In 1968, John McPhee published The Pine Barrens, which is considered by many to be one of the foundational texts of environmental journalism. The book, which was originally published in The New Yorker, explores the inhabitants, places, and history in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a huge stretch of forest little understood by outsiders.
Although they are relatively close to Philadelphia and other major metropolitan areas, the Pine Barrens are still relatively undeveloped, but they are teaming with life both animal and plant, not to mention human. McPhee’s book introduces readers to a cast of interesting characters — Pineys, they called themselves — who told him all kinds of interesting stories, most of them true, some of them obviously embellished. The Jersey Devil, for example, is from the PIne Barrens. But there’s also a monument to a Mexican hero, a pilot who flew to Washington DC on a good-will flight, and crashed in the Pines during his return trip.
Although McPhee covers a lot of ground, he regularly returned to the ecology of the Pines, and the book is an elegant argument for their conservation. Throughout American history, people have tried to develop the Pines, to create “something” out of the perceived “nothing” that was there, but plans have never stuck. The soil isn’t good for farming, and large swaths of the land make up a number of state parks. And the Pineys, generally speaking, like the place just the way it is.
The Pine Barrens is a short read, and it’s available in several editions, including digital formats, so there’s no real excuse not to read it. It was a huge influence on environmental journalism, but it was also an early and iconic example of McPhee’s writing style, and a foundational work of creative non-fiction. It reads like a novel, but it’s not: it’s a work of dedicated investigative non-fiction that deserved every bit of fame it ever got. It’s a classic well worth revisiting.