Being raised at the intersection of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the Jersey Shore, my love of science and nature flourished. I had both forests and the coast at my disposal, and my hometown of Little Egg Harbor, NJ had plenty of history and culture to offer as I grew up. But eventually, my passion for learning led me to the city to pursue a B.S. in Biology at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, PA, and I experienced more of my own family’s history and culture than I ever expected.
The Pine Barrens
The New Jersey Pine Barrens is a 1.1 million-acre stretch of heavily forested land which spreads across Southern New Jersey to the Atlantic. The area is known for sugar sand paths prone to turning into quicksand after a storm, tea-colored water filled with bog iron and tannins, blueberry fields, cranberry bogs, the remnants of ghost towns long forgotten by industry advances, and its beloved cryptid, the Jersey Devil.
But long before the Pine Barrens was known for these unique traits, it was populated by indigenous communities of the Lenni-Lenape. The Lenni-Lenape are an Algonkin-speaking people whose traditional lands span from Maryland and Delaware to Pennsylvania and across New Jersey to the coast. These communities were hunter-gatherers who cultivated the land. While forest-dwelling communities have been credited with shaping much of the Pine Barrens ecology through the burning of forests for crop cultivation, coastal communities utilized the marshes and waters to their advantage. Evidence of these communities still exists less than five minutes away from my childhood home, where the Tuckerton shell mound or midden still stands to this day.
The Tuckerton Mound is the last standing of several similar structures in the area and is believed to be over 10,000 years old. IT has been speculated that this structure extends deep into the ground and sits at 100 feet in length, 15-20 feet wide, and over 12 feet above the ground. At a closer look, discarded shells from oysters, clams, conch, and quahog can be observed forming the core of the mound. In honor of the indigenous communities, I want to share the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation land acknowledgment.
"The land upon which we gather is part of the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape, called "Lenapehoking." The Lenape People lived in harmony with one another upon this territory for thousands of years. During the colonial era and early federal period, many were removed west and north, but some also remain among the continuing historical tribal communities of the region: The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation; the Ramapough Lenape Nation; and the Powhatan Renape Nation, The Nanticoke of Millsboro Delaware, and the Lenape of Cheswold Delaware. We acknowledge the Lenni-Lenape as the original people of this land and their continuing relationship with their territory. In our acknowledgemtn of the continued presence of Lenape people in their homeland, we affirm the aspiration of the great Lenape Chief Tamanend, that there be harmony between the indigenous people of this land and the descendants of the immigrants to this land, "as long as the rivers and creeks flow, and the sun, moon, and stars shine." - Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Land Acknowledgment
With European settlement came industrialization, and the Pine Barrens boasted some of the nation’s first sawmills, bog iron furnaces, glass factories, and paper mills. But as settlers moved west and more accessible resources were procured, towns built around production hubs throughout the region died out and were forgotten. Ghost towns lay peppered throughout the pines, and while some travel to these ruins in search of the supernatural, I’ve found some of my favorite hiking trails and nature walks among them. Of the still standing sits Batsto Village within Wharton State Forest, a preserved glass and iron industrial center with a central mansion dating back to 1766.
And of the truly ruined, the Harrisville Iron Furnace and Brooksbrae Terracotta Factory (now known as the Graffiti Ghost Town) remain some of my favorite haunts to this day. While some regions boast about having bigfoot, the loch ness monster, wendigos, or chupacabras, no story about the Pine Barrens would be complete without a nod to our favorite cryptid of all, the Jersey Devil. Legend says that upon finding out she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, Mrs. Leeds of Estellville, NJ cried out “Let it be the devil!” and so a devil was born.
With the head of a goat, the wings of a bat, horns, claws, and a pointed tail, tales of the Jersey Devil have been passed along for over 250 years, with more sightings and encounters than one person could hope to count. While some fear the prowling demon among the pines, others see the creature as an unofficial mascot. In 1938, the Jersey Devil even took the spot as the first official state demon in the US. If you ever find yourself in the area, and you’re brave enough to dare, you can even stop by one of my favorite lunch spots, Lucille’s Luncheonette in Stafford Township, and eat with the devil himself.
Although I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the forests and beaches of New Jersey, I found myself suddenly a city-dweller when I began working at the Philadelphia Zoo and attending The University of the Sciences to get my Bachelor’s degree. The university was situated in West Philadelphia, and while West Philly was new to me, the streets of South Philly’s Italian-American neighborhoods were not quite as foreign since a menagerie of aunts, uncles, and cousins still call Philadelphia their home.
Hailing from Calabria, Italy, my great-great-grandparents came to Philadelphia in the 1920s and raised their family in the heart of the city’s Italian neighborhoods, but the beginning of South Philadelphia’s Italian roots stretches back 20 years earlier when the immigration of over 60,000 Italians began to flow into the city from 1890-1920. As the people moved into the city, their culture came with them, and the Italian influences on the city are still visible today. From the Italian-American slang that you’ll hear on the streets, to the smell of shared family meals surrounding a pot of Sunday gravy wafting out of row home windows, to figs drying out in the summer sun, the oldest traditions are alive and well.
One of the oldest of the traditions you’ll find still thriving, and one that I discovered on a weekend trip to see my family across the city, is the Italian Market on South 9th Street. Situated at the center of the community, the Italian Market is the oldest and largest continuous open-air market in the country. It boasts nearly every type of fare you could think of, from fresh produce, meats and cheese, fresh pasta, and of course Italian imports directly from the old country.
If there is any one place int he city where you can find a true touch of Italy, it's at the market. While the market is open year-round and on any given day you can visit, in my opinion, the best time to visit is during the annual South 9th Street Italian Market Festival. The festival runs for several days, hosting a variety of traditional fare and festivities alongside some of Philly's favorite neighborhood competitions and yard games.
My personal favorite is the Grease Pole or Albero Della Cuccagna competition, where teams of people try to scale a 30 ft high metal pole covered in lard. Those that make it to the top snag prizes of meats, cheeses, little gifts, and money from the market, and even more coveted, the bragging rights that they made it to the top.
Variations of this tradition exist all over the world, with some people noting that the competition has origins dating back to the May Tree used during festivals celebrating the return of spring. The greased pole even has a colloquial parallel stemming from Philly sports fans, who are known to climb street
lights and electrical poles that have to be greased by the city before every big event and after every big win by one of the city’s teams.
While the Pine Barrens and South Philadelphia are about as different as they come, each place has a rich history and even richer culture surrounding it. Both have been shaped into melting pots of their people and signs of their melding histories can still be seen today.
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