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I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of American writer John McPhee until I read a recommendation by Robert Macfarlane a few years ago. McPhee’s book on Alaska, Coming into the Country, had just been reissued with a new introduction by Macfarlane. I quickly got a copy and loved it. A new edition of The Pine Barrens followed a couple of years later. Needless to say, I snapped it up. The Pine Barrens, first published in 1968, is a fascinating blend of nature writing, social history, folklore and first-person accounts.
People of the Pine Barrens
The book explores the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the United States. A mixture of pinewoods and sandy, nutrient-poor soil makes up this ecosystem. McPhee was fascinated by the fact that the Barrens remained so sparsely inhabited, although surrounded by America’s most densely populated state. Most New Jerseyites, including McPhee, saw it as a blank space on the map of their state, despite the fact it takes up over 20% of its area.
Throughout the book, we meet various people who either live in one of the small forest towns or out in the wilderness. Many of them make a living by harvesting a succession of resources throughout the year. They gather sphagnum moss in the spring, blueberries and cranberries in summer and wood and charcoal in the winter. McPhee sets out to dispel the many myths that surround natives of the Barrens. Often portrayed in the past as drunk, illiterate, incestuous hicks, the reality is that many residents are simply independent loners who live off the land sustainably.
An Ecological Wonderland
The book also explores the intricate biological relationships that exist in the region. Hundreds of rare flowering plants are native to the forest, including the pink lady slipper orchid. In fact, there are around 30 species of orchid there. Carnivorous plants, such as pitcher plants, sundews and bladderworts, are another specialty.
Pitch pines are the dominant trees. This is because of the prevalence of forest fires in this dry, sandy habitat. When McPhee was writing, there were nearly 400 fires a year there. The pines are largely resistant to fire and recover by sprouting directly through their bark. Their cones also open to shed seed once heated by these same fires. The fires prevent trees that are less resistant, such as oak, from taking over, maintaining the pines’ dominance.
In addition, McPhee wrote about the various threats to this rare type of habitat. In the 1960s, there were plans not only for a new city in the woods, but a supersonic jetport, bigger than any airport then in existence. With even most natives of New Jersey completely unaware of what was in the Barrens, he feared that they were doomed to extinction. Happily, neither of these things happened. In 1978, the United States Congress designated it a National Reserve and development is now strictly controlled.
What makes this such a fascinating read is the way McPhee manages to interweave so many elements seamlessly into his account. As he travels the back country sand roads through the Barrens, he shares all the aspects of the place that make it unique. Along with interviews with the residents, he discovers some of the historical events that shaped the region. There are plane crashes and Italian princes, stories of the Jersey Devil and abandoned industrial centres.
Ultimately, though, McPhee always comes back to the unique ecology of the pines; it is this, after all, that determines the character not only of the land, but of the people who live there.
John McPhee wrote Coming into the Country in the 1970s. This time he explored the wilds of Alaska. As with his book on the Barrens, he combines history, folklore and environmental issues to produce a travelogue of huge depth and warmth.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Unsheltered alternates between the present day and the 1870s. Willa Knox begins researching the role of her dilapidated New Jersey home and discovers possible links to the nineteenth century naturalist Mary Treat. Treat actually existed. She contributed hugely to knowledge about the flora and fauna of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. She also corresponded with Charles Darwin.