New Jersey has always clung to its Pinelands when outsiders disparage the state as a clot of industrial sites broken only by suburbs and shopping malls. The Pinelands—1.1 million acres of forests and marshes in southern and central New Jersey, 22 percent of the state’s land mass—-remains the largest block of open space between Boston and Richmond.
The Pine Barrens' wetlands in winter
With the publication of his celebrated 1967 book, “The Pine Barrens,” Princeton native John McPhee helped start a movement to keep the Pinelands safe from large-scale development. McPhee’s work is resurfacing this year as the 2004 choice of One Book New Jersey’s statewide reading program.
But a Camden history professor offers a contrarian’s view.
“Much of McPhee’s book is romanticized,” said Jeffery Dorwart, who has written books on Camden County, Cape May and American naval history. Dorwart presented some of his Pinelands historical research recently at a well-attended program at the Moorestown public library.
While Dorwart acknowledges that “The Pine Barrens” heightened awareness of the Pinelands, he said McPhee perpetuated as many myths about the region as he dispelled.
“The problem is that he created a stereotype,” Dorwart said. “The Pinelands are far more complex.”
Dorwart even rejects the popular term “Pine Barrens.” “That’s a derogatory term of the colonial area. Many farm entrepreneurs at the time looked at it as a barren wilderness, but it is anything but barren. It’s the richest landscape I’ve ever seen.”
The Pine Barrens' Book
Dorwart was invited to speak at the Feb. 8 program by Moorestown Library Director Debbie Dennis (wife of Camden Provost Roger Dennis), who said her patrons are very interested in history and the environment. When “The Pine Barrens” was nominated last fall as one of the choices for One Book New Jersey, she thought the topic would be a perfect fit for her winter program.
The aim of One Book New Jersey is to encourage state residents to read and discuss the same book. New Jersey librarians voted to make “The Pine Barrens” the featured book for adults this year.
“The Pine Barrens,” praised then and now for its elegant writing and descriptions of regional flora, fauna and colorful local characters, “served a very important purpose in the 1960s and 1970s,” Dorwart said. In part because of the book’s popularity, Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978; the following year, New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne established the Pinelands Commission to protect the region’s resources, which include one of the world’s largest and purest aquifers.
Dorwart is especially interested in the history of local military installations, such as Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and the way they have changed the Pinelands. He is working on a book about the military’s historical impact on the entire region, including the Delaware River, southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.
His fascination with the Pinelands is also personal: “My wife and
I like to travel through the area, which we’ve done for years. Batsto Village has some wonderful walking trails.” The region boasts more than 800 different species of plants and animals, most of them native. Bald eagles are abundant, though Dorwart said he has yet to spot the owls that inhabit the area.
What the Pinelands and its human residents are not, contrary to popular mythology, is mysterious, backward or other-worldly, Dorwart said. “They have changed since the 17th century,” he said, referring to the residents, who proudly call themselves “pineys” as a retort to outsiders.
“They are not a bunch of eccentric, fluffy people. They are much more complex than that, and the Pinelands aren’t just an isolated backwoods,”
Rutgers operates a Pinelands Field Station in Lebanon State Forest for field research on pineland ecosystems. Directed by Professor John Dighton, who has a joint appointment at Cook College and at Rutgers–Camden, it hosts students and scientists from Rutgers and other institutions who study the area’s dense pine and oak forests, marshes and bogs. Dighton’s current research group is focusing on soil nutrient dynamics and the role of fungi in ecosystem processes. The station is also housing U.S. Forest Service employees who are revising their fire prediction models of Pine Barrens’ ecosystems, Dighton said.
For readers who want to learn more about the Pinelands and the history of their preservation, Dorwart recommends “Contested Lands: Conflict and Compromise in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens” (Temple University Press, 1992) by Robert J. Mason, a former Rutgers instructor who is now an assistant professor of geography at Temple University.
“Mason calls the Pinelands the most contested, or conflicted, arena of landscape in America,” Dorwart said. “This is how we have to look at it if we are going to save it. We can’t look at it as hopeless folklore of the 17th century.”