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.

- The pitch pine is a gnarly, ornery son of a bitch of a tree. If you visit the Pine Barrens, take note of the soil composition in areas dominated by pitch pines. "What soil?" you'll ask—because you'll be standing on coarse sand coated at places in thin, dusty dirt. One of the secrets to the pitch pine's dominance in the region is its ability to grow in soils that other seedlings simply can't tolerate. Several scrub oak species constitute the pitch pine's most viable competition in the region—they can also withstand low-nutrient, highly acidic soil, they grow faster as seedlings, and if given enough time, they lay down leaf litter and invite ground cover to the the pitch pine's disadvantage. But the pitch pine has developed a way of leveling the playing field.

- The pitch pine has an extensive root system, not especially deep so much as wide. A pitch pine's taproot may be nine feet deep, but lateral roots can extend as far as thirty-five feet. More roots means more nutrient uptake—not an unimportant thing when you're growing in infertile soil. There are other benefits as well.

- Look at a mature pitch pine trunk. Take note of the the scaly bark—how it looks plated, like a coat of armor. Pitch pine bark is unusually thick. You may sometimes notice clusters of needles popping out of a trunk here and there: buds that might have developed into branches earlier in the tree's lifespan sometimes remain dormant and require special conditions to "activate."

- Speaking of special conditions: a pitch pine's cones don't all work quite the same way. Some open and release their seeds as they mature, like you might expect. Others mature and may then stay closed for many years, awaiting an environmental trigger. That trigger is intense heat—the kind produced, say, by a forest fire.

Let me correct something I said before: the pitch pine doesn't have a way of leveling the playing field; rather, it has evolved ways of taking advantage of a leveled playing field. Wildfires are the key to the pitch pine's dominance in the region. Its thick bark protects the pitch pine from the heat and flames, its extensive root systems help them resist the buffeting critical winds generated in a widespread blaze, the sprouting of dormant buds helps keep it alive if its crown is damaged or destroyed, and the heat-activated cones give the pitch pine a rapid advantage in repopulating recently razed land.

Charred trunks are a common sight in the Barrens.

Not only do pitch pines benefit from wildfires, but their dominance helps ensure that the conditions which promote blazes remain locked in. The dead needles, twigs, branches, etc. that accumulate on the ground over time are slow to decompose (thanks to the veritably sterile soil), and the since pitch pines don't produce a lot of shade, the forest floor gets exposed to a lot of sunlight. The litter just sits on the sand, dry and flammable, waiting for a spark. Meanwhile, the intruding scrub oak saplings and hardy shrubs are growing and shedding their leaves, adding more kindling to the eventual fire that will perpetuate the pitch pines' dominance.

If enough time passes between wildfire events—or if fires are actively prevented and extinguished—the leaf litter will accumulate. Pitch pine seedlings don't grow well under cover, and the gradual production of topsoil allows for the ingression of flora that was previously shut out. An abundance of leaf litter and increased shade prevents ground-level moisture from evaporating right away, which is another long-term blow to the pitch pine's prospects, as is the introduction of bacteria and fungi which are the foundation of a healthy soil community.

It's fascinating to consider: people usually talk about plant monocultures when discussing agriculture, but the Pine Barrens is an instance of a monoculture resulting from "natural" agencies. (As you may know, I have reservations about "nature" and its usage.) Here we have an ecoregion where the mechanisms of ecological succession were effectively held at bay since the end of the last ice age—not by human land management, but by the biological quirks of a pine tree. Roughly speaking, the pitch pine has achieved in the Barrens what we have in developing our own habitats—hijacking and manipulating an ecosystem, placing it in stasis for our own benefit—and pulled it off without technology, mobility, or even a brain.

On that note: the monoculture of the Pine Barrens should be distinguished from, say, a corn field or a cultivated palm forest, by the presence of organisms that have situated themselves in niches which the monoculture sustains. The Pine Barrens treefrog, for instance. Or the Pine snake. Wild lupine and the frosted elfin, which depends on wild lupine as a food source. If you click any of the links, you'll notice the familiar language of threatened survival, habitat loss, shrinking ranges, etc., so I won't belabor that point.

Funny: the Pine Barrens is the only ecoregion I can think of for which the phrases "preserve the Pine Barrens" and "burn the Pine Barrens" mean the same thing.

Note the sluice pictured in the center.

🞄 If you visit multiple hiking trails in multiple locations across the Jersey Pine Barrens, you might become acquainted with an unusual land formation: a narrow, elevated "isthmus" proceeding in a straight line between large ponds or riparian swamps. Their frequency in the area, and the fine edging of the land bridge's borders ("straight lines don't occur in nature" is a good rule of thumb) should be an indicator that this isn't "natural" terrain, in spite of the rich host of biota they support.

These used to be cranberry bogs—a misnomer, since cranberries aren't aquatic plants.¹ Cranberries are typically cultivated in dug-out depressions, which are seasonally flooded to facilitate the harvest. In some places, the ponds and bogs are arranged in grids for the sake of efficiency: placing them side by side makes it easier to reuse the water from one bog to flood another nearby. Remains of wooden floodgates are a common sight in these places.

When the land was bought from the farmers and made into public open space, many of the cranberry fields were flooded permanently. Others became small, sometimes-flooded basins that gradually reforested. I've seen some of these that were re-flooded, becoming miniature deadwood swamps— sun-drenched, verdant with moss and sedge grass, and crawling with amphibians and reptiles. Ecological succession in action. To my way of thinking, any appreciation of nature that goes beyond the superficial requires one to pay attention to the particularities of an ecosystem and how they change over time.²

(I wish I could get out of the city more often.)

The Pine Barrens' rewilded cranberry fields are a reminder that few places on Earth are truly pristine. But: "influenced by human activity" doesn't necessarily mean "tainted." An objective measure might consist of examining how human activity currently influences the resilience and resistance of a given ecosystem. Much has been made of how the forest agricultural practices of Amazonia's human inhabitants guided the composition of the jungle—but they did so in such a way as to alter the ecosystem without crashing it. Compare this to contemporary practices of industrial agriculture.

But nonetheless: in these former cranberry bogs we see landscapes that were once controlled by human activity, and are now given over to the manifold of biotic and abiotic processes called "ecology."³

Former cranberry field, September

🞄 Re: ecological succession—I'm curious to know what would happen if the Northeastern megalopolis was suddenly cleared of people—say, from a virus whos virulence and infectiousness make the bubonic plague and the novel coronavirus seem like hay fever by comparison. What will the rewilded urban landscape look like a thousand years into the future? Two thousand? Ten thousand?

But that's a more open-ended question that what I actually have in mind.

From the first decades in which opportunistic pioneer species become the deserted cityscape's dominant flora and fauna, a series of ecological paradigms will ascend and diminish in succession, approaching some (undetermined) homeostatic climax that will eventually prevail—provided certain abiotic factors (namely the climate) remain constant. Will any sui generis ecological characteristics emerge from a biotic community fostered the remains of a major city? (This is what we see in the Pine Barrens: the result of what happened after the glaciers receded and pioneer species made their entrance onto a swath of sand and gravel deposited on top of bedrock by a combination of glacial activity and sea-level fluctuation.) 

What I'm asking is something like this—picture the forests of upstate New York or central Pennsylvania. At year zero, they're all still deciduous forests, and Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia are what they are today, minus Homo sapiens. Let's call the present-day deciduous forests Ecoregion A, and the cities Ecoregion B. At year five thousand, to what extent will Ecoregion B differ from A, if we assume that both experience the same climate? Will the starting conditions of A produce a cluster of ecosystems as variant from B's as, for instance, the beech-maple forests of my hometown in North Jersey are from the pitch pine forests of the Barrens?

There are certainly people far more qualified than me to make such a guess—but concerning the end of the Anthropocene Epoch and beyond, educated guesses are the best any of us can do.


🞄 Eight years ago (or so), I was lucky enough to get free admission to a three-month course in permaculture. It's not the sort of thing one gets much practical use out of if he isn't an avid gardener, a farmer, an architect, or a grifting consultant, but permaculture did insinuate its tentacles into my way of thinking about the non-human parts of our world. 

The guy who taught the course was an anarcho-primitivist type, and the workshop's content was seldom restricted to sustainable design principles.⁴ During an early session, he took the group outside and taught us "fox walking," a technique for moving silently in the woods (and is contrasted, in the anprim literature, with the "cow walking" practiced by domesticated Homo sapiens). Instead of bringing your leg directly forward, landing on your heel and slapping down with the ball of the foot, you swing your leg around in low arc, touching down on with the side of your foot and then rolling onto the ball of your foot—not committing your weight all at once, but gradually compressing the ground and leaf litter to preclude sudden, sharp sounds. It takes a lot of practice, and you probably need an early start (say, after you first learn to walk) or do it on a very regular basis to get any good at it. It's a strain on the legs if your muscles aren't accustomed to being used in such way, and managing to do it at a reasonable pace takes more concentrated training than I've been able to put in over the years. (Although moving slowly is kind of the point.)

It's best that you do it barefoot—doing it well depends on responding to tactile feedback from the ground and anything growing or lying close to it, which you don't get much of when you're wearing your Doc Martens.

I like to fox walk for a bit whenever I make it out to the Pine Barrens, and I hope I don't come across as too much of a hippie when I say I consider it an edifyingly different mode of being in open spaces. You're more receptive to your surroundings when you're slow and quiet; you pick up on things you miss entirely when you're just plodding along.

During my most recent visit I was a little sad to notice how much my callouses have softened. (I wish I could get out of the city more often.)

Even if you're not very good at fox walking (like me), you'll still notice the difference in how animals respond to your presence. During one visit to the Black Run Preserve last summer, I took off my shoes and began fox walking across a stretch of trail situated between two cranberry bogs rewilded into forested swampland. I went maybe thirty or forty feet at a slow pace; every so often, I'd hear a plip! from below as a mistrustful frog jumped into the water at my approach.

Then I started walking "normally." Plip plip plip plip plip plip plip plip plip plip plip! went the all startled frogs.

I reckon the sight of an urbanized person of the twenty-first century trying to move quietly through the woods would seem embarrassingly ridiculous to the region's Pre-Colombian inhabitants. We'd probably get as much of a hoot out of watching one of them trying to figure out a time-displaced MacBook.

I mean this less as a comment on the relativity of culture (or on the superiority of Culture A to Culture B in whatever respect) than as an observation of Homo sapiens' remarkable plasticity.

From my most recent visit: a golden-crowned kinglet. (All things considered,
it's a pretty good photo

🞄 If you're roving through the woods, traditional wisdom suggests attending to rivers—tracking your location and progress relative to them to keep from getting lost.

Being able to hear the river helps, obviously—and I imagine it was a lot easier before airplanes and distant roadways kicked up a din that we scarcely perceive until we've been acclimated to the silence of our immediate surroundings.

But: during my most recent trip to the Barrens, I didn't have a river to use as a positional reference point, wasn't paying any attention to where I was going on a totally unfamiliar set of trails, and would have gotten lost (or, more realistically, inconvenienced) if there hadn't been a local thoroughfare less than a mile from where I stood at any given point in my wanderings. Actually, an active roadway is more useful than a river in this respect, especially when it's outfitted with rumble strips to warn motorists of sharp turns. It's difficult to lose track of, even if you'd really like to.


🞄 The Black Run Preserve in Evesham isn't as well-kept as secret as it was just a few years ago. Back in—2017, was it?—I could visit on a weekday (thanks to my ever-erratic work schedules) and all the parking lots at all the trailheads would be empty. When I visited last Thursday, there were cars parked on the shoulders outside the entrances.

I'm disappointed that I no longer enjoy the privacy I got accustomed to during my first years of visiting the preserve. If I wanted to be around dog-walking couples, guffawing adolescents, and people yelling into their phones, I could just saunter over to Fairmount Park and save on gasoline and bridge tolls. However—why shouldn't I be glad that more people are getting exposed to the place? The only way to make anyone care about open spaces, and to take an interest in natural events on more than just an abstract level, is to get them out in them.

A cedar swamp—the pine forest's mucky roommate.

🞄 I am an eco-pessimist.

In the background of whatever I set myself to, of anything I can hope for with regard to society and humanity, looms the recognition that there are too many humans making too deep a footprint on the Earth to allow for a happy ending to the present epoch in our history. While there may be viable pathways to a future where technological plentitude coexists with a revitalized global ecosystem, the apparently insuperable difficulties of coordinating the efforts (and sacrifices) required to get us there render such an outcome unlikely at best. Things are going to get bad.⁵

I recently got chewed out for mentioning—as a response to one of the latest articles about how climate change is going to crash civilization even harder and even sooner than the last article on the subject would have had us believe—that if the history of life on Earth can teach us anything about what comes next, we can take some comfort in knowing that the biosphere will eventually rebound to a pre-Anthropocene level of vibrancy, either without Homo sapiens or with a drastically reduced (and possibly feral?) population.

I thought I was being optimistic. If you're enough of a fucking autist (as I was alleged to be) to consider the wellbeing of humans as a matter of secondary importance to the vitality of the biosphere in general, any possibility that the conclusion of the Anthropocene won't involve nuclear winter or a runaway greenhouse effect is cause for hope: the planet's ecology will renew itself after ten million years, and the dance can continue for how ever many hundreds of millions of years remain before the aging Sun stops the music for good. (It sucks when a party gets shut down early because a few assholes can't behave themselves.)

I like people—but the more of us there are, the duller and emptier the rest of the planet becomes. The thought that the beginning of a harsh and inexorable rebalancing might occur during my lifetime frightens me (and reasonably so), but I can't but treat the statements "civilization is approaching a catastrophic collapse" and "the global cancer called Homo sapiens is on the verge of remission" as practically equivalent. Call it deference to a higher power. Or call me a sperglord. I suppose these too are synonymous after a fashion.

Maybe our very distant descendants will be happier than us, provided they're still around once things restabilize. That's something to hope for. It's not like the post-industrial affluence which those of us in developed nations are determined to preserve at any cost isn't making us alienated, depressed, and nihilisitc.

In fact, I can't imagine why you wouldn't welcome any change, my friend.

1. Properly speaking, even when the fields are flooded, and even if they're left alone, they still aren't bogs. This isn't the only Pine Barrens biome that has taken on an idiosyncratic name: locally, an indigenous type of grassy wetland is called a "savanna." (Most of these are gone, succeeded by plots of shrubs and trees.)

2. In Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation (2009), Rochelle Johnson describes Thoreau's final work, unfinished and unpublished—the "Kalendar:"

As described by [Thoreau's] biographer, Robert D. Richardson Jr., the project aimed at nothing less than a record of all natural phenomena in Thoreau's area. During the two years preceding his death, Thoreau created 750 pages of lists and charts recording the copious data that he had collected over a decade regarding certain phenomena...

It seems here that Thoreau...attempted to use language not as a vehicle for finding nature's "higher," human-centered meanings but as a way of humbly recording the meaning that he discerned in the physicality of nature itself. Thoreau becomes increasingly interested in the relationship between the phenomenal and noumenal realms——increasingly interested, that is, in things-in-themselves in relation to the human ability to perceive those things. In his Kalendar, awareness and apprehension go backstage, but depend upon his humble observations of natural facts...

In his Kalendar...Thoreau relinquishes traditional human meanings and assumes that nature's meaning is there in nature itself——in its facts and occurrences, and not in the ways in which a man could make nature "arise and walk before him as an exponent of his meaning." [As his quondam mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote.]

3. Note: the Black Run Preserve (home to several former cranberry fields) shows much more heterogeneity than the more remote pinelands further to the southeast. There are still plenty of pitch pines around, but you'll find just as many—if not more—chestnut oaks, black oaks, sassafras, etc. growing within its boundaries. Given the presence of the cranberry bogs, it's safe to infer that the people who lived on and/or used the land over the last century or two had some role in preventing the fires that would have otherwise sustained a pitch pine monoculture.

4. It's hard to know a single anarcho-primitivist without developing strong feelings about anarcho-primitivism—one way or the other. I am not an anarcho-primitivist, but maybe I could still become one if my mid-life crisis sends me out of the city and into the sticks or onto a farm. Who knows?

5. The seldom mentioned affinities between ecology and economics (the ripple effects of imploding sectors, the experts' inability to foresee the moment of a precipitous crash, etc.) will be writ large, and will make for some fascinating commentary. (As I finished typing that sentence I suddenly recall reading about the musicians on the deck of the Titanic continuing to play while the ship was on its way down.)


  1. I do suppose the fact that so many things are closed thanks to the Corona Virus has caused so many people to hike since its one of the few options they have left.

    Ah well I finished the Zeros Reunion, still curious what you changed, best of luck with the sells.

  2. I used to visit Batsto all the time as a kid. I love the pine barrens.

  3. Thank you for this. Splendid article! I just sold a vintage book about the Pine Barrens and was curious as to whether or not they still existed or had been covered up by Walmarts and condos. Glad to hear that didn’t happen! Maybe there is hope for us yet!