The Pine Barrens

a documentary by David Scott Kessler

Full Story

Back in 2011, I was just curious about the Pine Barrens and naive enough to think that it was subject that I could make a movie about in a year or so. I had come from a visual arts background and began making short, strange, documentaries around 2007, mainly exploring places that I had become fascinated with. I would set out to meet people who had a deep connection to those places and try to create a kind of cinematic portrait - a hybrid between documentary and narrative. These places: under the Philadelphia El train, a fishing village in Iceland, a medieval town in Sicily, and the Pine Barrens all had one thing in common, they had a tendency to defy what we think of as reality in the modern world.

It took me a few years to really figure out what The Pine Barrens project was. It would be a film but not a conventional documentary (the Pine Barrens are not conventional). There were already so many great books on the Pine Barrens, ranging from its ecology, industry, and folklore, and I didn’t want to rehash everything that John McPhee already explored so masterfully. What my project would have to be was an exploration of particular ways that the Pine Barrens are perceived and experienced through individuals, each having a unique relationship to them.

I came to this forum very early on in my research. Karen Riley was one of the first people to take interest in what I was trying to do and we met up to discuss the project. Five years ago, she invited me to share a table with her at Lines on the Pines and introduced me to Linda Stanton, who then introduced me to so many people who are now in the film, Gary Giberson, Paul Pedersen, Steve Carty, Mark Demitroff, and many others. Over the years I spent a lot of time with these people and eventually Mary Ann Thompson, who allowed me to film on her farm and get to know her. I regret not spending more time there, but in both the cases of Karen Riley and Mary-Ann Thompson, I thought I had more time.

This led me to realize how much the Pine Barrens were changing right before our eyes. Not only were the Pine Barrens losing many of its most prominent stewards, the attitudes towards the protections felt unstable and the Commission was becoming compromised. I found that the footage I had been capturing for years was laced with a sense of uncertainty, and without entering into full “environmental documentary” territory, the story I was telling also became one of loss as much as it was a sense wonder and identity. 

Way back in that first year, I spontaneously threw together a group of musicians and brought them out to the ruins of the town of Friendship to play together in the cellar pit. From that day on, they were The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra and we began having screenings. Ruins would play live to experimental edits that I was already creating. As my experiences changed, so did the films and the performances. We held them at museums, both Noyes and Michener, galleries, music spaces and a few times in the farms and forests of the Pines themselves, creating an experience that was at once, of the Pine Barrens and about the Pine Barrens. Each time was different, partially improvised, and a lot of fun! And they allowed me to share what I was doing with so many people before the film was finished, which was really the only way that I could show people what it actually was and blow past the expectations of a traditional documentary. Fortunately, most people got it and appreciated the approach.

In September of last year, I worked with Whitesbog to produce Middle of Nowhere. We used the fields, bogs, and forests to create a full day of music and art, and the first feature-length edition of the film. Simply stated, it was one of the most magical times of my life and I’m so glad that I got to spend it with so many people who care so deeply about the Pines.

We were featured on WHYY’s Friday Arts, South Jersey Magazine, Newsworks, and on the front cover of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Somehow, this strange little project that I started seemed to have touched a nerve. More realistically, the Pine Barrens still holds that much wonder and mystery and maybe people really need that these days.

My goal is to finish the film this year. I have some more shooting to do. As the stories have come together, I can see what is missing now and I’ll be out there hopefully closing in on that. There is post-production and getting The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra into a recording studio.

I know that I can never cover what is important to everyone about the Pine Barrens. I can only hope that I can make something that does it justice, that is thoughtful and entertaining, and hopefully, bring some awareness and a bit of urgency to the Pines.

This brings me to the reason why I decided to post this here today. We have 5 more days left in our crowdfunding campaign. The response so far has been great but we still have about 20% left to reach the goal that would cover the rest of the production. If we do reach that goal, we’ll be able to leave the fundraising page up longer and that opens up many possibilities for what we can do with the film.

Here is a link to the Indiegogo page where you can make a contribution if you feel compelled to. Any amount is greatly appreciated


The Path From Creative Expression to Environmental Activism

Guest writer: Jesse Sparhawk

Dear Friends,

Jesse Sparhawk here, member of The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, the group that live scores the music to the film The Pine Barrens. It has been a wild 6-year journey to near completion of a film that's turned out to be a great creative outlet and tool for advocacy. For me, it really began as a day trip long ago with some remarkably talented friends whom I had known for a long time at that point, but had confoundingly not had the opportunity to link up and collaborate with till that day; to jam in the woods, bringing our instruments and communing with the surroundings of The Pines. That was the first magical day with countless to follow of filming, field recording, performing, and sonic experimentation. This project has consistently bridged my love of knowing and unknowing. Through imaginary constraints I’ve found freedom: structured improvisation. Along with the meticulously composed visual and sonic elements that developed, and much like the physical surroundings of The Pines themselves, a mental environment was also fostered in which to joyfully get lost.

For the first few years, as my awareness about the issues in Southern New Jersey came into focus as they were happening, it was somewhat nebulous in my mind as to how our creative venture might serve others or the Pinelands itself. The answer has really only recently struck me: It was several New Yorker articles and a published book by John McPhee in the late '60's that brought initial awareness and was the driving force to protect this place as the nation's first National Reserve over 40 years ago, and the fact that those protections are currently being undermined by special interests again means that awareness about the current issues here are as critical as ever. As the future of The Pine Barrens has come into question this time around, I've come to the realization that our project, an act of creative expression and dedication can also be an act of activism.

I’ve heard some debate about whether McPhee’s “The Pine Barrens” was written with activism as its intent or whether he was simply reporting on a place that he believed to be disappearing and was resigned to that reality. The issues surrounding the “jetport” that would have decimated the Pinelands in the 1970’s were not mentioned in McPhee’s book until the last third of the text, and even then, there is no plea to rise up and stop this from happening. And yet, “The Pine Barrens” did become a major factor in building awareness and of this important and fragile place, and ultimately its protections. The lesson there doesn’t come from what we know were McPhee’s intentions but from the results of the method of presenting a work that evokes wonder, magic, and an enhanced relationship to the natural world that is often missing from our daily lives, and then focusing that newfound appreciation and awareness towards conservation.

Today, our project is following John McPhee’s work as a template to once again bring awareness to the Pinelands and inspire activism by delivering an experience through creative expression. It is our hope that you will continue with us on that path.


Jesse Sparhawk is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser whose instruments include harp, guitar, and electric bass. His harp study began at the age of 10 with then recently retired principal harpist of the New York Philharmonic, Myor Rosen, as well as with the head of the harp department at Eastman School of Music, Kathleen Bride. Sparhawk has over 40 recording credits to his name performing various instruments with many solo performers and groups, is a regular member of the psych/folk group Fern Knight, and has recorded and performed with acclaimed producer Tony Visconti.