McPhee's THE PINE BARRENS Revisited


Dec 31, 1969
I recently finished reading John McPhee's THE PINE BARRENS, after having read it many years ago. This is certainly a seminole book on the Pine Barrens. It covers the natives who live there from a human interest standpoint, the ecology and the social and political aspects of the Pine Barrens and weaves them together.

From the beginning, where McPhee meets natives Fred and Bill, he takes us on a tour of the Pine Barrens, where we meet other characters along the way. Narrative is interwoven with ancedotes and facts about this unique area. The drama culminates with Herbert Smith's perspective on putting in a jetport in the Tom's River/Lacey area. The reader is left to judge for himself the value of preserving the Pinelands and what should become of them.

I had learned about the great reservior of water under the Pine Barrens, but the book helps me get a better perspective. The underground water is clean, stays fresh forever, and is plentiful. As Mcphee gets water from Fred's well, he explains "in the sand under the pines is a natural reservoir of pure water that, in volume, is the equivalent of a lake seventy-five feet deep with a surface of a thousand square miles. If all the impounding reservoirs, storage reservoirs, and distribution reserviours in the New York City water system were filled to capacity, from Neversink and Schoharie to the Croton basin and Central Park -- the Pine Barrens aquifer would still contain thirty times as much water. So little of this water is used that it is said to be untapped... He cites a government report "the loose, sandy soil can imbibe as much as six inches of water per hour." So, there is plenty of water in the pine barrens. Even during droughts, rivers keep running, although they may run faster and be a little deeper during some periods than others. The one caveat is that this water is sensitive to pollution/contamination. The sandy soil doesn't filter out or immobilize wastes very well. This is why aqruiculture and other activities that use water are well suited to the Pine Barrens, as long as they take the necessary steps to keep the watershed clean. The need for a clear recharge area is why development in the Pine Barrens should be, and is, limited. Rainwater can't soak through concrete and steel as it can on a cranberry or blueberry farm, or an area that is being logged.

One of the things I liked in the book was Fred's talk about an area where rattlesnakes congregated. "Right here in this piece of woods is more rattlesnakes than anyplace else in the State of New Jersey. They had a sawmill in there. They used to kill three or four rattlesnakes when they was watering their horses at noon. Rattlesnakes like water..."

The natives of the Pine Barrens, like the water that collects and runs through it, are, for the most part, independent and have used the land for their livelihoods. They don't cotton to Big Brother regulating them, such as in the case of deer meat. They are self-policing, making sure venison is healthy to eat. I thought it interesting how they did different work, such as blueberry picking, with the seasons.

Fred's story about a tavern fight where he threw a guy who was bothering a girl who was more interested in Fred than him over a pool table or something reminds me of a scene from the wild west.

The natives of the Pine Barrens were pioneers of a sort. The small town, slower-paced reflective atmosphere still remains in places like Chatsworth. Along the many sand roads are vestages of old Pines towns. John McPhee's THE PINE BARRENS opens the road for readers to further explore.