Friday, January 29, 2021

Notes: the Jersey Pine Barrens

I don't manage to get out of Philadelphia often, but when I do I like to visit the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Here are some (elaborated) notes taken during and after my most recent visit.

Unique, but seldom photogenic.

🞄 The Pine Barrens have fascinated me ever since my first visit some fifteen years ago. Having spent most of my hiking-and-rambling time in deciduous temperate forests of some variety or other, I found in the Pine Barrens a veritably alien landscape. But until fairly recently, I wasn't aware of how unusual an ecosystem it is. As a matter of fact, the Pine Barrens are unique.

The native range of its defining flora (Pinus rigida, the pitch pine) extends longitudinally from central Kentucky to the Atlantic, and latitudinally from northern Georgia to southeastern Ontario. Pitch pine forests don't occur anywhere else. Their reliance on poor and/or depleted soil makes their distribution spotty, and human activity has winnowed them down and boxed them in even further. Encompassing 1.1 million acres, the New Jersey Pine Barrens are by far the world's largest extant pitch pine forest.

Understanding the Pine Barrens as an ecosystem requires getting acquainted with the pitch pine and some of its special properties.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Spiritual cramps

Orion; photo (cropped) by Adam Block, via Apod

In late December, I sent individual season's greetings-type texts to some friends during a lull at work. James replied with a message alluding to the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. He knows me well, and assumed I'd been watching for it.

I'm sorry to say that I missed it.

The benefits of my situation in Philadelphia are manifold (though most of them boil down to being able to bike and walk almost everywhere I need to be), but the costs sometimes prompt me to browse housing and job listings from towns out in the sticks, or in smaller cities famously protective of their green belts. Not being able to see many stars was one of the many privations and inconveniences I complained about when I lived on the fringes of Washington, DC (2014). Having relocated to Silver Spring after living my entire life in some suburb or other, a practically empty night sky affected me acutely. If we wanted to dredge up posts from Beyond Easy's first few years (big if, there), we'd find no small abundance of entries about stargazing and astronomy. The places I lived then weren't altogether devoid of light pollution, true, but you could still make out the Milky Way on clear, moonless summer nights. It was easy to notice the stars, especially if, say, you'd fallen into the habit of taking midnight walks with friends to get high in the woods. Once I started noticing the stars, paying attention to them and taking a deepening interest in them followed naturally.

After a couple of years, objects in the night sky took on a significance beyond their interest as mere aesthetic and intellectual wonders as I came to associate them with terrestrial events. When I think of craning my neck to look directly up Vega, I seem to feel the air of a warm summer evening on my skin. Conversely, thinking about Orion gives me a mnemonic chill.¹ Cassiopeia, Perseus, and Pegasus torquing up over the eastern horizon means summer is on its way out; glimpsing Arcturus in the early evening indicates it's finally on its way. And of course there are all the other stellar objects that keep a more precise time or are simply a pleasure to gaze at: Corona Berenices, Draco, Gemini, Lacerta, the Pleiades, Delphinus, Hercules, Scorpius, and so on.