Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
for these natural attractions. They describe their own awe in the
presence of some of New Jersey’s overwhelming phenomena (the
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
January waters, and introduce us to the experts pulling in resurgent
Delaware River shad in spring. Maps are clear, if rudimentary.
photographs entice and goad the traveler. Their captions are
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
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
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
"scraggly, misshapen Pitch Pines" and "tall straight
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
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
— Carolyn Foote Edelmann
Michael Gochfeld, Rutgers University Press, 2000 (326 pages; $20
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