Loose Roots

Spider hole in "sugar sand"
Spider hole in "sugar sand"

There are many worlds within our world that are right there and yet completely out of reach. The ocean is an obvious one. Yes we can dive and now even send down robotic cameras that can handle the pressure of the deep ocean yet we are constantly learning and finding new creatures. This trip has allowed me many opportunities to find and learn, even about things and places I thought I knew. This has become all that more true now that I am firmly in un-charted territory. A quick couple of visits to New York many moons ago means I hardly know this northeast corner of the country. And yet I've got roots here. My mother spent here grade school years in Long Island, her mother is from Rhode Island and her grandmother from New Hampshire. My maternal grandfather was from Ozone Park, Queens. My paternal grandmother grew up in Philadelphia and many distant family members still live there. All those roots and I know nothing of this region's ecology beyond that it snows in the winter. This is the mindset I'm in when we arrived in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

The first time hearing about the Pine Barrens was from Tim all of a month ago when looking into our travel route after our planned visit to DC. One doesn't have to dig into the pages on the internet to find all the easy complaints about the place. It's flat, sandy, nothing but pine trees and ticks everywhere. Everyone one of these “complaints” are true. The pinelands of New Jersey are, save for a couple of small oaks and white cypress, almost exclusively pitch pine trees. The soil, other than some silty bogs is quite sandy. The soft white “sugar sand” deposited here from both having been under ocean waters in previous warm spells to having glacial till and melt deposition from the last ice age. The lack of topographic relief can also be attributed to the areas previous life under water with little to no opportunity for uplift since. While we haven't encountered ticks here I do believe that they can be prolific in the area. I suppose it's one's perspective that decides whether or not these facts are “boring”. The pine forest in the general sense is the first time a place has felt familiar to me in months. The smell and the sound of the wind through their spiked leaves is much more like the forests of California. The black tea colored bogs and streams rich in acids and tannins not so familiar. The acidic bogs of the area are perfect for growing cranberries, one of the largest food crops of South Jersey.

Apple Pie Hill Tower, tree with pink blaze of the Batona trail
Apple Pie Hill Tower, tree with pink blaze of the Batona trail

I love the feeling of being enveloped in a forest but have listened as Tim described his discomfort with not being about to get the lay of the land. This is a sentiment that he's expressed not just here but in many of these eastern forests. Even in the the naked winter the forests are so thick with trees that one can be on a hillside and not be able to discern much from the “view”. There seems to be an innate human need to be able to see what's around them, or even better what's coming. Which is most likely why the single most popular thing in the Pine Barrens is not the pines but the view from the Apple Pie Hill fire tower. Put in place for safety precautions it's now a place where kids go to party and scribble (petty and uninspired) tags. We walked 3.6 miles of the 50-ish miles that the Batona Trail, which cuts through the length of the park, has to offer to get to the tower from our campsite. The view from the top shows the full expanse of the pine forest and it's an impressive 360 degrees of pine forest. But I also think it just makes people feel more comfortable to see where they are in relation to the more familiar. A common comment of the view being that one can see Philly and Atlantic City on a clear day (or the lights at night).

Personally I can relate to this in that while I love looking at bodies of water I am often reluctant to get fully submerged because I don't know what's down there. This might also be why I'm scared of the dark. Most especially in a place I am unfamiliar with. There are entire societies of creatures that live their whole existence in the cover of darkness. My experience of this only scratches the surface and is often heard rather than seen. This was true in the pinelands when I heard the tell tell Whip-puurrrrr-whew of the Eastern Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus). A night time hunter, they rest on the ground or low branches where their camouflaging feathers help them to pluck unsuspecting insects passing overhead. The initial thought was that this was a strange sounding owl but once I really listened to the call there was no second guessing my bird. And this forest is FULL of them. The calls range in distance with one usually sounding within a few feet of the RV. Much the way other diurnal birds sing themselves to sleep with the setting of the sun the whip-poor-will seems to do the same with the coming dawn, only in a hurried and repetitive shrill. These wee hour alarms have us reaching for our ear plugs and giggling at the birds seeming anxiety.

A cool refreshing drink
A cool refreshing drink

Another part of this forest's ecosystem that no one can see but all should know about is the 17 trillion gallon aquifer below. The sandy forest above makes for an exceptional filter and this is some of the cleanest fresh water to be found. It's likely the single most convincing reason that made it possible to save this unique ecosystem from over development and/or continual over harvesting. When taking a cool drink straight from the well pump at the campground I'm reminded that the forest is always so much more than just the trees.