Unexpected Natural Treasure: New Jersey Pine Barrens

Those who live in New Jersey probably know about the Pine Barrens, which comprise a not inconsiderable part of south New Jersey. Trentonians going 'down the shore' are familiar with the clean air, white sands, and country roads that characterize that ecological region.

"Pinelands" is the name given to an area designated by federal and state laws to be subject to special development restrictions. This 1.1 million acre area is also known more formally as "The Pinelands National Reserve". This administrative and reserve region lies entirely within a larger domain, the "Pine Barrens" ecosystem. This terrain is marked by sandy and acidic soils, with little value for cultivation, unlike (still) large areas of the Garden State. There are flora and fauna there to be sure, but they are masters of adaptation, and therefore deserve their tenuous foothold in that sandy soil. There are Pine Barrens in other states along the Eastern Seaboard, not just in New Jersey, for the record.

Recently, I joined some family members for a private tour of the Pine Barrens conducted by a renown raconteur and writer, Dave Hart, who has authored several books which have New Jersey and specifically Pine Barren themes, such as the Jersey Devil. His most recent, "Trenton", will be coming out soon, and features Dave's family in a fictionalized account of formative episodes in our nation's birth.

The starting point of our excursion was the Carranza Memorial, dedicated to a Mexican aviator who was the equal to "Lucky Lindy" in his time, and who was in the midst of a good will tour of the US, when his plane crashed. The memorial incorporates Mexican themes, and is surrounded by plants native to the fallen aviator's homeland.

We had a North Carolina contingent in our party; they were in fact the impetus of this excursion, as the principals had a relationship going back to high school in New Jersey, and membership in a band.

Note the characteristic trees and white sand.

While we were here, Dave told us of the Wharton Tract, which became the Wharton State Park. It seems that a savvy Philadelphia businessman named Wharton (as in "Wharton School of Business") bought some of the land in the 1800's because he knew about the fresh water reserves underneath the acreage he bought. He intended to pipe that fresh water to Philadelphia, a reasonable distance assuring a reasonable return on his investment. This did not sit well with public sector actors who grabbed the land girdling the Wharton purchase, effectively checkmating his pipeline project. The exasperated entrepreneur gave up his claim, and voila we have a park.

This type of tree thrives in the Pine Barrens, with its poor soil. The photo below shows how the sun and white sand can visually wash out the soild, making the middle tree almost float in space.

The blue sky at one point was dominated by three lumbering cargo planes taking off from nearby McGuire AFB, another reason why this part of the state is underdeveloped; large portions are set aside for maneuvers and training within the army and air force bases found in this part of New Jersey.

Native plants from Mexico are here as part of the tribute to Carranza.

It's common to see no other vehicles on the road for large periods of time. Again, to this author, somewhat remarkable given the few roads traverse this area, and the Garden State's population density and traffic throughput.

We visited the village of Chatsworth and its venerable General Store, open continuously since 1868. The gracious Marilyn Schmidt regaled us with tales of cats and journalists, and was able to reverse my photographer's fate by furnishing me with some batteries she kept on hand, for which a donation was gladly proferred.

Catty-corners was a very popular lunch place, with at least a dozen mustard choices for your Polish or regular hot dog. Lots of soda flavors too; we all marveled at the Wishniak.

I had struck up a conversation with Marilyn inside her store about cranberries, as I remembered a class trip down this way when I was a child, where we visited a cranberry bog, saw Ong's Hat, and other piney pleasures. We breezed past one such bog, but unless you are there at certain times relating to harvest, it just looks like a normal body of water, as Marilyn had sagely suggested. (One surprise: I had opined that I thought New Jersey was #1 in cranberries; I learned that NJ was #3; Massachusetts was #1; I guessed Rhode Island for second position but learned from Marilyn that Wisconsin is #2.)

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