McPhee treatise on Pine Barrens ‘one book’ pick

Organizers kick off campaign at Princeton Public Library.

By: Jennifer Potash
   The Pine Barrens region, often the stuff of myth and legend, will be highlighted and perhaps demystified as part of the One Book New Jersey reading and literacy campaign.
   The program’s aim is to encourage New Jersey residents to read and discuss the same book, said Dan Weiss, chairman of the One Book New Jersey Committee and director of the Fanwood Memorial Library in Fanwood.
   Organizers kicked off the campaign Tuesday at the Princeton Public Library, attended by many of the selected authors.
   This year’s One Book New Jersey selection for adults is "The Pine Barrens" by Princeton author John McPhee.
   In "The Pine Barrens," Mr. McPhee combines detailed descriptions of the region’s culture, ecology and history with anecdotes gleaned from meeting its residents through his travels.
   Mr. McPhee, born and raised in Princeton and a professor at his alma mater, Princeton University, said the selection of his book is terrific.
   "I was really quite amazed that 40 years after I started in on it," it’s still relevant, he said. "I’m glad it’s alive."
   A friend from his days at Princeton High School suggested the Pine Barrens as a subject, Mr. McPhee said.
   "He said there are holes in the ground so deep there’s no bottom and the people, they’re dangerous and all that," Mr. McPhee recalled.
   The Pinelands, totaling 1.1 million acres and encompassing 22 percent of New Jersey’s land area, is host to legends, myth and intrigue about its residents, sometimes referred to as the Pineys.
   Mr. McPhee found no bottomless holes and discovered the Pine Barrens residents were "wonderful," and many strongly believed in the Jersey Devil and other myths.
   Though many of the sandy roads and little towns in the Pine Barrens remain the same, Mr. McPhee is saddened by the loss of a fire tower at Bear Swamp Hill that offered an observation platform with a 360-degree view. A fighter plane hit the tower, destroying it about 30 years ago, he said.
   Mr. McPhee’s book influenced the passage of state legislation protecting the Pine Barrens, said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
   Mr. McPhee, a Princeton Township resident, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his work "Annals of the Former World," a geological tour along Interstate 80. His latest book is "The Founding Fish," a nonfiction work blending personal, natural and American histories. He is at work on a new piece for The New Yorker magazine about a tugboat’s travels along the Illinois River.
   The selection for young adults is a novel, "The Body of Christopher Creed," recounting the disappearance of a teenage misfit set in the Pine Barrens written by Margate writer Carol Plum-Ucci.
   Ms. Plum-Ucci said the Pine Barrens always held special allure for her while growing up in South Jersey.
   Just as the popular Harry Potter novels resonated with adults, Ms. Plum-Ucci said her book will appeal to those who are kids at heart.
   For the youngest readers, the selection is "How the Cat Swallowed Thunders" by Lloyd Alexander and illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner.
   The brightly illustrated story tells the tale of how Mother Holly, tired of Cat’s insouciant ways, warns the feline to do his chores and stay out of trouble.
   But when Mother Holly is away, Cat winds up trying to clean up an escalating mess in the house.
   Mr. Alexander, the author of more than 40 books for readers of all ages, was unable to attend so Ms. Schachner read a portion of the books to a half-dozen children.
   "You’ll have to check it out of the library to see how it ends," she said closing the storybook.
   The book for intermediate readers is "Because of Winn-Dixie," by Katie DiCamillo, who was not at the event.
   One Book New Jersey plans over 600 events throughout the state to encourage residents, young and old, to read the selected books.