Monday, April 4, 2011

An Analysis of John McPhee's The Pine Barrens (Part 2 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.]

An area of New Jersey's Pinelands that was recently
affected by a forest fire.
Photo credit: Matt Swern, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

What Makes the Pine Barrens So Special?

The sheer size of unbroken forest in the Pinelands is unparalleled along the eastern seaboard. The region is underlain by a massive aquifer. John McPhee wrote of the groundwater:
“The water of the Pine Barrens is soft and pure, and there is so much of it that, like the forest above it, it is an incongruity in time and place.”

The sandy soils of the Pinelands, while great for purifying groundwater, make for lousy farmland. Early U.S. pioneers generally avoided the Pinelands unless they were hiding from someone or something. Their ancestors living in the region have retained that reticent, self-reliant nature. Despite some past development for iron smelting and charcoal production, the Pinelands are markedly absent of industry. Folks that lived there when McPhee was writing his book, in the late 1960’s, tended to be self-reliant. Most were not wealthy in material possessions but enjoyed their solitude, making a living by collecting and selling moss and pinecones or tending blueberry bushes and cranberry bogs.

The ecology of the pine barrens relies upon fire. Some of the pine species in the barrens won’t reproduce without fire – they need the heat to open their pine cones and release the seeds. McPhee describes this process in Chapter 7:

“It is because of fire that pines are predominant in the Pine Barrens. There is thought to be a progression in development of any forest from pioneer species to climax trees. Most ecologists agree that if fire were kept out of the Pine Barrens altogether, the woods would be eventually dominated by a climax of black oaks, white oaks, chestnut oaks, scarlet oaks, and a lesser proportion of hickories and red maples. In some areas, oaks dominate now. Fire, however, has generally stopped the march of natural progression, and the resulting situation is one that might be called biological inertia – apparently endless cycles of fire and sprouting.”

If you like this post, be sure to read:

Part 1: Background: What are the Pine Barrens?
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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