In all, the Pine Barrens respond explosively to flame, and thus they appear to be irresistible to incendiaries of many kinds.
—John McPhee, The Pine Barrens (1968)
The Pine Barrens is an ecosystem in which so many things are the opposite of what one would expect: a forest that grows from sand, a harsh environment in which delicate species thrive, a wilderness in New Jersey, a barrens that is anything but barren. Insect-eating plants, acidic wetlands, steams the color of black tea, species that exist nowhere else on the planet, long generational lines of people proud to be “Pineys”—all these are somehow embedded within the 1.1 million-acre reserve in the most densely populated state in the nation.
The Pine Barrens ecosystem has been shaped by many forces since the last glacier to approach South Jersey retreated approximately 10,000 years ago. Ancient polar winds have carved out small dunes, glacial outwash has leveled the sand, sea level change has alternately submerged and re-exposed the land, human development has encroached upon forest boundaries, roads and highways have crisscrossed its core. But David Scott Kessler’s video The Pine Barrens: Six Fires, a selected piece in this year’s Open Video Call at ICA, highlights the most intriguing force to shape the Pine Barrens: fire.
The science of fire ecology in the Pine Barrens goes like this. Most forests in the Northeast naturally burn quite infrequently, with fire return intervals of 100–200 years or more. This is characteristic of the maple-beech and oak-hickory forests of the region. But in the pine-oak forests of the Pine Barrens, the natural fire return interval is more like twenty to sixty years. In the pitch pine-shrub oak barrens, another vegetation community in the Pine Barrens, the fire return interval is only fifteen to twenty-five years. There is even a section of the Pine Barrens called the Pine Plains, in which the trees scarcely grow taller than the average human visitor. Some think that this dwarfed form is an adaptation to the shortest fire return interval in the Barrens, five to fifteen years. “If I’m going to burn up in ten years,” says the pine, “I’d better stop worrying about growing and start reproducing before it’s too late!”
Most of us can recall the televised public service announcements about preventing forest fires, with Smokey Bear pointing to us through our TV screens while lecturing about the dangers of forest fires. But in the Pine Barrens, fire maintains the ecosystem. Fire liberates nutrients locked up in trees and shrubs, returning them to the soil where they will be taken up by new growth. Fire in the Pine Barrens closes the loop between life and death.
Pitch pines (Pinus rigida) are the dominant pine species in the Pine Barrens, and they possess multiple adaptations to a fiery environment. Thick bark protects the living tissues inside their trunks. They can resprout from their root system even if the entire aboveground portion of the tree is burned to a crisp. The scales of their cones are sealed shut with a waxy resin that actually requires the heat and smoke of a fire to melt, opening the scales and releasing the seeds that will create the next generation of the forest. In fact, one can estimate the fire frequency of an area by tallying the proportion of these sealed, or serotinous, cones.
Pitch pines are pros at handling fire. But life is about tradeoffs, and for as much as pitch pines are fantastic at tolerating this harsh environment, they are inferior competitors against the less fire-tolerant oaks that also inhabit the Pine Barrens. As natural fire frequency declines due to intentional suppression intended to protect human life and property, the forest ecosystem shifts from a pine-dominated forest to an oak-dominated forest. In his 1968 book, The Pine Barrens, John McPhee wrote, “Most ecologists agree that if fire were kept out of the Pine Barrens altogether, the woods would eventually be dominated by a climax of black oaks, white oaks, chestnut oaks, scarlet oaks, and a lesser proportion of hickories and red maples.” Goodbye, Pine Barrens; hello, Oak Barrens.
It’s not just pine trees that thrive in the fiery Pine Barrens. As McPhee observed, “Of all the natural phenomena of the Pine Barrens, the most startling one is the speed with which the vegetation comes back from fire.” Wildflowers, grasses, and woody groundcover plants are also adapted to the sunny, open environment created by canopy-clearing forest fires. Plant species like sickle-leaved golden aster (Pityopsis falcata), broom crowberry (Corema conradii), and pixie-moss (Pyxidanthera barbulata) are found in fire-sculpted forest openings. It is here that the small white flowers of Pickering’s morning glory (Stylisma pickeringii var. pickeringii) dot the sand like constellations.
Local ecologists contend that the relative rarity of these plants is at least partly due to the habitat loss through fire suppression. If fire is removed from this ecosystem, so, too, will the fire-adapted species disappear.
But fire does not solely benefit wild flora and fauna. For as much as it rejuvenates the growth of the pines and other fire-dependent species, fire in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens rejuvenates spirits.
As Kessler’s The Pine Barrens: Six Fires shows, it is around fires that stories are shared, local legends are amended, and folklore is inherited. Accounts are told again and again of the Jersey Devil—the part-horse, part-bat, part-who-knows-what demon child of Mother Leeds that embodies as much mystery as the Pines themselves. A most appropriate ambassador.
In the Pine Barrens, fire is as primal a force for people as it is for forests. Fire connects death to life, destruction to renewal, people to people, people to land. Fire creates habitat; fire creates myth. Fire maintains the Pine Barrens ecosystem—people and all.
Dr. Amy Karpati is an ecologist and science educator with a doctorate in Ecology & Evolution from Rutgers University. She has worked as a conservation biologist and environmental advocate in the New Jersey Pinelands and currently teaches a course in urban ecology through Columbia University’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management program.
David Scott Kessler’s The Pine Barrens: Six Fires is excerpted from his feature-length documentary The Pine Barrens, which will be screened and accompanied by a live score at various locations this fall.