A Common Love by Anne Wieland

Speaking of Nature: Anne Wieland, resident of Homer, Alaska, has a special place in her heart for the Stony Brook. Here she shares some memories of growing up in Princeton with her friend and Education Director, Jeff Hoagland, who also considers his relationship with the Brook “a love affair”.  Read Jeff’s story in the 2018 Winter Wellspring.

Stony Brook is my spiritual mother.  How that came to be is a lifelong story.  When I was born in the 1930s, I was brought home to a house on Winant Road, Princeton, which my Hungarian parents, professor Eugene and pianist Marta Pacsu, had bought a few years earlier after Dad had accepted an invitation to leave Budapest and come to teach organic chemistry.  Early on, he took me down the steep hill behind our house to the brook.  It was a whole other world down there with huge sycamore trees and the brook with its mysterious inhabitants.  He and I would also take long walks on an overgrown path parallel to the brook all the way to Rosedale Road and back.  Eventually, my parents allowed me to scamper down the hill by myself to do some exploring along and in the brook.  Sometimes my  younger sister, Margaret, would accompany me, or sometimes the four children of Hun School custodian, Bill Smith.

As I grew older, Stony Brook became a refuge for me as well as a source of endless discovery and enchantment.  As  World War II unfolded and Hungary became one of the countries under siege, my parents’ anxiety and stress over the fate of their families grew by the day.  My frequent visits increased to the Magic Woods, as Margy referred to the hill and creek bottom below. There was peace down there, and a variety of creatures to find.  I loved wading in the brook with shoes dedicated to the fun and learning about what kinds of interesting creatures lived under and near the rocks scattered throughout the ripples.

There were crayfish, vicious looking Hellgrammites, a tiny catfish species, bullheads, that stung me sharply.  Close to shore were others; perhaps a salamander, a frog or even a snake under the large rocks above the water line.  In the slower moving water, there were freshwater mussels that broke easily as I smashed them against rocks.  Their flesh, when thrown into the deeper water instantly, drew hundreds of various sized minnows and fish that came to fight over the exquisite delicious treat.  The many mussels quietly living their lives in the muddy big bend area of the brook became food for endless numbers of fish and a source of entertainment for me.  Closer to the Route 206 bridge were some large rocks that were the favorite sunning spot of beautiful Painted Terrapins.  My right knee still bears the scar from a failed attempt at catching one.

In the spring, the moist forest floor burst out in a many-colored display of spring ephemerals, Bloodroot, Dogtooth violets, Purple Violets, May apples, Jack in the Pulpits, and Spring Beauties.  It was a short but magical time.  It amazed me that they disappeared and were soon replaced with other plants including stinging nettles.  Sometimes in the summer down there at the level of the brook, it was so quiet that one could hear the steady shower of tiny caterpillar droppings hitting the leaves on their way down through the canopy.  Some of the more exciting caterpillars lived closer to the ground, especially the larvae of the Prometheus moths in the Spicebush shrubs.

Somehow I obtained a fishing rod.  Thus a whole new world opened. Bait de jour was either cheese or bread balls.  One favorite spot to fish was from the top of the Route 206 historic bridge that just now is being refurbished.  From the top of the bridge, we children could see down into the deeper water and spot the suckers who hovered in an almost motionless formation.  Try as we might, they would never take the bait.  But more than once an unfortunate eel did.  They were large and difficult to take off the hook, but very interesting as my fishing friends and I had not seen them before.  Eventually, I caught a trout or two and some other small fish, perch or bass varieties.  My mother would cook the tiny filets for me.  One of my most precious keepsakes dates from that time when my dad gave me a copy of Anna Botsford Comstock’s “Handbook of Nature Study” for my tenth birthday.  It provided more information and even photographs of some of the many life forms that I was encountering.  It was an early cornerstone of the direction that my life would take me.

Over time, Stony Brook had shown me many of its temperaments, from raging floods spreading far beyond its banks to cover the adjacent fields, serious summer droughts isolating minnows and hordes of tadpoles from the main stream in warm puddles filled with slow-moving, green algae.  Butterflies enjoyed mud parties at the puddles’ edges.  In the stillness of winter, huge slabs of ice formed along the banks, sometimes moving downstream, or perhaps covering the entire brook.

Another spot where the fishing was even better was alongside the ponds on the other side of the highway from Edgerstoune.  There Marshall, a boy my age, lived in a small red house on the highway near the stream that was an outlet from the ponds and flowed downhill to join Stony Brook at Quaker Road.  He enjoyed fishing, too.  The ponds were part of some sort of estate, but that did not bother us at all, so we climbed over the fence to access the best spots for catching bluegill sunfish.  They seemed more than any other fish to relish Kraft cheese balls.  The ponds were idyllic.  There was a gazebo and swans often graced the open water.  Interesting emergent plant life grew around the perimeter. There were more and bigger snakes than anywhere elsewhere so we had to watch where we walked.  Giant bullfrogs lazily sunned around the north side of the ponds.

I had become more of a free spirit and didn’t fit in very well with my classmates at Miss Fines School.  My parents, especially my mother, discussed sending me away to boarding school.  The pain and fear that I experienced at those threats were mainly about how much I would miss my woods and the brook.  It was then and during my miserable 13th summer when I was sent away to a dance and drama camp far from home, teased and called “Nature Girl” that I realized how much my life and happiness depended on being able to spend time in the Magic Woods and Stony Brook.  Thus, after transferring to Princeton High School, even though involved in after-school sports, I still found time to visit the brook.

After High School came college, then the decision with my new husband, Dr. Tryon Wieland, to move to Alaska.  We had spent our honeymoon working for the Alaska Territorial Fish and Wildlife Department and vowed to return there, which we did by moving to Anchorage in 1961.  After my Dad died in 1972, my mother found it difficult to live alone in our Winant Road house, so she purchased a much more practical one in town and sold my childhood home.  When I found out, it was a blow because it meant the easy access to the brook and forest was gone, and now when I returned to Princeton, the next best access to the brook was via the Hun School athletic fields.  As my mother aged and needed help, I returned more and more frequently.   A pair of old tennis shoes stayed in a closet in the spare room for me to use on my visits to the woods and the brook.  The visits were tinged with nostalgia and sadness as it became obvious that the teeming host of life in and around the brook of my childhood was greatly diminished.  I wrote an anguished letter to someone at Princeton University asking about the steep decline, listing all the creatures that were hard to find or were no longer present.  The letter was never answered.

In 1975, after about nine years as a classroom teacher in Anchorage, the school district invited me to become an elementary school science specialist.  Now I could focus on hands-on science kits with all the students from Kindergarten through 6th grade.  It was the best job in the entire school district.  One big aspect of our curriculum was missing, however, and that was nature study.  I led classes outdoors as often as possible but there was no district-wide program.

In 1985, the district granted me a leave of absence to visit and learn from 24 environmental and outdoor education programs around the nation, Ontario and British Columbia.  I had heard about the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association and that it might now have an environmental educator, so my second stop after Toronto was to go to Princeton and visit the SBMWA.  Jeff Hoagland and I met somewhere along the trail where he had set up a series of challenges in the woods inspired by the New Games movement of the time.  These involved students learning skills of cooperation, collaboration and trust rather than emphasizing competition.  Jeff’s obvious enthusiasm was very inspiring.  I was delighted to hear about the program and that it would benefit children, some from less advantaged situations.  Jeff and I sensed that we were kindred spirits and have remained friends since then.

Now when I return on what has become a yearly pilgrimage to Stony Brook to once again express my deep gratitude for still being my teacher and sanctuary, I’m accompanied by my longtime companion, retired Ecology Professor Dr. Todd Gustafson, who like Jeff and me,  were and are very fortunate to have been Nature Children long ago.