Sunday, May 7, 2017

May Showers, May Flowers, and a Bright Red Barn Rising in the Woods

Our Saturday morning walk at Herrontown Woods, one of three in Princeton to celebrate Sophie Glovier's newly updated and republished book, "Walks Across Princeton", was wet and wonderful, as advertised. We sidestepped patches of mud, hopped from stone to stone, and in the muddiest patch, Zoe Brooks demonstrated proper trail etiquette by picking up a friend with less mud-friendly shoes.

The muddy patches seemed a minor tradeoff for all the joys that water brings to Herrontown Woods. The day before, after a long rain, the abundant flow added its own art to the moss- and lichen-patterned boulders, cascading down from the preserved headwaters of this tributary of Harry's Brook.

Dormant rivulets came to life, and stones laid for stream crossing disappeared as water became ascendent.

These timeless patterns of nature inspire even as the Friends of Herrontown Woods is working full steam ahead to save the Veblen House and other structures from an undeserved demolition. The Little Nonprofit that Could is straining at the seams as it pulls its train of logic up the hill, seeking to convince the powers that be to allow it to begin needed repairs to make these wonderful buildings an enduring part of Herrontown Woods' natural and cultural landscape.

(Proofreading this post, I see that the photo is saying "full stream ahead", a nice bit of serendipity.)

During the walk, while some of us identified wildflowers along the path, others carried on conversations about fundraising strategies.

The full streams of the day before had receded in time for yesterday's walk, allowing us to see some of the wildflowers along the way. There are only two spots we know of where this special wildflower grows along the Princeton Ridge. It's called showy orchis, and we hear stories of how crowds of photographers would gather at Herrontown Woods to capture its beauty when it was in bloom.

Another plant that has only been found growing wild in two spots in Princeton is the hearts 'a bustin (Euonymus americanus). Deer love it, therefore its rareness, compared to the ubiquitous nonnative winged Euonymus.

There's a caterpillar that also likes the native species, dealing a blow to most of its leaves. Ecosystems work by having the solar energy captured by plants move up the foodchain, e.g. as insects eat the plants and birds eat the insects. The nonnative Euonymus doesn't get eaten, outcompetes natives, and the forest becomes progressively less edible to wildlife. We've been "eating" the winged euonymus with our loppers, and interestingly, the deer have begun collaborating to some extent by eating the resprouts after we cut down the large bushes. The resprouts may be more edible because they haven't had time to manufacture the chemicals that put off the deer. In any case, we hope to make the native hearts 'a bustin more common, if a balance between plant and the wildlife that consume it can be struck.

There are also only two patches of a mysterious Viburnum species, still unidentified, and two Hepaticas known to grow along the ridge (not found during this walk), and two houses (the Veblen House and cottage--still there, at least for now).

Further into the walk, we stopped at the cliff, which is at the end of a short side trail that's not on the map. One participant saw a patch of blue in the distance and asked about it. That, I explained, is the blue tarp protecting the Veblen Cottage from rain until we can get access to do repairs. There's something very appealing about seeing a building in the distance, surrounded by woods. Many of the vistas at Herrontown Woods have been restored in recent years, as Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers cut down the invasive shrubs that have blocked the views over time. The cliff, itself, was rediscovered only a couple years ago, when we happened to be working on a trail down below it, and saw a rock edifice that we'd only heard stories about. Herrontown Woods reveals its secrets slowly.

Heading towards the Veblen cottage and house, I happened to see a tiny flower along the trails edge. It's a parasitic plant called one-flowered broomrape. Here's a short article found online about parasitic plants.

This photo of the barn was taken the day before. One of the walk participants, Margaret, who grew up near Herrontown Woods and visited it many times, told of her earliest memory of the preserve. She was walking up from the parking lot, and saw for the first time the bright red barn, surrounded by woods. It's one of many stories told of how the buildings add meaning to people's visits to the woods.

Syth told of a photo his parents took of him and his sibling with the barn in the background. When he in turn became a parent, he took a photo of his own sons from the same angle.

We headed over to the Veblen House to socialize. It, too, is pegged for demolition, even though it is a solid house with a fascinating history and beautiful woodwork inside, and is said by all architects and builders who have seen it to be unique in its construction and design elements. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but it has a double wall, which means that the tattered exterior wall can be removed like a scab and replaced. Photos from the 1950s show that the original color was a more attractive brown and black two-tone, with ornamental stairway and balconies.

While we delved into refreshments and conversation, a robin was feeding its young on a window sill. Our nonprofit is asking Mercer County for a chance to fix up this and the other wonderful structures that the Veblens donated long ago for public use. The robins know a good thing when they see it, and we think we do, too.

The photo below, taken several weeks ago, shows how someone planted daffodils to ornament the red barn and corncrib. The flowers were an act of love by those who preceded us at Herrontown Woods. What meaning would they have if the buildings were to be torn down? We need to honor this legacy, so that children in the future can wander into Herrontown Woods for the first time, and be surprised by a bright red barn rising up among the trees.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Nature Walks This Weekend

The Friends of Herrontown Woods will host two nature walks this weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10:30. Saturday is the walk related to Sophie Glovier's newly updated and republished book, "Walks Across Princeton". She'll be available for book signing at DR Greenway at 10am, Saturday, and 11:30am at Mountain Lakes House. (If Mercer County allows us to begin repairs on the Veblen House, then eastern Princeton will have a place for booksignings in the future!)

For both walks, meet in the Herrontown Woods main parking lot off of Snowden Lane (see map). Its a beautiful time of year, and we may see some rare wildflowers blooming. There may be some wet-but-wonderful spots, so wear appropriate footwear.

The photo below is of the 1875 farmstead bought and preserved in 1936 by renowned mathematician, visionary, and Einstein colleague, Oswald Veblen. The Friends of Herrontown Woods is immersed in a campaign to forestall a proposed demolition of this lovely red barn and other buildings donated for public use by the Veblens. Join us to learn more about these structures that add so much to the experience of visiting Herrontown Woods.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Enjoying a Mix of Nature and Culture at Herrontown Woods

Update: Henry Horn, the one-of-a-kind professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, died March 14, 2019. I looked back and found this account of a walk he joined us on at Herrontown Woods two years ago.

Sunday's nature walk mixed the serene beneficence of the awakening forest with the charged drama of the county's determination to tear down Veblen House, even after the Friends of Herrontown Woods submitted a detailed proposal to begin repairing the house and other buildings donated by the Veblens long ago for public use. We had a surprise special guest for the walk, retired professor Henry Horn, who spoke about the preserve's geology and helped with identification of flora and fauna. We had about 25 on the walk, with only a few days notice, and lots of curiosity about all the plants and creatures encountered.

We saw the various wildflowers shown in the virtual walk at, and a Sigmoria millipede, which usually smells strongly like black cherry, but did not. That's a wineberry stem in the background.

Professor Horn suggested that the millipede may only emit the odor when it feels threatened. I asked if there were any nature haters willing to come forward and hold the millipede in a threatening manner, but none volunteered.

Afterwards, we gathered near the Veblen House to have cider, chips and cookies, with many discussions about the battle to save the house. Lots of good ideas and leads were offered.

Thanks to all who came, and particular thanks to professor Henry Horn for sharing his wealth of knowledge.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Spring Wildflower Walk

Friends of Herrontown Woods will host a nature walk this Sunday, April 23, at 2pm. It's Earthday weekend, which is part of Earth Month, Year, Century, and miscellaneous millennia extending out beyond, towards infinite. Earth takes care of people day in and day out. It would be nice if we did the same in return.

We'll start at the main parking lot off of Snowden Lane, and walk the red and yellow trails past vernal pools and boulder fields, all graced with wildflowers and the babble of brooks this time of year. Then we'll go past the daffodil-strewn Veblen farmstead and over to the Veblen House grounds for refreshments and to check out the recently planted pawpaws and hazelnuts, which are just budding out. All are invited.

The current owner of these and other historic Herrontown Woods buildings, Mercer County, has taken initial steps that, if not countered, would lead to their demolition. They are in fine shape, remind park visitors of Princeton's farming heritage, and serve as gathering places for events. Our nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, has submitted a detailed proposal to acquire and maintain these buildings with the same love and commitment we have shown by taking care of Herrontown Woods for four years.

Learn more during the walk, and consider getting involved in this pivotal moment in Herrontown Woods history.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Trail Improvements are a Team Effort

Kurt Tazelaar's passion for improving the trails at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation is proving contagious, as he got help this week from Princeton High School junior Dylan Regan. Kurt prefers the permanence of rocks to make wet trails passable in spring. Some of the rocks are a two-man job, even with the help of a cart.

Spring, when much of the ground at Herrontown Woods is saturated with water, is the time to look for dryer routes for the Blue and Red Trails on the north side of the preserve. Only through close observation at the wettest time of year do the best routes become evident.

Also helping out were Sally Tazelaar,

and Dylan's mother, Inge.

Friends Theo and Jensen helped out one day as well.

After so much work, it's good to pause for a satisfying moment to survey all that has been accomplished.

FOHW has "boots on the boulder". There should be a museum for boots, whose wear, tear, and water marks tell the story of long labors.

Friday, March 31, 2017

JOIN US! -- Hazelnut and Pawpaw Planting This Sunday, April 2

Join us this Sunday, April 2, to help plant some rescued local native hazelnuts and pawpaws in areas recently cleared of invasive brush near Veblen House. As with the pawpaws planted last year, we'll stake and protect the new plantings with wire fencing. The plantings are part of the envisioned "ecological campus" on the grounds surrounding the Veblen House and Cottage, on the east side of Herrontown Woods.

We'll also do some cleanup, including mending recent damage to the lawn, where trucks made deep ruts and spilled some road salt. The ruts may prove a good place to plant rescued daffodils. 

Elizabeth Veblen, who generously left the house for public use after she died in 1974, grew up in York, England, and loved daffodils. These photos from 1953 show daffodils in the field where the trucks recently left deep ruts. Sunday, we may begin restoring the field to its historic look.

If you'd like to come but can't do the physical work, you can always lend moral support and hear the latest news. We'll have refreshments. Kids welcome. Park down the driveway across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd, or walk up from the Herrontown Woods main parking lot.

Ground will likely be moist, so dress accordingly.

UPDATE ON OUR PROPOSAL TO ACQUIRE AND REPAIR THE VEBLEN HOUSE AND COTTAGE: Two months ago, the Friends of Herrontown Woods submitted an official proposal to Mercer County to acquire and restore the Veblen House and cottage, to create a Veblen Center and ecological campus on the surrounding grounds. In particular, the house is of sound structure with wonderful custom interior. Though we have made great progress restoring the grounds of Veblen House, the county has not as yet given us permission to begin repairs of the buildings. We have submitted the insurance we believe sufficient to handle any liability concerns, so that we can begin repairing the buildings as soon as possible. Having demonstrated our skill and dedication by caring for the 140 acre county-owned Herrontown Woods over the past four years, we are awaiting a county response to our proposal so that we can negotiate a means to put these historic structures on a positive trajectory.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

FOHW Submits Proposal to Repair Veblen Buildings

The Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) has been busy over the winter. On February 3rd, we proudly submitted to Mercer County a proposal to acquire and put to a public purpose the Veblen House, cottage, and farmstead at Herrontown Woods. The document envisions, and details the projected costs of, what will be called the Veblen Center.

FOHW volunteers have long wanted to build on their success in restoring trails and habitat on the 140 acre preserve, by directing similar energy and skill to repairing the buildings. Research has revealed the uniqueness of the Veblen House's architecture, the extraordinary lives of those who lived there, and the importance of the buildings for enhancing Princeton's open space and preserving the historic integrity of Herrontown Woods.

Proposed first steps are improved weatherization and appearance of the structures, restoration of the grounds, interpretive signage, and events to take advantage of the lovely setting. FOHW is seeking permission from Mercer County to begin repairs prior to acquisition, to demonstrate that the buildings can be saved and put on a positive trajectory after many years of neglect.

The proposal describes the importance of this initiative:
Oswald Veblen was an internationally renowned mathematician whose vision, passion and drive greatly influenced the development of Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. He can also be viewed as the founder of Princeton’s open space movement, not only by donating Princeton’s first dedicated nature preserve, Herrontown Woods, but also through his work to acquire 610 acres for the Institute that later became preserved as the Institute Woods.
The Veblens’ donation of the house and cottage to the public trust should not be viewed as an afterthought. As described in books like Turing’s Cathedral, Oswald’s love of buildings was as strong as his love of land, and can be seen in the opulence of Princeton University’s “utopia for mathematicians”, Old Fine Hall (now called Jones Hall), which he largely designed. When the Institute for Advanced Study was first being formed, Veblen argued strongly, and effectively, for giving the dispersed Institute scholars a permanent physical setting where they could better interact. The Veblen House and cottage can now serve in a similar way, as much needed infrastructure to complement the extraordinary corridor of preserved open space in eastern Princeton.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Rocks Rock at Herrontown Woods

Our post-Thanksgiving walk drew a great turnout of 45 people plus pets, as Friends of Herrontown Woods vice president and hydrogeologist Jon Johnson spoke about the magnetite he had discovered in boulders along the ridge. He recruited kids from the crowd as helpers, gave them strong magnets and let them search for magnetic pebbles in the stream. We learned that some rocks in the preserve date back to the dinosaurs, and that he had tracked the magnetite upstream, like a prospector for gold, back to a motherlode near Stone Hill Church.

After absorbing this mind-expanding lesson in local geology, we took a brisk walk along the yellow trail, passing the area where large boulders were once quarried. Most hikers then joined us for refreshments and socializing next to the Veblen House. Follow this link for more info about the magnetism.

Please remember the Friends of Herrontown Woods in your holiday giving. We're grateful for your support. Click here to make a donation, large or small.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Nature/Geology Walk This Sunday, Nov. 27

This Sunday at 1pm, we'll gather at Herrontown Woods to 1) be out in the woods on a brisk day and 2) learn something about the magnetite that's found in some of the boulders and streams there. All are welcome.

A few years ago, one of our Friends of Herrontown Woods board members, geologist Jon Johnson, discovered that some of the boulders in Herrontown Woods are magnetic. He tested pebbles in the streambed and tracked the magnetism upstream to its source in some of the boulders on the ridge. It's a bit like prospecting for gold, though no equipment is needed other than a strong magnet. There's a previous post on the subject at this link.

We'll also aim to pass by the area where large boulders were quarried at some point in Princeton's history, leaving big holes in the ground where a boulder had been.

Meet this Sunday, Nov. 27, at 1pm at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, off Snowden Lane. Maps can be found at html.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods: the Color-Coded Forest

This Sunday, Nov. 13 at 1pm, join us for a restorative, explorative walk through the remains of autumn color up on the Princeton Ridge at Herrontown Woods. The summer unity of green has given way to diverse expressions of species and self in the color-coded forest. All welcome.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, off Snowden Lane across from Smoyer Park. Maps at this link.

This photo of hazelnut is from a 2013 post on the color-coded forest.

Some Herrontown Woods-related posts: