When I was a kid, my parents moved our family from a life on the Hudson in Northern New Jersey to one closer to the woods and the shore in the South.  In Ocean County we were quickly introduced to two new sub-cultures, the Clam Diggers on the coast and the Pineys inland.  As far as we knew, the term Piney was an insult for someone who lived a Red Neck Jersey lifestyle.  Indeed, to be called a Piney in those days was a put down.  It wasn't until I learned more about where they came from and how they lived that I appreciated who they were. Today, as most of the world and Jersey is being over-developed, urbanized and homogenized, the term “Piney” is something of a badge of honor, even as the true Piney culture fades away.

The Pines Barrens, the cradle of the Piney culture is an anomaly in the Eastern part of the United States.  It is the largest untouched wilderness east of the Mississippi.  In the late 1970s, fears of urban sprawl prompted Congress to pass an Act to protect the Pines and today the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve contains approximately 1,100,000 acres of land, and occupies 22% of New Jersey's land area.

In and out of the Pines it’s clear, there are two kinds of Piney, those people with a cultural association; with family roots in South Jersey, who live or lived within close proximity to the woods and have an appreciation for the customs and crafts of the area.  For these folks, it is said, they are “proud to be a Piney, from their head down to their hiney.”  Well, what else rhymes with Piney? 

The other sort probably doesn’t broadcast their Piney Power on their bumper stickers.  They don’t even really go around calling themselves Piney and yet, this other sort, those who still live and work and hunt and harvest in the Pines, are the true or the authentic Pineys. 

We spent some time in the Pines getting to know both.  At the yearly Pines Barrens Jamboree we met the good folks who keep the spirit of the woods alive and in the woods we met Bill Wasiowich, a life-long resident of the Pines.  Bill was even written about in the famed John McPhee book, The Pine Barrens, published in 1967. 

    Driving Jersey: The Pine Barrens

Bill grew up and has grown old in the Pine Barrens.  Living in and off of the woods around him is the only life he has ever known.  Though the world and even the Pines have changed, much of it now off-limits, protected by the state and local government, Bill endures.  His ways and means mean little to the rest of the world today.  Long ago he was an employee in the cranberry trade in the Pines.  But some 40 years ago he turned his back on the punch clock and set in to working by and for himself, harvesting the woods for pine cones, sphagnum moss and wild blueberries. The day we visited Bill he was busy making pine wood charcoal from the endless cords that rise up all over his property.  He admitted it made lousy charcoal because it burned too quickly, but he endeavored anyway, through the smoke, the cold and the hard work.

Making use of the things around him, collecting what he can, where he can, is what Bill Wasiowich is all about...creative survival.  He doesn't talk much.  He doesn't look you in the eye often.  His mind it seems is fixated on what's possible with what he has or what he can get his hands on, the next thing he must do in processing what to an outsider might actually seem like an exercise in futility. 

Glimpse the 12 foot high cords of wood, the shed with a room full of pine cones and charcoal and bails of moss.  Much of it collected over the last four to five years...all of it just silently waiting for someone to need it.  Chances are doubtful that anyone will or will find their way to Bill to get it these days, but Bill keeps at it just as he always has. 

"What will become of all of this?" I asked Bill of his mind-boggling surplus of harvested things.  "I don't know," he replied, "I suppose someone might want the stuff, if not, the way I took care of it...it'll keep. 

There is a sense, when you are with Bill, that you are getting a rare look into the past, that what you are witnessing is actually already gone.  The ability to live and make a living off the Pines is dwindling and yet the Pines is thriving because it’s being left alone.   But that’s only part of the irony of this tale of preservation.  New Jersey, despite its reputation for being the most over-developed and densely populated state in America, is holding on to one of the few environmental success stories of our times.

Music for PINEY was written and performed by Luke D’Arcangelo and S.Amantus.