DESPERATELY SEEKING SPRING

First Burst of Spring Bowman's 09

First Burst of Spring at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, Bucks County

Snow or no snow, chill or no chill, spring is inevitable.  There’s no gainsaying the Vernal Equinox.  Days lengthen.  Ground thaws.  Spring’s exquisite ephemerals (flowers that bloom only so long as the forest canopy is not leafed out) will soon be everywhere.

Bridge from Winter to Winter Bowman's 09

Bridge – From Winter TO WInter, Bowman’s

One of the privileges of hanging out with naturalists is that they know where to find first signs of spring.

first flower of spring skunk cabbage Bowman's 09

First ‘Monk’s Cowl’ — Skunk Cabbage, Bowman’s 

One of the disadvantages is that they know the names of everything, leaving you wondering if you’ll keep the difference between twinleaf and bloodroot this year.

Bloodroot at Bowmans Late Blooming April 2016 001

In early April, beech leaves pale from almost copper or caramel to the hue of palomino horses.  When they’ve turned to ivory, nearly white, they’ll fling themselves to the ground, providing acid atmosphere required for a healthy beech nut crop this year.

Paling Beech Leaves Bowman's

If you’re lucky enough to have naturalist/photographer friends, your lessons will be a merry marriage of art and science.

Toad Trillium and new-dropped beech leaves Medicinal Trail Bowmans Late Blooming April 2016

Toad Trillium Among Newly Dropped Beech Leaves

If not, you may use these images as a Field Guide to earliest ephemerals.  Let me know what you’re finding where YOU are.

Twin Leaf Emergence Bowmans Late Blooming April 2016

Twinleaf Emergence, Due Any Day Now

Tiny daffodils poked through rocks and snow this week.  Closed, they looked like lemon snowdrops.  Open, they are like stars fallen into my garden.  Rescued from yet another storm, they grace tiny green glasses on my dining room table.  So fragile in appearance — but I think they’re surviving/thriving far better than I this year!

Fern Emergence Bowman's

In ‘just spring’ (e.e.cummings), when Christmas fern has yet to resurrect…

Wandering almost every trail at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, below New Hope, in Bucks County, this weekend, we found lesser celandine — invasive, spiky gold ground-hugging flowers everywhere.  A few exclamation points of skunk cabbage presided beside the old pond and on Marsh Marigold Trail.  In one patch of rare sunlight, a spray of bloodroot insisted that we rejoice in spring.

I’m trying.

pidcock bridge from on high

The next time we cross the Civilian Conservation Corps Bridge over Pidcock Stream, we should find green emergence, and even hints of yellow.

Marsh Marigold in bloom

Meanwhile, the joy is in the quest, keeping all senses tuned to the slightest spring heralds.  Early spring miracles include delighting in our fellowship – that there are any number of strong friends who are willing to brave brisk winds and brown surrounds, together, seeking spring.

Marsh Marigold Trail in March

Marsh Marigold Trail in the Birth of Spring

Again, I ask, what are YOU finding?

 

 

 

 

 

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February Sandy Hook: Fun in the Sun and the Sands

IMG_0745

Base of Sandy Hook Light

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that I treasure winter along our magnificent Jersey coasts.  You may overlook the fact that we have three:  The Atlantic, The Delaware River; and Delaware Bay.  This is heaven for this Midwesterner, who never even saw saltwater until the summer between seventh and eighth grade.  This is troublous for one who is all too aware of sea-level rise in the twenty-first century.

Sandy Hook River-side Views with Tasha Fall 2017

Tasha O’Neill Looking Back at the Mainland from the Barrier Island that is Sandy Hook in HOT September!

Two friends willingly planned a Sandy Hook jaunt for yesterday, not really realizing that it was Valentine’s Day.  My companions that day were my former Packet editor, Ilene Dube, who insisted that I blog for her paper ages ago…, and my fine-art-photographer friend Tasha O’Neill.  I owe my first blog, NJWILD for the Packet, and its successor, NJWILDBEAUTY to Ilene – who insisted I do this, when I did not know what a blog was!

I'll take Manhattan from Sandy Hook Windy Spring 2017 004

Manhattan from Sandy Hook on a Windy Spring Day – North End of Barrier Island

We’d planned to visit Monmouth University first for three art exhibitions, especially James Fiorentino’s of Conserve Wildlife NJ.  But the sun burst out as we headed due east, and Sandy Hook won post position.Spermaceti Cove Sandy Hook Jan 2017

Spermaceti Cove and Boardwalk, High Tide, January 2017

Ilene had not known such New Jersey treasures as Little Silver and Colt’s Neck, let alone the equestrian paradise of Monmouth County.  Our drive through Rumson’s array of true mansions brought up amazing comparisons — Newport, Bar Harbor…  And then we were crossing the glinting Navesink River, the Atlantic Ocean stretching into infinity before us.  This Michigander can never believe that scene!

Verrazano and Light House Sandy Hook Spring 2017

Verrazano and Tip of Manhattan from Sandy Hook’s Northernmost Trail

January Birding Jim and Kathleen Amon Sandy Hook Salt Pond region Jan 20176

Birding Essentials: Kathleen and Jim Amon: January 2017

red throated tloon from Internet glamour_iandavies

Red-throated Loon in Winter Plumage on Pond for Amons and Me: Jan. 2017

(Internet Image)

Essential Tools Sandy Hook Jan 20167

Essential Tools for Birding Anywhere, especially Sandy Hook, especially Winter: 

David Allen Sibley

There are no fees for ‘The Hook’ in winter, and never for birders (because you’ll be hiking, not swimming, not parking at crowded beach sites of summer).  I see us tumbling like children in our eagerness to get close enough to the waves.  The ocean was a pale and delicate hue, baby-boy-blanket-blue.

Reflections of a Working Harbor Bahrs Jan. 2017 012

Working Harbor in Winter, Across Navesink from Sandy Hook Preserve

No matter where we turned, everything was pristine and exquisite.  The few sounds included mutterings of gulls and whispering waves.

Where the Rabbit Trekked Sandy Hook Jan 201

Where the Rabbit Loped, January 2017

Later, on the wast side, we would be treated to the nature sound I cherish – murmurings among a flock of brant.  These small goose-like birds, ==whose shape in the water echoes small air-craft carriers–, have only just arrived at ‘the Hook.’  They swam in determined flotillas, more tourists than residents, –zipping first here, then there, as if renewing old ties.

Brant Goose Drinking Barnegat

Brant Sipping at Low Tide, by Brenda Jones

In peaceful water, toy-like buffleheads, quintessential diving ducks, bobbed up anddown, arrived and departed, vanished and materialized with characteristic merriment.

Male Bufflehead by Ray Yeager

Ray Yeager – Key Fine Art Photographer of Winter Ducks:  Male Bufflehead

Ilene was fascinated to see all the osprey nests — some on human-built platforms; some on the chimneys of venerable yellow-brick military dwellings.  Some platforms, especially at the hawk watch platform (north), had been emptied by recent storms.

Sandy Hook Jim Kathleen Amon Spermaceti Cove Boardwalk Jan 2017

Birding Spermaceti Cove in Winter — Seals on Skull Island off to our Left

Even though it was February, a heat haze of the most exquisite soft-slate-blue obscured not only the Verrazano Bridge, but also Manhattan’s Wall Street megaliths.  Only nature was in view from the platform that day.

Sandy Hook Vista North Spring 2017

View from Hawk Watch Platform on Windy Spring Day

Grasses at Spermaceti Cove looked as though they’d been repeatedly beaten into submission by a glacier, not simply by recent high tides.  Glistening mud of the inlet’s banks was spattered with deep raccoon ‘hand’-prints, where these nocturnal mammals had washed recent foods before eating.

Fall and Winter Sandy Hook Salt Pond Region Jan 2017

Sandy Hook Marsh Grasses, January 2017

I am a realist. We are nowhere near the vernal equinox.  But, yes, days are lengthening, amazingly at both ends.

Christmas on Sandy Hook Bay Bahrs Jan. 2017

Christmas on the Navesink River from Bahrs

Yes, every once in awhile, a balminess arrives.  When three friends can celebrate together, even to feasting at Bahrs, the 100-year-old Highlands seafood restaurant high above the Navesink.  Where we could down Delaware Bay oysters and other rare treats, before taking in all three art exhibits in three different buildings at Monmouth University, without wearing coats.  Then drive home in golden light, through the Battlefield of Monmouth, without which we would not have a country.

Gastronomic Haven by the Sea Bahrs Jan. 2017

 

Birders at Bahrs Jan. 2017

When Birders Lunch at Bahrs

I cannot help wondering what our colonial heroes would think of the country they fought and many died to save, in so many New Jersey battles.  But our is a noble history.  Their pledging and/or giving their lives, their fortunes, but never their sacred honor, cannot be for naught.

Patriots' Flag Chestnut Neck Revolutionary War Monument Winter 2017

Patriots’ Flag at Site of Battle of Chestnut Neck, in Pine Barrens

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From start to finish, Mother Nature herself had given Ilene, Tasha and me treasured Valentines.  The red and white, however, decorated Sandy Hook’s Storied Light, rather than hearts.  Lighthouses and 13-Star Flags, however, always warm MY heart.  I hope they warm YOURS!

Try beaches in winter!

Lifesavers' Station darkened

Sandy Hook’s Heroic Lifesaving Station

And preserve every inch of open and historic space in magnificent New Jersey!

 

Tasha Carolyn Bahrs Sandy Hook April

Tasha and I on her COLD April Birthday — at Bahrs, Sandy Hook Behind Us…

 

 

“DUCKY DAY AT ISLAND BEACH”, JANUARY 2018

This post features a series of images of rare birds found with good friends, on last weekend’s Island Beach hikes.  Yes, it was January.  Yes, there’s been wild weather.  Know that part of the lure in winter hiking lies in defying the elements, –being OUT THERE with Nature, no matter what!  And, besides, with such friendships of this magnitude, only the highest good unfurls.

Merganser male Millstone Aqueduct Brenda Jones

Merganser Male, by Brenda Jones

A series of Internet scenes of our rarities awaits — so you can see why it really didn’t matter that we did not fulfill our snowy-owl-quest this time.

***

So long as I’ve been writing about nature, I’ve been ‘on my soapbox’ that Nature does not ring down her curtain on or around Labor Day.  Those of you who hike with me know that possibly my FAVORITE season to be outdoors is winter.  It hasn’t been easy lately, but NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that we had a glorious day-long exploration of Plainsboro Preserve not long ago, threading our way among glorious arrays of ice.

common loon winter plumage from Internet

Common Loon, Winter Plumage by Elisa De Levis from Internet

This past weekend, Ray Yeager, Angela Previte (superb nature photographers who live near Island Beach); Angela’s husband, Bob, -avid birder and extremely knowledge about all aspects of photography; ‘my” Intrepids, Jeanette Hooban and Bill Rawlyk and I met at the entry of Island Beach for a mid-day-long snowy owl quest.

common loon winter take-off from Internet

Loon Take-off from Internet by Dave Hawkins from Internet

Despite our January reality, a handy aspect of I.B. treks is that, –on windy and wintry days–, you can ‘hike sideways’.  I.e., get out of the wind by taking various oceanside and bayside trails, protected from gusts by dunes or forest or both .  If you Google Island Beach, on NJWILSBEAUTY, you’ll find Bill, Jeanette, Mary Penney and me down there, in an autumn nor’easter about which none of us had somehow been warned.  That storm grew more and more fierce, as we and a flock of playful merlins headed as far east as we possibly could.   Those merlins were beating their way right into the height of those terrific winds.  They executed abrupt and daring turns, to be intentionally blown back westward , right out over the bay.  No sooner did the merlins vanish than they reappeared.  We had no idea that birds, raptors, let alone merlins, PLAYED.  In that same torrent of winds, and, yes, rain, hundreds of swallows were staging for migration.  If we hadn’t been out in the elements, think what we’d’ve missed!

It didn’t take us long last weekend to discover that snowy owls do not like warmth, let alone snowlessness.

smiling Common MerganserFemale Brenda Jones

Female Merganser by Brenda Jones

Instead, we were given, –at the first bathing pavilion’s short boardwalk–.  a smooth, rotund, swelling ocean, afloat with winter ducks of many species, all in dazzling winter plumage, otherwise known as full=breeding.  Species after species of wild birds rose and fell upon voluminous swells.  Each had the dignity of a monarch en route to or from coronation,.  These birds were not feeding.  They were not even interacting.  Few were flying, though some did regularly join their relatives on that sea of molten jade.    Hundreds rode the pillowy waves, which seemed almost determined not to crest or break.  Mesmerized by the variety and serenity of these avian crowds, we paced back and forth on the warm solid sand for nearly an hour, enthralled.

bufflehead Brenda JonesMale Bufflehead by Brenda Jones.

I’m going to shock and/or let down a great many people when I say I had no need of a snowy owl that day.

long-tailed ducks in flight from Internet Ken hoehn

Long-tailed ducks coming in for a landing by Ken Hoehn – papillophotos.com

We talked about the probability that the bird seen by naturalist Bill Rawlyk at entry may well have been a northern shrike, feeding at the crest of a laden bayberry shrub.  Some years ago, at this identical spot, I had discovered this unique creature, being at I.B. then on a Bohemian waxwing quest.  I had no idea what that ‘masked mocking bird’ could be. Calling Audubon when I returned home, describing the scrubby evergreens and bountiful bayberries, I was congratulated upon having found a northeren shrike.  It happened again the next year at the same spot.  Each time, the Audubon person asked my permission to list my find on the hot-line.  Of course, this amateur birder gave a very pleased assent  This weekend, Bill remarked on a certain intensity in the bird — slightly heftier, a bit whiter, an arrogance not seen in mockers.  But it was the bayberry bush that decided us — major winter food for (otherwise almost chillingly carnivorous) shrikes..    Part of the fun of being with this merry crew of enthusiasts  is playing the identification game.

female long-tailed duck from internet

Female long-tailed duck in winter/full-breeding plumage from Internet

Other trails that lured us that long sunny afternoon were the Judge’s Shack (#12) and Spizzle Creek.  In no time, we had tucked our jackets, hats and gloves back into the cars.  Most were beginning to regret not having remembered our sun block — all but the two professional photographersg us.  Ray and Angela were having a field day with their immense legends, capturing so many species so gently afloat.  I’ll let them share their masterpieces on Facebook and Ray’s RayYeagerPhotographyBlog.  I’ll give you the Internet:

male long-tailed duck from INternet

Male long-tailed duck in winter plumage, full-breeding plumage, from Internet

Snow was rare.  Ice intriguing.  At Spizzle Creek, we were all acutely missing ‘our’ osprey, egrets and herons of other seasons.  Our gift there, though, was the presence of handsome brant.  In our experience lately, brant sightings have become scarce.  Certain essential grasses are not doing well along our coasts, which also happened during the Great Depression years — nearly depriving us of this handsome species.

Brant Goose Drinking BarnegatBrant Feeding, by Brenda Jones

northern-shrike-from internet

Deceptively sweet northern shrike probably seen by Bill Rawlyk on Bayberry at Island Beach entry — image from Internet: (RD)

When I tell people about our January beachwalks, my listeners seem puzzled-to-skeptical.  We couldn’t have had better weather.  Fellowship was at peak throughout.  Angela’s husband, Bob, kindly served as sentinel for all the camera-wielders — alerting all as tide-thrust waves threatened to drown our footgear.  Warm we were, but not even Jeanette was barefoot this time.

Angela and Ray knew exactly where to seek 1918’s array of snowy owls.  But, after that all-star cast adrift upon molten silver waves,  snowies had become “the last thing on our minds.”

Try winter trekking — surprises await!

Always remember, these rare species could not be here without the powerful advocacy of determined preservationists.  Even though I work for D&R Greenway Land Trust, I’m very clear that the saving of our waterways is every bit as important.

In fact, I take the stand that, in our New Jersey, with its unique three (count them!) coastlines, the well-being of water is a thousand times more crucialUnder NO CIRCUMSTANCES must even one oil well take its place off our Shores!

 

 

“TO BUILD A FIRE”

That was a favorite short story in my schooldays, for this person who (apart from Hem) is not that fond of short stories.  In this run of gelid days, learning to make fire as did the Apaches, with Tom Brown, Tracker, who had been taught by his friend’s grandfather, Stalking Wolf, of the Oklahoma Apaches, comes sharply back to memory.

It took me any number of days to achieve this in 1983.  Every break we had from day and night tracking lectures and practices, I went off in a corner and worked with that stout stick and the woodblock into which it had to fit so perfectly.

I thought no one knew I was doing this.  I thought everyone else had already made fire.  I was not going home from Tracker School without having achieved this major skill.  Boy Scouts of ten years of age had managed it in less than a half hour…  I was then in my forties, being not at all handy with that heavy, unwieldy, essential Buck knife.

When the spark finally glowed, there was a great cheer.  Tom and all his Trackers had been standing behind me in a circle, one with a strong hand and arm coming to my aid to keep the key elements in contact in the last crucial seconds.  I admit tears…

O, yes.  After that, many people went off into corners to continue learning to make fire…

 

TO BUILD A FIRE

[for Tom Brown, Tracker,

Tracker School,  Summer 1983]

craft

with your big Buck knife

a stout stick

then work the pale woodblock

removing anything extra

 

pare

a smooth deep cone

which must exactly match

the stick’s new girth

 

kneel

upon needles and pine duff

— a hand-sized clutch

of some plant’s inner softness

near at hand

 

roll

the smoothed pine

between determined hands

faster, faster!

pay no attention

to your trembling knees

 

watch

for first white smoke

but do not stop

 

press on

until

the block glows red

 

quickly!

surround

your fiery gem

with plant fluff

careful

not to breathe too hard

 

make a whistle of your mouth

using will and skill

exhale the long breaths

waiting all these years

only for this fire

 

 

CAROLYN FOOTE EDELMANN

August 28/September 3,2004

 

PRESERVED BY NATURE, Yet Again

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.

Day is Done Plainsboro Preserve

My two favorite regions are its beechwood and the peninsula.

plainsboro-preserve snow scene from Internet

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.

DCIM101GOPRO

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.

Bufflehead Dapper Princeton Brenda Jones

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.

land's end Plainsboro Preserve peninsula onto quarry lake

[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!]

Beaver Brenda Jones

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.

beaver close-up Brenda Jones

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!

Plainsboro Preserve Trail early spring

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.

Plainsboro Preserve Fulness of the Empty Season

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.

Plainsboro Preserve Leaflessness and Lake

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.

Tranquillity Base, PlnsPrsrv credot Harrington

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…

 Plainsboro Preserve in Early Summer via Middlesex County Site:
A scenic view of the lake located within the Plainsboro Preserve.

​The Plainsboro Preserve is a cooperative project between the County of Middlesex, Township of Plainsboro and New Jersey Audubon Society.   In 1999, 530 acres of land formerly owned by the Turkey Island Corporation and Walker Gordon Laboratory Company were acquired by the County and Township.  Middlesex County purchased and owns 401 acres and provided a grant to the Township of Plainsboro for the purchase of an additional 126 acres.  In 2003, the County purchased 126 acres of the former Perrine Tract to add to the Preserve.   The Township added additional land to grow the Preserve and currently maintains responsibility for management of the County-owned portions.

At over 1,000 acres, the Preserve supports a diverse array of habitats and the 50-acre McCormak Lake, with over five miles of hiking trails for hikers, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.  The New Jersey Audubon Society manages the Preserve and a 6500 square-foot environmental education center, providing year-round environmental education opportunities. 
For more information on hours and programs, please visit the New Jersey Audubon Society at their website.

The Plainsboro Preserve is adjacent to the Scotts Corner Conservation Area that provides hiking, bird-watching, photography and nature study opportunities.

Location: 80 Scotts Corner Road, Cranbury, NJ  08512
GPS Coordinates:  DMS 40° 20′ 57.28″ N; 74° 33′ 25.53″ W
Facilities: NJ Audubon Environmental Education Center; Parking Area; Bathrooms; Hiking Trails  
Plainsboro Preserve Sign courtesy of Novo Nordisk 

“STAR-GUIDED” – a Christmas Fable

Long ago, when I lived in New Hope, this story came to me as a dream.  I typed it (no computers yet), hoping someday to publish it, among a series of Transition Tales.  Life overtook me in one way and another, so that dream has not (yet) been realized.  On this Solstice Night, the night of the return of the light, the beginning of the season of miracles, I give you my “Star-Guided”, wrapped in starlight and stardust.  (In those days, my splendid Himalayan cat was “Stardance.”) May this story make your hearts dance.

STAR-GUIDED

We are striding Bethlehem’s dark streets with curious urgency.  We know where we are headed, although none has been to Bethlehem-of-Judea before this electric night.  All is eerily still, the entire town asleep save for our small band of travelers.  The streets here are like mazes.  They are rough underfoot.

I walk gingerly, afraid of turning an ankle in our haste.  My tall daughter, Catherine, strides beside me.  Each of us is impeded by a long light traveling dress and thicker cloak, which stir up street dust as we go.  Upon our feet are leathern slippers too fragile for such journeying.  Her companion, the knight, Galen, is safe enough, encased as he is in bright armor.  Merlin shuffles, as always.  His robes, as are his habit, are askew.  His hair is all-a-tumble.  Every so often, his starred cap tumbles off, and he scurries back through the dark dust to retrieve it.  Merlin, mercifully, carries a pole with a swinging lantern.  Its fat yellowed candle casts pools of honeyed light before our feet.  When he is not chasing his hat, the Merlin cheerfully leads our procession.

The dwellings, what I can see of them, seem sculpted of clay.  They have a pink-grey cast by lamplight.  The moon this night is somehow obscured.  There are a few stars, which deepen our shadows, purple against the sand-hued roads.

We are responding to an unfamiliar star.  Either because it is lower or simply brighter than the rest, it seems to be playing a game with us.  If we start to take a turn that is not right, that star flutters and dims.  When we turn in the correct direction, the star grows steadier, more intense.

n this way, we find ourselves at a nondescript hostelry.  Jarring sounds of revelry spill into its courtyard, startling after all the silence of the town.  Out in back, where Merlin leads us almost stealthily, quiet reigns.  In this dusky quarter, I am increasingly grateful for his lantern.

The Wizard lifts his light on high, revealing a small outbuilding.  In its dim interior, I can just make out the form of a very young woman, seated next to a low wooden container lined with straw.  From the center of that straw emanates a mysterious glow, soft as candlelight but much steadier.

I realize Whom and what we have been seeking.  My knees are trembling.  All of my being is drawn to that hushed glow.

I am startled by the young Mother’s youth.  She is not much in years beyond my tall teen-aged Catherine.  Petite, slender, the woman of Judea looks too frail and much too inexperienced to be anyone’s mother.  Let alone…!

hind her, nearly hidden in shadow, is the man who must be her husband.  He looks more like a kindly uncle.  “Joseph,” I think, “seems a bit confused.  More like Merlin’s usual mode.  Merlin, on the contrary, tonight is clear as bells.”

Joseph seems a good deal older than Mary.  It may be just the differences, — in background, in training.  He is fulfilling his role as guardian.  Yet he is not of her milieu.  Most of what has been happening to him in recent months must have been baffling.  Nonetheless, as we all must do, the man trusts and serves.  I feel deep empathy for all that lies before him.

And I am awash in compassion for Mary.  Perhaps because of Merlin’s presence, I can read this girl’s emotions.  I never before suspected her profound loneliness.  Her cross is not only that she has born this wondrous Child only to lose Him.  Her cross is that she must carry out all to which she has agreed, isolated from all who understand.  All those who had taught, those who could reassure, are far, far from this stableyard.

Although the Flight unto Egypt has always before seemed a terrible ordeal for parents and child, I now see it as blessing.  Once there, she will discover for a few years, those who know the full story of this rare family and its many destinations.  Yet on this night, and throughout so many of her recent years, with the exception of one small mentor in the Temple, Mary has been in exile.

The Child lies sleeping on golden hay, meant to nourish creatures of the Inn’s farmyard.  The very grasses emit rays.

We are all drawn to our knees, as much by Mary’s courage and serene obedience, as by the Presence of the Babe.  The gleam of Merlin’s lantern flitters across the Baby’s eyes, waking Him.  He blinks and an almost-smile plays across the Infant features, as light rays play like rainbows across the tiny face.  He waves tiny hands as though to catch the Wizard’s glimmers.

Joseph rouses himself, suddenly aware that they have visitors.  Drowsily he waves a greeting, then retires to the darkest corner of the stable.  It is as though, with us among them, that tired traveler can rest.  He has endured so much, without understanding, without complaint.  Joseph’s role is merely to love and to protect.  It is enough.  The man’s legs now, literally, give out beneath him.  He settles onto straw bales for his sleep.

My eyes, accustomed now to gloom, become aware of cattle.  Nestled behind a barrier of wood, their breath steams in the night air.  These cows have huge bittersweet eyes, that seem to widen as the Baby moves His tiny hands.  Their skin is the hue of milk chocolate.  There are smaller creatures here with us – sheep, and delicate, silky goats.  I don’t remember goats at that Stable, but here they are – dainty, with long hair and perky faces, hooves like the dancing princesses, like the ones who prance through meadows above Zermatt.  The goat’s eyes are cinder-bright.  Their cloaks gleam in the lanternlight and Infant-glow.  I feel warmed by the gaze, the breath, the presence of the barnyard creatures.  About our feet are hens, too, scratching at straws, searching diligently as close as they can be to the Child.

Outside, somehow, the skies grow brighter.  It becomes increasingly easy to see.

Merlin rises and approaches the child/woman who guards the rough manger.  He fumbles in that voluminous wiry beard.  “I know it was here when I came!,” he growls, in his absent way.  “Sorry, Madame, it won’t be but a moment.”  Then the old man pulls out one of the tiniest living creatures I have ever seen.  A miniscule saw-whet owl, it is not so big as one of Mary’s hands, folded in her slender lap.  The tall Wizard bends, cupping the owl in both gnarled palms.  The creature snuggles daintily onto Mary’s right shoulder, nuzzling into her corn-silk hair.  Mary looks obviously enchanted with Merlin’s gift.  As she claps her hands with delight, we are all aware of her own nearness to childhood.

Galen next moves.  In his silvery armor, helmet in the crook of his left arm, the boy kneels, formal as he would have been in the Initiation ceremonies.  The plume of his hat dances, catching the Baby’s dark eyes.  It is then that light from Merlin’s lantern falls upon the gilt cross on Galen’s silvery breast.  The Babe is riveted to that image, reaching out, then still.  All time stops.

Galen breaks the spell with his mellifluous voice:  “Crystals I bring,” says the lad.  He lays bright offerings into Mary’s slender hands with a caressing gesture.  I am reminded of a game we played as boys and girls – “Button-Button.”  Then, prayer-shaped hands cradled a button secretly into someone’s matching hands.  Everyone then was to guess whose hands held the gift.

“These crystals are for you, Maria,” Galen explains, slipping into her Latin name, as though from long familiarity.  “Hold them,” he instructs.  “Bring the Light with them, to warm, to comfort, the Babe, yourself.  You will be needing them upon your journey.  For the duration of your time in this place, lay them in His cradle as He lies.”

Mary lifts up first one angled crystal, then another, turning them this way and that, in starlight, in lamplight.  She runs attuned fingers over every facet, studies all the power dancing in their depths.  Mary reaches out her right hand, — crystals and all –, touching Galen, light as a kiss, on each cheek.

It is my daughter’s turn.  In her soft dress and flowing cloak, my daughter has a new queenliness I had not before acknowledged.  She towers over the young Mother.  Catherine’s towhead tresses seem to glow, against the darker gold of Mary’s hair.  As Catherine leans over the Baby, taking one of His tiny hands into her own, her long hair brushes His little face.  Something like a smile flitters over Him, as though it tickled, and there is a sound, very like new laughter.

Suddenly, in the icy stillness of that Bethlehem night, Catherine lifts her voice in song.  We are startled, all of us, by the pure notes in the clear cold air.  The songs sound ancient – Medieval, I would guess, or Welsh.  Starlight skitters among us, and I think of music of the spheres.  I realize, my daughter is singing the first Christmas Carols.

The Infant turns, then, from Catherine to the rest of us.  His eyes are not only dark, but also golden.  The only name for that color is “toffee”, for that includes their uncanny softness.  I watch the Child watch us.  He knows who we are.  He has expected us.  Through His awareness, I realize that we fill the role of cosmic “Magi”, Merlin above all, first visitors to honor this rare King, until the other Kings arrive.  They will be accompanied by very earthy camels, guided by their own heavenly voices and specialized stars.

Through those gilded eyes, I see the Baby’s emotions, as I could his Mother’s.  There is something familiar yet unknown in those bronze depths.  The only name I can give for this is shock.  So must we all have looked, first opening to Earth Plane, realizing our choices, recognizing companions…

Peace floods the stable.  We bask in unconditional love.  Then the Child, once again, sights the cross on Galen’s armor.  The newborn hands open.  Where light rays had poured, when he’d reached up to play with Catherine’s bright hair, now there are shadows.  I recognize those shadows – somewhere between bruise and blood.  Stigmata.  I turn at once toward Mary.  Her sweet eyes are riveted upon those hands.

I have not given a gift.  My own hands have been seriously emptied by life, by the times.  I rise, then, move instinctively to Mary.  I embrace her girlish shoulders, as I would any new mother.  “How wonderful you are!,” I murmur.  “How brave!  Such a beautiful Son!”  All the phrases women have said to each other at such moments from the dawn of language, we exchange.  At the end, I add, “I wish you joy.”

She looks up with a plea I fully hear.

“You are weary, Mary.  It is time for your rest.  You cannot keep vigil all night, every night, alone.  He is safe here, safe with us.  Go.  Go over to your Joseph.  Sleep.  We will watch the night with your precious Boy.”

She looks hesitantly from one of us to the other, as if to gain permission.  All of us are nodding in permission, the stately Merlin above all.  He retrieves Strigi, the little saw-whet owl, and actually shoos Mary over toward the corner.  She looks back at her Little One, still not sure.  He stirs, restlessly.

I reach down, lift up the Child, cradling him easily upon one hip.  It all comes back.  The awkwardness I knew with my own firstborn, this surety now.  How grateful I had been , in those long-ago days, for practiced arms, arms that were sure and even relaxed around my daughters.  The Baby senses my ease, curling naturally against my side.  Mary looks relieved and moves, indeed, toward Joseph.  My second-born rises and removes her periwinkle-blue cloak.

“Mary,” Catherine urges, “here.  Please cover yourself with this.  And sleep.  Deeply and well.  Dream of all the joys you will have, He and you together.”  Mary smiles up at my daughter, accepting the soft warmth.  She lifts her right hand in a good-night gesture, revealing the sparks of Galen’s crystals.

I settle the Infant lightly into the crook of my left arm.  He curls a tiny hand naturally, instinctively, around my forefinger.  He is rest itself.  A soft light radiates from the small body, merging with the light of Merlin’s lantern and the spill of stars.  In hushed tones, Catherine and Galen begin to sing lullabyes.

Dawn light comes all too soon.  Outside, in rustling trees that sound like palms, birds I do not know begin to call to one another.  In the inn courtyard, there is the jangle and clatter of first departing travelers.  We overhear inquiring voices, simple country accents.  These will be the shepherds, asking as they have been led to ask.

Skies overhead fill with angels, glorias.  Our vigil is rapidly ending.

Catherine and Galen move swiftly, tenderly to the sleeping Family.  They urge the young parents to rise, help them smooth and brush their clothing.  Merlin provides water in a generous metal dipper.  Mary gracefully removes my daughter’s travel cloak, clasping it about Catherine’s lofty neck.  “Thank you,” Mary whispers.  “I shall never forget your songs, your cloak.  There will come a time when you may require the same of me.  Call upon me.  Remember…”

I settle the Babe into His Mother’s eager arms.  Her look of joy wars with full realization, of all that has been foretold.  Mary presses her cheek against my own, nodding in silent gratitude.  She resumes her post.  Joseph stands sturdily behind her, one hand on the staff which helped to bring them to this haven.  The Baby nuzzles, urgently, begins to nurse.

There is the rustle of straw as shepherds kneel.

h Merlin in the lead, we all fade into, then out of the stable shadows.  I give the silken goats a lingering caress as we depart.

 

Assateague / Chincoteague — “Paradise Enow…”

“October’s bright blue weather” suffused Jeanette Hooban’s, Janet Black’s and my recent Chincoteague (Virginia) sojourn, start-to-finish.

Bare Fppt[romts om samds pf Assateague

Our first evening stroll on unpopulated Assateague, barrier island protecting Chincoteague from the mighty ocean, brought sunset-tinged seafoam and a beach upon which every footprint was a bare one!

In case you think, “Well, what else is new,” be aware of the season of our visit:

Bookstore Halloween ChincoteagueBookstore Book Pumpkin ChincoteagueA REAL bookstore, set for All Hallow’s Eve

Of course, most people go to Chincoteague for the ponies.  We dutifully admired them, from the water on a sunset small shallow boat tour, and from the land on a morning bus tour.

Ponies of Paradise at Sundown Assateague. jpg

Ponies at Sundown with SUPERB Cap’n. Dan — his tour worth our entire trip!

 

A Pony's Life - Forever Feeding AssateaguePony-life: Forever Feeding:  Ponies by land, Aassateague Nature Center Bus Tour

At nearly October-end, we were in the ocean, happily, eagerly, lengthily — especially Jeanette, who swam, swam, swam as wavelets turned pink around her. It was a mite cooler on the finer day, so beachcombing took over:

 

Jeanette Beachcombing Assateague

 

Janet Contentment AssateagueContentment Personified: Janet Black at Beach

We’re all avid readers.  We’d rented (and I’d actually bargained for them!) these sturdy chairs so we could read by the sea.  But we could barely lower our eyes to any page, given the sun’s many-colored-dreamcoat and those effects altering each wave.

Jeanette First Sunset Assateague Chincoteague Causeway

Jeanette and Irresistible Sunset(s) – on Bridge from Assateague back to Chincoteague

 

Edenic Morning Assateague

We, of course, were there for the birds — Egrets of Eden

Mornings were amazing — a series of early views:

Morning in Chincoteague Phragmites

First View of Each Day from my room at Assateague Inn, on Chincoteague

 

Dawn Picnic Site Assateague Inn and creek Chincoteague

Dawn Picnic Site, Creek and Marsh, Assateague Inn

Essence of Chincoteague at dawn

Essence of These Islands – Crab Shell of Dawn

 

Salicornia Ripening Chincoteague

Essence of Autumn in the Salt Marsh – Salicornia Ripening

 

Dawn at Assateague LIght October

Assateague Light House Outbuilding at Dawn

 

Leaf Calligraphy near Assateague LIghtAutumn’s Calligraphy at Assateague Light

 

October Blue Sky A Assateague LIghtOctober’s Bright Blue Weather Sets Off Assateague Light

 

Dawn LIght in Loblolly Pines AssateagueDawn Light in a Loblolly Forest

 

Not in Kansas..Assateague LIghthouse Keeper Home“Not in Kansas Any More…” Lighthouse–Keeper Dwelling

 

Assateague Memorial to Watermen

Barrier Island Realities

 

Sunset Feeders Assateague

Sunset Feeders, Assateague

 

Sunset Water Tour Assateague Chincoteague1

Cap’n. Dan’s Magical Mystery Tour at Sundown — Worth the Entire Trip

Best tour – Cap’n. Dan’s Sunset Cruise from Chincoteague Harbor

Best food – Bill’s Prime — three meals a day — one time we ate breakfast then dinner there — traditional and rare seafood, and remarkably personable service

Charm of Assateague Inn — quiet, on creek, with picnic table, silence, early light, little boardwalk, near Assateague Island, on quiet side of Chincoteague

Most famous food: Chincoteague oysters

Most people’s reason for being here: wild ponies, and Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague” and sequels

Favorite tour experience — Chincoteague Museum – this will appear in an entire blog to itself

Rarest animal: plump and saucy Delmarva Squirrel – one welcomed us in Assateague Light forest — but we are bedeviled enough by Princeton and Lawrenceville squirrels not to have appreciated its rarity until after the Nature Center bus tour.