Friday, December 29, 2023

FOHW's Accomplishments in 2023

In 2023, we celebrated our tenth year of existence. Among the highlights:

  • New collaborations: Collaborated with new partners to host events. To our ongoing partnerships with Gratitude Yoga and the Princeton Public Library have been added collaborations with Princeton Senior Resource Center, Princeton Adult School, Tinkergarten, and Grow Little Gardener.
  • Nature walks: Organized many well-attended nature walks to learn about the rich diversity of mushrooms, birds, plants and geology in Herrontown Woods.
  • Invasive species work: Made tremendous progress on eradicating invasive species through weekly work sessions, largely freeing Herrontown Woods of garlic mustard and lesser celandine, and are close to vanquishing a two acre clone of wisteria.
  • Progress with Veblen House renovation: Helped coordinate the town's removal of asbestos from the Veblen House, and received our first permit to begin work on the House's restoration as a new jewel among Princeton’s community gathering spaces.
  • Improving access: Expanded on efforts to improve access to Herrontown Woods, advocating for sidewalks and partnering with an Eagle Scout for the installation of a new kiosk where Herrontown Woods borders Princeton Community Village.
  • Won an award: Received a Land Ethics award from Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve for our Botanical Art Garden.
  • Hosted events: Building community through stewardship, we had our second Earthday event, and continue to host the popular monthly May’s CafĂ©, where coffee and conversation mingle in a restored forest opening filled with native wildflowers. In the fall, many multigenerational events focused on kids were added. A lantern hike drew more than 70 participants.
One comment we often receive is that Herrontown Woods is not a static park. Along with the dynamism of nature, changing through the seasons, there are always new things to see in the Botanical Art Garden (BArden), where perhaps our greatest collaboration takes place, between nature and culture. 

There are so many people to thank for such a fine tenth year: our board members, our generous donors, the town of Princeton, our caretaker Andrew Thornton for his diligence and whimsical touch, and our extraordinary volunteers who contribute their time and skills and spirit in so many ways. 

Thanks to everyone who has been a part of this extraordinary year at Herrontown Woods.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Wild Honeybee Hive Spills the Beans

It looked like something you'd find on the beach--a fragment of coral, perhaps, washed up on the shore. But no. It was found by a hiker in Herrontown Woods.
It started with Emma Kohn, one of our volunteers, bringing this piece of honeycomb to the Sunday morning workday. There's always something memorable about our workdays--interesting people, interesting nature. 

She had found it while walking earlier that day with her dog, Nahko. She described where, and I thought "I know that tree!"--a snag, really, meaning a very tall trunk jutting high into the canopy, having long since lost its limbs, dead but in many ways still alive. In a forest, saved from the raucous chippers, trees live a long and very productive life after death, as host to countless creatures. We followed her back to the source.

The old snag had fallen, spilling the contents of a wild honeybee colony that had thrived for years in a cavity 30 feet up. I had written about this bee tree two years prior, with its busy bees coming and going from a hole high above. 
Now the entrance hole was lying on the ground.

We sorted through the wreckage of the beehive, looking for clues as to how the bees had built it.
It appeared that the plates of honeycomb were attached to the inside of the trunk cavity only here and there along their otherwise rounded edges, 
and had been oriented vertically.
By coincidence, several days later we met with Allison Gratton, a bee keeper and student of bee guru Tom Seeley. We gave her a looksee, and she said the wild beehive remains were the coolest thing she'd seen in a long time.

The holes found here and there on the combs, she explained, serve as traffic control. Bees are constantly walking along the surface of the comb, as is the queen, who has her own special pheromone that tells the other bees, mostly her daughters, that all is well.

The hive is constructed to promote good airflow, which helps the bees maintain a temperature of 95 degrees in the hive year-round. 

I mentioned having seen bees swarming around this tree three years ago, and she explained how the old queen will sometimes depart with half the colony, leaving the existing hive with a new queen, and seek new accommodations elsewhere. This is a sign of success, not discontent, a natural way for the hive to reproduce itself. Hives can continue to grow, split, grow, split. 
On the inside of the hive's entry hole was a thick layer of propolis. Propolis is a kind of bee glue, made of tree resin and bud exudate that the bees collect, mix with enzymes and saliva and use to patch up any cracks or holes. With this bee glue's antiseptic, antiviral qualities, a beehive lined with propolis creates a medicinal envelope for the bees to live within.

Even the sound of a beehive can be medicinal, having a calming effect used as therapy for people with ptsd. Bees? Calming? It brings back memories of the peace Yeats finds in the "bee-loud glade" of Innisfree

All of which begs a question: Why do we often find a walk in the woods calming? A woods in our culture would seem a heresy. It breaks all the rules so rigidly enforced along suburban streets, where nature is mowed and trimmed into a state of neatness, simplicity, and boredom, and all signs of death and decay are quickly whisked away. In a woods, leaves, branches, whole trees, fall where they may, there to rest and fade away at their own leisurely pace. 

In a woods, life and death comingle. Decomposition is happening, silently, all around. Having purged all signs of death from our yards in town, shouldn't we find this disturbing? Instead, it is calming, relaxing, endlessly fascinating. Can we say that any leaf on the forest floor is out of place? It is what it is, where it is. Might we find such acceptance in our own habitats.

The quiet message of this bee tree, which stood for so many years as a snag in the forest, is that the death of a tree is really an extension of its life, as the structures it slowly built become home and food for myriad creatures, large and small. Can we not find this reassuring? That, perhaps in our own lives, the creations we leave behind, or help to maintain--buildings, organizations, writings--might serve as habitat for those who follow. The books we read, the music we listen to--these are structures of thought we inhabit, venture forth from or return to, use as springboards for our own creations. 

All of this begins with a Sunday morning workday, and a piece of honeycomb found in the forest.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Herrontown Woods Among "21 Best Things To Do in Princeton"

Thanks to the website Travel Lemming for featuring Herrontown Woods in its "21 Best Things To Do in Princeton." Among the 21 are Princeton's rich collection of restaurants, historic sites, and outdoor destinations.

Having a strong interest in plants, I enjoyed the article's photo of Morven Museum and Garden, which shows the wisteria growing on the front porch. You can see how one side is blooming and the other is not. That's because there are two kinds of wisteria growing there. To the left is Japanese wisteria, which apparently already bloomed, and to the right is Chinese wisteria in full bloom. You can tell which is which by the direction in which they spiral upward

Though the wisteria can look lovely and tame in well-tended gardens like Morven and Marquand Park, there are many examples around town of how neglect has allowed it to run wild over acres of land, tackling trees and overwhelming all other vegetation. As we restore Herrontown Woods with a focus on native flora, we've had to knock out two massive clones of wisteria that were obscuring historic features and over time would have turned our beloved woods into a giant topiary.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Shelter Complements Open Space

Just in case we needed more motivation to create sheltered space for events at Herrontown Woods, strategically timed rain has caused cancellation of a number of our events this fall. By one account, there were 14 rainy weekends in New Jersey this summer and early fall, hitting six in a row in mid-October. 

For Herrontown Woods this fall, first came the giant blob of rain that descended upon our long-planned September 24 concert. 

Then, as the first December weekend approached, with lots of events planned for Sunday, the weather report showed what may as well be called a surgical strike of rain to fall on the exact hours of May's Cafe. 

It's common in the world of open space preservation to see buildings only in negative terms, as an intrusion, liability and expense. But for any group wishing to make a nature preserve an all-weather destination, some shelter sure would help.

Our gazebo in the Botanical Art Garden has proven its worth in this regard, serving as destination, launching pad and focal point for the plants all around it to play off of. After we were forced to postpone May's Cafe until the next Sunday, a few of us came down to the Barden anyway. Despite the light drizzle, the mood was remarkably upbeat. With the weather just warm enough for comfort, we sat in the gazebo and enjoyed the misty moisty morning. 

Incredibly, I checked the weather forecast the next day only to see that a long stretch of dry weather during the week would end with another surgical strike predicted for Sunday, Dec. 10.

12.16 Update: We hemmed and hawed all week as the storm's arrival shifted from morning to afternoon and back again. This storm was predicted to include high winds and flooding. Jolly! The forecast on Saturday, Dec. 9, showed the same pattern as the week before, with rain Sunday and Monday. Again we cancelled our May's Cafe gathering, and again a few of us went down anyway and had a great time, talking, pulling up Japanese honeysuckle. The rain held off until 1pm. We could have had the Cafe, but had decided to postpone again until Dec. 17. 

Should we have been surprised that the very same weather pattern is greeting us this weekend, with rain predicted for Sunday and Monday, followed by mild weather all week? It's enough to think that some cyclical element has taken hold in weather patterns this year.

We are going ahead with May's Cafe this weekend, but all this dodging of rainstorms makes our plans for renovating Veblen House and Cottage all the more meaningful. 

Monday, December 4, 2023

Country Time at the Barden

Good news. We've got time! One of the more charming recent acquisitions for the Barden at Herrontown Woods is the grandfather clock that finds shelter next to the shed. The roof protecting the clock from the elements was scavenged from a discarded play set. The clock itself was put out on the curb along Snowden Lane. I had stopped to look at it, but decided it was not of high enough quality to have inside a house. Only the Barden's caretaker, Andrew Thornton, saw the true potential for the clock, as a new fixture in the Barden. 

Surprisingly, the clock works, and even calls out the time with its quiet chime. A grandfather clock in a Barden? Passersby look around in wonder. Where did that sound come from?
Charming, too, is the name on the clock's dial: "Country Time." That's definitely the time we adhere to at Herrontown Woods.
And look who moved in. Instead of ending up in a landfill, the clock is singing Hickory Dickory Dock.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Teaching Pre-School Kids About Trees

Today was a special day at All Saints Church, just to the south of Herrontown Woods in Princeton. One of the preschool teachers had asked us if we could come and teach the kids about trees.

Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteer Mathilde Burlion offered to lead walks for the 3 and 4 year olds, with help from Herrontown Woods caretaker Andrew and me. Mathilde also has a business, Grow Little Gardener, for teaching little kids and parents to garden together.

First came a song, based on the melody Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, in which Mathilde introduced five native trees and the shapes of their leaves. 
Then we headed out the door and up a trail. The kids looked for leaves to put in the cart and match with the pictures Mathilde had brought.

Then it was time to say farewell. The kids loved Andrew's wolf hat that includes paws he can put his hands into. It's such a joyful thing to pick up on the kids' energy and curiosity, and introduce them to some of the trees that grow in the forest just beyond their classrooms. Mathilde's baby helped out, too, sleeping peacefully the whole way through.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Milling Fallen Trees at Herrontown Woods

The Friends of Herrontown Woods is ten years old, and for a substantial portion of those years, we'd occasionally think, "Wouldn't it be nice to mill some of the fallen trees and use the milled lumber in the preserve." Why import lumber from distant forests when we can utilize local resources in a sustainable way? That idea remained just an idea until Victorino came along. 

Victorino is the chainsaw virtuoso who, in 2020 as the pandemic was prompting many people to explore Herrontown Woods for the first time, turned a fallen pine tree into a bridge in the Barden. 

He then built the arch that welcomes visitors. (Until I found this photo, I had forgotten that he built a model of the arch first, to show us his idea.) Those two installations made clear that the Botanical Art Garden could be more than a nice collection of native plants.

This year, when I mentioned the idea of building a boardwalk from the main parking lot up to the Veblen House, he offered to mill the lumber on-site. 

The first surprise was that even the red oak trees that had fallen in wind storms years before still had good wood in them. Most stay levitated above the ground, which helps reduce the chance of rot. 

Eschewing expensive machinery, Victorino uses the simple machines I learned about in 5th grade--things like levers that greatly multiply one's physical strength. 

Working with his assistant Wilbur, he cuts the trunks into 4 to 8 foot sections and snaps chalk lines on them to guide the cutting. 

The next surprise was that Victorino could cut beautiful boards without any framework other than his eye to guide the blade. No need for even the most basic sort of portable milling equipment. 
A few work sessions yielded a serious pile of beams and planks for a boardwalk. Though he used one of the countless ash trees being lost to the emerald ash borer, nearly all of this wood comes from fallen red oaks, white oaks, and the most rot-resistant of all: black locust. Astonishing to find that a big black locust that had been lying on the ground for ten or twenty years was still rock solid.

When I suggested we build a circular platform partway up the trail, Victorino came up with this design. 

One idea is to place interpretive signage around this circle to tell the story of Princeton's open space acquistion and care, which began with the Veblens back in the 1930s.

He even upgraded a bridge, utilizing boards he hewed from the local fallen trees. 

We love Victorino, and thank him for generously sharing his skill and creativity with us at Herrontown Woods.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Joy of Autumn Leaves in Autumn Hill Reservation

The ostensible purpose of my walk at Autumn Hill Reservation yesterday was utilitarian, to clear a couple fallen trees from the trail, but the leaves had prepared a surprise party.  

They didn't need to do much to make me happy. Ever since I was a kid, leaves have brought me joy. Though most leaves have fallen, the occasional highbush blueberry is still radiant with color.

Even the winged euonymus, which we spend time removing due to its overabundance, gave a fine demonstration of how it can turn sometimes white rather than red, if the shade is deep enough. 

Here's one that got enough sun to show why it is sometimes called burning bush. 

But the real joy came from the leaves below my feet. Freshly fallen, they made the woods look like it had just turned upside down and become a reflection of itself. Leaves that had peered austerely down at us all summer were now looking up, basking in the newly abundant light now pouring down through the opened canopy. 

I see something of myself in a leaf, collective in spirit, mingling comfortably among many sorts. They seem to be enjoying a leaf's version of retirement, relieved of the workaday world of photosynthesis, their true colors finally showing. I can keep my eyes on the trail and still know that above me tower tulip trees, sweetgum, and sassafras.

Another source of pleasure was the condition of the trail. Though our Friends of Herrontown Woods takes care of trails at Autumn Hill Reservation, we spend most of our time at Herrontown Woods, depending on our volunteers who live near Autumn Hill in Montgomery for periodic reports of any work needing to be done. 

Last year we made some initial improvements in the trails, shifting one stretch over to higher ground along an old rock wall. Hard to believe that this peaceful meander became navigable only after we overcame a dense tangle of invasive shrubs--multiflora rose, winged euonymus, privet and linden viburnum. 

Nice when battle leads to lasting peace, when struggle with thorn and thicket segues to a walk decorated with a fresh new layer of leaves, radiant on a misty moisty afternoon. I paused for a moment to look for the three shapes of sassafras, and later on, writing this, realized I had stumbled upon the reason it's called Autumn Hill.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

A Kiosk Rises at Herrontown Woods' "Back Door"

Herrontown Woods has a front door and many back doors. Most people know about the "front door" off Snowden Lane, leading to the main parking lot, trailheads, and the Botanical Art Garden. Fewer people are aware that Herrontown Woods borders Princeton Community Village (PCV), off Bunn Drive. The building of more affordable housing there, perched right next to Herrontown Woods, has drawn our attention to how we might make this "back door" more of a front door, and connect with PCV residents in some way. Perhaps we could build and maintain a raingarden together, and make an appealing loop trail on that side of the preserve. In addition, PCV is served by local and regional buses, with a bus stop just 100 feet from our trail system. This may make Herrontown Woods the only nature preserve in Princeton that can easily be reached by bus.

An important first step would be to build a kiosk at the PCV trailhead, and as serendipity would have it, a member of the venerable Boyscout Troop 43 was looking for an Eagle Scout project to do in Herrontown Woods. 

That's eagle scout Leone Robbins in orange, posing with helpers from among his friends and family, partway through the process of installing an impressive kiosk he designed and built. Leone, a senior at Princeton High School, worked with FOHW, Princeton Community Housing (PCH), and town officials to get permissions and choose a location for the kiosk.

It's always fun to try to catch these Iwo Jima moments. Digging down to make the holes was probably less fun than lifting up. The town and PCH both helped with funding for the materials.

Here's Leone in front of the completed kiosk. A dedication ceremony is planned for this Saturday, Oct. 21, at 1pm, during which Leone will lead a short nature walk down the trail. 

A big THANK YOU to Leone and his fellow scouts and family for this timely and beautifully executed installation.

Update: Here are a couple photos from the dedication Leone organized, attended by members of Princeton Community Housing, Boyscout troop 43, PCV residents, and board members of the Friends of Herrontown Woods. 

As part of the event, Leone led a nature walk down the path into Herrontown Woods, pointing out Christmas fern, spicebush, and other native plants. 

He later sent a testimonial about his experience: 
"I have been volunteering with the organization since the fifth grade. Whether it was planting trees to prevent erosion or nature walks on cold winter mornings, Friends of Herrontown Woods is the reason I am passionate about the outdoors and am committed to my community. I’ve had so many beautiful experiences with the organization and wanted to
share them with others through my kiosk and an educational nature
walk. I hope my kiosk encourages others to explore the outdoors and
the many physical and mental benefits it provides."