The Pine Barrens John McPhee 1967

McPhee’s fourth book originally began as a New Yorker article, as many of his works did.  It is the detailed and interesting story of the huge tract of undeveloped (at least it was undeveloped in 1967!) land in central New Jersey called the pine barrens.  Encompassing more than 1000 square miles, close enough to NYC to see the night time lights and the mid-point of the urban corridor from Boston to Richmond, this land of swamps, pine and cedar forests, and sandy soil sits above one of the largest fresh water aquifers in the world.  The Wharton of UPenn bought thousands of acres in the late 1800’s planning to divert this water to supply Philadelphia, a pant that was never realized leaving that huge stretch of land as New Jersey’s Wharton State Park. Inhabited sparsely (one section has 21 people in an area of 100,000 acres!), the land is periodically swept by wild fires which refresh the oaks, pines, and cedars and frequently destroy the small towns that have grown up there.  McPhee employs his favorite technique to examine the whole through one of its smallest and most particular parts, in this case long conversations with an old ‘piney’ named Fred Brown who shows McPhee around the unmarked and seemingly unknowable sand roads, the abandoned towns, the old iron ore and charcoal works, and the places where infamous citizens lived and activities occurred.  It’s a detailed look at a part of the US that I didn’t even know existed.  The book ends with a chapter entitled Vision in which McPhee describes the apparently endless schemes to develop the Barrens including the most recent one in the late 1960’s for a ‘supersonic jet port’ of 50 square miles (well before the SST was grounded and supersonic flight forgotten) and a city of 250,000 people.  One of the frustrations of reading McPhee’s early non-fiction is that it’s not evident what happened with the orange industry or the Pine Barrens in the fifty or sixty years since he wrote about them.  Despite that, it’s a treat to read his writing, lists and all.

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