‘At the rate of a few hundred yards or even a mile or so each year, the perimeter of the pines contracts.’
John McPhee first heard of the vast wilderness in the south of New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens in the 1960s, through a high school friend. Besides featuring in an episode of The Sopranos where Paulie and Chris get lost in the woods, the Pine Barrens is an area that remains relatively unknown to people unfamiliar with the Garden State. What little is known of it has historically been misunderstood.
First published in 1968, and based on a piece published in The New Yorker, McPhee’s portrait of the area puts paid to many of the misconceptions surrounding the pines and the ‘pineys’ (as the people who live there are known), many of which stem from a report published back in 1913.
As McPhee traverses the Pine Barren’s sandy roads, either alone or accompanied by the locals he meets on his visits, he retraces the history of the woods and unearths the personal stories of the people who live there. Undercutting this twin narrative is a sense of threat: sitting between the two big eastern cities of New York and Philadelphia, the Pine Barrens is ripe for development. Whether it’s a supersonic jetport or a new interstate highway, everyone wants a piece of the Pines – but at what price, McPhee asks.
Though McPhee predicts, towards the book’s end, that the pines ‘seem to be headed slowly toward extinction’, in 1979 the then Governor of New Jersey Brendan Bryne successfully pushed for the state’s adoption of the Pinelands Protection Act in 1979, after having read The Pine Barrens. Today, the Pine Barrens are a popular location for tours, swimming and biking, while miraculously still retaining many of their characteristics from 50 years ago.
The Pine Barrens is undoubtedly an influential and important piece of conservation writing, but it’s also a fascinating glimpse into a secret, endangered landscape and its people – and a powerful reminder of how the life and culture of an area can sometimes change more rapidly than the place itself.