Monday, May 25, 2015

A Beautiful Mind

The tragic loss of John Nash and his wife Alicia in an auto accident two days ago has prompted me to complete a post about the Veblen connection in Sylvia Nasar's book, "A Beautiful Mind". A good friend of Nash's, Jim Manganaro, had given me quotes from the book that mentioned the Veblens. We had often discussed my possibly talking to Dr. Nash, to see if he had any memories of the Veblens, but we didn't quite make it happen.

After a performance two years ago at McCarter Theater of "Proof", a play that explores the connection between genius and madness,

Sylvia Nasar took part in a panel discussion. Afterwards, I asked if she might still have notes from the research she did for the book, notes that could provide some insights about the Veblens. She didn't sound optimistic about easily finding them, but it's interesting to pull some quotes from the book relevant to the Veblens.

On the first page of Chapter 3, "The Center of the Universe", describing the scene Nash found when he arrived in Princeton after WWII, Nasar writes, "May Veblen, the wife of a wealthy Princeton mathematician, Oswald Veblen, could still identify by name every single family, white and black, well to do and of modest means, in every single house in town." It's an intriguing tidbit suggesting that Elizabeth Veblen, who instituted the tradition of afternoon tea at both old Fine Hall and the Institute for Advanced Studies, may have had a central role in the town's social fabric as well.

I had not encountered any other reference to Elizabeth Veblen as "May", though my notes, perhaps from talking to Nasar, say that May was the name of one of Henry Fine's sisters.

The third chapter continues with a wonderful description of old Fine Hall, "the most luxurious building ever devoted to mathematics". After Henry Fine's tragic death, as with John Nash due to a reckless car driver, the Jones family funded the building of the original Fine Hall, "designed by Oswald Veblen".

Describing all the contributions Turing and other mathematicians with connections to Princeton made to the war effort, Nasar writes that "Oswald Veblen and several of his associates essentially rewrote the science of ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground."

"Princeton in 1948 was to mathematics what Paris once was to painters and novelists, Vienna to psychoanalysts and architects, and ancient Athens to philosophers and playwrights." This is the Princeton that Oswald Veblen had a central role in creating, a setting that attracted the likes of John Nash.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Nature/Culture Walk

On the premise that holiday weekends can sometimes have unexpected gaps, we're offering a nature and culture walk at Herrontown Woods--Sunday, May 24, at 1:30pm. Along with walking the trails and seeing what's growing, there will be talk of recent habitat restoration efforts and the mysteries of magnetism found in some of the boulders. Culture comes into play with the Veblen and farming legacies. Meet at the parking lot (it's down the short road across from Smoyer Park entrance on Snowden Lane).

The Rotary Club of Princeton includes the Veblen House at Herrontown Woods among its service projects. They're having their annual Pancake Festival fundraiser at Palmer Square this Saturday, May 23, 8am to noon. Money raised goes to community projects and scholarships. All you can eat--pancakes, fruit and bacon--for $10. Pre-K free.

A House as a Character in a Play

There's an extraordinary play at McCarter Theater in Princeton, continuing through this month, called Five Mile Lake. The five characters keep us spellbound for an hour and a half, but there's also a house that serves as a character of sorts. Like the Veblen House, it's a fixer upper in a beautiful natural setting. One character values the house, not only for its inherent value but also as the legacy of his grandfather, and puts time and money into fixing it up. His brother in the play values neither the house nor the past generation that left it in the family's trust. The Veblen project brings out that divide in perspective. In the play, the mending energy applied to the house takes on a metaphorical quality as the characters seek in each other a way to "come in from the cold".

Another fixer upper, with less prospect of repair, will figure prominently in the play that begins McCarter's new season in September, Baby Doll, by Tennessee Williams. Perhaps it can be said that all characters in plays, whether houses or human, tend to be fixer uppers.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Found Beauty--Springtime at the Veblen House

With the deep woodlands of Herrontown Woods to the west, and a small farm to the east, the grounds of Veblen House offer a transition, from field to forest and from english garden to native woodland. Though it's been decades since anyone has cared for Elizabeth Veblen's gardens, much remains. The two quince trees met their demise several years back, but the redbuds still put on an impressive show.

A clearing near the house is filled with Ajuga, a member of the mint family.

In another clearing, I found the first sprouts of ten native green-fringed orchids. I protected only one last year, having thought they might be nothing more than common lily of the valley. It grew instead into the lovely orchid, which spurred a visit this spring to protect more before the deer could find them.

In another flower bed, multiflora rose had displaced a portion of the remnant irises. Cut down during a Rotary volunteer day two years ago, the invasive rose was kept in check by the deer last year. We're leaving it as an experiment, to see if the deer do the same this year.

Earlier in the spring, daffodils made a beautiful display next to the small barn and corncrib, after FOHW board member Sally Tazelaar removed the thick tangle of multiflora rose that had grown over them.

Through all these acts, large and small, we reconnect with the love and energy that a previous generation invested in this special place in Princeton.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Walk in the Woods for K-2 Students

There was lots to see as Denise Troxel's class of K-2 students left Stone Hill Church and headed into Herrontown Woods. We saw big beech trees with smooth gray bark that looked like the feet of elephants where they touch the ground, and the yellow flowers of spicebush just beginning to open. We saw the prickly "gum balls" of sweetgum trees, and jumped from rock to rock, root to root, when the trail got a little muddy.

Then, as we were crossing the little stream flowing out of the headwaters, we peered down into the clear water. What grabbed everyone's attention? One of the special things about Herrontown Woods is that a whole little section of the Harry's Brook watershed is preserved. We were in the headwaters, a big flat expanse that catches the rain and slowly releases it into the beginnings of a stream unspoiled by development. The steady supply of clean water provides habitat for a creature found nowhere else along the Princeton ridge--the marbled salamander.

The young salamanders were first discovered earlier this spring by Tyler Christiansen, a remarkable naturalist who was featured in the documentary "Field Biologist".

We also saw water striders walking on the water, and the tiny red flowers that had fallen from a red maple just upstream.

Then we headed off-trail, past boulders made furry and speckled by moss growing on them. Dodging an occasional wood briar with its little thorns, we found the woods otherwise open and easy to walk through.

The kids scanned the woods for a vernal pool like this one, made when rainwater fills the hole left by a tree toppled years ago by a storm. It's called a vernal pool because it holds water in the spring, then disappears in the summer. Because fish don't live in them, these pools make a good place for insects to live, and for frogs and salamanders to lay their eggs. We found a few that didn't contain much life. Maybe they dry out too fast to make a good home.

Then we found a vernal pool that had all sorts of life. Water striders dimpled the surface with their legs, predatory beetles scurried about.

We found a dragonfly larva, which didn't seem to mind posing on my hand for a minute, and a spider trying to walk on the water. Spotted salamanders, rarely found anywhere else in Princeton, had visited this pool weeks earlier and laid their white clusters of eggs.

And over in the corner were clusters of wood frog eggs, made green by algae that grow on the eggs and help supply them with oxygen.

After checking out the hole high in a tree where raccoons live, the students found the trail again and headed back towards Stone Hill Church, newly acquainted with some of their little neighbors living and growing in Herrontown Woods.