TRP: The Pine Barrens

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee

There are a few things that people who are unfamiliar with New Jersey might think of when the subject is brought up: 1. Terrible (meaning wonderful) reality shows; 2. Toxic, urban wasteland; 3. La Cosa Nostra; or possibly 4. Extreme tackiness. I know all of these things passed through my mind when we (oh, let’s say–) decided to move here. In case anyone is wondering, I have seen no Snooki bumps, my house tested radon-free before we bought it (the test is required by law), I am aware of only one diner that used to be owned by the Mob, and as for 4…. Well, there were plenty of tacky people in Texas, too. (Texas tackiness a whole ‘nother blog post, but everything’s bigger there, right? So…) I have overheard “youse” (as a variant of  y’all) only a handful of times. It’s difficult to see the sunset “properly” because of all of the trees in the way. It rains (this month excepted– but I’m told it’s been a dry month) nearly once a week, which is craziness to me. When we first arrived, it was raining every 3 days or so. I wake up to birdsong every morning, just like I did living in more rural areas. All of this is just to say that things here are not really what I’d thought they’d be.

And that’s why I found John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens so wonderful. The Pine Barrens is this wonderfully neglected area in central/eastern New Jersey where a lot of things do grow, but not nice things like grass or apple trees or corn or anything a European settler might want to grow. Instead, the area specializes in pine trees (duh), clean and clear water, cranberries, blueberries, an endangered tree frog, carnivorous plants (including orchids!) and many other things besides. John McPhee’s book addresses the ecology of this area (or at least the ecology of the area as it was in 1967), including within that term the history of the area and the human population that thrives within it. He does this a sympathetic ear and a critical eye. He presents himself as well-informed and tries to bring a greater awareness of this area and its difficulties and delights to a general audience. I feel like I understand where I live — probably 30-45 minutes from the Pinelands– a lot better. Furthermore, McPhee’s style is very readable. He doesn’t rush you through his description of the area, but (unless you hate this sort of writing to begin with) he doesn’t bore you, either. I didn’t know about The Pine Barrens before I moved here, and I don’t think most other people do, either. I can’t decide if I like the book because it’s a great book, or if I like it because it was so exciting to learn about this really neat place right in the middle of the eastern seaboard’s metropolitan wilderness.

The only thing I found a little frustrating about this book was that it was, after all, written in 1967. Whenever McPhee cited statistics or talked about how someone’s home or a particular town looked, I asked myself, “Yes, but what is it like now?” For example, when McPhee wrote this, the only major military presence near the Barrens was Ft. Dix. Now, it’s a major joint base effort, shared with the Air Force and the Navy. As I understand it (and I may be wrong), the military has taken over a fair bit of land that used to be part of the Barrens. There was a forty(ish)-acre brush fire a couple of months ago that was in The Barrens that crossed over into military territory. And that’s just one change that I know about.  I guess what I really want to read is The Pine Barrens Revisited.

Still, a wonderful read. It would be nice, I think, to read it in a hammock in the backyard with some lemonade handy, or some other leisurely time when it would be ok to stop for a bit and soak in what you’ve read while lightly napping. That’s the sort of recommendation I can give. For other information and better reviews, check out this article from the New York Times in 2007, this encyclopedic webpage from Absolute Astronomy, this lovely review from the Williamsburg Regional Library, and finally, John McPhee’s own webpage  with an excerpt and summary. (Did you know that John McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize? Neither did I. Don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone about your embarrassing ignorance if you’ll keep my secret safe as well.)

And here are some lovely photos, courtesy of google images, of The Pine Barrens. This is what you’re missing by not visiting New Jersey.

Frog in Hand
The endangered Pine Barrens tree frog in someone's hand, to give you some idea of scale.
Pine Barrens tree frog
The endangered Pine Barrens tree frog
View from Apple Pie Hill
View from Apple Pie Hill
Lake Atsion
Lake Atsion
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