long awaited night arrived to try out the telescope. Gaspar oriented the telescope using two stars far apart in the sky.  The telescope could then navigate on its own to any star he typed into the remote control. 

The night skies in Princeton, as Gaspar will tell you, are highly polluted with waste light from buildings and streets, robbing us of a good view of the heavens. Nevertheless, we were able to see the Pleiades, and hear Gaspar's fascinating story of how cultures all around the world share the same mythology--which astronomy has helped determine to be the oldest mythology of them all--about Orion and the Seven Sisters. 

Gaspar is an advocate for dark skies, which involves convincing people and communities to minimize the waste light that bleeds upward, washing away what once was a magnificent view of the universe. He describes what we are missing in a wonderful video, entitled The Lost Wonders of the Night Sky

When we finally aimed the telescope at the moon, Gaspar captured the image on a piece of paper held up in front of the eyepiece. Now that we have the telescope functioning, the next step is to organize an evening of observation at Herrontown Woods. That's the goal, but as you can see, the journey is as pleasurable and meaningful as the destination. 

Advocating for Trail Access to Herrontown Woods

Two developments bordering Herrontown Woods were required to build publicly accessible trails to connect to the preserve. One was Stone Hill Church, whose trailhead leads in to our Red Trail from the back of their parking lot. The church has done a great job of maintaining that trailhead, which gets frequent use and proved critical for hauling in the stones and boards necessary to make our Red Trail more walkable during the muddy season. The other is just being installed at Windy Top, the cluster of seven homes built on Snowden Ave across from Smoyer Park. 

The Friends of Herrontown Woods has worked with the Windy Top developer, Liping An, for many years. He allowed us to scavenge hundreds of flat stepping stones to make muddy trails passable, and we convinced him to donate 7.5 acres of woodland behind the development to the town to expand Herrontown Woods. 

Windy Top's public trail into Herrontown Woods was designed to skirt this detention basin at the back of the development.

Recently, I was surprised to find that trees had been planted around the detention basin where the trail had been designed to go. 

I called Cindy Taylor, the town's open space manager, who organized a meeting with Liping and others to figure out what to do. It was agreed that the trees would be moved, and a 4 foot wide bed of woodchips would be applied to make clear how hikers can access Herrontown Woods from the Windy Top cul de sac. 

When installed, this woodchip trail will connect with the purple trail that Kurt Tazelaar built in the 7.5 acre donated woodland.