‘Storytelling was once of enough importance in the Pine Barrens to give rise to a class of local Homers, some of whom did nothing at all but travel through the woods telling tales.”
This quote from John McPhee appears at the opening of David Scott Kessler’s film “The Pine Barrens,” just one of several films that put a spotlight on the environment — around the world and the state — in the annual Princeton Environmental Film Festival, running Monday, March 27, through Sunday, April 2.
While the Princeton-based McPhee wrote the line for his 1967 book “The Pine Barrens,” they echo in Kessler’s film, as “Pineys” or people of the New Jersey Pine Barrens — also called Pinelands — gather around bonfires to tell tales, many of them tall.
With lush cinematography and a symphony of sounds, Kessler takes audiences on a journey through the forested reserve that dominates the southern half of New Jersey. There is some narration, but the main character is the Pine Barrens itself. That will be clear when the “The Pine Barrens” is performed with live music by the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival at the Frist Center on the Princeton University campus on Saturday, April 1, at 7 p.m.
The film’s arrival at the festival coincides with the recent news that the 15-member Pinelands Commission, established in 1979 to serve as the guardians of preservation and responsible land use, voted to approve a controversial 22-mile pipeline through the environmentally sensitive lands.
And true to the festival’s mission, the occasion provides time to remember and reflect on this important resource.
The Pine Barrens is the largest tract of undeveloped land between Maine and Florida, with 27 varieties of wild orchids, including Pink Lady’s Slipper, providing a habitat to 43 threatened or endangered animals. In 1978 the U.S. Congress passed legislation to designate 1.1 million acres as the Pinelands National Reserve, the nation’s first national reserve, thanks in part to the attention paid to the region by McPhee’s eponymous book, which began as a series of New Yorker articles focusing on the region’s history and ecology. The Pine Barrens helps recharge the 17 trillion gallon Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer containing some of the purest water in the United States.
In Kessler’s film, we watch fires, necessary for the replenishment of the pines, dance through the forest — if it weren’t for the fires, we’d be looking at oak or maple barrens. “Controlled burns help to remove non-native invasive growth and clear underbrush for pitch pines,” says Kessler from his studio in Philadelphia’s Old City. “The pine cones don’t even open until they reach about 180 degrees, so the pitch pines need fire.”
As mist rises from the water, a man in a safari hat and khakis paddles a kayak along the rusty waterways, narrating the adventure. The water is browned by iron deposits and tannins from leaf litter, and in turn spawns an array of plant and animal life — so, ecologically, the Pine Barrens is anything but barren. Our narrator — New Egypt-based artist and writer Allen Crawford — revels in the scents and the wind in the trees. Along the way we catch glimpses of Albert Music Hall, fungus, kids playing in water, raindrops, and butterflies. There are conversations about getting lost in the woods at night, eating deer turds, and finding the Jersey Devil. We spend a good amount surrounded by darkness, listening to the noises. We meet cranberry farmers, a decoy maker, a basket weaver, and a jeweler who works with Pinelands “diamonds” — beautiful pieces of found glass in jewel tones that are polished to a high luster.
Forty-five minutes into this exploration of paradise, we are jolted by a soundtrack overlay of a Radio Times interview about the pipeline, which had been opposed by four preceding governors of New Jersey. Governor Christie appointed new members to the commission who he knew would support the pipeline. Their rationale: the pipeline will create jobs; natural gas is a more renewable form of energy than coal.
Cut to a section of graffiti: NJ sucks. The narrator in the safari hat says “when you’re out here surrounded by reclaimed ruins, this place puts you in your proper place.”
The moon is full, moths are drawn to flame, and humans imitate the sounds of the tree frog until the frog itself bellows back its quacking sound, a big bubble expanding and contracting under his jaw.
The narrator takes us down a trail that has been widened by ATVs, destroying the plant life, destroying soil that could rejuvenate and heal the forest “but we never let it heal,” Crawford says.
Back around the fire, there is conversation about how eugenics was born in the Pinelands. Despite inhospitable living conditions, Pineys lived off the land, collecting and selling what they hunted or fished. To discourage outsiders, Pineys told stories of violence, including stories of the Jersey Devil.
But people who lived off the land were not generally well regarded. Pineys were considered, by some, to be the dregs of society: fugitives, poachers, moonshiners, or deserting soldiers. In the early 20th century, “research” depicted them as inbred feeble-minded uneducated drunkards. These reports were used by Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred Eastern Europeans, Jews, Arabs, and East Asians from entering the country, led to the sterilization of those deemed unfit, and later influenced Nazi Germany.
Kessler, who studied painting, sculpture and illustration at Parsons School of Design, University of the Arts, and Montclair State University, has known about the Pine Barrens since his childhood in Union. “I knew of it as a mysterious place with a devil, as part of Weird New Jersey,” he says. “That’s the way most people view it, through a veil of mystery and folklore.”
Kessler moved to Philadelphia in the late 1990s and works there as a visual artist, filmmaker, illustrator, and digital animator. It wasn’t until 2011 when, with the idea of using the Pines as a background for a graphic novel, he set out with his digital SLR to gather reference material. He brought along Allen Crawford, who had extensive knowledge of the ecology, and some of his musician friends. In a former industrial town named Friendship, the musicians started performing in a cellar pit and have been playing together ever since.
Kessler quickly abandoned the graphic novel in favor of a film. “I thought it would be a good collaboration through music, since I was doing everything else myself.” Kessler, now 41, served as producer, director, cinematographer, sound recorder, and editor.
With harp, flute, banjo, viola, bass, trumpet, guitar, synthesizer, and vocals, the music performed by the Ruins of Friendship is largely improvised. “Having a live performance makes it a richer experience,” Kessler says. “I wanted the audience to experience process as well as product. For me, part of the narrative of the film is the process of going from naive explorer and working through, and those who come to a performance can follow the evolution. It’s not just a document of what happened.”
Soon, Kessler bought a Jeep in which to make the one-hour trip from his apartment in Kensington. He would frequently go for the day, in all four seasons, spending time with the people who populate the film.
It took five years to complete the project. Kessler learned to mount his camera on a kayak, to use a special housing for underwater shots, such as in a cranberry bog, and to wear waders. He used macro lenses for close-ups of insects (“You miss a lot if you don’t get up close”), and cameras with low-light capability for filming at night. He had to travel light, never with more than three lenses. “I was particular about how I would frame and compose each shot, so it was more like a narrative than a documentary,” says Kessler, who also had to carry a tripod and a small audio recorder. “Every couple of weeks the sound changes. Senses are what I was focused on, so sound was as crucial as visual.” He blended archival field recordings with music.
The Ruins of Friendship, having been there from the beginning, became familiar with the sounds of the Pines, and their music is made with these in mind.
The secret to Kessler’s success was just being there: for the conversations around the fire, for the moment when the basket maker, who studied survival skills, makes a fire out of fatwood shavings.
But Kessler’s work isn’t over. As the battle over the pipeline continues, he will continue filming. The Sierra Club plans to challenge the decision in court. “After the commission’s vote, about 600 people were in the room screaming at the commissioners, pleading with them to do right thing and not poison the water. The commissioners ignored the scientific community and the majority of public input. I will continue to follow this, but don’t want to change the tone too much. It’s about place as character, but the political stuff is unavoidable. At some point there’s no way to experience the Pine Barrens without discovering the rights of people who lived there for generations.
“I’m an artist first and foremost and will continue to make art,” says Kessler. “I became an advocate from spending so much time on this subject. I want to continue to make art, but if there’s a way I can contribute ... We’ll see.”
The Princeton Environmental Film Festival will run Monday, March 27, through Sunday, April 2.
Included in the lineup are some other New Jersey-specific works, such as the Tuesday, March 28, screening of “Small Business Across America,” paired with a panel and audience discussion with local entrepreneurs Alec Gioseffi of Cherry Valley Cooperative Center for Permaculture and Holistic Wellness; Charles Rosen of Jersey Cider Works in Hunterdon County; Dean Smith of JaZams in Princeton; and moderator Fran McManus of Jersey Edible.
On Friday, March 31, Hunterdon County-based filmmaker Jared Flesher launches the New Jersey premiere of “Birds of May,” a story of the federally threatened rufa red knot and its annual visit to the Delaware Bay.
Films are screened at the Princeton Public Library, Princeton University campus, and Princeton Garden Theater. Screenings are free and some are accompanied by a Q&A with film directors and producers, as well as talks by guest speakers. Full schedule: www.princetonlibrary.org/peff/schedule.
For more information about “The Pine Barrens,” David Scott Kessler and The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra: www.pinebarrensfilm.com