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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the August

29, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

NJ’s Spectacles of Nature

A feast of facts and photos springs from the pens and

lens of Joanna Burger and Michael Gochfeld in "25 Nature

Spectacles

in New Jersey," recently published by Rutgers University Press.

This husband-and-wife team confess to having observed since childhood

"everything around us, whether wildflower, worm, or warbler."

At first, "25 Nature Spectacles" seems an impossible tally

to meet. But then the number proves too small to encompass all the

wonders the authors have discovered in their New Jersey scientific

quests. Burger is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at

Rutgers University; Gochfeld teaches at UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson

Medical School. Both are clear and vivid writers, salting their

precise

and ringing prose with pithy images plucked from nature.

Burger’s devotion to science in no way limits her artistic horizons.

Her black-and-white photographs may not be quite up to Ansel Adams’s

standard, but she’s nudging Edward Weston. Burger even manages to

take good pictures in the middle of a forest fire. She knows how to

zoom in on her subject, literally and metaphorically, and the reader

is the richer for it. Both authors pledge to transmit their excitement

about these New Jersey spectacles and events. And they fulfill their

promise.

The authors open with the truism that New Jersey is "more than

a Turnpike," possessing "some of the most diverse habitats

in the nation; some of the most intact and unique ecosystems, and

some of the most spectacular wildlife and plant life of any state

in the nation." Familiar with Burger’s scholarship from some of

her other works ("A Naturalist Along the Jersey Shore," for

example), I can attest that this writer would not idly offer

high-blown

claims. In other words, she has the data and the hands-on experience

to back up her observations.

The authors present our state as paradox. Despite the "highest

human population density of any place in the world . . . [some] parts

are so deserted that no one ever goes there." Berger is one of

those "no ones" who picks her way among tern nests and

new-laid

eggs on our otherwise deserted off-shore islands. We are the "most

industrialized state, yet nearly two-thirds of New Jersey’s land is

still in farms, and the gross average income per farm is the highest

in the nation." We are the largest pharmaceutical producer, and

second only to Texas in chemicals, yet we possess "the largest

wilderness area east of the Mississippi, and tourism is our second

largest industry."

Together the authors lead us to more than two dozen specific nature

sites, all the while urging the reader to develop his or her own

"spectacle

mentality." In other words, do-it-yourself at any turn.

The authors assist this process by providing hints and clues, time

tables, directions, and best times to visit, phone numbers, and

websites

for these natural attractions. They describe their own awe in the

presence of some of New Jersey’s overwhelming phenomena (the

"firestorm"

that is a beach full of mating horseshoe crabs, for example) or Cape

May aswarm with migrating Monarch butterflies. They take us to little

Whitesbog Village to marvel at delicate tundra swans in most

indelicate

January waters, and introduce us to the experts pulling in resurgent

Delaware River shad in spring. Maps are clear, if rudimentary.

Burger’s

photographs entice and goad the traveler. Their captions are

informative,

memorable, and to the point.

Burger and Gochfeld offer science that is impressive, but neither

overwhelming nor superior. The reader is gently instructed: "Shad

are anadromous fish, which means that they live in salt water for

most of their lives, but return to spawn in the fresh water streams

of their birth." At times the authors paint a scene comparable

to that of an Impressionist painter: "When the cold winds of March

finally give way to the warm sun of April, huge numbers of

two-foot-long

shad leave the Atlantic Ocean to return to their natal streams."

Native American lore is seamlessly woven into the fabric

of "Spectacles," as well as information on medical uses for

certain rare plants. We are informed that the nets used today in

Lambertville

were taught to the Europeans by the too-generous Lenni Lenape back

in the time of first encounter. Astonishment is a frequent companion

on this journey: "One of the unique features of the Delaware River

is that there are no dams on the main river, only on the tributaries;

allowing for a [shad] run in the main river." Note that all of

these stirring examples occur in a single saga.

One of the most appealing aspects of this guide book is the very high

quality of chapter openings and the fine concluding wrap-ups. Both

are spare, though often awash in wonder. In fact, these segments are

crafted like a poem. And this is my highest praise.

In my experience and research, most people who "meet" the

Pinelands — earlier misnamed the Pine Barrens — frankly fall

in love with the place. And Burger and Gochfeld are no exception.

They are too eloquent, however. I want to tell them to stop simply

because I fear too many people will seek out those quiet sandy roads.

Their precision, nonetheless, is welcome without being stultifying.

In the Pines, for example, they explain the several differences

between

"scraggly, misshapen Pitch Pines" and "tall straight

Atlantic

White Cedars" so that the reader will not be tempted either to

yawn or to forget the difference, nor to bark, "Who cares?"

Their facts stretch from schedules for Blueberry Whortleberry and

Dangleberry ripening to the income from ecotourism in Cape May at

last tally ($3 million a year and counting). Before birdwatching,

the fastest-growing American sport, took flight, Cape May used to

close down at Labor Day. Now it stays open through the hawk

migrations,

right into November. (Real birders visit the Cape May Bird Observatory

in all months, all seasons, all weather. In fact, the stormier the

better. These birders know that the best "accidentals" —

birds blown off course — come on the heels of wild winds.)

Very subtly, even painlessly, the authors spin a tale

of eco-instruction. The current buzz phrase is "edge-habitat."

Burger and Gochfeld introduce us to the perils — especially to

neotropical warblers — in the increased squeezing of forests by

development. It’s not just destruction of trees, it’s a question of

too much edge in proportion to interior. Changes in numbers and kinds

of vegetation, predators and competitors, and the addition of new

intrusives (such as the roadside blooming Purple Loose Strife) are

altering avian life cycles as intensely as the DDT which once caused

Rachel Carson to raise the alarm.

The concept of "life on the edge" for many species has become

an oxymoron. The authors make it inescapably clear that edge can equal

extinction. One vivid example is the proliferation of brown-headed

cowbirds that lay their eggs in the nests of almost any other species.

Cowbird eggs are larger, their offspring more vociferous. The result:

good-bye native species. This particular upheaval is a direct result

of the edgification of New Jersey.

New Jersey’s cranberry riches also come to life in these authors’

hands. Their description of "a shimmering carpet of vibrant red

glistens in the warm autumn sun. A sea of small red spheres undulates

slightly," leads to information on how to visit Historic Whitesbog

Village and Double Trouble State Park during cranberry season.

Whether they point to elegant Black Skimmers, funny Fiddler Crabs,

dignified Diamondback Terrapins, or eccentric Cape May birders, these

guides make ideal nature mentors. Be forewarned, however. You may

find yourself becoming the newest members of the

"I-Love-New-Jersey"

club.

— Carolyn Foote Edelmann

25 Nature Spectacles in New Jersey, Joanna Burger and

Michael Gochfeld, Rutgers University Press, 2000 (326 pages; $20

paper).


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