A few weeks ago, The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia hosted a special exhibit entitled The Pine Barrens Project: Ecologies of Place featuring a screening of producer and director David Scott Kessler’s film The Pine Barrens. I first heard of this documentary from a friend in late 2020, and this was my first opportunity to see it.
With a running time of a little over an hour and half, this “‘living’ documentary” evolved over the course of several years from 2012 to 2018 from a series of shorts woven together as a feature length film released in 2019. A unique aspect of screenings includes the accompaniment of The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra playing a slightly improvised live score.
The film covers many aspects of Pine Barrens history, culture, and ecology as well as current events. Diverse topics such as the legend of the Jersey Devil, the origin of the term Piney, cranberry farming, the unique ecosystem and wildlife along with political controversies surrounding land use are explored.
I was pleasantly surprised to spot my friend Barbara Solem, author of Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, offering commentary in several campfire sequences. I also got to chat briefly with Gretchen Lohse, the violist, from the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra after the film ended. She was kind enough to share some information about her group.
Ruins of Friendship
Taking its name from the Pine Barrens settlement of Friendship in Tabernacle, which was reduced to rubble by a wildfire in the 20th century and never rebuilt, the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra features musicians playing both traditional and electronic instruments. According to the orchestra page, current members include:
- Gretchen Lohse – viola
- John Pettit – guitar, trumpet, harmonium
- Ben Warfield – synthesizer
- Laura Baird – vocals, flute, banjo
- Veronica Jurkiewicz – viola
- Jesse Sparhawk – harp, bass
The Pine Barrens Project
In a question and answer session on the Academy of Natural Sciences blog, Kessler described how and why he began his Pine Barrens project. “I began to think about ways to depict the Pine Barrens, a place that I had previously never been to, but whose stories kept coming my way. The initial idea was to explore my perception of the Pine Barrens and how it might change with time and familiarity. That began a journey, now in its 11th year, that includes many other artists, musicians and dozens of people I’ve met along the way who chose to reveal their Pine Barrens story to me.”
The event also featured various film shorts and video presentations set up amongst the museum’s displays, which includes some Pine Barrens specimens:
- Pine Barrens by Nancy Holt – “a dynamic portrait of the New Jersey wilderness, shot by Holt as she ventures through a strikingly desolate landscape.”
- Field Resistance by Emily Drummer – “blurs the boundaries between documentary filmmaking and science fiction to investigate overlooked environmental devastation in the state of Iowa. “
- Ghost Forest by Michael Fodera and Maya Lin, produced by Madison Square Park Conservancy – “In nature, a ghost forest is the evidence of a dead woodland that was once vibrant. Atlantic white cedar populations on the East Coast are endangered by past logging practices and threats from climate change, including extreme weather events that yield salt water intrusion, wind events, and fire. The trees in Ghost Forest were all slated to be cleared as part of regeneration efforts in the fragile ecosystem of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. “
- a landscape to be invented by Josh Weissbach
- Ten Fires by David Scott Kessler and The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra
- Field Companion by Matt Suib and Nadia Hironaka – “based loosely on the pine barrens that dot Southern New Jersey”
Ecologies of Place
One of the major themes of the Pine Barrens Project is what Kessler describes as Ecologies of Place. In his question and answer session, Kessler pointed out that “One of the most exciting things about The Pine Barrens Project is how much influence the location where the film is screened has.“
The Academy of Natural Sciences, also known as Philadelphia’s dinosaur museum, provided a fitting backdrop for the film, which played in the museum’s auditorium. I haven’t been to the Academy in a few years. It was good to visit again. In addition to the Pine Barrens exhibit, attendees were able to explore the museum’s many attractions, including its 37 taxidermy dioramas and Dinosaur Hall. Dominating the Academy’s collection of dinosaur skeletons is, of course, its massive Tyrannosaurus Rex, a cast replica of fossils in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.