December 29, 2021

Working With and Within Nature at Herrontown Woods

To the Editor:

As the year comes to a close, I’d like to thank all those whose participation and support have made 2021 a special year at Herrontown Woods, the nature preserve perched on the ridge in northeastern Princeton. At our weekly Sunday morning volunteer sessions and through the week, those who give freely of their time and talents are continuing a tradition that began with the original gift of the land by mathematician Oswald Veblen and his wife Elizabeth. That gift, 64 years ago, ushered in an extraordinary era of natural lands preservation in Princeton that continues to this day.

The year 2021 saw the expansion of the Botanical ARt garDEN, nicknamed the Barden, where diverse native plantings mix with art and whimsy. Whether it be turning fallen trees into bridges, or the rescuing of a gazebo otherwise headed for the landfill, the project at Herrontown Woods exemplifies the role of creative repair and reuse in smuggling joy and utility into a shared future. Lending inspiration is, of course, nature, which has been in the business of creative repurposing since life began.

Having repaired and improved trails since 2013, the Friends of Herrontown Woods was this year fortunate to find a highly skilled carpenter to begin repairing Veblen House and Cottage. These two structures, each with a fascinating history, had been patiently waiting for some positive action since they were boarded up in 1998.

Perhaps the most rewarding realization this year, as the pandemic and troubling politics cause people to seek respite and revitalization in the great outdoors, is the many ways open space can serve our spiritual, social, and cultural needs. The mix of open space and “open shelter” at the Barden has provided a place for people to safely gather, learn, explore, and socialize, whether spontaneously or during our pop-up May’s Barden Cafe on first Sundays of the month. The tranquil grounds of the Veblen House have become a gathering place for yoga classes and collaborative events with the Princeton Public Library, actors and musicians.

Though we treasure the wild areas of Herrontown Woods, the initiatives in the cultural zone have evolved beyond what has long been called “passive recreation” to embrace a richer experience, in which we work actively with and within nature — the greatest and most creative partner of them all.

Stephen K. Hiltner
North Harrison Street