Friday, February 9, 2024

Tales of Winter Toil to Improve Trails at Autumn Hill Reservation

People tend to think of winter as a dormant time for the outdoors. The woods around Princeton seem static, with the color palette reduced to infinite shades of gray and brown. For a preserve manager, however, it's this dormancy that makes now the best of times to be working on trails and habitat. Invasive shrubs in full summer growth somehow feel much more intimidating. At Autumn Hill Reservation, which is tended to by the Friends of Herrontown Woods, winter is the best time to carve through dense stands of invasives to shift some trails to dryer ground and more interesting routes.

Most people know about Autumn Hill's most charismatic feature: this abandoned automobile. 

Fewer have noticed this plaque at a homestead site nearby, where pachysandra and bottlebrush buckeye speak to past habitation. But in some other areas of Autumn Hill's 70 acres, trails pass through less than engaging seas of invasive shrubs.

We've tried to add to the interest by looking for other landmarks to feature along trails. Last winter, one reroute incorporated a tree whose rootball had lifted four hefty boulders up when it fell. A bit uncanny: I was actually standing ten feet away, looking at it when one of the boulders fell back to the ground. The root ball is still holding onto the other three. 

It's heartening to see that the humble signage has not strayed from where we put it to help with navigating the new routes.

Winter rains highlight a few spots where we still need to either reroute trails or install a boardwalk. We grieved when this tree fell--probably the last wild butternut in Autumn Hill Reservation, pointed out to us by arborist Bob Wells when it was still alive. The wood is said to be good for carving, if we can get some of it out of the woods. FOHW has been planting butternuts elsewhere to see if we can bring back this largely lost species.

A recent success stories in Autumn Hill is the reroute of a chronically wet trail onto higher ground along a previously hidden old rock wall. It looks relatively tame now, but reclaiming this high ground for a trail required a major battle with dense and often thorny invasive shrubs. Multiflora rose, border privet, Linden viburnum, autumn olive, asian photinia, winged euonymus--this is the usual cast of characters in backyards and preserves town-wide that displaces native species more edible for wildlife. Cutting invasives to create a better trail counts as a win-win. While liberating spicebush, blueberries, and flowering dogwoods from competition, we get to expose interesting rock wall features and improve the hiking experience. I guess that's a win-win-win, which makes the work more rewarding. Simply by using the trail, hikers helped to maintain it. One year later, remembering the toil of creation, it's a pleasure to walk this trail and see how dry it is, despite recent heavy rains.

This winter, we're cutting through dense invasive shrubs to shift wet portions of the yellow trail to higher ground. Just to show what we're dealing with, here are three different species of invasive vine growing up a native tree: Asian bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, and multiflora rose. The latter is a thorny shrub that sometimes grows up trees as if it were a vine. Winter is a great time to cut these vines at the base. A "buckthorn blaster" is used to prevent regrowth.

Japanese stiltgrass makes these mops of light brown where it sprawled during late summer. Even this super invasive annual grass seems less intimidating in the winter, when it survives only as billions of seeds in the ground. 

One of the more positive stories in Princeton's nature preserves is the rebound of the native spicebush since the town began culling the deer herd in 2000. When I came to Princeton 20 years ago, spicebush were rare in the woods, and they looked like this, with a buzzcut of intensely browsed stems at the base of one mature trunk. With fewer deer to eat them, they have become numerous again, with many trunks reaching maturity. But this one, growing next to a trail frequented by the deer, shows what all spicebush used to look like. 

Despite the cold and color deprivation of winter, work in Autumn Hill Reservation lifts our spirits. It was ten years ago when Friends of Herrontown Woods made Autumn Hill's trails passable again. Each year, with incremental interventions, we can highlight more of the preserve's long hidden beauty and make it easier and more fun to hike there.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Princeton Outdoor Action Comes to Herrontown Woods

On a bright afternoon, made brighter by recycled light bouncing off the snow, a lively group of students from Princeton University came to Herrontown Woods for a hike. 

They are part of a university organization called Outdoor Action, which organizes trips near and far between semesters. According to trip coordinator Demyan Hryciw, the students also make visits to help out with stewardship. 

There are countless stories to be told of local nature, some upbeat, some not so much. Encountering many dead ash trees cut down for safety's sake, the students learned about the Emerald Ash Borer. Many seemed not to have heard that our most common tree in Princeton is being lost to the ravages of an introduced insect. 
More positive was a visit to May's Garden. Named after Elizabeth "May" Veblen, it was rediscovered near Veblen House after removal of invasive shrubs and vines. Volunteers had gotten so far as to stretch fencing around the remaining cedar posts. The garden remained largely dormant for a couple years, until a dedicated gardener came forward to restore the garden and begin teaching kids about growing food. Herrontown Woods is a patient place that waits for people of passion to bring its many facets back to life.

It's a delight to see university students exploring beyond the university's borders in Princeton, and to introduce them to a nature preserve that one university professor with a vision created for the community long ago. 

Thanks to Demyan for the photos.

Related post: Princeton University Students Study Local Nature

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Seeking Safe Bike and Pedestrian Access to Herrontown Woods Along Snowden Lane

How can bicyclists and pedestrians get to Herrontown Woods and Smoyer Park from nearby neighborhoods? Snowden Lane has long been a narrow road with steep ditches on either side,

creating a hazard even for cars. In recent years, houses have popped up along this stretch, transforming a charming country road into a suburban street. It's time to add sidewalks so that Herrontown Woods and Smoyer Park are no longer isolated from the neighborhoods they are supposed to serve. 

Yet we're told that any bikeway would be too expensive, given the presence of wetlands, specifically where Snowden crosses a tributary of Harry's Brook. 

Here is a status report, and a potential low-cost solution. 

First, some good news: There's now a bikeway along the edge of Windy Top. But to make this stretch of bikeway useful, additions need to be made at either end.

At the north end, at the top of the hill, the Windy Top bikeway deadends, 250 feet short of the entrances to Herrontown Woods and Smoyer Park. Can the town fill in this gap?

Meanwhile, at the downhill, southern end of the Windy Top portion of bikeway, the Prentice development is going in, and has already laid the gravel bed for a bikeway that will extend down to Van Dyke Road. This is great news. If the town can complete that pesky 250 feet mentioned above, we will soon have a bikeway accessible to anyone approaching from Van Dyke.

But how to extend the bikeway down Snowden Lane along what is called "the gauntlet" that separates the parks from the Littlebrook neighborhood? 

Can the town use the Windy Top approach (in the photo) and extend the bikeway along the edge of that section of road as well?

With a paved bikeway on the right (west) side, that could extend the bikeway most of the way to Overbrook Drive.

But before the bikeway can get safely to the sidewalk that starts at Overbrook Drive, it first must get across a stream, and a paved bikeway might not be allowed in the floodplain of a stream.

One approach might be to make this portion, going down to the stream and up the other side, more of an unpaved pathway. Permission would be needed from the homeowners on either side of the stream.

And for getting over the stream, there's a lovely old stone bridge that few have noticed, but which is worth preserving.

This old bridge is right next to the newer one used by cars on Snowden Lane. Extend the pathway up the other side and you can connect with an existing bikeway that heads to Littlebrook Elementary school and downtown Princeton. 

A dialogue with town staff would be needed in order to see if this approach could possibly be used.

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.