In Search of Locality Cultural Preservation in the Age of Globalization

by Thomas Bentey

The Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey are a heavily forested region covering over 1.1 million acres. Despite its close proximity to New York, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City, the area is very much undeveloped. The sandy, acidic, and nutrient poor soil is terrible for farming and has left the region “barren” for centuries. The local inhabitants are sometimes referred to as “Pineys,” a seemingly derogatory term referencing the fugitives, poachers, and deserting soldiers that were known to live there. The Pine Barrens have always been a home for those looking for isolation (McPhee 1967). During Revolutionary times, people who remained loyal to the King took refuge in the vast forest. Some Hessian Soldiers, after their defeat at Trenton, deserted the British Army and went to live in the Pine Barrens. During the eighteenth century, many banished Quakers fled to the area. Smugglers transported stolen goods through its many streams and rivers. The major industry in the Pine Barrens until the mid 1850’s was iron. Many workers lived in the towns that were erected to sustain business. When high-grade coal and iron were found in Western Pennsylvania, the Iron industry was over in the Pines and many of the villages were deserted. Some people remained and their descendents continue to live in the region. I visited the area last fall, in search of a region untouched by the rapid changes that are endemic to most areas of the United States. I was looking for subject-matter for a film I intended to make about disappearing ways of life and felt drawn to this remote community. I noticed many “Keep Out” signs posted on trees that surrounded shacks. The workers at the tourist center at Batso Village (an old Iron Town that has been restored) were friendly and accommodating. However, when I ventured to a local tavern later in the day, I did feel like I was not welcome. I walked into a bar where everyone seemed to know each other and the patrons and staff were not friendly. I noticed one young man with a Confederate flag tattoo prominently displayed on the upper right side of his neck. At that moment I realized how isolated and confined the area truly was. While he was totally accepted and (seemingly) popular with the Pine Barrens residents, he would be a total outcast if he ever left that community.

Life in the Woods

In his acclaimed book on the area published in 1967, John McPhee stated that television brought an end to the complete isolation of the Piney’s, but their culture is still very unique and distinct from the rest of New Jersey. The residents have a strong community structure and are proud of their heritage and lifestyle. “Most of them tried other lives for a while, only to return un-reluctantly.” They feel that it is a privilege to live in the woods. McPhee states, “Given the small population of the pines, the extreme rarity of new people coming in, and the long span of time that most families had been there, some relationships were extraordinarily complicated and a few were simply incestuous.” The people that live in the Pines generally don’t leave. The “Piney” culture is clearly distinct from the surrounding areas and they like to be left alone. The researcher also states that after a generation or two of isolation, the locals have come to fear outsiders. This is taken as a sign of lunacy, but it is really just a fear of the unknown. Unlike most of New Jersey, there are no strip malls, supermarkets, or department chains in the area. In fact a central meeting place of many locals is Buzby’s general store in the heart of the Pines. The “city” to most residents, according to McPhee, is the suburban sprawl of nearby Mount Holly. Underneath the sandy soil of the region is a vast aquifer that contains some of the purest drinking water in the United States. Because of this, the area was designated the Pinelands National Reserve and development in the region is strictly controlled by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission. Today, Ocean Spray has its headquarters in the area, where cranberries and blueberries are grown and cultivated. Many locals work in the Ocean Spray plant or do odd jobs like fixing up cars and selling lumber. McPhee explains, “The people have no difficulty articulating what it is that gives them a special feeling about the landscape that they live in, they know that their environment is unusual and they know why they value it.” The author quoted one local as saying, “There ain’t nobody bothers you here. You can be alone. I’m just a woods boy. I wouldn’t want to live in a town.”

Reputation is very important to locals. One man stated, “A sense of security is high among us. We were from pioneers. We know how to survive in the woods. Here in these woods you have a reputation. A dishonest person can’t survive in the community….A man lives by his reputation and by his honesty and his ambition to work. If he doesn’t have it, he will be an outcast.”

Vernacular as Badge of Identity

Isolation from the surrounding area is exemplified by the use of a vernacular as well. McPhee states, “An outsider needs a glossary to follow simple directions.” While he was driving with a local, the man stated that he, “did not know that this road was oiled all the way up to here.” The road was covered with pavement. Most of the invented language relates to plants and wildlife that encompass the region. For example, the author writes that there is a plant that has velvety, magical leaves to which water will not adhere. Its common name is golden club, but the Piney’s call it “Never Wet.” A search for some local eateries and bars online displayed some “home-town” establishments. This is a rarity in New Jersey, a place known for its cookie-cutter chain restaurants and stores. “BJ’s Hedger House” in Chatsworth, generally referred to as the Capital of the Pines, is a bar which apparently caters to a “biker” crowd. There are pictures of Harley Davidson riders on its home page. When I was in the Pines, I noticed many “bikers” traveling around and stopping at local taverns. In fact, I did not go to the first bar I saw because it was filled with a “Harley” crowd and I did not want to feel completely out of place. I rarely, if ever, see “Harley” riders in my suburban New Jersey town or down the Jersey Shore. A glimpse at the menu reveals standard bar food, yet the prices are extremely low. The most expensive item is six dollars. This could be because most of the patrons don’t have much money to spend or it could relate to the quality of the food. In any event, in 2009, a menu so cheap is almost unheard of in the Garden State. A website, entitled www.pineypower.com is a Pine Barrens visitor’s guide. Under the nightlife section, I noticed that on Saturday nights, the Pinelands Cultural Society features the best local talent in the bluegrass and country music genre. I know that blue-grass and country music are not popular in central suburban New Jersey. I wondered how the musical tastes of the local residents differs from those of the surrounding areas. In the Frequently Asked Questions page on pineypower.com one of the questions states, “Where will I see Pineys?” This is followed by: “You'll see Pineys everywhere; running stores and banks, buying groceries and clothes; and even working in the cranberry and blueberry fields! In other words, Pineys are just like everyone else - rich or poor; listless or inspired; friendly or closed-mouthed; and so on. The thing to remember is that Pineys love and respect the Pine Barrens, and when we see anyone coming here and destroying what we love, we get upset. That includes tearing up our woods with ATV's without regard to the plants and animals that live there, much less the people who have lived off this land for centuries. STAY ON THE ROAD, whether it's blacktop or sugar-sand.” Despite the answer, the question implies that the people coming into the area as well as the Piney’s themselves, know that they are unique and probably like it that way. The next question was, “Are Pineys dangerous?” with “only when they see their Pine Barrens being destroyed by uncaring visitors, or when trespassers appear on their private property” as the answer.

The Impact of the Internet

I found some blogs and other websites devoted to the region.  www.njpinebarrens.com is a well managed site that serves to connect, “not only people who live in the area, but those who have an interest in the Pine Barrens - no matter where they live.” The threads on the site relate to culture, ecology, history, and exploration of the area.  After each person’s name on the blog, they identify themselves by their associations to the Pine Barrens, with such distinctions as “Piney,” “Scout,” and “Explorer.” The blog also seems to be a place where local residents defend the land they view as sacred.  In a forum relating to haunted gravesites, a “Piney” proclaims, “Old graveyards and cemeteries are best used for discovery of past and history, and for respect of persons interred, not for foolishness and haunted whimsical jaunts. That sort of thing only leads to destruction. It is no better than theft or neglect of the same. If that is all one wants, then old cemeteries are best left alone.”
There is an implicit threat in this statement that can send a chilling message. Clearly, the Pine Barrens residents cling dearly to their way of life, identifying deeply with their land, and harboring suspicion of the outsider. There are other parts of the state of New Jersey that are rural, but none with such a distinct and unique culture. What is likely to change as the Internet brings in more of the outside world into this secluded community? Is the Internet used predominantly by the locals to retell their own stories, or might forums like these complement or strip away traditional oral story telling? How has the culture of this area changed since McPhee did his research in the mid 1960’s? Is isolation and lack of openness the tradeoff for cultural (read ethnic) preservation in the age of globalization? The Pine Barrens raise intriguing questions about identity, history, and locality in the heart of diversity-oriented America.