LOOSE ENDS: Dec. 17, 2013

On the trails

By Pam Hersh, Special Writer
   Instead of observing Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Credit- Cards-on-Steroids Sunday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, Weary Wednesday, Thank-Goodness-This-Crazy-Season-Is-Almost-Over Thursday, I created my own event during the post-Thanksgiving days launching the holiday season. I connected with and was inspired by some terrific boulders, sticks, berries, leaves, cliffs, historic buildings, and, most significantly, people, right here in Princeton, without fighting crowds and jockeying for parking spaces. I took a trip into the woods, Herrontown Woods, for the first time ever.
   It is embarrassing to admit that even though I have delivered numerous harangues about the joys of walking and am known as Princeton’s non-salacious street-walker, I, a solitary walker, find isolated woodland pathways to be intimidating. Steve Hiltner, Princeton’s renowned naturalist on the Saturday after Thanksgiving gave me a most appreciated holiday present by leading a Herrontown Woods guided tour for a group of hiking enthusiasts that offered environmental, political, and historical treasures.
   Mr. Hiltner acknowledged at every step along the way that this journey into the woods was really made possible by Princeton residents Kurt Tazelaar and Sally Curtis, the two extraordinary volunteers who labored nearly every day since July to clear the Herrontown trails that had become nearly impassable for trail walkers. The Tazelaar/Curtis team has a lifestyle that facilitated the trail clearing. Kurt is a Princeton Record Exchange employee who works nights. He’s also an accomplished artist who can paint at times whenever he is not clearing trails; Sally is an elementary school art teacher who has summers off.
   The couple decided to give back to their community by taking away the impediments along the trails that had accumulated during the storms of the past several years, most notably, Irene and Sandy. They and Steve and a growing number of other Princeton residents are rallying around an effort to transform the Mercer-County-owned Herrontown Woods and the historic structures within the 101 acres into a preeminent destination in the region for hiking and learning about nature and the socio-economic history of the area. The newly formed Friends of Herrontown Woods are committed to restoring the trails, history and flora of the woods and honoring the legacy of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, who left this first Princeton nature preserve, their house, cottage and farmstead in the public trust.
   ”We still are working with the County to establish a process for restoring the structures and maintaining the trails. This requires physical labor combined with strategic fundraising and sheer will,” Mr. Hiltner says.
   Oswald Veblen was an internationally prominent mathematician who joined the Princeton University faculty in 1905 and played a central role in building the mathematics department. Dr. Veblen was a visionary who was instrumental in establishing the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and in bringing Albert Einstein and many other top scholars to town. In addition, according to Mr. Hitlner, Dr. Veblen was known as a “wood-chopping,” professor, with a passion for the woods. Professor Veblen led the effort to acquire 600 acres of land for the Institute for Advanced Study and thus established the groundwork for the preservation of the Institute Woods. And ultimately, he and his wife Elizabeth, who was an avid gardener, practiced what they preached by donating all of their personal land holdings for preservation to Mercer County; the bulk of the land was donated in 1957, with the remainder occurring several years later.
   For Kurt, however, the process of preserving and creating is as rewarding as the final product. “In general, the maintenance of local nature preserves is dependent upon local volunteers. It’s not the government’s job to do it, and it’s done better by people doing the job for its own sake…for the sheer joy of it.” And that attitude prevailed even when he had to move a 250-pound boulder out of the ground.
   In rehabilitating Herrontown Woods, Mr. Tazelaar made it a point to enhance the vista, to carry the debris away from the sight lines of the trails or minimize their impact. He also sought to highlight “interesting features that were hidden…. In the late 19th century a series of hardscrabble farms existed there, historic remnants of micro farming. You can see their remaining archaeology in the stone wall fences that are scattered throughout the preserve,” he says.
   Mr. Hiltner led the group up the pathway to the Veblen House and noted that Albert Einstein walked on this same pathway several times. Even though, I was hoping that remnants of Einstein’s brain waves would permeate my brain, and physics suddenly would make sense to me, I had no such luck. My I.Q. remains the same, but I am indeed far wiser than I was before my trip into the woods.
   The webpage for the group is at www.facebook.com/FriendsOfHerrontownWoods
   For information about the Veblen House, go to: www.VeblenHouse.org