Saturday, April 2, 2011

An Analysis of John McPhee's The Pine Barrens (Part 1 of 4)

[Note: I recently took an environmental literature class. As part of the coursework, I had to read two books that have influenced the American environmental movement and prepare a report on each. One of the books that I chose was John McPhee's The Pine Barrens.]

Abandoned train tracks running through
the pine barrens of New Jersey.
Photo credit: Matt Swern, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Background: What are the Pine Barrens?

The pine barrens, or Pinelands, of New Jersey are an ecologically unique area in the center of the state dominated by various species of pine growing in nutrient-poor soils. Despite New Jersey’s reputation as a cheek-by-jowl urban area, over one million acres of land – nearly one-quarter of the state – is Pinelands. According to the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, "It is the largest body of open space on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard between Richmond and Boston and is underlain by aquifers containing 17 trillion gallons of some of the purest water in the land.”

At the time John McPhee published The Pine Barrens in 1968, people were considering building a large interstate through this natural area, complete with a supersonic jetport and a city of 250,000 people. The jetport alone would have been massive in scale. McPhee described the proposed airport as “the largest airport on earth – four times as large as Newark Airport, LaGuardia, and Kennedy put together.”

McPhee devoted the last chapter of his book about the Pinelands to describing the proposed development. In these affecting passages, he juxtaposed the developer’s dreams against the current condition of the undeveloped natural area, driving home the urgent need to protect the pinelands:

"We moved on to see the site of the jetport, which would cover thirty-two thousand five hundred acres and would eliminate virtually all of the Upper and Lower Plains, several ponds, a lake, an entire state forest, and Bear Swamp Hill … We were standing on the observation platform of the fire tower on Bear Swamp Hill. The ranger, in the cabin above us, was listening to rock ‘n’ roll. Looking out over the immense forest, Smith [the developer] went on to say, ‘One of our great problems is that you can’t get people to believe that this area is as big as this. They can’t believe that you could come down here and build a fifty-one-square mile airport and not have a structure problem – not even one building visible from here to the horizon. Bear Swamp Hill is in the terminal-service area, where the planes would come in and unload. I can just see those supersonic transports coming in here now. Gorgeous!’..."

The New Jersey Pinelands Commission states on their website that publication of McPhee’s book “spur[red] tremendous public outcry to protect the Pinelands natural and cultural resources.” In 1978, the Pinelands National Reserve – the first national reserve of its kind – was established in the United States. In 1983, the Pinelands were designated as a U.S. Biosphere Reserve; by 1988, this land was also considered an International Biosphere Reserve.


If you like this post, be sure to read:

Part 2: What Makes the Pine Barrens So Special?
Part 3: Who is John McPhee? A Hard-Working Journalist and Teacher
Part 4: What Type of Writer is McPhee? Why Was His Book Effective?

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