The Pine Barrens at Philadelphia’s Dinosaur Museum

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
Ghost Forest film installation at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia with diorama of bear
Ghost Forest (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

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.

Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in Dinosaur Hall at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia
Tyrannosaurus Rex(Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The Domestic Fowl of Smithville

At the end of February, I visited Historic Smithville in Galloway Township. According to its website, “Smithville started as a simple, one room, stage coach stop. Over the last 50 years it has blossomed into a wonderful memory-making way to spend a day or two!”

Flock of Domestic Fowl in Historic Smithville in Galloway, NJ near Lake Meone
Domestic Fowl of Smithville (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Officially categorized as an unincorporated community and census-designated place, Smithville features a shopping village with 60 “shoppes,” the Historic Smithville Inn “where the simple dream of Smithville began,” and Lake Meone. A flock of domestic ducks and geese freely roam Smithville and swim in the lake, mingling with shoppers and diners.

Pair of Domestic Geese at Historic Smithville in Galloway, NJ near Lake Meone
Pair of Domestic Geese (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Snow Birds of Prey: The Eagle, Falcon, and Harrier

Juvenile Bald Eagle over Atco Lake

This warm spell is making me look forward to spring when many bird species return to Jersey. In the meantime, I’ve been photographing the birds who spend the winter with us. After the blizzard  earlier this month, I took my camera to Atco Lake. Mallard ducks and Canada geese make the lake their home along with a pair of swans. The swans are usually on the other side of the lake, but I once caught them feeding very close to shore.

I went to the spot where I had photographed the swans but didn’t expect to see much with the lake frozen over. Suddenly, a large brown bird swooped over the ice directly in front of me, close enough for me to immediately recognize it as a juvenile bald eagle searching for breakfast. With slim pickings on the ice, it soared away over the White Horse Pike.

Juvenile American Bald Eagle Flying Over Frozen Atco Lake in Waterford, NJ towards White Horse Pike
Atco Lake Eagle and White Horse Pike (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Peregrine Falcon on Forsythe’s Osprey Platforms

I also made several trips to Forsythe this month. I was hoping to get shots of snowy owls or bald eagles but no luck there yet. The drives were not in vain, though, since I got my first shots of peregrine falcons. I caught two of these famously fast and wide-ranging raptors perching on the vacant osprey nesting platforms. This one returned the gaze of a group of bird watchers for a few minutes before taking off.

Northern Harrier along Wildlife Drive at Forsythe

I’ve encountered harriers on numerous occasions at Forsythe but have not had the best of luck getting a good photo of this medium-sized raptor with an owl-like face. I spotted several hunting along Wildlife Drive on each of my visits. Their usual prey includes small mammals and birds, but I saw one going after ducks once. On another visit last spring, I photographed one near one of the observation towers. On my most recent visit, I photographed one at the beginning of the drive and another where the drive loops with Atlantic City and Brigantine in the background.

Growth Versus Preservation in Evesham

Five years ago on Valentine’s Day 2017, I became the proud owner of my first horse. For the next eight months, I boarded my new black gelding at my trainer’s farm in Evesham, NJ and learned the basic responsibilities of horse ownership.

Evesham or Marlton?

Established in 1688, Evesham Township was incorporated under the Township Act of 1789, making it one of the original 104 municipalities in the state of New Jersey. Most Philadelphians and residents of South Jersey, including myself, know the area better as Marlton. I learned from John Volpa, founder of the Black Run Preserve, that this name came into use in the 19th century when people began excavating and selling marl clay from the region’s soil.

When I drove to Evesham from my office near Philadelphia, I was struck by how quickly the densely developed area suddenly became very rural. I later learned that this dichotomy resulted from Evesham’s location on the border of South Jersey’s suburban sprawl along with its status as a protected Pine Barrens municipality. 

Evesham sits north of my township of Waterford with the Mullica River running along their shared border. Most of Evesham Township, except for the northernmost section, falls within the state pinelands area. These are the management areas within Evesham designated by the Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) along with their descriptions from the CMP website:

  • Forest Area: “This is a largely undeveloped area that is an essential element of the Pinelands environment. It contains high quality water resources and wetlands and provides suitable habitat for many threatened and endangered species. Clustered housing on one acre lots is permitted at an average residential density of one home per every 28 acres. Roadside retail within 300 feet of pre-existing commercial uses is permitted, as are low intensity recreational uses.”
  • Regional Growth Area: “These are areas of existing growth and adjacent lands capable of accommodating regional growth influences while protecting the essential character and environment of the Pinelands. Permitted residential densities range from two to six homes per acre with sewers. Sewered commercial and industrial uses are also permitted.”
  • Rural Development Area: “This is a transitional area that balances environmental and development values between conservation and growth areas. Limited, low-density residential development and roadside retail is permitted. Clustered housing on one acre lots is permitted at an average residential density of one home for every five acres. Community commercial, light industrial and active recreational uses served by septic systems are also permitted.”

The Black Run Preserve and the Promenade at Sagemore

The Black Run Preserve, a 1300 acre nature preserve, is located within the Rural Development Area as was my trainer’s farm. Yet the Regional Development Area of Evesham is also home to the Promenade at Sagemore, a self-described “lifestyle center” with a “dazzling collection of upscale boutiques, high-end retail stores, and restaurants set amidst beautiful landscaping, calming water features, and architecture.”

Hopewell Bald Eagle

I eventually moved my horse to a farm in Shamong, but I also moved to Waterford with the natural attractions and developed amenities of Evesham close by. Driving to my vet’s office through Evesham’s Rural Development Area late one Friday afternoon, I spotted a large adult bald eagle feeding on a carcass in a field along Hopewell Road with a pair of turkey vultures waiting their turn. Unfortunately, I left my DSLR at home and only got a cell phone shot. Still, it was my first shot of an adult bald eagle in the wild. And it was right there in Evesham, near the bustle of rush hour traffic on Route 73 and the calm of Black Run.

Cell phone photo of a bald eagle feeding on a carcass while a pair of turkey vultures await their turn
Bald Eagle in Evesham (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Aunt Dora’s Atlantic City: Neptune’s Playground

My great Aunt Dora owned a modest terrace house in pre-casino Atlantic City just off Georgia Avenue, a short walk from America’s first boardwalk. Aunt Dora made the best pasta and peas, and she drank, danced, and loved life throughout the 90 plus years she graced our family. 

Brigantine borders the famous seaside resort, and Aunt Dora would come to visit our shore house in the summer, riding the #501 bus, the only line serving Brigantine. And when I was little, my parents would take me to visit Aunt Dora. We would spend time on the beach during the day, and at night, visit the Million Dollar Pier on the boardwalk across from what is now Caesars Atlantic City Casino. The pier featured amusement park rides, carnival games, and other entertainment.

Million Dollar Pier

Opened in 1906 by John L. Young and Kennedy Crossan, a builder from Philadelphia, the Million Dollar Pier hosted conventions and entertainment events. It benefited from Atlantic City’s enormous popularity as a summer destination when the resort became known as the “World’s Playground.”

Because of its proximity to Aunt Dora’s house, the pier was a favorite of my family, although my older cousins preferred the famous Steel Pier, claiming it had better attractions. They may have had a point. Both piers suffered financially as Atlantic City entered the era of casino gambling. While Steel Pier endures as an amusement pier, the Million Dollar Pier closed and was demolished with the help of a suspicious fire in the early 80s. A shopping mall pier called Ocean One built to resemble an ocean liner took its place. Today, it’s the location of the Playground Pier.

Miss America

In the 1920s, the Million Dollar Pier served as a venue for the nascent Miss America pageant. Conceived as a way to attract business to Atlantic City’s boardwalk, the first contest was held in 1921. Evolving into a scholarship competition, the pageant survived the Great Depression, scandals, and changing societal expectations and celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America, received a Golden Mermaid trophy in an event presided over by “King Neptune.” Today’s Miss America organization revamped itself in recent years, dropping the traditional swimsuit and evening gown competitions and focusing on talent and achievement instead.

Close up of a sand sculpture of Neptune at the Atlantic City Boat Show
Neptune (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Convention Hall

The walk from Aunt Dora’s house to the Million Dollar Pier took us past what was then known as Convention Hall, the iconic building with a barrel vault roof that served as Atlantic City’s first convention center. Known today as Boardwalk Hall and longtime home of the Miss America pageant, it became a national historic landmark in 1987.
In 1997, Atlantic City received a new convention center. Designed by a Philadelphia firm, the facility offers venues for conventions, meetings, and receptions as well as trade shows and exhibitions such as the annual Atlantic City Boat Show.

A sand sculpture of Neptune at the Atlantic City Boat Show
Atlantic City Boat Show Sand Sculpture (Photo by Beach and Barrens)