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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the February 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Celebrating Nature, Next Door
What I require of nature is limitlessness. The more
hours I expend in corporate halls, the more urgent this need. What
continues to amaze me about New Jersey is that limitlessness is still
within reach — requiring very little investment of time or driving;
and often none of money.
Plainsboro Preserve is one example of New Jersey at its best —
long, generous trails (five miles at last count) through 630 acres
of woods, where nothing manmade is encountered for great swathes of
time. Take yourself over there on any weekend, in any season, even
at lunch hour. You may share your walk with a fellow explorer or two,
but you will not feel crowded. Be sure you’re well shod, no matter
the season, because this is not only woodland, but can approach wetland.
Trails are clear, well-maintained, and easy to follow. Even so, given
this year’s record snows, it could be mud-time for some time to come.
Whatever the conditions, this place is worthy of the journey.
To reach the Preserve from Route 1 north, take Scudder’s Mill Road.
Turn left onto Dey Road (north, towards Cranbury). Go to Scott’s Corner
Road signal and turn left. Scott’s Corner Road will take you past
Plainsboro Park, then on to Plainsboro Preserve, our new regional
haven. Although there is industrial history here, it already seems
remote. Nature has been allowed to renew herself, thanks to cooperation
among the County of Middlesex, the Township of Plainsboro, and the
New Jersey Audubon Society.
The Preserve’s not yet completed Nature and Education Center rises
on the eastern shore of broad McCormack Lake. As yet, it gives off
a sense of belonging and not belonging. Until its official opening,
anticipated for late April, the preserve’s staff — Brian Vernachio,
sanctuary director, and Tara Miller, teacher-naturalist — are
housed in a temporary trailer. Visitors can stop in here for trail
maps between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. There is also a limited
inventory of books and birdseed along with schedules and information
on programs and volunteer opportunities.
But one does not enter this preserve for bricks and mortar, not even
when handsomely reflected in a bright blue lake. One goes for woods,
birds, and the trails — narrow and wide; circuitous and straight;
blazed Crayola red and yellow. Recent snow offers a mosaic of deer
hooves, rabbit feet, and the long straight signatures of cross-country
skis. No bike tire marks and no pet paws: bikes and pets are not welcome.
One goes to the Plainsboro Preserve to escape the sounds and smells
of "civilization." There could well be a placard at the gate
reading, "Abandon fumes, all ye who enter here." Here is a
place to take deep cleansing breaths of undiminished air. Park in
the muddy, rutted lot more accustomed to construction vehicles than
nature buffs. Thread carefully between puddles and gate. Prepare to
On a recent outing, we were escorted along Dey Road by a red-tailed
hawk, high and saucy above empty fields. At the preserve’s parking
area, a rare American kestrel welcomed us. Formerly known as "Sparrow
Hawk," this vivid jay-sized creature flitted about, as if alert
us to attractions not to be missed. I have little patience with written
nature descriptions, preferring experience. But there is an informative
kiosk with guidelines to best Preserve use.
We strode; we tromped. Occasionally certain drifts that topped our
boots caused us to lift our legs in march step. It was like being
children, with no adults about to watch our flounderings. There was
added electricity from being out in wind and weather that tends to
keep people by the fire, book in hand.
Woods abound in this young preserve, although the trees
are slender and not yet mature. Here and there an evocative large
trunk leads to musings upon ancient times. A 1982 archaeological dig
on nearby Scudders Mill Road revealed artifacts of a permanent settlement
during the late archaic period. Carbon dating pointed to 3,700 years
ago. Knives, charred nuts, hammers, fish spears, and projectile points
were tucked in among evidence of 25-foot-long oval structures. Finds
of this nature are rare. They are links to the Unami, a tribe of Lenape
Indians; who, in turn, are proud members of the larger group, the
Delaware. We run into their story, their sacred lands, all along the
D&R Towpath, right down into Trenton.
Moving ahead to the 1600s, lands near the Plainsboro Preserve were
in Dutch hands. They had moved, then as now, from New Amsterdam, now
christened New York City. English also settled here. Farming was paramount
with early settlers, fertile soil still being a hallmark of the region.
The Plainsboro Historical Society reports, "the rest of the Township
was mostly potato and general cropland, with a fertility level ranked
with the best in eastern America." This was the main thrust of
Plainsboro, until April 14, 1969. This date marked the ascendance
of Harold Britton and Lincoln Properties: developers of Fox Run, Deer
Creek, Ravens Crest, etc. — named as ever for critters more-or-less
Trail maps are not required reading at the Plainsboro Preserve, because
trails are so clearly marked; they follow the gentle contours around
the 50-acre McCormack Lake. Once upon a time, this body of water was
McCormack Sandpit; now it is the centerpiece of the Preserve. On a
recent chilly walk, the lake was nearly frozen solid. This had happened
rapidly enough that the entire surface remained sapphire blue rather
than the gray-white of the rest of winter’s palette.
The vivid color decoyed hundreds of passing geese, frantic for open
water. From on high, they would spot the bright blue and start a descending
circle. Fanning wide wings, they would drop landing gear, only to
take off abruptly at the very last minute. What looked to be open
from aloft was dazzling ice, hard as concrete. What little free water
existed was already jammed with other birds.
In other seasons this lake can be empty and cerulean as Yellowstone’s
Morning Glory Pool. In fall it is studded so densely with waterfowl
that you cannot glimpse the autumn reflections. Frequently, you can
focus on a dapper band of black and white buffleheads. And be reminded
that the last two times you encountered these rare ducks were at New
Jersey’s opposite poles — Sandy Hook and Cape May. You might be
there when mergansers are meandering. Some report osprey, even a barnacle
goose. You never know what gifts await at any hour, in any season.
The contours of the Preserve are gentle and soothing to body and spirit.
Although one is never far enough from trains around here, all other
man-made sounds are mercifully muted. This walk might take an hour
of your time, if you drag your feet. Or longer, if you’re determined,
as we were, to decide whether there might be a tree sparrow in among
the white-throats. If you’re very lucky, winter’s sprightly yellow-rumped
warblers will flash their eponymous coins at you. They seem actually
to enjoy humans — half bouncing, half flying just ahead of you,
an honor guard just out of reach. Their voices are merry, light-hearted
among the empty trees. Slate-colored juncoes will add their sooty
tones and snappy white accessories, especially to the winter scene.
You can turn your attention fruitfully to Plainsboro
Preserve’s vegetation. Stately water birch curls at lake edge. You
can check out the season’s bayberry crop. This fragrant waxy fruit
provides prime migration fuel, especially for warblers. You will be
scolded by squirrels; announced by crows and jays. You will study
the gray and coralline tufted titmouse; hear the thunder of unseen
woodpeckers contrast with the silence of a nuthatch, bobbing determinedly
down a dark wet trunk. Reports of river otter and coyote intrigue
— I have yet to be blessed with the sight of these.
The Preserve hosts 10 rare or threatened plant species. For one, —
thought to have been extirpated in New Jersey — this is its only
home: the slender milfoil. Other rare residents are bladderworts,
southern twayblade orchid, and soapwort gentian.
The Preserve’s beech wood can be especially alluring in autumn. When
every other species had changed its robe, beeches remained sharply
green, shimmering, evocative of unlikely seasons. In December, the
frilled bark of euonymus shrubs cups light snow. So far as your eye
can see, are trees beyond trees beyond trees. Limitlessness.
You will have to decide between road and trails, especially in winter.
Trails can be oddly snow-free, despite cover in the understory. Downed
brown leaves must hold sufficient warmth to melt flakes. However,
that lake road can thaw and freeze until studded with mini-rinks.
It is always broad, alluring. Follow it west, north, then east onto
a small peninsula. This Florida-shaped spit of land is ideal for spying
The wooded trails are narrower, newer, precisely bordered by downed
saplings. On a December trek, felled boundaries were frosted with
granular snow. In late October and early November, trails are cushioned
by remnants from whatever trees gave up their leaf-ghosts the night
before. In colors so glorious, you could be walking through a Far
East bazaar, rug merchants flinging samples before you — now golden,
then rosy, sturdy green-brown, and finally crimson.
Maple carpets sound different from oak and sweetgum — thinner,
crinklier. In late December you walk upon the pink-beige of prematurely
dropped beech leaves, then among the toastiness of oak. Also early
in dropping this year were sweet gum balls — scattered spiky balls
as dark as cinnamon. Here and there, a short stump trunk embraces
snow, like a kettle awaiting hot maple syrup and a pickle or two,
as in Vermont in March. In the middle of a trail spurts a single male
holly, solely green — no red-berried female in sight.
On the Preserve’s well-maintained trails, blaze marks
are generous (red ones too bloody for my taste). At one trail’s end,
you’ll be moving along at a great clip when sudden orange cones defy
further progress. Beyond the end of the trail and well off official
Preserve property, you may see something very odd: a silver cone,
at least two stories tall, the remnants of a defunct nuclear reactor.
The sight startles. Here one has been away so long from anything man-made
— eyes, ears, nose, and spirit all treated to the sylvan and the
generous. Borders, strictures, and those unlikely cones — so much
a part of our everyday life — had been forgotten.
Turn and follow new trail blazes, this time marked by honeybee yellow.
A slender doe may erupt into your privacy, unlikely as a unicorn.
She’ll be part shy, part proprietary. You’ll tell her she’s beautiful,
and she will graciously share her domain. Then, eerily silent, despite
crisp leaf-fall, she will process — a young monarch — into
Before you, all across the Preserve’s broad lake, Canada geese beyond
counting serenely defy pursuit by nearby, audible hunters. Overhead,
in winter, snowgeese beyond counting float and murmur. People drive
two hours to Ocean County refuges to observe these white and black
beauties. From my computer at work on College Road East, I am tantalized
daily by treetops and the rising birds of the Plainsboro Preserve.
Its trails are near enough to any number of corporate sites to permit
lunchtime exploration. Suitably shod, you are guaranteed to return
to your desk as refreshed as if you had traveled many miles.
Building open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays
and holidays). Trails open sunrise to sunset (currently 7 a.m. to
4:30 p.m.), seven days. Free. Website: www.njaudubon.org/Centers/Plainsboro/.
Friends of the Plainsboro Preserve site: www.plainsboro.com/fopp/
to listen to owls in the preserve. Preregister, $8 individual; $20
family. Friday, February 28, 7 p.m.
for ages 12 to 18 takes a field trip. Free. Saturday, March 1,
to 18. Free. Thursday, March 6, 5 p.m.
of male woodcock as they woo their female counterparts. Preregister,
$15 non-members. Friday, March 7, 5 p.m.
animal signs, craft project, and a short hike. Preregister, $8; $20
family. Sunday, March 9, 2 p.m.
American stories. Bring binoculars. Preregister, $8; $20 family. Friday,
March 28, 7 p.m.
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