In the Pine Barrens, Following McPhee

By Doug Wallack

I turned off Route 206 and wound my way southeast toward Chatsworth, in the heart of cranberry country. Within a few miles, the farmland—acre upon acre of wheat and corn—was swallowed up by thick forest. A few miles further, the maples, oaks, and sassafras trees that form so much of the state’s deciduous canopy yielded almost entirely to pitch pines and shortleaf pines. The road became an evergreen-lined alley stretching out into the flat distance, where heat waves shimmered above the asphalt — looking for all the world as though the Atlantic had crept some twenty miles inland of its usual home along the Jersey Shore. The drive continued this way for some time, punctuated by the the occasional bog, until I arrived — almost without warning — in the middle of Chatsworth.

At the end of the Gilded Age, Chatsworth enjoyed a brief heyday as a retreat for country’s upper crust. The short-lived Chatsworth Club, established in 1904 by the Italian prince and diplomat Mario Ruspoli, included among its roster members of the Drexel, Astor, Vanderbilt, and Gould families. The town was well-connected by train, with lines leading west to Philadelphia, east to Atlantic City, and north to Red Bank and New York City. Beginning in 1929, the Blue Comet passed through Chatsworth each day on its route between Jersey City and Atlantic City, its riders lounging on the deck of its observation car or enjoying a steak dinner in its wood-paneled dining car.

But I hadn’t come to Chatsworth to track down traces of that genteel past. I was there because, just over 50 years earlier, John McPhee had used the town as a sort of base of operations as he researched the region for a pair of New Yorker articles that would eventually become his beloved 1968 book The Pine Barrens.

What is now officially designated as the Pinelands National Reserve is comprised of 1.1 million acres—fully a fifth of the state’s land area, and the first National Reserve in the country. Within that region is the largest surviving forest on the East Coast between Maine and Florida, and below it lies the 17-trillion-gallon Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer. The “Pine Barrens” are so called because early European settlers found the region’s sandy acidic soil unsuitable for the vegetables and cereals they wanted to cultivate, but in terms of ecology, the Pinelands are hardly barren. According to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the area’s forests and wetlands are home to 1,000 species of native flowering plants, 280 mosses, 34 mammal species (including black bears and bobcats), 24 amphibian species, 30 reptile species, and 144 bird species.

“I was in the pines because I found it hard to believe that so much wilderness could still exist so near the big Eastern cities,” McPhee writes in his book. And indeed, even for many Garden State natives, the Pine Barrens are now what they were initially for McPhee then: an enormous blank spot on the map of the state, passed over as the eye is drawn almost inexorably toward New York or Philadelphia — or perhaps to the shore, depending on the season. When the idea of writing on the Pines struck, McPhee was 33 and had lived nearly his entire life in New Jersey. After publishing a breakout New Yorker profile on Bill Bradley (then a star basketball player at Princeton University), McPhee, then nominally a staff writer for the magazine, was camped out in his garage in Princeton, wracking his brain for his next story. Then, as he related by phone, “When a high school friend of mine said, ‘You ought to write about the Pine Barrens,’ I said, ‘The what?’” His friend relayed fantastic rumors about the region, including word of a mile-deep hole in the ground there. His interest piqued, McPhee drove his Peugeot (“which the sand roads destroyed”) down to the Pines, often hanging around Buzby’s General Store in Chatsworth, talking with the townspeople and the cranberry growers and fire watchers who filtered through, tagging along with them when he could to see their view of the Pines.

What he ultimately wrote was a rich portrait of the region that followed a small cast of characters, exploring the culture, history, and ecology of the Pines. In the book, McPhee passes time with “pineys” — as Pine Barrens natives call themselves — who work the cranberry bogs and blueberry fields, trading the security of year-round work for the peace of living in the woods. He delves into the history of the iron industry that came and went in the Pines, visiting the remnants of the towns that disappeared along with the forges. Guided by botanists, naturalists, and locals, he meditates on the diversity of the region’s fauna and flora, the centrality of forest fires (both man-made and natural) to the pace of life there and to the woods’ ecosystems, and the threat mankind poses to wilderness there.

McPhee reports that there were plans afoot to build a new city in the heart of the Pines, along with a supersonic jetport that would be, by far, the largest airport on earth. The Pine Barrens concludes on a grim note: “Given the great numbers and the crossed purposes of all the big and little powers that would have to work together to accomplish anything on a major scale in the pines, it would appear that the Pine Barrens are not very likely to be the subject of dramatic decrees or acts of legislation. They seem to be headed slowly toward extinction,” McPhee writes.

But as it turned out, a decade after the book’s publication, New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne began a push for exactly that sort of major legislation, which resulted in the state’s adoption of the Pinelands Protection Act in 1979. Fittingly, it was McPhee’s book that—at least in part—inspired Governor Byrne to pursue to the legislation. Now, as a result of the Pinelands Preservation Act and the accompanying Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, roughly two-thirds of the Pinelands are protected from intensive development, with one-third designated for closely-monitored suburban and urban development, and a sliver zoned for agriculture. The airport jetport and the new city never materialized. McPhee now marvels that “not a great deal has changed” since he first went down to the Pines.

Even with these laws on the books, he is clear in his conviction that the Pines are still “forever threatened.” According to Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the region is made vulnerable by the possibility that the Pinelands Commission—the state agency established to enforce the Pinelands legislation—will fail to do its job. One of Montgomery’s chief concerns is aquifer overuse. The state is required to update the Water Supply Master Plan every five years, but the last revision was released in 1996—a failure that Montgomery says makes it impossible to draft appropriate regulations for water extraction, given the population changes over the last two decades.

The Pines also face the construction of natural gas pipelines running through conservation zones. Part of the concern, of course, is of contamination in the event of pipeline leakage or rupture. But the larger concern, Montgomery explains, is that the pipelines would serve as a foot in the door for developers. “Where you build infrastructure, people come,” he says, “And then it becomes a reason to change the rules and expand development opportunities in those conservation zones.” In February, despite the efforts of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and many other environmental groups and concerned citizens, the Pinelands Commission approved the construction of a 22-mile South Jersey gas pipeline through the Pinelands.

In recent years, the Pines have also contended with increasing damage to conservation lands from off-road vehicles. “We attribute this to YouTube,” Montgomery says. GoPro footage of wild rides through the forests has popularized the practice, even as riders tear up the very terrain they’re so enamored of.

Still, the Pines are more than the sum of their worries. Both the beauty of the region and the rumors that cling to it continue to draw people in. David Scott Kessler, a Philadelphia-based artist and filmmaker, is one of the latest to fall under their spell. Kessler has been working on an experimental documentary entitled The Pine Barrens since 2011. Though film is not yet finalized, over the past few years, Kessler has screened versions of it accompanied by live music from the Ruins of Friendship orchestra (a group that came together to support the film). The shared name with McPhee’s book is apt. Both works are essentially exploratory in character, investigations by New Jersey natives (Kessler is originally from Union) who were drawn to learn something more about their home state, to prod at the sense of mystery that surrounds the Pines—home of the Jersey Devil and reclusive pineys. Kessler says he was keen to bring to the screen the sense of wonder that comes with the “naïve explorer sensibility” he had from the outset of his project. The story he tells—which is far more a subjective portrait of a time and place than it is an environmental documentary—developed as he worked on it. His work continues, and so too does the story of the Pines itself continue to unfold.

Today, Chatsworth is in many ways much like it was when McPhee first visited it in 1966: a sleepy village in the Pines, home to a few hundred families, and a hub of regional cranberry growing activity. Buzby’s General Store still stands where it has for over 150 years, but it has been closed for about a year now due to the poor health of current owner R. Marilyn Schmidt. A real estate agent’s sign sits in the window — a melancholy frame to the books, maps, and jars of jam still sitting inside. As I was about to leave town, my phone — and with it Google Maps — died suddenly and would not be revived. So I drove home through the Pines as McPhee had when he was first exploring the area: overshooting a turn here and there, retracing my route, meandering, but sure to return.