Friday, December 20, 2013

Writeup on Herrontown Wood in the Princeton Packet

In the Dec. 17, 2013 edition of the Princeton Packet, there's a wonderful writeup on our Herrontown Wood restoration efforts by Pam Hersch, longtime special writer for the Packet. Pam joined us on our Thanksgiving weekend walk. She writes:
"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."

Monday, December 16, 2013

This Old Bridge

On the way out to Herrontown Woods, there's an old bridge hiding in the weeds next to Snowden Lane. A branch of Harry's Brook flows through it. This looks to be the original bridge the Veblens, and farmers like Jac Weller, would have used on their way in to Princeton.
 A closer look shows that some stones are coming loose. What's that old expression, "A stone in time saves nine"? I contacted the town engineering department to alert them to the problem. The response was "The old bridge is on private property..........we are considering a bike path along this section of Snowden in the future. If we are successful in obtaining an easement we could fix the bridge at that time."

That stretch of Snowden Lane currently puts cars in close proximity with joggers and people walking their dogs. Anyone in the Little Brook School neighborhood heading out to Smoyer Park or Herrontown Wood has to "run the gantlet" of narrow pavement, with cars passing by on one side and a ditch on the other. It's good news that a bikepath is being contemplated, but until easements can be obtained from homeowners along the route, the bridge and the bikepath will remain in limbo. As the Veblen House has demonstrated, limbo can linger for a long, long time.

From the plaque on the newer bridge, looks like the old bridge served until 1965. 2015 would mark 50 years. Sounds like a nice round number for a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Just Add Snow

Not sure how the snow got activated in this photo, unless I pushed the wrong button on the camera, but it looks like a Happy Holidays greeting card from Veblen House.

Snow adds definition to the landscape, and helps convey how this 1870 farmstead adds to the sense of place at Herrontown Woods.

According to Dorothy Bedford, "My Girl Scout troop Junior troop 1812 did many of the stepping stones on the paths (red, green, yellow trails) and across streams in the fall of 2006 as their Bronze Award service Project, in cooperation with the County. The trail marking tape (red, white, yellow, green dots) are left over from that project so the girls could find their way around the park."

The trees grow Santa Claus beards.

Fallen branches obscure this broad boulder garden, through which a stream flows. The Sourland Preserve has a similar formation called Roaring Rocks, which likely roars when the stream that flows deep within it gets going after a big rain. Herrontown Wood's version might best be called whispering rocks.

The view from the cliff.

Roof lines contrast with the verticals of trees. Nature and culture peacefully intertwined.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Light Snow at Veblen House

A light snow after the most recent workday showed off the front walk recently cleared of dirt and debris. The walk begins and ends with flat boulders--another way in which the Princeton ridge geology is integrated into the landscaping. The wooden planks hold less residual heat from the warmer days prior, so are still covered by snow.

Even with light snow adding definition to the landscape features, the footprint of an old barn still remains obscured by invasive shrubs.

One new rediscovery is an old well near where the barn once stood. The well likely provided water for all the horses and whatever other animals the Veblens had. It will be interesting to see to what extent the water level in the well changes with seasonal precipitation.

Cleaning Up the Grounds

We arrived for another Rotary/FOHR workday at the Veblen House to find the grounds beautifully mown and blown by the county, not only at the Veblen House but also at the nearby cottage, which hadn't been mowed all year. Members of Princeton Rotary and Friends of Herrontown Woods, 12 in all, came at various times from 9-3, cleaning and resetting stones in the front walkway, cutting invasive shrubs and dragging brush to the forest edge to make brushpiles for habitat.

Peter Thompson took on the cutting back of wisteria that has spread over the years across much of the lower garden, including the stone-lined fish pond. In the foreground, you can see how multiple trunks of wisteria intertwine as they reach skyward to smother a flowering dogwood. Judging from a few flowerbuds visible through the tangled mob, the dogwood may have enough life left in it to recover.

In front of the Veblen House, a puddle suggests a location that could be fashioned into a raingarden to catch runoff from the grassy slope.

Rotary and FOHW met with Mercer County officials two days prior, and made good progress towards an agreement that would allow us to restore the Veblen buildings, to serve as community meeting space and exploring the many themes of the Veblen and Princeton ridge legacies.

Thanks to all who came, saw, and conquered on a brisk Saturday.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Volunteer Workday at Veblen House Grounds Saturday, Dec. 7, 9-4pm

The Princeton Rotary and the Friends of Herrontown Woods continue their partnership this Saturday with a workday at the Veblen House grounds in Herrontown Woods. Come by 452 Herrontown Road any time between 9am and 4pm to join in. Among tools, loppers are particularly useful, as we'll be cutting invasive shrubs that have encroached over the years on the landscaping and stone walls around the house. Shovels may come in handy, too. The Veblen site connects with the many preserve trails for those who want to explore the woods. 

To reach 452 Herrontown Road, head out Snowden Lane, past Smoyer Park, turn left where Snowden deadends at Herrontown Rd, then take the first driveway to the left, just where the small pasture ends and the woods begins.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Opportunity to give input on Princeton Ridge and Veblen House

The deadline's tomorrow (Saturday, Nov. 30) for giving your input on a town-funded survey of citizen's priorities for the Princeton Ridge corridor, including Herrontown Woods. The survey includes a text box where you can, if you wish, mention Herrontown Woods specifically, and the initiative to turn the Veblen House into meeting space and a nature center.

The Rotary Club of Princeton, in collaboration with the Friends of Herrontown Woods, has submitted a proposal to Mercer County requesting access to the Veblen House and farmstead in order to begin fixing them up and put them to public use.

Below is the text from an email received from Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS), describing the survey and initiative:

The Princeton Ridge East Conservation Area Partnership is developing a comprehensive stewardship plan.  Input from the public is essential to manage this vital natural area, which now includes 600 acres of protected lands. 

A simple online survey seeks feedback on land stewardship, forms of recreation to be permitted, and essential facilities.  Please complete the online survey by November 30, 2013!  

The Princeton Ridge is a unique ecological area in Mercer County that extends westward from the Millstone River and the Delaware & Raritan (D&R) Canal State Park across the northern part of Princeton Township into Hopewell.

For more than 50 years, the Ridge’s forest and wetland habitats have been identified as among the most important and environmentally sensitive areas in the region. Its mature forests are home to numerous endangered and threatened species, among them the Wood Turtle, Eastern Box Turtle, Cooper’s Hawk and Barred Owl.

The Princeton Ridge’s 1,800 acres are being managed by Princeton Township, Mercer County, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Friends of Princeton Open Space, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Stony Brook - Millstone Watershed Association.  The Princeton Ridge East Conservation Area Partnership offers a map of this newly defined Conservation Area, so critical to native species, on the Princeton Township website

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods Thanksgiving Weekend

Come join a nature walk this Saturday, Nov. 30, at 1 pm along the newly renovated trails at Herrontown Woods. Along the way we'll visit the Veblen House and Cottage, where volunteers have recently uncovered the circle of stones called a "horse run",
hike the boulder fields of the Princeton Ridge, visit a quarry site, 
and look out across the valley from a newly rediscovered bluff. Dress warmly, and enjoy the light-filled forest.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, down a deadend street across Snowden Lane from Smoyer Park (near where Snowden ends at Herrontown Road) (This map may help if you zoom out, using the +/_ in the lower right hand corner)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Chess, Jon Edwards, and the Veblen Connection

The World Chess Championship is underway, and we have a couple Veblen connections. One is Jon Edwards, a local chess master who first illuminated me on Veblen's role in early computing. Jon's article on "A History of Early Computing at Princeton" can be found here. Tonight and next Saturday, Nov. 23, from 7-8, Jon is co-leading a review of each week of the championship play at Princeton Public Library.

My friend Teresa originally put me in touch with Jon. Here's what she wrote:
"You might want to connect with Jon Edwards, who wrote the article you link to. He organized the Turing centennial (along with Bob Sedgewick). Jon knows a lot about the history of computing at Princeton. He is also a chess master and has a bit of an empire of self-published chess books. Interesting guy, Jon, and also one of the world's most decent human beings."
As it happens, the championship is a 12-game match with Norwegian chess superstar Magnus Carlsen challenging World Chess Champion Viswanathan (Vishy) Anand of India. When I checked in, the Norwegian was leading 4 games to 2

An internet search for any mention of Veblen's interest in chess, or lack thereof, yielded an interview of Jack Levine, who reminisces about the era of the 1930s, when Fine Hall was the center of mathematics at Princeton, and perhaps the center of gravity of the mathematical universe as well. Edmund Landau and John Vanderslice, a student of Veblen's, are said to have been good chess players, but no mention of Veblen himself taking an interest. Landau appears to be unrelated to the Landau's woolen store in Princeton, the back of which serves as the only permanent exhibit of Einstein memorabilia in town.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Cliff Rediscovered

One of the most exciting aspects of restoring Herrontown Woods after so many years of laissez faire is the rediscovery of natural treasures long obscured by downed trees and invasive undergrowth. Autumn's leaf fall has been unveiling even more of this boulder-strewn landscape's long lost secrets.

A week ago, walking the yellow trail, I glanced up the slope of the Princeton ridge and saw what looked like a rock bluff larger than any others I'd seen thus far. The thought of returning to approach it from the top of the ridge had since slipped my mind, when today, by chance, I passed a man in town on Ewing Street who was looking with great curiosity at the historic house near the intersection with Harrison Street. I stopped and told him that Thomas Jefferson had reportedly slept there, back in 1783, when the nation's capitol was based briefly in Princeton's Nassau Hall. During that time, George Washington had commuted by horse from Rockingham, passing close by Herrontown Woods on Mount Lucas Road. I mentioned the Veblen House, and the man said he used to hike in Herrontown Woods back in the 1980s. He said that someone, maybe a squatter, had lived in the Veblen cottage for awhile, and that there was a 30 foot cliff just off the red trail.

I returned in late afternoon today to search for the cliff. Using clippers to cut through the dense tangle of multiflora rose and winged euonymus, as if playing the role of the prince in a nature version of Sleeping Beauty, I finally approached the top of the cliff. The view out over the woods, still brightened by autumn colors, was breathtaking.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Veblen House and Cottage in Fall Colors

For lack of a gardener to keep things in balance, some of the remnant plantings of Elizabeth Veblen's gardens have been running wild. Fall colors reveal the way wisteria, which once modestly climbed an arbor behind the Veblen House, has long since gone rogue, obscuring the circular stone horse run in the foreground and most of the yard to the right of the house.

The Japanese maples, originally planted near the Veblen cottage and turning glorious red, have spread surprisingly far into the woods. They have long been a species that, like Rose of Sharon, seeds aggressively in people's backyards, but has fortunately not spread into nature preserves. Herrontown Woods may be proving the exception, raising the question of whether a tree's great beauty gives it free reign to alter the local ecosystem. In the meantime, it sure is pretty.

Friday, November 1, 2013

As with a house, so with the earth

As the paint begins to chip, from the work of the elements over years of neglect, and hands wishing to heal are told not to enter, sometimes I wonder at this long persistence to save a house, like no other, alone in the woods, long neglected.

But then I remember there is a planet, like no other, alone in space, long neglected. It, too, is being worked on by the elements,

with so many hands wishing to heal.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Horse Run

This photo from the 1950s shows two remarkable features on the Veblen House grounds. The hay barrack on the left, with its adjustable roof for storing hay or, in this case, firewood, was unfortunately torn down six years ago, but could be reconstructed.

The horse run, on the other hand, is still very much present, with its massive boulders skillfully set one atop another to form a circle, within which horses were once run as a quick way to give them a little exercise. My understanding is that the Veblen's longtime groundskeeper, Max Latterman, needed to exercise the horses that were kept in the barn that used to be next to this horse run. The barn burned down in the 1950s. The horse run may later have become a part of Elizabeth's extensive gardens.

The article about Max posted on this website May 7, originally from the 1980 Fall/Winter edition of the Mercer County Park Commission News and given to us by his daughter in law Jean, documents the presence of horses back in the 1930s, before the house was bought by the Veblens.
"Latterman's responsibilities, while employed by Mr. Stuart, included caring for the grounds, the two houses, the barn, shed and hay barrack, and also the hunting horses. Saddle sore or not, Latterman rode the horses every day to give them excercise. "It was not fun by the time I got off all of them", he said."
It's unclear whether the circular stone wall was built by J.P. Stuart or the Veblens, and whether it was originally built for horses or for some other purpose. The internet search most likely to bring up images of circular stone structures such as this is "sheepfold", which is the word used in England to refer to a pen for holding sheep. Elizabeth Veblen grew up in Yorkshire, England, and it's tempting to speculate that it was her influence that brought this structure into being.

Here's a more recent photo, as volunteers with the Rotary Club of Princeton begin to free it from a sea of wisteria. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The (Not So) Empty Kiosk

This empty kiosk at the parking lot in Herrontown Woods, built years back by the county but never populated with maps or interpretive information, is indicative of the long slumber this nature preserve has been through. Kiosks are great ideas, and you'd think they'd be fairly easy to utilize and keep up to date, but most of the ones I've seen in my travels have been neglected. I know personally how easy it is to forget about them, having had a few that were mine to utilize or ignore.

So along with the incredible work of Kurt Tazelaar and Sally Curtis to clear the trails in recent months, this small step of putting a cork board on the solid steel kiosk runs counter to the laissez faire norms of human behavior.

The board, which looked surprisingly attractive when finally affixed, was a second hand acquisition, mounted by a volunteer. It symbolizes the way public investment in parks can often languish if not for the skill, commitment and resourcefulness of community volunteers. It will be even more symbolic, and useful, when it finally has a map or two to guide visitors.

Update: Nothing like posting photos of an empty kiosk on the web to motivate one to populate it with maps and a description.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Veblens and E.B. White in Brooklin, Maine

When not at their home in Herrontown Woods, the Veblens would often travel up to their cottage in Brooklin, Maine. While trying to find out if their cottage up there still exists, I found out that Brooklin is quite an interesting place. For one, it was the home of E.B. White, whose farm there provided the inspiration for Charlotte's Web. A member of the Paul Winter consort is also on the list of local notables (Paul Winter has a connection with Princeton open space. An archaeological site revealed that Brooklin's location once was an American Indian trading center. An amateur archaeologist is said to have found an 11th century Norse coin there

Though fewer than 1000 people live there, Brooklin is an important center for building wooden boats. Not sure how many people have memories of wooden boats, but a vivid memory for me as a kid was the spring sanding and varnishing of our C Scow sailboat. I remember the beauty of the wood and the fragrance of the varnish, rather than all the work that (mostly) my father, siblings and friends did to make the boat seaworthy each year. Sailing it was also a group effort, requiring a well-timed switching of the bilgeboards every time we came about, coordinated with a well-timed ducking of the head to avoid the boom. My role was to periodically pump water out as it accumulated in the bottom of the boat, seeping through whatever crack we couldn't completely seal in the spring. My older sisters came home one day, very wet and very excited, with news that they had tipped the boat over in a strong breeze. All mishaps should make us so happy.

I contacted the Brooklin Keeping Society--a great name for a historical society--to ask about the Veblens and their cottage. Richard Freethey responded with two emails:

"I am not sure whether the cottage he owned is still there or not- I remember my father worked for him down there on Naskeag (a part of Brooklin) just before Mr Veblen died. I was only 9 when he died so as far as I know they were very quiet folks, and I am pretty sure they did not do a lot of socializing with the natives here. As for Mr White, his place is about 4-5 miles from where there’s was (or is) and I have never heard of their socializing any."
"I asked one of our volunteers who knows more about Brooklin history than anyone. She is around 85. She says her grandfather Walter Crockett did some carpentry work on the cabin for the Veblens. She said they were very quiet and not at all public people who lived a very simple life while they were here. Of course the property was on one of the prettiest spots on Blue Hill Bay, with the lighthouse in the background and the mountains of Mt Desert Island in the background. His and other properties have been taken over by folks who were not so impressed with the simple life. None of us know but we all suspect that his cabin was  replaced by something not as rustic." 

I'm surprised there's no mention of socializing around the Veblens' strong tradition of serving tea, but the gravitation to a place of great natural beauty fits with their affinity for Herrontown Woods, as does the simplicity of their lifestyle.

Update, 11.05.13: Looks like there's more than one Princeton connection with Brooklin, Maine. Just heard a talk at Princeton University in which Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, told a story of his son going to Brooklin to build a boat with the son's grandfather.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Clearing Trails at Herrontown Woods

In recent weeks, Kurt Tazelaar and Sally Curtis have made it their mission to clear the long-blocked trails of Herrontown Woods. I'm helping them when I'm in town, focusing on removing invasive shrubs along the trails that obscure the vistas. There is tremendous joy in seeing this transformation take place. Storms over the past several years, particularly Hurricane Sandy, have blown trees across most of the trails. Herrontown Woods has been sorely in need of positive energy, and some has finally arrived.

With each blockage removed, another one or two hundred feet of trail opens up, like pages of a book or rooms of an abandoned house, revealing its long-kept secrets of moss-covered boulders and wildflowers. We work in the filtered light beneath a canopy of mature trees that magically keeps hot days cool and shields us from light rain, as if we were in a biosphere protected by a giant dome. The serene quiet is broken only occasionally by a small plane flying overhead on its way to or from Princeton airport.

Kurt's map of the trails, growing frayed and soggy from sweat in his back pocket, shows the progress thus far, with blue highlighting the trails freed of downed trees and overgrowth.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Max Latterman--The Veblens' Caretaker at Herrontown Woods

It was a very pleasant surprise to find in the mail one day some newspaper clippings from back when Max Latterman, Sr. was taking care of the Veblens' house and grounds. His tenure there actually predates the Veblens, as he was first hired by J.P.W. Stuart, who moved the prefab house to the site and then later sold it to the Veblens. Max's love of Herrontown Woods was such that he continued to work there even after both Veblens had passed away. Below is one of the articles, from the 1980 Fall/Winter edition of the Mercer County Park Commission News. Thanks so much to Jean Latterman, Max Latterman Sr.'s daughter in law, for sending these articles!




Autumn is the perfect time to catch a glimpse of the wonder of the Herrontown Woods in Princeton, a Mercer County Park Commission facility open to the public every day at no cost.

And it is said that this tree arboretum is as rich in history as it is in beauty. A walk through 141-acre garden of trees will point up the latter, but only a conversation with caretaker Max Latterman will bring out the international significance of the property.

Latterman will tell you that the Herrontown Woods, donated to the county of Mercer in 1957 by world famous mathematician Oswald Veblen, were the grounds of this estate for thirty years.

Veblen was brought to Princeton University as an associate professor in 1905 by Woodrow Wilson, then the president of the University, and by Dean Henry Burchard Fine. Years later, he was influential in the founding and establishment of the academic direction, especially in mathematics, of The Institute For Advanced Study, a post-doctorate institution in Princeton. He is also credited with influencing Einstein and other great mathematicians to join the faculty of the Institute.

Latterman was the caretaker for the Woods even before Veblen purchased the property. The 75 year old Latterman, whose German accent sounds a bit like Grandpa Stroehmann's, provides some interesting insights about the property.

The estate, according to Latterman, provided a source of enjoyment and relaxation for Veblen. Although the professor frequently traveled to Europe and Maine during fhe summer months, he always enjoyed the grounds which are now the Herrontown Woods.

Latterman's responsibilities, while employed by Mr. Stuart, included caring for the grounds, the two houses, the barn, shed and hay barrack, and also the hunting horses. Saddle sore or not, Latterman rode the horses every day to give them excercise. "It was not fun by the time I got off all of them", he said.

Latterman works only four hours a day now, but still begins his day at 7 a.m. Walking through the property, Latterman can trace the beginnings of parts of the woods and gardens, which surround the houses. He points to a section of the woods between the two houses, "where the old barn used to be", and notes that that is where Veblen planted several oaks trees. Latterman said that Veblen also used to transplant certain trees from one area of the property to another, giving the woods both balance and beauty.

Veblen's wife, Elizabeth, also liked to garden, planting daffodils (in circles). wild hyacinths and other rare flowers that she had collected from Europe, giving the property a radiance in the spring.

During those summer visits to Europe, Latterman was left to care for the estate alone. "I didn't mind it," he said. "But it was very quiet. When I got home, I was glad to hear some voices." Even today, with the exception of an occasional passing car or airplane overhead, the Herrontown Woods remain a quiet place. "I still like to hear voices when I get home," he said,

Latterman, who probably knew more about the intricacies of the houses and the woods than the Veblens themselves, explained that the main house, located off Herrontown Road, was rebuilt by previous owner J.P.W. Stuart, who had the house moved from New York. Just for show, Latterman unlatches what almost looks like a secret vault and explains that the beams are connected by metal pins, making the dismantling of them still possible today.

He recalls that many of the professor's friends, colleagues and students visited the property, enjoying a walk through the woods with Veblen. Perhaps the most famous colleague was Albert Einstein.

But the professor, according to Latterman, loved the solitude of the property and spent many hours alone. "'When he wanted to be left by himself," said Latterman, "he would go off to the second house and study there where there was no telephone." Latterman recalls that he would stay there for long hours and burn a lot of wood that Latterman had cut up for him to keep the cottage warm.

Mathematics professor Deane Montgomery of the Institute For Advanced Study, a close colleague of Veblen. also recalls the smaller of the houses and refers to it as Veblen's ''study" . "He always liked the outdoors, though," said Montgomery. "In his later years, he would spend time cutting wood himself."

"Because the Veblens had no children," said Montgomery', "he (Veblen) thought very carefully on the matter of the houses and the property. He concluded that the county would be the most likely to carry out his intentions of leaving the property in its natural state."

As he continues his tour, Latterman explains that the stone walls surrounding portions of the estate were made from the rocks that farmers had cleared from their fields during the winter.

Walking through the woods, one will notce the absence of slate or stone walkways, which sometimes contrast with the softness of the woods. "The professor did not like cement sidewalks," said Latterman. "This is why I made, and still repair the wooden sidewalks."

With all the quaint features about the houses and the personal touches of the walkways and gardens, the trees are still the stars of the show, with marked paths winding through the woods.

The arboretum includes a pine forest, over thirty species of trees, a countless amount of shrubbery and a brilliant collection of flowers.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Small Victory at Herrontown Woods

(originally posted at, April 26, 2009--Herrontown Woods being Princeton's first dedicated nature preserve, donated by the Veblens in 1957) 

Most people know about the big victory won at the Princeton Battlefield in 1777. Few have heard, however, of the small victory of 2009 that took place at Herrontown Woods, on the other side of town, on a sunny afternoon in late April.

There, the mighty resistance of an eight year old to taking a walk in the woods was overcome by an irresistible alliance of rocks and water.

Strident complaint dissolved into "Daddy, look at this!", as we headed upstream towards a picnic in a boulder field.

Contributing to the rout of homebound entertainment media was a frog presiding over a reflected forest.

Plenty of auxiliary forces were on hand, effective mostly with the accompanying adult. The opening buds of a witch hazel.

Some interesting stuff on the forest floor--here, a reddish-brown spiny fruit of the sweetgum, a flowering wood anemone, and some leaves of trout lily.

And the fiddle heads of Christmas fern perched on boulders.

Even the trails were strategically rock-strewn to add sport and comfort to the way home.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

George Dyson on Veblen's Role in Preserving the Institute Woods

If you missed George Dyson's March 21 talk at DR Greenway, entitled "Princeton's Christopher Robin - Oswald Veblen and the Six Hundred-Acre Woods", here's a link to a high definition video, posted by videographer Kurt Tazelaar:

(May 4 update: technical difficulties seem to have made the photo and "play" button disappear, but the link should work)

Realizing I was going to be arriving back in town too late to hear the talk, I asked Kurt Tazelaar if he could videotape the presentation. He and Sally Curtis were willing, DR Greenway and George Dyson gave permission, and after considerable work by Kurt and Sally to put it in finished form, it was posted online.

Among other things, George describes how Oswald Veblen's grandparents lost their land in Norway due to a crooked lawyer, and how this may have fed Oswald's passion for land acquisition. Other insights in the talk include thinking of Veblen--who argued early on in favor of the Institute for Advanced Study acquiring considerable land, and then did much of the legwork and negotiating to acquire the first 600 acres--as the bridge between the Institute's intellects and the land on which they do their thinking.

The video also includes a charming intro by George's father, Freeman Dyson, and some photos and description of the years George spent living in a treehouse. The latter plays in to a theme that's been coming up more recently related to the project--the movement in architecture to design ultra-small houses.

Thanks to George, Kurt, Sally and the DR Greenway for making this video possible.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Upcoming Talk on Oswald Veblen: "Princeton's Christopher Robin"

George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, will give a talk entitled "Princeton's Christopher Robin - Oswald Veblen and the Six-Hundred-Acre Woods". The third chapter of his book describes Veblen's life and contributions to early computer development.

The talk will detail how Veblen's vision and initiative led to the Institute for Advanced Study acquiring some 600 acres of greenspace back in 1930s, setting the stage for later preservation efforts that led to saving the land from development. From a DR Greenway email: "Growing up in these woods, Dyson is in a unique position to recount its journey to preservation. Owned first by William Penn, then  finally to the Institute, Dyson declares, 'Veblen put the fractured pieces back together.'"

The talk is on Thursday, March 21, 2013, 7:00 - 8:30pm at the DR Greenway's Johnson Education Center. More info at

Bringing Nature and Culture Together

The poem "A Bringing Together" lists all the ways the Veblens brought different entities together, including nature and culture. How did they bring nature and culture together? Their homestead on the edge of Herrontown Woods is a particularly good example of how wildness can transition into cultivation.
The woods, particularly as one climbs up the slope of the Princeton Ridge, is filled with diabase boulders. They are beautiful in their variety and groupings in the woods.

Some of these get put to use as stepping stones.

But as one approaches the Veblen homestead (this photo's from the 1950s), they begin to be put to all sorts of uses:

long rock walls,

a more carefully built circular wall for corralling and exercising horses,
a funerary, as well as other intentional gatherings: a fish pond, the house foundation, an oval of stones around the house. One's last step before entering the house is on a large flat stone placed as a front step before the threshold. .

Wood, too, gets put to use, its stored energy channeled into heat for the fireplace beside which Elizabeth would gather friends together for tea.

The straight, rot-resistant trunks of cedar trees became the four corners of the hay barrack (left in photo), used for storing firewood.

There is a balance here, where nature is not dominated, overrun or extinguished, yet its offerings are utilized in inventive ways.