A Privilege to Live in These Woods

I have met Pine Barrens people who have, at one time or another, moved to other parts of the country. Most of them tried other lives for a while, only to return unreluctantly to the pines. One of them explained to me, “It’s a privilege to live in these woods.”

I love that sentiment: “It’s a privilege to live in these woods.” The quotation comes from The Pine Barrens, a slim volume by John McPhee that explores the New Jersey locale of the same name. The Pine Barrens is a large expanse of forest growing in sandy soil, sparsely populated and fairly isolated, which persists, improbably, in the midst of the vast metropolis of the East Coast. People from outside the Pine Barrens, accustomed to modern conveniences and a more urban lifestyle, may find it hard to imagine that the people of the pines—those whom some derisively call “pineys”—feel content and even grateful to live in what seems like a backwards society in the middle of nowhere. But McPhee meets many residents of the pines who would rather live there than anywhere else, and it’s not that none of them have tried. They recognize the benefits of living in their small communities, surrounded by the bounty of the forest and happy with the liberty and harmony afforded by this unusual way of life. They consider it a worthwhile tradeoff, to give up potentially greater incomes along with more extensive (and expensive) amenities and a more regimented way of life.

A decade after McPhee wrote the book (it was published in 1968), the Pine Barrens was made the first National Reserve in the U.S.; in the following decade, it was designated a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve. (Phew. I worry, when I read nonfiction of years past, that horrible things have happened since publication. I’m so glad the proposed Pine Barrens jetport never came to pass!) The book describes the history and ecology of the area, as well as the stories of the people who live there: how they live and why, the way they speak, and what people outside the pines think about what goes on within. It’s full of wonderful detail, written in a strong, friendly prose that happily shares how the pinelands are their own proud place, where the people hold their own values.

McPhee spends a lot of time with Fred and Bill, residents who both regret the changes that have come to the pines as outside forces become stronger and the forest communities shrink.

“In the summer, when I was a boy, if you wanted to go anywhere you rolled up your pantlegs, put your shoes on your shoulder, and you walked wherever you was going. The pigs and cows was everywhere. There was wild bulls, wild cows, wild boars. That’s how Hog Wallow got its name. They call them the good old days. What do you think of that, Bill?”

“I wish I was back there, I can tell you that,” Bill said.

The good old days. Rolling up your pants and walking barefoot wherever you need to go brings to mind hobbits in the bucolic Shire, or Anne of Green Gables, although she was probably expected to keep her shoes on. What a pleasant, relaxed way to travel. It sounds like a dreamy ideal, although of course it was also a hard way of life. Fred lives without electricity, his home heated all winter by one wood-burning stove. The floors are piled in carpets six-deep in places, and still the icy chill creeps in. To purchase a fresh pork chop requires a round trip of fifty miles. But that’s part of the appeal, part of the Pine Barrens dream.

Driving along a sand road between the vanished town of Calico and the vanished town of Munion Field, we passed a house that was so many miles from any other house that Fred said, with evident admiration, “He got well in away from everybody, didn’t he? He got well in away from everybody.” Fred made a similar remark every time we passed a house or cabin that was particularly deep and alone in the woods. Getting—or staying—away from everybody is a criterion that apparently continues to mean as much to many of the people in the pines as it did to some of their forebears who first settled there.

I get it. I’d probably feel intense loneliness and allow isolation to devolve from great freedom into extreme boredom, but I can see the value of getting away from everybody, finding a place where you’re free to be you and the outside world can’t even find you to knock on your door. To be honest, I’m better equipped to be the me I usually want to be in my small apartment in the center of this little city I live in, able to walk to most things that matter to me, including gourmet European-style cakes and a canoe livery. But that doesn’t mean I don’t dream sometimes of a simply-designed tiny house in the woods, with one wall of books and one stovetop burner, my cats on long leads outdoors so I don’t lose them while they nap in the sunbeam of their choice. There are many ways to live, many ways to hone in on those dreams and goals that carry the most weight.

“You can do what you want to do down here. Most jobs, you have somebody breathing down your neck when you’re working. Most of your natives around here aren’t used to that, I can tell you that.”

I was struck the most by what The Pine Barrens says about working. Outsiders call “pineys” lazy, because they only work when they must; but we should see them as self-motivated and independent. When the Pine Barrens people work, they work as they see fit, in order to accomplish something concrete. Clocking the same hours every day, regardless of the day’s workload or your health or state of mind, just because you are expected to put in the hours that society has agreed upon, is far less satisfying. It overrides the rhythms of human life.

People from other parts of New Jersey will say of Pine Barrens people, “They don’t like to work. They can’t seem to hold jobs.” This, too, is a judgment based on outside values. What the piney usually says is “I hate to be tied down long to any one job.” That remark is made so often in the pines that it is almost a local slogan. It expresses an attitude born of the old pines cycle—sphagnum in the spring, berries in the summer, coaling when the weather is cold.  With the plenitude of the woodland around them—and, historically, behind them—pineys are bored with the idea of doing the same thing all year long, in every weather. Many of them have to, of course. Many work at regular jobs outside the woods. But many try that and give it up, preferring part-time labor—always at rest in the knowledge that no one who knows the woods and is willing to do a little work is ever going to go hungry.

It’s important to consider: why would you care that another person doesn’t like to do the same thing in the same place, day after day, year after year? Maybe they have a healthier outlook than you. Maybe you’re great that way, and they’re not. It’s important to know what works for us, and what doesn’t. We need to acknowledge and remain aware that not everyone holds the same values, that the dominant culture is not objectively correct, that people are different, and differences are good, and we should always seek to learn from other points of view.

Other perspectives can lead to poetry:

Pineys are much more imaginative than non-pineys with the common names of plants and flowers. There is a plant in the Pine Barrens that has velvety, magical leaves to which water absolutely will not adhere. Its common name is golden club. The pineys call it neverwet. Another plant, an Arenaria, is small and beautiful, and on its white flowers there is always a shining fluid. The plant’s common name is sandwort. The pineys call it sparkle. They even have a better name than lady’s-slipper. This small and exquisite orchid grows in the pines, where the natives call it whippoorwill shoe. Of course, every last piney, shown a lady’s-slipper, would not say, “That is a whippoorwill shoe.” The Pine Barrens are much too vast for that, and much of the pines vernacular is subregional…

And that wonderful chapter, “The Air Tune,” goes on, with linguistic quirk after linguistic quirk, building momentum and excitement about the language of this isolated area. John McPhee’s ability to string sentences together compellingly, even with all the jumping around he does, is so impressive, almost as impressive as the compassion he shows to those he depicts in his work.

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