Friday, April 14, 2017

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


Ever since finding Oswald Veblen's will, which stipulated that the Veblen House was to be a "museum and library", I've been collecting books to sit on the custom chestnut wood shelves in the living room when Mercer County finally allows our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit to fix the house up. Two new additions were purchased last month at a talk by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the charismatic director of Institute for Advanced Study. With his rich baritone voice and well crafted slides, he gave a talk to a packed room at the Princeton Public Library on "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge." The title comes from Institute founder Abraham Flexner's 1939 essay, for which Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay. During the talk Dijkgraaf made a compelling case for funding research "motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications."

During Q and A, I asked a leading question "How did the Institute end up in Princeton?" Dijkgraaf said "Oswald Veblen", his Dutch accent imbuing the name with consequence, as he pronounced the "Ve" syllable as "vay" rather than "veh". (There's been an ongoing question as to how Veblen pronounced his last name.) The funders of the Institute, the Bamberger family that started Macy's, had wanted the institute to be near Newark. When he read about the planned institute in the NY Times, Oswald Veblen contacted Flexner and suggested locating the institute in Princeton. Like many of Veblen's ideas, initial resistance finally yielded and the idea was realized. Veblen's ideas influenced the Institute in many other ways as well, and he became its first professor.


The importance of basic research was a matter close to my father's heart, as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory, and it was good to hear Dijkgraaf present the case so beautifully and convincingly.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hazelnuts and Pawpaws in the Ground


We had a good workday this past Sunday, with three board members and three additional volunteers. Here, board member Sally Tazelaar and Laura Strong are planting one of the 16 hazelnut plants rescued from a construction site nearby. Stan de Riel donated nine pawpaws grown from seed collected locally.

A strong theme in our restoration of the Veblen grounds is the use of donated materials, skills and time. The stakes next to each new tree, and the protective fencing to be added later, are also of the "found" variety.

Of course, by far the most important "found" material is the buildings on the site: the Veblen House, cottage, garage, barn and corncrib at the site. The Friends of Herrontown Woods has officially submitted its detailed proposal to acquire and repair these historic structures, at no cost to county or town.


The planting was done in an area cleared of invasive shrubs by board member Kurt Tazelaar. In the middle of this aerial photo from 1988 is a square open area. We're turning some of that area into an unusual native orchard for nut and fruit trees. The woodland opening will expand as the many ash trees growing nearby are lost to Emerald Ash Borer. Sunday's planting will help insure that diverse native species are in place to catch the additional sunlight as the forest thins.

Meanwhile, some daffodils that have long ornamented a spring drive up Snowden Lane are being rescued prior to pending construction. They will be planted in the Veblen field.

Thanks to all who lent their spirit, skill and energy to the workday.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Hazelnut, PawPaw, and Daffodil Planting this Sunday, April 2, 2-4pm


Thanks to a former tenant of the Veblen House, we have many photos that show the Veblen's garden in the 1950s, when both the famous mathematician and his wife were still alive. In this photo, the field to the left of the house is filled with daffodils, a particular passion of Elizabeth's. Though daffodils look lovely in a field, they tend to die out if the field gets mowed before the daffodil leaves have harvested enough solar energy to make blooms the next year. That's probably why the field today is nearly empty of daffodils.

This Sunday, April 2 from 2-4pm, you're invited to join us as we continue the ecological and historical restoration of the Veblen grounds. Two recent events make Sunday's workday auspicious. Two weeks ago the field in this photo was badly damaged by two trucks that drove down to the house and got stuck. All those deep ruts and bare ground, along with daffodils available for rescue on a construction site nearby, suggested an opportunity to bring back daffodils to the field. That should be a fun project for volunteers. If we plant daffodils in the ruts, we'll want to make sure the field doesn't get mowed this spring, or in springs to come.


Daffodils have more to do with restoring history than ecology. More of an ecological nature, we'll also 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.




Here's another view of the field that Elizabeth Veblen had planted with daffodils. She grew up in York, England, where daffodils ornament the berms of castles.

You're encouraged to come whether you can do physical work or not. 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.

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.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rescuing Hazelnuts for Planting at Veblen House


One theme running through the Veblen House project is the capacity to see potential where others do not. Beneath its rather dilapidated outer "skin" is a house that is solid and extremely well crafted, with an intact roof and solid foundation. People who look no further than the outer skin won't see the quality hidden underneath.

The same story can be told of a hazelnut tree that was cut down along Snowden last year when a lot was cleared for a new house. I had spotted the hazelnut tree years prior. Calling hazelnuts a tree is a stretch. They grow about fifteen feet high, and instead of a trunk they grow a dense cluster of stems from a gradually broadening base. I knew that, once cut down, it would sprout many new shoots from the root.

The photo looks like a pickaxe lying on plain ground, but I knew there was treasure to be had. I asked the owner of the new house if I could rescue the hazelnut and plant the root sprouts at Veblen House.

He agreed, and the harvest was 8 sprouts, plus 8 chunks of root that could sprout if planted.

We may invite the public to join us for this planting, most likely in a moist forest opening where the hazelnuts will get enough sky light to bear well. The opening was cleared of invasive shrubs over the winter by Friends of Princeton Open Space board member Kurt Tazelaar.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Veblen House Lawn Badly Damaged


The field next to the Veblen House was left badly damaged by ruts and a pile of road salt, most likely on March 22nd or early on the 23rd. Though it appeared at first to be a joy ride that turned into a quagmire, evidence suggests that a consultant working for Mercer County may have driven across the lawn down to the house, despite slippery spring conditions. The truck got stuck and then another truck may have been called in with a winch to pull it out. That truck may also have gotten stuck. Boards and the salt/sand mixture were apparently used to extricate one of the trucks from the mud. The cable across the driveway, protecting the Veblen site from unauthorized access, was also down.


A tag for a winch was found on the grass nearby.

On December 7, the Mercer County Parks Commission voted to spend $23,000 on "permitting support services" that are a preliminary step leading to demolition. This action came as a complete surprise to the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), the nonprofit that has been restoring and maintaining trails at Herrontown Woods for three years, at no cost to the town or county. The county is well aware of FOHW's desire to rehabilitate the Veblen House and farmstead so that they can be an asset to the community. Mercer County, which owns the buildings and land, has long wanted to demolish them and put up a plaque.

The preliminary move towards demolition put FOHW in high gear to complete its proposal to repair the buildings. On February 3rd, after intense work, the FOHW board submitted to the county a detailed proposal to acquire the buildings and use its own funding to put them to public use for educational programming about the extraordinary history and ecology of Herrontown Woods.

On February 16, FOHW followed up with a submission of all insurance documents, and requested permission to begin working on the buildings so that their enduring quality and potential can be clearly demonstrated to the community. The buildings have been boarded up since 1998, but both were very well made, and the Veblen House in particular is still solid, with roof and foundation intact.

FOHW also asked the county to suspend all further actions towards demolition. Despite repeated followup inquiries, FOHW has received no response. The ruts in the lawn and the downed gate may be a sign that the county has instead been spending money to move forward with its plans.

FOHW is seeking a positive solution for all the supporters of Veblen House and Herrontown Woods, for the community and for the county, which could save considerable money that would otherwise be spent on demolition of these unique historic structures.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

"Remembrance Day" Performance


One year ago, June Ballinger debuted her solo performance "Remembrance Day", about her mother's work in WWII England at Bletchley Park, where mathematician Alan Turing was leading the effort to decode the Nazi Enigma machine. Over the past year, June has worked with director Janice Goldberg to develop the one woman show further, including research on the math involved with code breaking.

Alas, I have been distracted and have not posted about her performance tonight, March 4 at 7:30 at Passage Theatre of the new version, which I hear is excellent. If you haven't checked out Passage Theatre, it's a gem, with some of the finest theater productions in the area.

The critical role women played in WWII mathematics and computer development is a recurring theme on this website, including an update at this post about women in my home town in Wisconsin who, according to Nobel Prize winner Chandrasekhar, calculated "immensely difficult mathematical equations entirely by long hand".

June tells me her mother "thought math was great fun ... she loved it." "There is a basic formula my mother and all folks working in the Newmanry had to understand: The formula for the Fish machine."

Wikipedia describes the Newmanry thus:
"The Newmanry was a section at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking station during World War II. Its job was to develop and employ machine methods in Cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher. The Newmanry was named after its founder and head, Max Newman. It was responsible for the various Robinson machines and the ten Colossus computers."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Math Writ Large in Hidden Figures


A friend likes to say that "all roads lead to Veblen House". On a hunch, I traced the mathematical road leading back from Katherine G. Johnson, one of three extraordinary black women mathematicians in the movie Hidden Figures, and sure enough, it led back in multiple ways to Oswald Veblen.

The movie itself is deeply moving and, despite the liberties it would appear to take for the sake of high drama, remarkably accurate and true to historical fact. Figuratively speaking, it sends its three main characters high into orbit, to shine in the sun, but not beyond the gravitational pull of earth.

All three main characters--Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson--overcome a host of obstacles facing women and blacks in 1960s Virginia to play major roles in the early days of the NASA space program and computer programming. We learn, among many things, that John Glenn refused to take that first American flight to orbit the earth until Katherine Johnson had verified the mathematics upon which the flight was based.

Oswald Veblen died in 1960, but he played a central role in developing the mathematical and computational world featured in the movie. Before there were machines called "computers", there were women called "computers" who had the patience and the smarts to do the myriad calculations required to compute trajectories. And before Alan Shepard could be the first American to soar into space in 1959, there needed to be a mathematician who could envision and accurately predict the full trajectory of his flight.

That mathematician was Katherine Johnson, and the mathematics was built on the ballistics calculations Veblen oversaw for the military at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in the first and second World Wars. Tracing Katherine G. Johnson's mathematical lineage involves finding out who her main teachers were, and who in turn taught her teachers, reaching back in time.

There's a particular passion for tracking professional lineage in mathematics, with a website devoted to the pursuit called the Mathematics Genealogy Project. Type in Oswald Veblen's name, and you find that, owing to his role as one of the "three key leaders" who "organized American mathematics" (according to Herman Goldstein), he has more than 11,000 mathematical descendants. No results came up for Katherine G. Johnson, presumably because she didn't pursue an academic career. Type in her professor at West Virginia State University, William Waldron Shieffelin Claytor--the third African American to receive a PhD in mathematics--and you find that his advisor was John Robert Kline at University of Pennsylvania.

Kline, in turn, was advised by Robert Lee Moore, who developed the "Moore method" of teaching, in which the students themselves present the material rather than being passive recipients of a lecture. Though Moore's views on race may have been influenced by his father, who fought as a Confederate in the Civil War and named his son after the Confederate general, the R.L. Moore teaching method appears to have benefitted mathematics students of all races. There's a scene in the movie in which the instructor hands Johnson the chalk and asks her to solve the problem on the blackboard in front of the class.

R.L. Moore's advisor at University of Chicago was Oswald Veblen, just before Veblen moved to Princeton in 1905. That makes Kathryn Johnson a fourth generation mathematical descendant of Veblen.
Update: An additional connection to Oswald Veblen comes through Johnson's main mentor at West Virginia State, W.W. Shieffelin Claytor, whose own brilliant career was tragically hampered by the racism he encountered. Claytor's teaching load at W. Virginia State prevented him from doing any research. Around the time that Katherine Johnson graduated (at age 18!), Veblen, who had fought long and hard to gain American mathematicians adequate time to do research, sought to bring Claytor to Princeton University, but the University did not accept "coloured persons". Four years later, Veblen offered Claytor a position at the Institute for Advanced Study, which was not subject to the university's exclusions based on race. But by that time, Claytor had apparently grown disillusioned. He "turned down the offer saying that he did not want to be a guinea pig." The heartbreaking story is told in this online biography.
Some favorite scenes in Hidden Figures are of Johnson as a young girl, feeling the excitement of math within her as she walked down a sidewalk. Mathematics is built into the incremental act of walking--something I felt as a kid counting the steps it took to cross a grassy field coming home from school--and may have been part of Veblen's love of walks in nature, an experience he insured for Princetonians by donating Herrontown Woods as Princeton's first nature preserve. In another scene in the movie, Johnson realizes that what is needed for orbital flight was not new math, but very old math, in the form of Euler's method, from the 18th century. It's interesting to speculate on whether she might have learned Euler's method from the first African American to get a mathematics PhD, Elbert Frank Cox, whose work involved "generalized Euler polynomials" and who taught at West Virginia State until 1929. The dramatic entrance of an IBM computer midway in the movie, filling a whole room and threatening the future of the female computers, brought back childhood memories of a similar machine my father used in the attic of Yerkes Observatory.

The movie caused some tearing up, particularly towards the end. Ever since experiencing that inner earthquake of my father dying--he turned his Ohio farmboy talent for mathematics into a prominent career in astronomy--there's been a channel within, geologic in feeling, through which emotion can rise to the eyes, unfettered. It's genuine emotion, but can also be manipulated to rise up by the tricks movies use to trigger a desired emotional response. To be prone to manipulation by a movie's artifice is both disconcerting and comforting. In Hidden Figures the tearing up is not only a product of the customary movie manipulation but also the deep message of equality that we carried home from the movie theater. Afterwards, researching the movie's accuracy, away from Hollywood's manipulations, the articles were as moving as the film. Here are a few, from HistoryVsHollywood, PopularMechanics, and LATimes.

Permeating the movie is the urgency of the race to space. That national urgency drove an "all hands on deck" attitude that opened cracks in oppressive views of race and gender just wide enough for the brilliance of these black women to rise, and in turn influence a nation's trajectory. Particularly in our time, when government is in the grips of a solutions-averse anti-intellectualism, it is stirring to see depicted an era when science, math and courage came together to achieve great things. Other daunting challenges, climate change being foremost, await a similar integration of national character and purpose, with similar opportunities to break through the artificial barriers that divide all nations and peoples.


Update: At the Academy Awards, Katherine Johnson had her moment in the bright lights on stage, surrounded by the three stars of the movie.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Veblen House History: The Wives of Robert Whiton-Stuart

Adding to the historic importance and interest of Veblen House--a 1920s prefab with unique custom elements inside and out--are the colorful and consequential lives of those who lived there. The process of internet research is a bit like fishing. You cast some keywords out into cyberspace and see what old newsclippings come back. Below is a sampling.

Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and Mary Marshall Ogden, the couple that brought what would later be called the Veblen House to Princeton, had two children, Robert and Sylvia. Research on Sylvia's three marriages beyond a preliminary post is on pause for the moment. Initial searches yielded little about Robert's life, but though we still know little about Robert himself, recent research has revealed remarkable connections, including with some extraordinary conservationists.

Robert was born in Manhattan on Dec. 16, 1909, and grew up there, except for a few years in Prescott, Arizona, when father Jesse decided he'd rather run a cattle ranch than sell real estate in Manhattan. (Though he grew up in Manhattan, Jesse was as much an avid outdoorsman as Oswald Veblen.) Educated in Switzerland and at Cambridge University, England, son Robert chose a career related to his father's, as a construction engineer based in NY.


During the time when his parents were living here in Princeton, Robert married Christine Paschall Davis, daughter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador-at-large, Norman H. Davis.


FDR's mother attended the wedding, March 23, 1937, at the Davis home on East 79th St.. Norman H. Davis had also been prominent in the Woodrow Wilson administration, serving as assistant secretary of the treasury and undersecretary of state. He was also at some point national chairman of the Red Cross.

Lawrence M.C. Smith of Washington, DC, presumably a very close friend of Robert's, was the best man, and a quick internet search reveals that he and his wife, Eleanor Houston, had an extraordinary life as "collectors, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, philanthropists, and preservationists." Like the Whiton-Stuarts, they were "old money", their lineage dating back to the days of William Penn. Eleanor's father developed the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She was inspired by Louis Bromfield's organic farming experiments at Malabar Farm (an important book for me as well, in my formative years), and was on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy. She and her husband founded a classical radio station in Philadelphia, and raised organic beef on their Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. Much of the property they acquired, including an island, was later donated for preservation. The Smiths' philosophy--"At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society."--is very much the credo by which the Veblens lived. 

Christine died in 1946 in Harkness Pavillion, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, after a long illness, less than ten years after they were married. Her mother, the former Miss Mackie Paschall, died in 1942, and her father in 1944.This quote from a hometown newspaper is all we know thus far of what she did during her life.
Born in Tullahoma, Tenn. the former Miss Christine Paschall Davis, was a summer resident of this town more than 30 years. She was graduated from Milton Academy, attended Vassar College and was graduated from the Presbyterian Hospital nursing school. For a time she was a nurse at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital.
They had a son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York.

At the time of Christine's death, Robert was assistant to the president of the George A Fuller Company, contractors, a company that built Penn Station, the NY Times building, and other landmarks. In wikipedia, George A. Fuller is described as "an architect often credited as being the "inventor" of modern skyscrapers and the modern contracting system."

Thus far, the most interesting thing we know about Robert is the sort of company he kept. His two additional marriages, to Bertha Clausen and Edwina Atwell Martin, continue this theme of marrying into extraordinary families. Bertha was from a prominent family of NY brewers. Her father owned an estate with a breathtaking view of the Mohawk River valley in a former hop-growing area of upstate NY, near the curative sulphur springs of Sharon Springs--a small town with a rich history. Edwina's story leads back to the extraordinary wealth of Andrew Carnegie's partner, Henry Phipps, as well as a grandfather whose firm built Rockefeller Center and the Lincoln Tunnel, and forward to her son's life-long devotion to conservation in Africa. Edwina's son, step-son of Robert Whiton-Stuart, is Esmond Bradley Martin, Jr., a geographer who has dedicated his life to saving elephants and rhinos from extinction.

To be continued ...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

News Flash: Nature is a Geometer

A geometer, for those of us who live most of our lives without encountering the word, is a mathematician particularly skilled in geometry, which is what Oswald Veblen was. Because of his generosity and devotion to mathematics, every three years a geometer receives the Veblen Prize from the American Mathematical Society "for notable research in geometry or topology." And because of the Veblens' generosity and love of nature, people in Princeton and from far and wide get to take a walk in Herrontown Woods. A couple days ago, we were out there discussing trail work when a couple came by with a beautiful miniature collie. They were on their way from Boston to D.C. and had chosen Herrontown Woods as a midway rest stop for walking their dog because they were able to find our map online. Stories like that make us feel like the Friends of Herrontown Woods is on the right track.

But this post is about recent backyard research, where a cold night frequently leaves finely crafted geometric renderings in a 35 gallon black tub that catches rainwater from the roof.



Polygons, triangles and squares, oh my. How water molecules can climb up to make these ridges I haven't a clue, but the answer when it comes will only deepen our sense of wonder at nature's creative powers. Nor is it clear why the water in the black tub is more talented than other backyard miniponds. Maybe the shape of the tub affects how the water freezes, or minerals from the roof play a role in how the crystals form. In any case, it's like having a child genius who brings home a brilliant piece of artwork from pre-school every day.

The forms in the lower right of this photo have the shape of beautifully cut precious stones. Here's a wish: May we keep the earth cool enough that this wondrous geometer can play, day after winter's day, far, far into the future.

UPDATE: Writing this post brought back memories of a visit to the Exploratorium in San Francisco a long time ago, and an exhibit in which a sheet of cooled water froze in a flash. The speed with which crystals spread was surprising, though it makes sense, given how fast chemical reactions flash through our bodies to form thoughts and actions. I called the Exploratorium to ask for a video of the phenomenon, and they quickly responded. The exhibit is called Watch Water Freeze, and the inventor demonstrates the secret of the flashfreeze--supercooled water--at 7:35 in this video. Nature's combination of craftsmanship and speed is deceptive. The crystals in the photos above appear finely wrought, but it's possible they, too, were crafted in an instant.

And might our creative process work the same way, that the mind becomes super-saturated with thoughts and experience, until some catalyzing moment arrives when all crystalizes in a flash of insight?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Nature's Capacity to Heal: A Post-Election Nature Walk


After a traumatic campaign season and startling conclusion, many of us took to the light--filled Herontown Woods the following Sunday, Nov. 13, to experience the restorative powers and sanity of nature. 35 of us walked the yellow trail, which passes by some of the finest features of the preserve. We found that, despite the seismic political changes afoot, trees continue to grow, the water flows,

and boulders give a sense of firmament in an unstable world.

Most of these photos--the ones with a date stamp--were sent to me afterwards by CW. At first, I thought this one was of pebbles in the stream.

On a nature walk, there's time for kindness, and working together to overcome obstacles.

There was time to point out all the habitat restoration work our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit has been doing, and how the deer, in a rare collaboration, have been nibbling down the resprouts on the winged euonymus shrubs we cut. No deer have as yet come forward to join our board, however.

I pointed out how Herrontown Woods, Princeton's first dedicated nature preserve, dating back to the Veblens' pioneering donation of 82 acres in 1957, connects to other more recently acquired properties, including DR Greenway's All Saints Church tract just to the west.


One of the participants, Ed Simon, shared a couple stories, including how farmers in this part of town would bring herring from the coast to fertilize the less than optimal soil. The resulting smell led to the name Herringtown for this northeastern part of Princeton.

The odor is long gone, but rock walls dividing the fields can still be found among all the trees that have grown up since, and what we call the Veblen cottage was one of the farmhouses, dating back to 1875.

Ed leads the informal Friends of Gulick Park group, which maintains and improves trails in the Gulick Preserve, on the other side of Smoyer Park from Herrontown Woods. He also told of the forest village that appeared in Gulick Preserve this summer, built by teenage girls and based on Narnia.


After the walk, many of us gathered next to the Veblen House for cookies, cider, conversation,

and a visit to the pawpaw patch we planted January 3rd, just down from the Veblen House. That's board member Kurt Tazelaar pointing off into the distance, likely towards other areas of the grounds that we're in the process of restoring.

Thanks to all who came out and shared company, spirit and insight to make it such a rewarding walk on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Veblen House Written Up in Area Magazine


Now, isn't that weird. I could have sworn there was an article about the Veblen House and cottage in the latest edition of Weird N.J.

Oh, right,

there it is,

page 62,

a lovely four page spread,

right between a pictorial portrait of the Overbrook sanitorium and a man who gave his left arm for Asbury Park.

Weird N.J. is a beautifully rendered magazine edited by Mark and Mark (Sceurman and Moran), who clearly love our state as an bottomless trove of weirdness in truth and legend. Whether buildings or people, we all are worked on by a mixture of care and neglect, elements and time. It's truly weird that buildings and a legacy as distinctive and extraordinary as those Veblen left behind have been neglected, and so we're proud to be part of this edition of Weird N.J. Our aim, passion and privilege, as the Friends of Herrontown Woods, is to make care the dominant influence going forward.

The photos and writeups are by FOHW volunteer Glen Ferguson and myself. I bought a copy online for $7, free shipping, at this site.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Early Fall in Herrontown Woods


These are photos from recent walks in Herrontown Woods. With most trees still green, the early turnings really stick out. In fall, the woods becomes color coded, with each kind of tree or shrub announcing its identity, so that one can grasp their numbers in a single glance. Here's a radiant dogwood, all alone with its bright orange.

Closer to the Veblen cottage, a similarly intense flash of bright red in deep woods turned out to be a black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica).

Mushrooms cluster in aesthetic ways on fallen logs,

and stumps,

or rise straight from the earth.

All that sequestered carbon in fallen trees slowly gets consumed, metabolized, and returned to the air, in time to be photosynthesized back into sugars by the trees and other plants, in a cycle that's as beautiful intellectually as it is aesthetically. How incredibly elegant that the carbon in wood yields its energy to living things, then "takes wing" as a gas to drift skyward and be so naturally and effortlessly delivered to plants for reincorporation into living tissue.

At Veblen House, the butternuts had a good year, after we gave them more protection from the deer.











The last photo is of a Kentucky Coffee Tree, discovered growing in the field next to the Veblen House. Its 3 foot long, many leafleted leaves make patterns on the patterned sky in late afternoon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Mushroom Walk at Herrontown Woods, Sunday, Sept. 25


Update: Not many mushrooms today, given the dry weather, but Philip will talk about mushrooms nonetheless, and there's plenty of other things to see at Herrontown Woods.

Come one, come all to the merry mushroom walk this Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2pm, co-led by mushroom expert Philip Poniz and naturalist Steve Hiltner. For safety's sake, we'll be digesting the names and stories of any mushrooms encountered, not the mushrooms themselves. We're hoping the mushrooms will rise to the occasion, and yesterday's rain should help. But if they are few, the walk will be more generally about the natural and historic splendor of Herrontown Woods.

Afterwards, there will be light refreshments on the Veblen House grounds.

The walk is free, though donations large and small are welcome to support restoration of the natural and cultural heritage of Herrontown Woods, Princeton's first nature preserve.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, across Snowden Lane from Smoyer Park. Maps can be found at http://www.fohw.org/p/maps. html.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Herrontown Woods Gets a New Sign!


Thanks to friend of the preserve, Timothy Andrews, who posted on the Friends of Herrontown Woods facebook page about the decaying preserve sign at the preserve entry on Snowden Lane. He ultimately contacted the county and asked them to replace the sign. He got quick action as a new sign appeared within days, with an attractive font declaring, simply "HERRONTOWN WOODS ARBORETUM."

Some of us on the FOHW board noticed that the sign wasn't visible from one side,

thus commencing a How-many-board-members-does-it-take-to-cut-back-foliage episode, which had a happy ending.

The old sign may well have dated back to the Veblens' original donation of the first 80 acres back in 1957.

It looked a little better on the side less exposed to the elements, but the replacement was greatly needed. That the county is not mentioned on the new sign may relate to the likely transfer of the park to Princeton municipality at some future point.

The "Arboretum" portion of the name dates back to the beginning, though the now 140 acre preserve lacks any traditional cultivation of trees. A stand of white pines planted in Veblen's time near the parking lot has largely been blown down by storms. Any trees that have been planted by our Friends group are native, and are intended to blend into the natural setting rather than be shown off as specimens. Examples are butternuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts and pawpaws planted near the Veblen House.

Thanks again to Timothy for his initiative and the county for their response.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

New, Simplified Color Coding for Herrontown Trails

One longterm goal of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, as it continues to care for both Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, has been to simplify the color coding for trails. As of September, 2016, we now have a fully marked red trail that begins and ends at the main parking lot, and a yellow inner loop that branches off the red trail and features lovely views of the stream, boulder field, and historic quarry sites. The blue trail is now limited to the north side of the pipeline right of way. For those winter and spring seasons when the soil is saturated with water (good for the watershed, not so great for hiking), a trail marked with red and white signs will now provide a way to bypass the wettest parts of the red trail. The red, yellow, blue, and red/white trails are now fully marked. Short connector trails have white markers, and a couple have been closed off to simplify the trail system.

The map below illustrates the changes.




We aim for clarity without becoming too intrusive with signage. Markers vary in height, so when you reach an intersection, give a good look around to figure out which way to go next.

Enjoy the trails, and contact us with any feedback.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Herrontown Woods Trail Update

Volunteers with our nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, have been doing lots of trail work this summer. One initiative, primarily being carried out by Kurt and Sally Tazelaar, is installing a new, simpler color scheme that will make the trails easier to follow. The red trail loop will now begin and end at the park's main parking lot off of Snowden Lane, and a yellow trail will form an inner loop featuring the boulder field, quarry site, and 19th century farmstead. The yellow trail is now completely marked, and a couple redundant connector trails have been closed off. Sticking with our theme of using found materials, trail markers are homemade.


Another initiative is to reduce trail erosion. With climate change bringing more intense storms, particularly to the northeastern U.S., trails are more frequently turning into streams during heavy rains. Water bars are a way of directing water off trail.

New volunteer, Glenn Ferguson (in photo), helped install the first two waterbars yesterday, between the Veblen House and cottage, using stone donated by a Herrontown neighbor. Glenn is an environmental studies major who discovered the preserve a year or two ago, and liked it so much he contacted us wanting to help out. He mentioned that the Veblen cottage reminds him of cottages he's seen in Batsto, the historic town in the Pine Barrens, which also dates back to the 19th century.

We continue to note how important it is, while doing trail maintenance, not to disturb some of the rarer native wildflowers that grow along the trail edges, e.g. wild comfrey. Trail widening can inadvertently harm wildflowers adapted to the special conditions along the trails' edge.

Whether you want a relaxing walk or a workout, come join us to walk the trails of Princeton's first nature preserve, where Veblen, Einstein and others would find inspiration and room for their thoughts to roam.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bringing Back a Lost Tree Species--the Butternut


(Originally posted at FOHW.org, the official website for Friends of Herrontown Woods)

In recent years, the Friends of Herrontown Woods has teamed up with local tree experts to bring back a little known and seldom seen native tree called the butternut. Also called the white walnut, and sporting the scientific name Juglans cinerea, its numbers have dwindled over the past fifty years due to an introduced fungus that causes canker. Just a few persist in Princeton, discovered by Bill Sachs and arborist Bob Wells. This young butternut was grown by Bill Sachs from locally collected nuts, and planted by FOHW volunteers in a clearing near Veblen House.


Maybe the local deer get their news on the internet, because soon after this butternut's photo appeared in a blogpost about Herrontown Woods, its leaves disappeared, prompting us to extend the fencing higher around the tree. Persistence and followup are everything.

These are the new shoots now protected by the fencing. Another year or two and the tree will be tall enough to survive without protection.

When Bob Wells found a butternut growing near Stone Hill Church, a neighbor of Herrontown Woods, FOHW got permission to plant a couple young butternuts near it, to provide cross fertilization. Those saplings, too, would not survive without followup, and the followup probably wouldn't happen if this wasn't a labor of love, which in this case describes whatever makes one think to take a look and see how they're doing. Leaves eaten but stem still alive.

Some chickenwire laying on the ground nearby proved handy for protecting the resprouts.

With four young butternuts at Veblen House, two in Autumn Hill reservation, two at Stone Hill Church, six at Mountain Lakes, and several more growing at TRI and in Harrison Street Park (Clifford Zink being the catalyst there), our native butternut stands a chance of making a comeback in Princeton.