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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

be renewed.

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

displaced.

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

on waterbirds.

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

the shadows.

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.

Plainsboro Preserve, 80 Scotts Corner Road, Plainsboro, 609-897-9400.

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/

Top Of Page
Upcoming Events

Whoo’s There? Stories about owls plus a short night hike

to listen to owls in the preserve. Preregister, $8 individual; $20

family. Friday, February 28, 7 p.m.

Youth Birding Club. New Jersey Audubon Society’s club

for ages 12 to 18 takes a field trip. Free. Saturday, March 1,

5 p.m.

Youth Birding Club. Audubon Society’s club for ages 12

to 18. Free. Thursday, March 6, 5 p.m.

Woodcock Wonders. Twilight walk to watch the nuptial flights

of male woodcock as they woo their female counterparts. Preregister,

$15 non-members. Friday, March 7, 5 p.m.

Tracks, Scats, and Signs. Family program of stories about

animal signs, craft project, and a short hike. Preregister, $8; $20

family. Sunday, March 9, 2 p.m.

Evening with the Stars. Night sky constellations and Native

American stories. Bring binoculars. Preregister, $8; $20 family. Friday,

March 28, 7 p.m.


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