Jim Amon would like you to know that you’re living next door to a kind of miracle and the little miracles that are happening within it every day.
The miracle is the central New Jersey region known as the Sourlands, 20,000 acres of forest, wetland, and grassland that lies within Hunterdon, Mercer, and Somerset counties.
Largely spared from development thanks to its rocky landscape, the Sourlands serves as an enduring yet fragile refuge for a diverse population of plant and animal life; an island of biodiversity amidst a sea of Garden State sprawl.
Protecting even a terrain as unsuited to development as the Sourlands is a constant challenge, and it’s that mission to which Jim Amon has dedicated his recently published book of photographs and essays, “Seeing the Sourlands.”
Amon, 80, has devoted most of his life to promoting conservation and stewardship, a half-century of both paid and volunteer service to land preservation and to the education of others about the need to appreciate and preserve the beauty and variety of the natural world.
That’s almost exactly the number of years Amon has lived in the Garden State. He and his spouse, Kathleen, currently call the river town of Lambertville home.
There were a few twists and turns along the way before Amon found his life’s calling. Born and raised in a then-undeveloped area adjoining Cleveland, Ohio, Amon recalls earning money as a trapper. “I actually had a trap line when I was in school,” he says. “I caught 50 to 100 muskrats every trapping season and sold the pelts for $2 apiece to Sears & Roebuck.”
But in those days Amon thought his true calling was in the world of academe. He studied history and philosophy, earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Ohio State, then drove his VW Bus westward, bound for San Francisco. He made it as far as Berkeley and decided to stay there.
“I went to school at San Francisco State and got a master’s degree,” he says. “I thought at the time that I would get a PhD and be a college professor, but a number of circumstances came up, and that didn’t happen. One of them was that I got married and had a baby.”
In need of a job, Amon was connected by a friend worked for a publishing house with an executive at Oxford University Press. Amon was offered a position with the New York office, prompting the move to New Jersey.
When his stint at the publishing house had run its course, another friend came through with a serendipitous offer that completely redirected Amon’s career path, a temporary position as an assistant to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection until he found another job in publishing.
“I did a number of special projects,” Amon recalls. “One of them was that the New Jersey legislature wanted to have a state-wide wild scenic rivers program. They wanted to do the river system in the Pinelands initially, so they told me to prepare a report and write the legislation for the program. Well, I’d never written legislation or done a study of rivers before, but they told me to do it, so I did.”
Amon notes that at around the time of his rivers project, in 1973, the New Jersey state legislature passed a law designating the Delaware & Raritan Canal a state park, and enabling the establishment of a Canal Commission to oversee the park and a plan for its development.
The commission hired Amon as its first employee. “The commissioner said to me ‘Don’t you think we should hire an environmentalist, or recreational specialist, or water specialist? A historical specialist, because the canal is on the National Register?’” Amon remembers with a chuckle. “And I said ‘No, you should hire somebody who knows how to find advice, and knows how to separate good advice from bad advice, and that’s what editors do, and I’m good at that.’ And they bought it!”
Fast-forward nearly 30 years. “When I retired at 65-and-a-half I realized that I wasn’t tired of working,” he says, “and one of the things I realized when I was at the Canal Commission was that the state could only do so much for the canal, so I either promoted or in many cases formed historical or environmental organizations that would have a focus on making the canal park a better public resource.”
Amon joined with three other people (Rosemary Blair, Sam Hamill, and Bob Johnston) to form the Delaware & Raritan Greenway. He headed up the search committee that hired Linda Mead, the current executive director.
“Linda was the director when I retired,” he says, “and I went to her and said, ‘Linda, remember when I gave you a job?’ (Laughs) And as it turned out, she was ready to have the first time ever Land Steward director, so I was hired as the D&R Greenway’s Director of Stewardship in 2004.”
It was then that Amon began to acquire a deeper knowledge of the plant and animal life he had spent so many years helping to preserve. “I knew something about the natural world, but I wasn’t really an expert in anything,” he admits. “A friend of mine who’s a restoration biologist heard I’d taken this job with the Greenway and said ‘Jim, you know, somebody needs to know what plants are growing on the Greenway’s preserves, and that somebody is you.’
“At the time, Bowman’s Hill had a class every Saturday morning on the natural world,” he continues. “They would focus on plants, or animals, or processes. So for about three years I attended Bowman’s Hill’s classes and learned how to identify trees in winter and all sorts of other things.”
At the same time Amon learned that land stewardship — protecting water and air quality, wildlife habitat, and the natural beauty of preserved land — was a nascent practice in New Jersey.
“I didn’t know what to do, and there was no one at the Greenway who could tell me what to do, so eventually I called the director of stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and asked him, and he said ‘Oh, I pretty much make it up every morning’ so I thought … OK! And that’s what I did.”
Amon also formed an organization called the Stewardship Round Table and invited anyone in the region who was involved in stewardship to meet and exchange ideas and information. “We ended up meeting quarterly,” he says, “and although I’ve retired, I’m pleased to say that the Stewardship Round Table is still meeting today.”
So, how did Jim Amon’s interest in nature, his writing, and his interest in photography dovetail and ultimately result in his book, “Seeing the Sourlands?”
“My interest in writing started when I was in college,” he says. “I took an expository writing class, non-fiction, and I was good at it. And so it encouraged me to continue.”
Amon’s writing skills were put to good use at the D&R Canal Commission, and he was soon pressed into becoming the commission’s photographer as well. “There was no photo archive,” he recalls, “so if I wanted to put out a press release and have a photo with it I had to go out and take it. I took a class at Mercer County Community College, and that got me started looking at photography as an art and being much more serious about it than I had been in the past.”
As Amon’s knowledge of the natural world deepened, he began to combine his writing with the photographs he took on his perambulations and began to write essays accompanied by his photographs that he called “The Native Plant of the Month” in an effort to educate others about the flora and fauna of preserved lands.
After Amon left the Greenway and joined the board of the Sourlands Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on the promotion and preservation of the Sourlands. His photo essays, re-branded “Seeing the Sourlands,” became a mainstay of the Conservancy’s public awareness effort. Amon began producing 14 installments a year, one per month via email and two more in the Conservancy’s semi-annual newsletter.
The emphasis on “seeing” stemmed from Amon’s interaction with volunteer crews from companies doing public service work on preserved land. “I realized that it wouldn’t be enough for these people to just come and do some work for the Greenway,” he says. “I felt I should give them something back, some understanding of what they were seeing. And it was appalling to me when I found out that they weren’t ‘seeing’ it.”
Amon cites an exchange with a young professional on one such crew, who asked him ‘Why do all the trees look exactly alike?’ I thought, ‘They don’t, you’re not seeing them.’”
The idea for publishing Amon’s photo essays as a book came after he had been at it for about five years. “The executive director of the Sourland Conservancy at the time, Caroline Katmann, said, ‘This has got to be a book’ and got a grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb and mounted a fundraising campaign to raise the rest,” Amon says.
“The book cost more to publish than originally planned because Caroline had a wonderful outlook, that whenever there was a decision about the weight of the cover or the quality of the paper or how many pictures there should be, her decision was always to choose the best. She was the driving force.”
In the humble opinion of this reporter, Amon does not exaggerate; “Seeing the Sourlands” is one of the most attractively designed, beautifully printed, and informative books on the subject you are likely to encounter.
The book consists of four sections: “The Charm of the Sourlands,” “Plants,” “Animals,” and “Principles and Other Issues.” Intended to educate as well as inspire, readers are not only treated to a visual feast of the creatures, plant life, and topology of the Sourlands, they learn about some of the everyday miracles that Amon has observed on his walks and learned through the extensive research that he has undertaken when preparing each essay.
Although obvious to anyone who has spent time on the trails that crisscross the region, Amon’s words and images serve to entice those who have never visited to explore, and appreciate, the Sourlands.
In his introduction to “The Charm of the Sourlands,” he points out that the beauty to be found here does not lie primarily in the spectacle of majestic vistas, but in the sights, scents, and sounds that must be experienced up close in order to be appreciated, like the sound of a wood thrush in spring, or the patterns of lichen growing on the boulders strewn about the landscape, as if dropped by a careless giant.
The section “Plants” opens with the image of a towering shagbark hickory tree, a tree that Amon informs us can live for 350 years. His discourse on how trees like this magnificent specimen contribute to the Sourlands’ ecosystem impart a deeper understanding of how all trees native to the Sourlands, including sassafras, American Beech, white oak, and sycamore, play a role in supporting the wildlife of the region and contribute to its diversity and beauty. So too with the other forms of plant life found in the Sourlands; milkweed, skunk cabbage, lichen, ferns, and so many more.
Amon’s essays never fail to enlighten and occasionally surprise. Who knew, for example, that moss was the first vegetation to grow on land when the earth’s crust was being formed? Or that it could live as long as five centuries?
The fauna of the region receive their share of attention and thoughtful scholarship as well. Yes there are beautiful images of the usual suspects: a beaver at work, an adorable Eastern Cottontail rabbit, a stately blue heron in flight.
But Amon also invites us to see, perhaps for the first time, the beauty in creatures we may have simply overlooked or considered ugly: crows, vultures, and the ubiquitous mourning dove, whose beauty Amon opines is underappreciated because there are so darn many of them, around 350 million in the U.S. by some estimates.
Amon even asks us to take a fresh look at what many consider to be the scourge of forested land, the white-tailed deer. “One could say that this is a terrible animal that’s ruining the Eastern forest,” he says. “But it’s also an extraordinary animal. It can jump 30 feet, and it can run very fast, and I’ve never seen one stumble. What a skill! Let’s look at that.”
The final section of Amon’s book, “Principles and Other Issues,” is perhaps the most important, and in concert with the images and essays that have come before, elevates “Seeing the Sourlands” to a category well beyond a book of pretty nature photographs.
Here, Amon underscores the connectedness of all that’s gone before in his book, the interdependence of flora, fauna, climate, and landscape that make the Sourlands a unique and beautiful place.
He cautions that it is also a place under constant threat, from invasive non-native species that upset the delicate balance between the plant life, the life cycle of insects, and the survival of both native and migratory animals that populate the region.
It is here that Amon answers the “So what?” question that skeptical readers may ask, and hopes to transform the vision and inspiration he has striven to engender in readers of “Seeing the Sourlands” into a call to action to help preserve this unique oasis of natural beauty that is, for most of us, hiding in plain sight.
Amon is quoted on the inside cover of his book: “I go to the natural world to seek beauty and solace; I find them both there.”
Nothing would please him more than to have readers of “Seeing the Sourlands” make the same discovery.
Jim Amon speaks on “Seeing the Sourlands” at the following venues and dates:
REI Outdoor Equipment, 3371 Route 1, Lawrence, Thursday, March 5, 6:30 p.m.
Sourland Mountain Spirits, 130 Hopewell Rocky Hill Road, Hopewell, Thursday, March 19, 5 p.m.
Watershed Institute, 31 Titus Mill Road, Pennington, Tuesday, March 24, 7 p.m.
Pennington Public Library, 30 North Main Street, Pennington,Sunday, March 29, 3 p.m.
“Seeing the Sourlands” ($39) is available at www.sourland.org. All proceeds benefit the Sourland Conservancy.
Charm of the Sourlands
There are places in the Sourlands where you can see across the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania, and those views are lovely but they are not the prize that awaits visitors to the Sourlands. The great beauty of the Sourlands is in the particular, not the long view.
The great joy of seeing – really seeing – the Sourlands is to see the loveliness of autumn leaves floating in a stream; or to hear a wood thrush in spring, calling from a spicebush thicket. It is to look for patterns in the lichenstrewn diabase boulders. It is to see a clump of Christmas ferns unfurling their blades in the early spring, each leaflet perfect; it is to see the wonderful play of shadows against the smooth grey bark of a beech tree in winter; it is to see how the yellow and purple of a dogwood tree’s leaves in autumn are mirrored by the yellow and purple of the goldenrod and New England asters growing beneath it; it is to see the acrobatic shapes made by a wild grape vine that has matured and broken free of the tree that it climbed when it was young.
Do not disparage the treasures of the Sourlands. They are smaller than the treasures of grander landscapes, but they are no less beautiful.
Excerpted from Jim Amon’s “Seeing the Sourlands.”