NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that I have learned to flee the irretrievable past, especially on holidays. Today, the day after Christmas, I had the privilege of guiding two friends, –Willing Hands with me at D&R Greenway,– on their first exploration of Plainsboro Preserve. This day fulfilled my inexplicable passion for visiting summer places in winter. Come with us — via Internet images, to a quarry that’s been turned into an unexpected haven.
My two favorite regions are its beechwood and the peninsula.
Deeper and deeper, –although so near Route 1–, we moved on glistening leaves into timelessness. We had no snow today, rather ice crystals and iced puddles and ice-signatured ponds and ice stars caught in moss and ice swirled with milkiness as though in an art nouveau gallery!
Our long silent trek through that wilderness of chinchilla-grey trunks held mystery, allure palpable to all three of us. A few nuthatches in the underbrush made no sound, save their soft rustling. We were glad to be beech-surrounded, for it kept this weekend’s wild winds from cheeks and noses, everything else on each of us being fully protected from elements.
Normally, the beechwood, –being a microclimate–, is 10 – 12 degrees warmer than the rest of our region in winter; that much cooler in summer. For some reason – [but of course we are not to implicate global warming] this entire forest –with one or two welcome exceptions==, had dropped all leaves now. As in maybe yesterday. Not only dropped them, but turned them the pale thin cream color they usually attain right before mid-April drop. April 15 is a long way off — when the trees need a burst of acid fertilizer to bring forth healthy crops of beech nuts. What this early leaflessness means to squirrels and other forest dwellers, I do not know. We did not really experience the temperature protection, possibly because this beechwood was bare.
Even so, off-season magic and beechwood magic persisted, enhanced as two white-tailed dear tiptoed just to our right, revealing no alarm at our very human presence.
One is most aware of McCormack Lake, former quarry, almost step of one’s explorations of this unique Preserve. Too near, lurk shopping centers and major organizational sites and whirring highways and too many condos and homes, and not enough farms. But the lake rests in this forested setting, like the Hope Diamond. I’d rather SEE this lake than the Hope Diamond.
The quarry lake was the deep smoky blue today of Maine’s October ocean. Winds were ever-present, wrinkling its surface until it resembled the cotton plisse fabric of childhood. We’d chosen the Preserve for the lake, , hoping to find winter ducks in abundance. Perhaps six small distant ones could have been buffleheads in size and coloring (varying proportions of black and white.) But ‘Buffies’ are diving ducks, and in all the time we walked the peninsula, we never saw them do anything but float like rubber duckies in a large blue bathtub. But they were charming and winsome, and their very distance-blurred field marks added to the magic.
[Tip of the Peninsula, recently ‘refreshed’, with welcome stone slab bench. But this scoured look is not the norm for this Preserve. Above our heads was a (seemingly never utilized) osprey platform. I always fret and had told them in the Audubon office that ospreys require a smaller, lower feeding platform. They do not eat their catch in the nest, for the scent could lure predators to their young. No feeding platform — no active nest, in my experience… Even so, it’s a magical place to sit and let the lake and all those unbroken reaches of forest speak to you. This is not osprey season, anyway!]
Brenda Jones’ Beaver in D&R Canal Near the Fishing Bridge
The most exciting part about the peninsula to me is that it preserves Pine Barrens flora on both sides of what is now “Maggie’s Trail.” Crusty lichen, cushy bitter green moss, cinnamon-hued oak leaves, paling sands. Think of roadsides in Island Beach, and you have that cushioned crustiness on both sides along Maggie’s Trail. Today, we had to deal with oddly ever-present sweet gum balls. Not only not Pinelands, but also way ahead of schedule. Hard to walk on – more difficult than on acorns peppering Berkshire trails in autumn. Sweet gum balls normally drop around Washington’s Birthday.
Brenda Jones Beaver Close-Up, Millstone Aqueduct
Everywhere we looked, along the main entry road and all the way to the tip of that peninsula, there was fresh beaver activity. Cascades of golden curled chips seemed still to be quivering after beavers’ midnight snacking. Everything from whip-thin birch saplings to hefty white oaks with burnt-sienna leaves lay strewn like jackstraws on either side of Maggie’s Trail. Some trees had lost only a few smidgens of bark. We wondered whether parents bring young to teach them to gnaw a few bark inches at a time. Then the creatures with the largest incisors take over. Of course, we didn’t see them, because beavers are nocturnal and we’re not!
For most of our trek, there was no sight nor sound of anything human — quite literally, my idea of heaven. Soughing, –the voice of wind in treetops–, was our companion throughout — somewhere between whispering and humming. Occasionally, a distant train whistle reminded us that centuries exist — not exactly the 21st.
Ice was everywhere — in the leaves, under the leaves, within the moss, turning puddles on the main road into a gallery of art nouveau and art deco designs. I had no camera this day, knowing I would need both hands for trekking poles with the ground itself that frozen. Sometimes, the absolute silence was broken by tinkle-crackling of invisible ice beneath leaves.
These pictures I have culled from the Internet, therefore. I hope they convey some sense of this haven lying so near to U.S.1 and Scudder’s Mill Road: (left on Dey, left on Scott’s Corner Road.) Enjoy them and let them lure you over to Plainsboro’s gem. There are wondrous child-centric programs through NJ Audubon at the handsome center. And a worthwhile nature-item gift shop. Bird feeders attract backyard birds near the building. Bluebird houses and what seem to be owl houses stud the landscape hither and yon.
MIddlesex County provides this history – I remember far more exciting realities about the former quarry, and something about space, and quarrels with locals who did not want to give up hunting and fishing rights. I provide this for those who need logistical information.
But for me, microclimate effect or no, Plainsboro Preserve is a journey of the spirit. I could hardly believe the temperature on my front door as I returned this afternoon — less than twenty degrees. For all those hours, we’d been warmed in ways that have nothing to do with mercury…
The Plainsboro Preserve is adjacent to the Scotts Corner Conservation Area that provides hiking, bird-watching, photography and nature study opportunities.
GPS Coordinates: DMS 40° 20′ 57.28″ N; 74° 33′ 25.53″ W