I first saw David Scott Kessler’s experimental documentary film The Pine Barrens in the heart of the Pine Barrens itself, at the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, a cranberry farm and nature preserve nestled deep down a long dirt road in southern New Jersey. I watched, rapt, as the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra performed a lilting, wandering, live score replete with harp, strings, banjo, and ethereal vocals. I became so engrossed in the film that at times I forgot the orchestra was even there.
The Pine Barrens is a sprawling, elegiac film that touches on the area’s delicate ecology, its commercial history of having some of country’s largest cranberry and blueberry farms, “Piney” culture and local folklore, and an imminent pipeline proposal that may threaten it all. That iteration of the film was a draft, only partially complete. Kessler, a 2015 Pew Center for Arts and Heritage Fellow, has spent the past few months shooting, re-cutting, and editing the film, and just launched an Indiegogo campaign to complete it. He hopes to release it in its finalized form this year, and a short film assembled from selections of its footage, Nine Fires, will be screening on April 22 at the Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival.
The Pine Barrens is comprised of 1.1 million acres of pine trees, acidic soil, and a network of bogs and marshes, spanning across more than seven counties. It is the largest area of undeveloped land between Maine and Florida, set within the most densely populated state in the nation. Kessler began with the intention of making a short film charting the region’s ecological and human relationships, but he ended up filming for over six years, capturing the Pinelands in every imaginable state and season. In the process of filming, Kessler fell deeply in love with the landscape, and The Pine Barrens is marked by long, lingering shots that fixate on the area’s flora and fauna — orchids moving in the breeze, water coursing over mud through reeds, mist rising off the water — in ways that appear strange and alien, heightened by the sparse and atmospheric sounds of the Ruins of Friendship. Some of the most astonishing footage is Kessler’s shots of the Pines engulfed in flame, which open the film and recur throughout it. The camera appears mere feet away from plumes of fire licking the trunks of trees and consuming underbrush. The fire is, in fact, an ecologically important natural occurrence that promotes regeneration, and it serves as a guiding metaphor for themes of destruction, mystery, and transmutation in the film.
Allen Crawford, a New Jersey native and amateur naturalist, serves as a guide for much of the film. Middle-aged and lean, he carouses the woods in sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and wading boots, leading us through the Pinelands, which hosts 43 threatened or endangered animal species. “Do you smell that smell? It’s the pine needles baking. That’s a summer smell. I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never been in a more fragrant forest,” he says in one of the opening scenes in the film. Crawford escorts us through brush and brambles, lazily kayaks down a stream, and traipses across barricades of fallen trees, all the while pointing out a rare orchid, or mimicking the sounds of the tree frogs. This is the history of the Pine Barrens not from historians and academics, but from the people who populate it themselves.
The Pines are imbued here with a sensation of otherworldliness, and many scenes take place at night, amidst croaking frogs and howling winds. This is the stuff myths are made of, and storytelling, passed down through generations of the Pinelands’ residents, is wound throughout the film, giving the forest a sense of richness, depth, and mystery. What makes it even more intriguing is that this “forest primeval,” as one of the storytellers dubs it, exists in one of the nation’s most populated states, bordered by highways, in a place more associated with shopping malls and suburbia than rare natural wonders.
The Pine Barrens also provides a portrait of the denizens of this enigmatic landscape. The camera hovers around a campfire as locals, who refer to themselves as “Pineys,” swap tales of their famed mythical monster, the Jersey Devil, and talk about the waves of settlers, from the Lenape Indians to English, Italian, and German immigrants, who make up their family trees. The story of the Pines is inherently complicated, as are its Piney residents. One fireside storyteller discusses the origins of a smear campaign against Pinelands residents in the early days of American eugenics, which branded them as inbred and intellectually bereft. Tales like this are intermingled with scenes where men casually wear hats emblazoned with confederate flags, or sing songs about how people must speak English in America. Some residents take up the self-proclaimed mantle of “rednecks” and ride ATVs and trucks through the ecologically sensitive landscape. Others seem to value the Pine Barrens as a personal sanctuary, or as a point of familial pride. The film is tinged with a deep sense of nostalgia, a reckoning of marginalized pasts, and a look forward to an uncertain future.
The film has recently acquired a new sense of urgency — a proposed pipeline to transport natural gas was green lighted in February, amidst a throng of 400 protesters, by the Pinelands Commission, a governing body whose purpose has historically been to protect and preserve the Pines. A nearly identical proposal was previously halted by the Commission in 2012, but Governor Chris Christie took the unusual step of refusing to reappoint the members of the Commission who opposed the pipeline and instead replaced them with others who have close ties to the energy industry. The pipeline is currently tied up in litigation after the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Pinelands Alliance sued following the Pinelands Commission’s decision. Much like the recent widely opposed North Dakota Access Pipeline, this pipeline threatens a carefully sustained, but fragile ecosystem and its residents’ way of life. The Pine Barrens feeds the 17-trillion gallon Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer which contains some of the purest water in the United States, meaning that the pipeline could also be in danger of poisoning the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention plants and animals. In addition, residents and activists are afraid of the legal precedent set by this ruling, which undermines the Pineland Commission’s ability to prevent further development on this environmentally important land.
Not initially intending to make an environmental documentary, Kessler now hopes that The Pine Barrens can serve as a call to arms, inspiring others to take action and to raise awareness of the unique nature of the Pinelands. The magical and mysterious swamps of South Jersey have been subject to ebbs and flows of nature, agriculture, and history, but have always regenerated through the smoldering ash. The pipeline’s impingement on its storied ecology may be the Pine Barrens biggest challenge yet.