People Live Here

New Jersey Monthly
January 1998

Along the Garden State Parkway, some 90 miles south of the Alfred Driscoll Bridge and the clogged northern shore exits, the road whittles down like a long, dark piece of kindling wood. The median blooms into a tangle of vines and towering grass. Dark fringes of roadside soil turn coarse and sandy.

Several miles off exit 50, at the rip of Tuttle Creek Road, Janice Sherwood lives in a one-story house that, in summertime, crouches among tall spiky weeds beneath the oak and pine trees. Spongy swampland laps against her property. The neighbor’s dog snarls at out-of-towners, barking with bared teeth and taut haunches, as if the forest behind him held a hidden treasure.

On grade school maps, the Pinelands is a block of moss- colored patches seeping west from New Jersey’s southern shore. Textbooks say it’s the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi—roughly 2,000 square miles in the country’s most densely populated state. School filmstrips on the region show endangered ecosystems in grainy blacks and whites. Teachers say it is a special place. They never say anyone lives here.

But in all her 65 years, Sherwood has barely lived anywhere else. Her father and grandmother grew up in the Pines. One of her daughters still lives in the house Sherwood’s great grandfather built after the Civil War. She uses the term “Piney” to describe herself and her neighbors. She’s played the banjo at folk jam sessions for decades. But Sherwood has also been a school nurse in Lacey Township— after training in Elizabeth, close to where her Swedish-born mother grew up. And, for the sake of his kids’ education, her son has moved to Forked River, a patch of the Pines where the population has jumped from 1,422 in 1970 to more than 4,243 today—exactly the reason Sherwood left the town three years ago. “Forked River got hill,” she says. Now she lives in Wading River, a woodsy part of Bass River Township where the population hovers around 1,500 and actually dips occasionally.

While the area is more likely to be overrun with unruly vines than with aluminum siding, Sherwood isn’t a crusty recluse peering from boarded windows with one eye out for strangers and one hand on a rifle. Neither are her neighbors. This is New Jersey, after all, where strip malls and traffic jams are never more than a few exits away and where people like Sherwood straddle the past and the present. This disparity is what makes life so peculiar down here. Some people own satellite dishes. Others don’t have a phone. A thirty-something guy in New Gretna, living in virtual isolation, finds his friends among the washtub basses, fiddles—and a few refugees prom Red Bank—at a rowdy hoedown he’s attended every Saturday night for the past twenty years. In New Jersey (even here) people are never too far away. But in a place where a neighbor is more likely a patch of white cedars or a far-off banjo strum than a face, the land and the music are at least as important as fellow human beings. It’s the Pineys’ way of life. It’s what they’re trying to preserve.

Sherwood’s bond with her patch of untouched land is so intrinsic, she doesn’t try to explain it. In Wading River, few people expend their words describing the skinny waterways that slice through miles of feather-ripped swamp grass, or the dewy star clusters otherwise reserved for planetarium ceilings, or the lonely roads forgotten by the paving trucks.

People here rend to mirror the untamed landscape that stretches out in sundew plants, scarlet cranberry bogs, and fallen tree limbs left to decay on forest Floors. Other New Jerseyans feel inherent links to people: They mingle with cars at rush hour and with the families who live down the block. Blocks, as units of measure, barely exist in the Pines. The people who live here know that that is the way things should be. And a few of them write songs about it.

Sherwood pushes away from the kitchen table with the fleshy arms that spill from her sleeveless housedress and returns with a sheet of music: “Mellow Moon of New Jersey,” written by her cousin, Gladys C. Eayre.

Through a myriad of stars
to the tune of guitars,
That’s when all true lovers fall.
For the Mellow Moon of Old New Jersey
is the grandest moon of all.

Like so many people in the Pines, Sherwood and Eayre—both musicians—are tongue-tied when it comes to talking about their land. A passion this basic defies sentences with logical sequence and punctuation. Then the music—with its improvisations and instinctive rhythms—begins. And the Pineys can’t say enough.

Eayre’s jaunty grin is all over the photo-display boards that chronicle Pinelands lore inside Albert Music Hall. A crowd is gathering, balancing coffee and cream pie with hugs and handshakes reserved for friends they see only on Saturday nights. They’ve been coming for 5 years or 10—or 30—to watch weekly folk and country acts like Country Fair and Mr. Spoons. There are men with slicked black hair and Western-style silver belt buckles studded with turquoise. There are women with round, comfortable bodies and robust hair that stays put days after they’ve left the beauty parlor. They sign a get-well card up front, for an 84- year-old woman who broke her leg in a fall.

Nobody here needs the photo captions scattered around the display boards. They annotate the scenes themselves, recalling the Pineconers, a folk group Gladys Eayre formed 40 years ago with Sammy Hunt and Joe and George Albert. They talk about the Alberts’ cabin in the woods and the mob that grew too large for the Saturday night jam sessions held there. Needing a larger building to continue the revelry, the sessions were moved to a few temporary sites until finally the Albert Music Hall was built in 1996.

‘That’s the Home Place,” says Clarence Eayre, fingering a fuzzy image of the old cabin that’s never been called anything else. He wears’ his aunt’s grin when he points to pictures of Gladys, Sammy, Joe, and George circa 1959. Clarence still lives up the road from Albert Hall, on Wells Mills Road, in the house where he was born. He knows about the villages that used to inhabit the area and about the foundations that remind locals where the houses stood.

“You obviously love it here,” I say.

“Well, I was born here,” he says, as if that says it all.

And it does around here—even if everybody doesn’t live around here anymore. Because to the people who were bom in the Pines—or to the ones whose parents told them they listened to music on somebody’s back porch—the words to tonight’s harmonies are second nature. The music’s for every Piney, even for those who, when the music ends, drive back home to Red Bank, a place hardly considered rural. Those are the folks who leave the music and hit the parkway, often driving pickup trucks and station wagons with bumper stickers that say “Proud to be a Piney from my nose down to my hiney.”

Back in Wading River, Afghan throws and kitsch clutter Janice Sherwood’s living room, making the ceilings seem low. Old Pineconers posters and stacks of music are propped near the front door. Somewhere around here, she has nine scrapbooks of Pinelands memorabilia. She’ll find them if I’m interested.

Music for her began 30 years ago with a broken banjo. “I had been listening to the music ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” she says, without the sarcasm these words would bring anywhere else. “I decided I was going to try to learn to play. I borrowed a banjo, and when my son broke the fifth peg, I knew I had to get it fixed, so I went to Sammy Hunt, who was well-known as a banjo maker. He put the peg back on it and then he brought me to the Home Place, and that’s how I got there.” She joined the Pineconers in 1969, some ten years after her cousin Gladys named the group. “They had no idea of starting or doing anything,” Sherwood says. Like most things here—like the vines that poke through the rocky remains of dead villages—the Pineconers evolved organically. Nobody writes sheet music for the spoons or the washtub bass. The banjo isn’t something for which you take weekly lessons.

As a Bricktown man said one Saturday night at Albert Hall, referring to the instinctive rhythmic sway of his wife, who hails from the Pines: “It’s in her blood.” Or, as Sherwood muses, “Once you get the sand in your shoes, you have to come back.”

But what does that mean for the ones with no sand in their shoes? Sherwood concedes the Pineys’ reputation for being “a closed, clannish sort of group of people.” Yes, she allows, a few residents down here have made separatist rumblings.

Still, she says, this withdrawal is much more about self-preservation. Pineys are not shut-ins. They see developers, taxes, and blacktop looming over the horizon—and they’re scared. “I think we want to protect ourselves down here in the pines from bringing that kind of hostility and aggression to our area,” says Sherwood, choosing her words. “We feel that with crowding comes that kind of a self-destructive sort of atmosphere. And I think that’s what the people down here are guarding against.” At places like Albert Hall, the music is a password. If you can strum it (or hum it), you’re in. The locals take refuge in each other—and in the land.

So a handful of people stay around, sometimes creeping farther into the pines, to towns where Main Street consists of a bar and a gas station, to places where few others want to live. An Albert Hall regular put it best when describing one of the largest towns near Wading River, a place he’s called home for nearly fifteen years. “New Gretna don’t grow,” he says. “That’s the good thing about New Gretna.”

The rest of the state can keep its amenities, Sherwood says, snapping, “I don’t want anything to do with them.” But over Sherwood’s shoulder, through the kitchen window, her large satellite dish crushes a patch of grass. It’s that line again—the one she and so many other Pineys straddle between how things used to be and how things look just a few miles outside the forests. “My daddy always said if you can hear your neighbor shoot his gun, you’re too close,” she says, well aware of how ridiculous the statement sounds now, in New Jersey, where many people live on top of each other in wall-to-wall housing, surrounded by clogged highways and postage-stamp yards. She calls it ticky tacky, borrowing words from a folk anthem about conformity, and she sees it mushrooming in a tiny town just down the road. “You really have to take a ride through there if you want to see what development can do to an area,” she says. “They filled in the meadowlands down there. You know that Pete Seeger song about the ticky tacky houses? Yeah, well, that’s the ticky tacky tight there.”

Gladys Eayre can’t hear us talking. She’s behind us watching CNN. Sometimes Sherwood’s eyes climb out of our conversation, past the kitchen table, to peek at the cousin who made her living doing “everything under the sun,” from wiring early computers to clamming in the bay to creating a folk sound so popular that, at the 1975 National Folk Festival held in Virginia, “everybody wanted to be a Pineconer.”

But Lyre is deaf now. And the Pineconers have retired. “She can’t tell whether she’s on key anymore. It got to be where it wasn’t fun anymore,” Sherwood says, shrugging a little. And though Sherwood remains active with the Pinelands Cultural Society, she’s tired. Purple age spots along her arms testify that she’s been around awhile. These days, she treks up to Albert Hall only one Saturday night a month.

Today, at the kitchen table, she pauses when asked about how the Pinelands—its landscape and its culture—will fare in the future. “I can’t worry about that,” she says. “All I can do is what I’ve done. Right now, I can’t be as active health- wise as I’d like to be, and I’m not gonna try. And if we didn’t give it strong enough legs to stand on, it’ll have to fall down. I hope it doesn’t, but we’ve done what we can, and we just can’t do it anymore.”

And though the tone of her voice is lukewarm, the wrinkle that creases the spot between her eyes says she’s not giving up easily.