The Pine Barrens Review
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If you've never read a book or article by John McPhee, then you are missing a quiet pleasure. He writes nonfiction about a variety of people and places in a thorough and careful manner, yet with humor and insight too.

In The Pine Barrens, which he wrote back in 1967, he describes a huge tract of land in New Jersey that was populated by few people yet served as the acquifer for New York City. At least it did at the time. I often wonder now, so many years later, if development has changed the place and the people living there.

It is a lovely book. How wonderful to read about a community so physicaly close at hand and yet so culturally distant from common experience. He examines the land, of course, gives some idea of the importance of the place as a water source. But he's also looking at the people living there. The "pineys" -- who would object if outsiders called them that -- lived in conditions the rest of us would consider to be great deprivation. Yet they didnít feel deprived, and he explains quite effectively how this could be.

"Pineys are much more imaginative than non-pineys with the common names of plants and flowers. There is a plant in the Pine Barrens that has velvety, magical leaves to which water absolutely will not adhere. Its common name is golden club. The pineys call it neverwet."

Some say his writing is an acquired taste, because the breadth of his information can be daunting. His research is meticulous, and sometimes it takes sheer force of will to get through some of his longer books. To me, he chooses topics the way some choose a house; he's not only looking for a comfortable building, but also for the neighbors and the community and the surrounding natural environment that will together comprise his new home. He looks around him, researches the history or geology of a place, reads up on the native plants, and interviews the neighbors as if he's looking for long-term alliances. In the process, he demonstrates the value of exploring the life that's right here in front of us, if we would only pay such attention.

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