Friday, November 25, 2022

The Case of the Disappearing Portapotty

Portapotty 15750, where are you?

Yes, our portapotty at Herrontown Woods has gone missing. Is portapotty theft a thing? Apparently yes, according to United Site Services, from whom we rent. Turns out that, as renters, we may have to bear responsibility for the replacement cost of the humble structure, plus delivery fee for a new one. 

Rumor has it that the half-marathon that's been going on in our part of town also had a portapotty disappear. We strain to understand the logic. Is there a black market in portapotties? Is it really that hard to find relief these days? Did someone fall in love with portapotty #15750 and decide to elope? Without regular servicing, that romance is not going to last.

Hopefully this mystery will be solved soon. The apparent theft has a potential silver lining, however. After meeting with a police officer on-site to file a report, I was about to head home when I saw a hiker emerging from one of the trails. I went over and started a conversation, thinking he might have been there earlier in the week and noticed something. He hadn't, but having first visited the preserve 25 years ago, he gave a testimonial about how neglected the preserve had been before we formed the Friends of Herrontown Woods in 2013. Then he said that he has worked at a number of historic houses, and is currently a docent and researcher at the Frelinghuysen-Morris House in Massachusetts. 

My jaw dropped a bit, because the Whiton-Stuarts--the wealthy family that first owned what we now call Veblen House--lived for some time in Morristown, and had had a parcel of property near the Frelinghuysen Arboretum there. The Veblen House is a prefab that was originally moved by the Whiton-Stuarts to Princeton from Morristown. He also said that the Frelinghuysen family had a Princeton connection. We exchanged contact info, and will talk more. It would be quite the irony if a missing portapotty led me to someone who can help solve the riddle of the Veblen House's origins and why it was moved to Princeton.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Thanksgiving Weekend Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods

Update: A big blob of predicted rain has been sitting atop the planned timeslot for a nature walk this Thanksgiving weekend, finally causing us to delay the walk by a week. It is now planned for Dec. 4, 1-3pm.

Note: The consistency of the weather prediction, which showed the blob sitting in exactly the same Sunday time slot for five days straight, and which ultimately proved accurate, surely represents a triumph for meteorology.  

Astute readers will note a distinct resemblance between the blob of rain that swallowed our nature walk and the drawing of a boa constrictor that had swallowed an elephant in The Little Prince. 

A nature walk is planned for this Thanksgiving weekend, on Sunday, Nov. 27, from 1-3pm. If the weather looks iffy, check the events page of the website for an update. 

We'll meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot at 600 Snowden Lane, across Snowden from the Smoyer Park entrance. Sturdy shoes are a good idea. Maps at this link.

The photo is of a pokeweed that came late to the fall color party.

Leaves Take Flight at the OK Leaf Corral

On a spirited Sunday morning with an invigorating chill in the air, volunteers staged a leaf roundup at Veblen House. 

Here's board member Keena, showing proper stance and form as she raked leaves onto a tarp. She's a natural, even though she grew up in the Arizona desert, where there were no leaves to rake.

Joanne didn't have childhood memories of raking leaves either, but warmed to the task as the task warmed her.

Elsewhere on the Veblen House grounds, Scott mowed leaves back into the lawn.

By chance, Richard, a neighbor who is doing a major cleaning out of his house, had just donated some tarps that worked beautifully. We hauled the leaves off to an "OK Leaf Corral," where they will quickly settle and slowly return to the soil. A leaf corral may look limited in how many leaves it can take, but the leaves quickly settle, making room for more just a day or two later. 

Though some may think of it as a task to avoid, raking leaves brings back joyful memories for me. It was a family affair. We'd rake oak leaves into a big pile at the bottom end of the yard, and then I'd run down the hill and leap into the pile. Sometimes we'd make small piles and burn them, turning the leaves into glowing skeletons. The acorns would make a big POP when we tossed them into the flames. Today the smoke is considered pollution, but back then, the scent of burning leaves was part of the romance of the season. 

The leaves we raked this fall at Herrontown Woods were wet, which makes them heavier to carry on the tarps, but helps speed decomposition after they are piled in a leaf corral. Our volunteer workdays are every Sunday, starting around 10:30am. 

Delightful Writeup on Herrontown Woods in the Nassau Weekly

On October 9th, we had a particularly serendipitous Sunday at Herrontown Woods. It was our monthly May's Cafe at the Barden, mixing coffee, baked treats, socializing, and some volunteer work, followed by a nature walk. A new attendee was Juju Lane, a senior at Princeton University and senior editor at the Nassau Weekly.

She talked to many of us, watched as we collected seed from the many kinds of native plants in the Barden, then went along on the walk, taking careful notes. 

Later in the month, she wrote up her experience, capturing the spirit of the Friends of Herrontown Woods in a wonderful piece published in the Nassau Weekly

Here, one of our volunteers, Carolyn, is collecting seed from a rose mallow hibiscus. May's Cafe takes place right in the garden, so in a way we are socializing with the native plants while socializing with people.

Bringing Dead Trees Safely Down

When a tree falls across a trail, we're often able to clear it with our electric chainsaws. But sometimes there's a need for someone with skills well beyond ours.

That's when we give a call to our chainsaw virtuoso and angel in our midst, Victorino. The ash was our most common tree before being killed by the wave of Emerald ash borers that has swept through Princeton in recent years. Though many, deeper in the forest, can be left standing to serve as habitat and carbon sequestration, some closer in need to be cut down before they grow brittle. In a crowded woodland, they need to fall in just the right direction, so as not to catch on, or damage, a neighboring tree.
Victorino came most recently in early October, when there's a lot of color in the woods. A tree that fell on its own some years back was bearing a promising crop of Chicken of the Woods. We weren't sure enough, though, to harvest it.

Another tree trunk seemed to be showing off its brilliant fall color, but in fact was a snag, up which a poison ivy vine had grown and branched out, forming what I call a "poison ivy tree." Birds feast on the berries, but we stayed away from that one.
As he carefully felled one dead ash, then another, a tree would sometimes resist falling. At that point, Victorino would cut wedges out of nearby dead wood,   
and hammer them into the cut to encourage the tree in its falling.
This one fell beautifully along the edge of a trail. Victorino learned his trade in Guatemala, where they would build a house out of the trees growing nearby. Oftentimes, he'll add an artistic touch, like this curved cut to bend with the trail.
After a couple hours of hard work, he takes a moment to rest and reflect. As Tom Lehrer, the mathematician and political satirist would say, "What good are laurels if you can't rest on them?"

It was a great relief to have those trees safely down. Thank you, Victorino!

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Nature Walk Sunday, Oct. 30, at Herrontown Woods

Fall colors beckon at Herrontown Woods. This Sunday, Oct. 30 at 1pm, I will lead a nature walk entitled "The Color-Coded Forest." This is the time of year when trees slip out of their green anonymity and reveal their identity through color and texture. Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot at 600 Snowden Lane, across Snowden from the Smoyer Park entrance. Sturdy shoes are a good idea. Maps at this link.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Hearts 'a Bustin' -- One of Herrontown Woods' Hidden Gems

Some of the magic of Herrontown Woods lies in the many treasures that have long laid hidden there, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. Veblen House was one of these. Off in a corner of the preserve, it was encountered by very few people even before the trails became overgrown. Oswald Veblen's extraordinary legacy was another. Some of the hidden gems were physical: a manmade vernal pool, the cliff, the magnetic quality of some of the boulders. Others were biological gems, in the form of beautiful plant species that had been diminished by browsing deer and deepening shade until they persisted only as little nubbins on the forest floor that even a keen eye might miss. 

One of these biological gems is a native shrub that many people, including some experienced botanists, are witnessing for the first time at Herrontown Woods. It's called Hearts 'a Bustin' or strawberry bush--common names that aptly describe its fruit at different stages. The fruits begin to look like strawberries as they ripen, then burst open in October to expose bright orange seeds. 

Close up, the fruit is reminiscent of a miniature starfish, or a Joker's hat. 
Here's what they look like in the Barden, rising to a height of 8 feet or more.
But up along the ridge in Herrontown Woods, they seldom grow more than a few inches above the leaf litter. Deep shade and the appetites of deer have laid them low. I, too, would have never noticed their existence but for a larger clump encountered ten years ago along the yellow trail. A surrounding tangle of other shrubs had allowed it to elude the deer and grow high enough to bear fruit and be seen.

A few little sprouts from that patch were transplanted to the Barden, where they have received enough sunlight and protection from deer that visitors can now appreciate their mature form. A kind of euonymus (Euonymus americanus), its flowers won't dazzle you.
But wait a few months and those flowers become transformed into exuberant fruits.

Other biological gems that have been laying low in the woods all these years are pinxter azalea, shadbush, low- and high-bush blueberries, persimmons, and hazelnut. Many of these hidden gems are now flourishing in the Botanical Art Garden next to the main parking lot. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

FOHW Hosts Its First Nighttime Concert at Herrontown Woods

History was made at Veblen House on Thursday, September 22, as the Friends of Herrontown Woods hosted our first evening concert. 

String lights were bought, the driveway, front walk, and trails leading to Veblen House were improved, and word was sent to local media as we prepared to host the Chivalrous Crickets, an inventive Celtic-based band with glorious voices and a mix of modern and vintage instruments.

There was considerable suspense as a storm passed through Princeton earlier in the day, early enough as it turned out to make the performance a go. Luminaries were placed along the path up from the overflow parking at the main lot. Our assortment of adopted chairs was dried off, the new lights turned on.

The result was a magical evening for all involved. We learned of the Crickets when two of its band members moved into a house across the street from one of our supporters in Princeton Junction. Encouraged by their new neighbor, Shefali, they visited us at Herrontown Woods and the idea of a performance was hatched. Thanks goes in particular to board member Nicole Bergman, who guided the event to fruition. 

The Chivalrous Crickets are spread across several states, and it just so happens that the one date they were available happened to be when I, as president of FOHW, was out of town. 

While the Crickets were bringing British and American folk music to Herrontown Woods, I was bringing American music to England, touring with a latin/jazz band called the Lunar Octet. The photo is from our performance in Kent.

While traveling in England, where Elizabeth Veblen was born and where the Veblens were married back in 1908, I met with the grandson of Elizabeth's brother Owen, who won the Nobel Prize in physics long ago. The grandson expressed great enthusiasm for our work at Herrontown Woods. This added to the thrill when news came, while driving up to Scarborough to perform in a jazz festival, that the first evening music concert at Veblen House had been a great success.

Thanks to the Chivalrous Crickets, to the FOHW board, and to all who came, for making history and magic next to Veblen House.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Accomplishments in 2021

It's some indication of how busy we've been in 2022 that a compilation of achievements in the year prior isn't getting posted until September. Our battle cry is "Incrementalism!" Listing accomplishments is one way to see how far you can get through persistent effort.

  • FOHW volunteers continue to care for 220 acres of public land at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, removing downed trees and adding stones and boardwalks. Lots of help from arborist Victorino Pineda.
  • A beautiful new map of Herrontown Woods trails, thanks to graphic artist Alison Carver, who also developed maps of the Barden and Veblen House grounds.
  • Updated trail maps on regional and national trail websites.
  • Additional trail markers -- With help from a girlscout troop 
  • Red Trail Rerouted--after installing many rocks and boardwalks, the red trail is now fully navigable for the first time in its history
  • Orange trail to Veblen House created 
  • Invasive species control -- collaborated with town contractors to catch invasions early
  • Concept of cultural and natural zones developed, with the Barden, cottage and house comprising the cultural zone of Herrontown Woods
  • Began working with town on better public access to the preserve
  • Met with town's new open space manager


  • FOHW hired a highly skilled carpenter, Robb Geores, to repair the house's framing, inside and out, assisted by volunteers. 
  • Electricity -- Veblen House now has electricity, helped along by the initiative of board member Peter Thompson.
  • Existing conditions drawings--board member Ahmed Azmy prepared detailed drawings of Veblen House and Cottage
  • Recontouring keeps Veblen House and Cottage dry -- Berms, swales and raingardens now keep the structures dry, even after  heavy rains.
  • The basement was cleared of old ductwork, furnace and water heater
  • More accurate measurements and additional analysis of the Veblen House's systems
  • Research on asbestos removal
  • Some initial repairs of cottage with help from volunteer Robert Chong
  • A scope of work for the Veblen Cottage prepared by architect Max Hayden

  • The tranquil setting next to Veblen House has proved ideal for hosting community events. To that end, we have created a stage and expanded parking in the driveway.
  • Yoga on Saturdays -- Began hosting classes by Gratitude Yoga during warmer weather
  • Among Trees -- Collaborated with professional actors and the Princeton Public Library to host a reading of locally sourced nature writings. \
  • Treepedia -- Collaborated with Princeton Public Library to host a talk by author Joan Maloof about preserving old growth forest.
  • Other events hosted -- a "flying pig" dedication of the Barden's gazebo, a fourth annual Veblen Birthday BBQ Bash, and a volunteer appreciation party


  • During the pandemic, the newly nicknamed Barden has become a popular place to safely gather, learn, explore, and socialize, with its gazebo, native plants, fairy garden and other delights
  • The Veblen Circle -- Girlscouts helped create attractive labels on wildflowers encircling the gazebo, along with bird houses.
  • May's Barden Cafe becomes a thing -- A new tradition began this year at the Barden, with coffee and delicious pastries now served on the first Sunday morning of each month. 
  • Ongoing Sunday morning workdays -- this productive and social tradition continues, led by Keena Lipsitz and Andrew Thornton.
  • Solar-powered lighting installed in the gazebo--thanks to Forrest Meggers
  • Portapotty installed


  • Paintings traced to renowned artists -- Research traced the remarkable origins of paintings that once hung in Veblen House
  • Many connections revealed -- Research revealed the Veblen House's connections to a historic mansion in Jersey City, an artist who lived among the Hopi Indians in Arizona, a prominent ceramist, a movie starring Michael Douglas, the Dogwood Garden Club, and early 20th century Princeton horse culture. 
  • Interviews with relatives -- With help from Alison Carver, we were able to contact and interview a granddaughter and grandson of the Whiton-Stuarts
  • Barden's gazebo's history learned
  • Einstein's Begonias -- We found and are now growing begonias descended from those Einstein had in his Princeton home.

  • Articles about Herrontown Woods- In Tap Into Princeton, Princeton Family Living, and the ECHO
  • Fall nature walks -- FOHW collaborated with the Princeton Public Library to host multiple nature walks at Herrontown Woods. 
  • Veblen Circle of Wildflowers completed -- Board member Inge Regan collaborated with Girlscout Troop 71837 to create interpretive signage for the Veblen Circle of 30 native wildflowers around the gazebo
  • Ongoing research and website posts about nature, FOHW's activities, and the fascinating history of Veblen House at, and
  • Opened instagram account--thanks to board member Adrian Colarusso
  • Many students participated in workdays at the botanical garden
  • Seasonal displays on kiosk about plants in the preserve
  • Progress on developing a new website, working with Pilar Castro-Kiltz of MoreCanvas.

  • Continue to acquire donated stepping stones, centuries old wood, a pottery wheel, chairs for event seating, and many other items

  • New board members and many new volunteers.
  • Progress on developing a master plan

  • All donations go to paying for the skilled labor and materials needed to repair the Veblen House and Cottage, and maintain the Barden and Veblen grounds.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Visionary Mathematician Speaks To His People of Math and Love

Here's a taste of the Among Trees event we hosted next to Veblen House earlier in the summer. Organized by actor Vivia Font, many local writers, including kids from an elementary school class, submitted poems and other nature writings, which were performed by local actors. Music was provided by some excellent local musicians. 

In this video, actor Yuval Boim performs a piece that channels mathematician Oswald Veblen. The Veblens donated Herrontown Woods to the public in 1957, and the Friends of Herrontown Woods formed 56 years later to restore Herrontown Woods and realize the Veblens' vision. Exemplifying the Veblen tradition, Among Trees brings people in the community together to make beautiful things happen.  
The Visionary Mathematician Speaks to His People, of Math and Love 

By Steve Hiltner, president, Friends of Herrontown Woods 

We're going to do a lot of things. Lots of really small things. And they're going to add up, to something. Something larger than ourselves. It's called addition. Yes. And we're going to subtract things, too. Resentment. We're going to subtract resentment from our repertoire. Resentment corrodes relationships. And hate. We're going to subtract that, too. Because it takes way too much energy to hate. Wasted energy. We don't want to waste. In nature there is no waste. 

People ask us: Are we going to divide? No! We're going to bring people together. Love them just as they are. Because this is that kind of place, and that's what we do here. Love is additive. Totally additive. The more of it you give, the more of it you feel. The more you spend of it, the more you have to give. It's a miracle! Love is its own miraculous economy. 

Some people subdivide, but we're going to undivide. We're going to bring parcels of land together, and share them. Then bring people together, to enjoy nature and each other's company.Yes, and we're going to multiply. Probably not sexually. That's way too slow. We're going to multiply asexually, like some plants do, until there's a zillion of us, all doing good things, little things, quintillion zillion little things that add up. To something. Something good. 

Thank you.