Thursday, May 28, 2009

From the Dolomites to the Pine Barrens

Our last view of Italy from the window of our plane was the jagged peaks of the Dolomite Mountains rising 10,000 feet into the sky.

Our first good view of the United States was the vast forests of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, whose rare pygmy pitch pine trees are only about 10 feet high.  A letdown? Not at all. As different as they are from the Dolomites, the Pine Barrens are an equally impressive natural wonder.

The Pine Barrens are also the complete opposite of most people's image of New Jersey - the industrial traffic-filled New Jersey with the greatest population density of any state in the Union, nearly 1,200 people per square mile.  And yet just south of this industrial corridor - taking up 22 percent of the land mass of New Jersey - are the 1.1 million virtually uninhabited acres of the Pine Barrens. In the heart of the Pinelands, there are only about 15 people per square mile. The Pineys as the residents are called in New Jersey, live in small towns like Batsto, Chatsworth and Hog Wallow or on isolated homesteads off one of the hundreds of miles of unpaved roads that crisscross the Pines.

For kids in Trenton, where I grew up, the Pines as we called them,  were just a vast, uninteresting area that you had to pass through to get to the real attraction - the Jersey Shore. Sometimes, though, our father was too tired to tackle the bumper to bumper traffic that on a summer Sunday began miles before the old wooden bridge that crossed the inlet to Seaside Heights with its wide, white sand beaches and amusement-filled boardwalk.  On those days, we would go to Pakim Pond, a small cedar-colored lake in the heart of the Pines. 

The pond - whose name comes from the Lenni Lenape word for cranberry -  and the dwarf forests that surrounded it were as dark and mysterious as the ocean beaches were open and sun-filled.  Large dragonflies that we called sewing bugs - because as my older brother explained, they would sew your lips together if you got too close - buzzed languidly over the lake and the adjoining creeks.  

What we didn't know then was that our small pond was part of a natural area that was anything but barren. It's home to more than 850 plants, some of which grow almost nowhere else on earth; has 84 nesting bird species; and sits atop one of the world's great underground aquifers, containing approximately 17 trillion gallons of soft, pure water. 

The Pines are filled with cranberry bogs, making New Jersey the number three producer in the United States. The blueberry, the State Fruit of New Jersey, was first cultivated there in Whitesbog in the early 1900s. The state is the number two producer of blueberries in the country. (Michigan is number one.) 

The cedar-lined rivers in the Pines are fast-moving and unpolluted since they arise in the Pines themselves. Development has eaten away at the edges of the Pines, but it's still possible to take a two-day canoe trip and not see a single house. 

If you want to visit the Pinelands, they are likely to be there for a long time to come since in 1978 the area was designated the nation's first National Reserve and in 1983 it was named a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve.  

To see photos of the Pines, click here.
Recommended Reading: The Pine Barrens by John McPhee, 
                                  Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1981 


1 comment:

  1. Well, having grown up in NJ, I am quite familiar with the Pine Barrens, and so this does my heart good. (People always asked "what exit off the Garden State Parkway were you? I was exit 135.) Welcome home to the states! I love your photos! I still get twinges of nostalgia for 'Joisey.


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