The Pine Barrens

a documentary by David Scott Kessler

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.