In the Megalopolis
By Angus Phillips
The Washington Post,
December 30, 1977
the East Coast wilderness buff find wild woods as endless as Yosemite
National park, yet within driving distance of Washington or New
New Jersey, believe
it or not.
The Jersey Pine Barrens
stretch some 650,000 acres through the southeastern and southcentral
part of the state. Through the years they've stood up to the onslaughts
of man and machine, and today they are for the most part empty.
Some of the land is
state-owned, some privately held, and a great part of it seems
to be plain non-owned, without sign of use or improvement. It
is wild and nearly impenetrable, left to the deer and grouse and
wild dogs that flourish there.
It was not ever thus,
John McPhee wrote a compellingly interesting study on the Barrens
for The New Yorker magazine in 1967, in which he described periods
when the Pines were hopping with farming and industry. There were
logging operations and charcola and iron manufacturing spurts
in colonial days, when iron was discovered in the rocks along
the beds of the clear, cold creeks that are everywhere in the
There were and still
are big cranberry and blueberry operations, and around Christmastime
sprigs of holly, mistletoe, cedar and pine were collected and
sold to the city folks for decorations.
But most of these occupations
have been passed over by time and America's answer to all slow
and steady things, progress. Progress left only a few stragglers
behind to squeeze a livelihood out of the dark and damp scrub
forests, and these people are called Pineys.
Tom Brown fancies himself
a Piney, although today he lives in Wanamassa, several miles north
of the northern edge of the Barrens. He was born in the Pines,
the son of Scottish immigrants who settled after World War II
in Chatsworth, a small town near the center of the Pines.
Brown continues to
live the nomadic life of a Piney - his only semi-straight job
is sweeping up parking lots two nights a week for a friend in
the contracting business.
"I work enough
to keep me going. The rest of the time I spend in the barrens.
I'll show you why."
With that Brown sets
us off in his rattletrap Landcruiser for a rumble through the
cedar, scrub oak and pine woods, along ancient sand roads, some
dating to colonial times, that somehow stay cleared and that somehow
he can tell apart.
We go to Forked River
Mountain, 25 feet above sea level, from which we can look over
an endless panorama of more scrub oak, cedar, pine and streams.
We go to the fire tower, where we can see still more of the dame.
And in eight hours of wandering through back roads and woods,
we see not one other person.
We stop only when we
hit a high spot, when we roust a grouse from the sandy roadside
or when we see deer tracks. Because tracking is Brown's obsession.
It is an art he learned
alone, when he had nothing to do as a child but wander the hardscrabble
landscape and look for distractions. He has tacked dog packs,
deer, raccoons and every other wild creature that travels the
pines. But mostly he tracks people, some hopelessly lost on hunting
expeditions in the Pines, others who have slipped into the wilderness
to seal dope deals, strip cars or deposit bodies. He helps the
police when he's asked.
Lately his Pines-learned
trade has taken him far afield. Last month he was in St. Croix,
Virgin Islands, to track a lost oil company executive, whose footsteps
he found leading off a cliff. Before that he was brought in on
a North Jersey rape case and tracked down a man later accused
of armed robbery, though never held on the rape charges.
But for Brown the deepest
thrill remains in tracking deer through the unyielding brush of
the Barrens, and his chief goal no longer is shooting them. "I
had to shoot deer as a child to eat. And when we didn't have enough
money for shells I'd stand by a trail and wait to spear them.
I don't have any taste for the hunt left."
So now when Brown goes
in the woods to track deer, his coup de grace is applied with
the flat of his palm. He sneaks up on them or lays an ambush,
and when the unsuspecting buck or doe draws close, he draws back
and whacks it on the behind.
It might take days
and it yields nothing. It's a sport for a Piney, a man without
a mind for time and circumstance.