Magic in the pines
Years in the making, Philly filmmaker David Kessler’s documentary on New Jersey’s wilderness is a tone poem for a place unlike anywhere else.

Flames slithered on David Kessler's computer screen, and the filmmaker paused his footage, freezing embers in the smoke before they burned to ash.

Kessler rolled the trackball of his mouse, moving the blaze wavelike through the blackened pines.

He wanted more fire.

 

Half of the 10 years that Kessler has spent working in his Old City studio have been focused on his documentary, The Pine Barrens, his tone poem for a place unlike anywhere else, over the bridge and deep into a New Jersey dreamscape.

"The Pine Barrens exists in people's minds as a place between imagination and reality," said Kessler, 41, bespectacled and rail thin with a close-cropped beard. "That's what I'm trying to show here. It's a place that people knew more through myth and folklore and preconceived ideas."

 

The Kensington resident has spent hundreds of hours filming in the Pinelands and has managed to whittle the material down to two hours. He spends so much time on the minute precisions of editing, looking at that vast landscape on a tiny screen, that he often needs to project the whole vista on a 10-foot-square canvas hung from the ceiling of his studio at Second and Arch Streets.

Curt Hudson / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
David Kessler watches the beginning of his film, The Pine Barrens.

The projection casts cranberry tones and shades of sand on the studio. When he cranks the speakers, the ambient sounds drown out SEPTA buses down below. The patter of snow falling on the pines gives way to the purl of a kayak's paddle in a tea-colored stream. A muted trumpet's baleful note lingers. Tiny tree frogs the color of bruised limes call out like a chorus of car alarms in the middle of nowhere.

Quonk. Quonk. Quonk.

The Pinelands National Reserve sits square in the belly of America's most densely populated state. The 1.1 million acres of pine, cedar, swamp and farmland have many stakeholders, their concerns as varied as the flowers that grow there.

Conservationists believe business interests, politicians eager to loosen regulations, and unchecked recreational use have put the Pinelands at its greatest risk in decades.

"This is our Yellowstone," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "This is our Yosemite."

Hikers, hunters, Jersey Devil hunters, researchers, off-roaders, and artists venture in, their paths often crossing at different harmonies. A botanist looking for pink lady's slipper might stumble upon a teenager blasting old televisions with buckshot or hear the braap of Joe Springer's dirt bike in the distance.

Springer rarely sees a soul.

"There's no busloads of people getting dropped off here," said Springer, trail boss for the Pine Barrens Enduro Riders. "This is a sand road. This isn't Yosemite."

No one can completely agree on anything when it comes to the Pine Barrens.

 

More people live in the Pinelands than in the entire state of Wyoming, and those with roots in the sandy soil wear the title "Piney" with pride. Some are third and fourth generation cranberry and blueberry farmers but there are also craftsmen and carvers, masters of things almost forgotten such as basket-weaving.

Some people live there just to be left alone.

"People who aren't from the pines . . . they really fall in love with the place," says basket-weaver Steve Carty in Kessler's film. "It really grows on them."

On a blustery day in March, Kessler, musician Gretchen Lohse, and illustrator Allen Crawford, trekked into a 10,000-acre, long-fallow cranberry farm in Woodland Township, Burlington County, hunting for footage.

Lohse, a singer-songwriter from Kensington, is part of the Ruins of Friendship, the orchestra that's been providing the ghostly soundtrack for The Pine Barrens and performing live at Kessler's screenings.

"It's a totally different way of doing music," Lohse said. "I've done music and film projects in the past and there's something very unique and different about this."

Crawford, 48, defies straight-on description. Though the landscape is the star of Kessler's film, Crawford, an illustrator by trade, plays both interpreter and poet, a self-trained naturalist with sand-flecked shoes who can identify every plant and flower he passes.

"You guys smell the pine needles cooking," he said early on in the trek. "They're really warming up. You can smell the sap."

Kessler let his friends do most of the talking while he veered off-trail, pointing his digital camera at bogs and treetops.

Kessler was born and reared in Union, N.J., a suburb south of Newark, and further from the heart of the pines than Center City, where he moved in 1996 to study at University of the Arts.

In 2007 and 2008, Kessler made a series of videos, Shadow World, that chronicled the neighborhood under the city's Market-Frankford El. Kessler lived there but felt like an "alien," and used his camera to learn about people he saw every day. The series garnered attention in art and film circles and was covered by the Inquirer. Shadow World landed Kessler on the cover of Philadelphia Weekly.

Kessler found a common thread between the Pines and Kensington, the same sense of underlying danger and misconceptions about the people who lived there.

 

"I had actually never been to the Pine Barrens," he said during the hike. It only took a few trips for the pines to pull him in.

The place also drew author John McPhee almost 50 years ago and his 1968 book, The Pine Barrens, is credited with saving the habitat from becoming an airport, paved over like most of New Jersey.

McPhee, who still lives and teaches in Princeton, is modest about the book. He's said he came to tell stories, not prevent development. Kessler feels the same, saying he never intended to make a documentary that students would watch in biology class.

"It's an art project," Kessler said, trying to pin it down. "It's a performance. It's a documentary. It's all those things."

Still, spending hundreds of hours in the Pinelands, talking to farmers and tinkerers and families dug in deep, has affected him, and issues at the heart of the pines-development and off-road recreation-have made their way into the film.

Then there's Crawford. The Mount Holly, Burlington County, resident is the movie's conscience. Like Dr. Seuss's Lorax, he speaks for the trees and the pitcher plants, and every creeping thing that sucks blood and leaves a welt out there. That's why he feels Kessler's film is so important.

"If you don't know what's out here," Crawford said, "you're not going to love it the way I do."

Snippets of NPR segments, where hosts discuss a controversial plan to run a 22-mile natural-gas pipeline through the pines, also turn up in the film. Opponents call the pipeline the biggest threat to the Pinelands since it was deemed a national preserve in 1978. Four former governors oppose the project.

"Everyone wants David to save the Pine Barrens," said Lohse, the singer-songwriter.

 

On Saturday, September 17, a bluegrass band practiced harmonies at dusk on a patch of sand in Whitesbog Village, Burlington County, while Kessler tried to greet guests and prepare for the screening.

Whitesbog was once New Jersey's biggest cranberry farm, a place where Elizabeth White created the modern-day blueberry business. Soon as many as 350 people would watch the most-complete version of The Pine Barrens that Kessler has shown publicly, accompanied by a live performance from Lohse and the Ruins of Friendship.

The air was cool and dry, the moon full and rising. Kessler had been at work since morning, setting up equipment and art installations in the trails and bogs. The sweat had already dried on his shirt.

"It's a little stressful," he said, then ran back to his Jeep to grab gear.

Crawford was there in tall boots and a bush hat, leading a group of attendees down a trail, waxing about the pines and mosquitoes. Kessler knelt in the grass by the movie screen, connecting his laptop and cuing up the film. Once the sun was down and the katydids began calling loudly in the trees, Kessler took the stage and introduced The Pine Barrens.

The screening, Kessler said, was one of the "last evolutions of this process," but the film still needed color correction, and professional audio mixing.

 

Some wanderlust still lingered too.

"There is more exploring to do," he conceded.

Kessler also wanted the audience - self-professed Pineys, musicians and artists from the city - to see this unbroken swath of green as something a little more magical. It is more than just the middle of nowhere.

"This land is unique in a lot of ways but it's also similar to a lot of places that we're losing across America, these kind of islands of wilderness that are slowly being nibbled away along with the culture," he said. "The Pine Barrens is over a million acres, so it's easy to take it for granted that it will always be here but it almost disappeared 40 years ago and it's a miracle we have it now. We can't take anything for granted."

Then Kessler started the projection and the Ruins of Friendship called up their haunting sounds.

The rumble of dirt bikes and ATVs grew from deep in the woods and soon a group of riders emerged from the dark. Their tires sent dust drifting past the screen and the riders gassed it down the sand road out of Whitesbog.

Deeper in the woods, rare blue flowers grew where fires swept the pine floor clean, and they drew their petals inward for the night, each one a starry sky, and no human eye saw them.

 

View the trailer for The Pine Barrens below.

narkj@phillynews.com

 

215-854-5916

@jasonnark


Video used with permission by David Kessler

Produced by Jared Whalen / STAFF

 
 
 
 
 
Magic in the pines
Years in the making, Philly filmmaker David Kessler’s documentary on New Jersey’s wilderness is a tone poem for a place unlike anywhere else.
Use the arrow buttons below or the arrow keys on your keyboard to continue.
 
 

Flames slithered on David Kessler's computer screen, and the filmmaker paused his footage, freezing embers in the smoke before they burned to ash.

Kessler rolled the trackball of his mouse, moving the blaze wavelike through the blackened pines.

He wanted more fire.

Half of the 10 years that Kessler has spent working in his Old City studio have been focused on his documentary, The Pine Barrens, his tone poem for a place unlike anywhere else, over the bridge and deep into a New Jersey dreamscape.

"The Pine Barrens exists in people's minds as a place between imagination and reality," said Kessler, 41, bespectacled and rail thin with a close-cropped beard. "That's what I'm trying to show here. It's a place that people knew more through myth and folklore and preconceived ideas."

Curt Hudson / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
David Kessler watches the beginning of his film, The Pine Barrens.

The Kensington resident has spent hundreds of hours filming in the Pinelands and has managed to whittle the material down to two hours. He spends so much time on the minute precisions of editing, looking at that vast landscape on a tiny screen, that he often needs to project the whole vista on a 10-foot-square canvas hung from the ceiling of his studio at Second and Arch Streets.

The projection casts cranberry tones and shades of sand on the studio. When he cranks the speakers, the ambient sounds drown out SEPTA buses down below. The patter of snow falling on the pines gives way to the purl of a kayak's paddle in a tea-colored stream. A muted trumpet's baleful note lingers. Tiny tree frogs the color of bruised limes call out like a chorus of car alarms in the middle of nowhere.

 

Quonk. Quonk. Quonk.

The Pinelands National Reserve sits square in the belly of America's most densely populated state. The 1.1 million acres of pine, cedar, swamp, and farmland have many stakeholders, their concerns as varied as the flowers that grow there.

Conservationists believe business interests, politicians eager to loosen regulations, and unchecked recreational use have put the Pinelands at its greatest risk in decades.

"This is our Yellowstone," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "This is our Yosemite."

Hikers, hunters, Jersey Devil hunters, researchers, off-roaders, and artists venture in, their paths often crossing at different harmonies. A botanist looking for pink lady's slipper might stumble upon a teenager blasting old televisions with buckshot or hear the braap of Joe Springer's dirt bike in the distance.

Springer rarely sees a soul.

"There's no busloads of people getting dropped off here," said Springer, trail boss for the Pine Barrens Enduro Riders. "This is a sand road. This isn't Yosemite."

No one can completely agree on anything when it comes to the Pine Barrens.

More people live in the Pinelands than in the entire state of Wyoming, and those with roots in the sandy soil wear the title "Piney" with pride. Some are third and fourth generation cranberry and blueberry farmers but there are also craftsmen and carvers, masters of things almost forgotten such as basket-weaving.

Some people live there just to be left alone.

"People who aren't from the pines . . . they really fall in love with the place," says basket-weaver Steve Carty in Kessler's film. "It really grows on them."

 

On a blustery day in March, Kessler, musician Gretchen Lohse, and illustrator Allen Crawford, trekked into a 10,000-acre, long-fallow cranberry farm in Woodland Township, Burlington County, hunting for footage.

Lohse, a singer-songwriter from Kensington, is part of the Ruins of Friendship, the orchestra that's been providing the ghostly soundtrack for The Pine Barrens and performing live at Kessler's screenings.

"It's a totally different way of doing music," Lohse said. "I've done music and film projects in the past and there's something very unique and different about this."

Crawford, 48, defies straight-on description. Though the landscape is the star of Kessler's film, Crawford, an illustrator by trade, plays both interpreter and poet, a self-trained naturalist with sand-flecked shoes who can identify every plant and flower he passes.

"You guys smell the pine needles cooking," he said early on in the trek. "They're really warming up. You can smell the sap."

Kessler let his friends do most of the talking while he veered off-trail, pointing his digital camera at bogs and treetops.

Kessler was born and reared in Union, N.J., a suburb south of Newark, and further from the heart of the pines than Center City, where he moved in 1996 to study at University of the Arts.

In 2007 and 2008, Kessler made a series of videos, Shadow World, that chronicled the neighborhood under the city's Market-Frankford El. Kessler lived there but felt like an "alien," and used his camera to learn about people he saw every day. The series garnered attention in art and film circles and was covered by the Inquirer. Shadow World landed Kessler on the cover of Philadelphia Weekly.

Kessler found a common thread between the Pines and Kensington, the same sense of underlying danger and misconceptions about the people who lived there.

 

"I had actually never been to the Pine Barrens," he said during the hike. It only took a few trips for the pines to pull him in.

The place also drew author John McPhee almost 50 years ago and his 1968 book, The Pine Barrens, is credited with saving the habitat from becoming an airport, paved over like most of New Jersey.

McPhee, who still lives and teaches in Princeton, is modest about the book. He's said he came to tell stories, not prevent development. Kessler feels the same, saying he never intended to make a documentary that students would watch in biology class.

"It's an art project," Kessler said, trying to pin it down. "It's a performance. It's a documentary. It's all those things."

Still, spending hundreds of hours in the Pinelands, talking to farmers and tinkerers and families dug in deep, has affected him, and issues at the heart of the pines-development and off-road recreation-have made their way into the film.

Then there's Crawford. The Mount Holly, Burlington County, resident is the movie's conscience. Like Dr. Seuss's Lorax, he speaks for the trees and the pitcher plants, and every creeping thing that sucks blood and leaves a welt out there. That's why he feels Kessler's film is so important.

"If you don't know what's out here," Crawford said, "you're not going to love it the way I do."

Snippets of NPR segments, where hosts discuss a controversial plan to run a 22-mile natural-gas pipeline through the pines, also turn up in the film. Opponents call the pipeline the biggest threat to the Pinelands since it was deemed a national preserve in 1978. Four former governors oppose the project.

"Everyone wants David to save the Pine Barrens," said Lohse, the singer-songwriter.

 

On Saturday, September 17, a bluegrass band practiced harmonies at dusk on a patch of sand in Whitesbog Village, Burlington County, while Kessler tried to greet guests and prepare for the screening.

Whitesbog was once New Jersey's biggest cranberry farm, a place where Elizabeth White created the modern-day blueberry business. Soon as many as 350 people would watch the most-complete version of The Pine Barrens that Kessler has shown publicly, accompanied by a live performance from Lohse and the Ruins of Friendship.

The air was cool and dry, the moon full and rising. Kessler had been at work since morning, setting up equipment and art installations in the trails and bogs. The sweat had already dried on his shirt.

"It's a little stressful," he said, then ran back to his Jeep to grab gear.

Crawford was there in tall boots and a bush hat, leading a group of attendees down a trail, waxing about the pines and mosquitoes. Kessler knelt in the grass by the movie screen, connecting his laptop and cuing up the film. Once the sun was down and the katydids began calling loudly in the trees, Kessler took the stage and introduced The Pine Barrens.

The screening, Kessler said, was one of the "last evolutions of this process," but the film still needed color correction, and professional audio mixing.

 

Some wanderlust still lingered too.

"There is more exploring to do," he conceded.

Kessler also wanted the audience - self-professed Pineys, musicians and artists from the city - to see this unbroken swath of green as something a little more magical. It is more than just the middle of nowhere.

"This land is unique in a lot of ways but it's also similar to a lot of places that we're losing across America, these kind of islands of wilderness that are slowly being nibbled away along with the culture," he said. "The Pine Barrens is over a million acres, so it's easy to take it for granted that it will always be here but it almost disappeared 40 years ago and it's a miracle we have it now. We can't take anything for granted."

Then Kessler started the projection and the Ruins of Friendship called up their haunting sounds.

The rumble of dirt bikes and ATVs grew from deep in the woods and soon a group of riders emerged from the dark. Their tires sent dust drifting past the screen and the riders gassed it down the sand road out of Whitesbog.

Deeper in the woods, rare blue flowers grew where fires swept the pine floor clean, and they drew their petals inward for the night, each one a starry sky, and no human eye saw them.

 

View the trailer for The Pine Barrens below.


Story by Jason Nark / Produced by Jared Whalen

Video clips provided courtesy of David Kessler.

 
© Copyright 2018 Philadelphia Media Network (Digital), LLC