Saturday, May 05, 2012

Review: Wild New Jersey by David Wheeler

New Jersey is the fifth-smallest – and the most densely-populated – state in the United States. A wide ribbon of urbanization stretches across the state from Philadelphia to New York, and another strip of urbanization runs along the state's Atlantic coast. The state has a long history of industrialization stretching back into the 18th century. The early start on the Industrial Revolution and two subsequent centuries of industrialization left toxic sites around much of the state. Now much of the industry is gone, and New Jersey is left with more Superfund sites than any other state (which is less surprising if you consider that New Jersey politicians were instrumental in drafting Superfund and getting it passed).

Despite all this, New Jersey supports a wealth of biodiversity. This may be ascribed to its geology, latitude, and proximity to the coast. The northern part of the state, particularly the mountainous northwest corner, supports plant and wildlife communities similar to those found much further north. Likewise, the southern half of the state has winters just warm enough to support plants and animals found much further south. As a result, many species find the northern limit of their ranges in or near New Jersey, and many others find their southern limit here. Chickadees are an example of this phenomenon: the ranges of northerly Black-capped and southerly Carolina Chickadees meet in the middle of the state, close to the boundary of the coastal plain.

David Wheeler gives readers a taste of this natural diversity in his recent book, Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State. Each chapter narrates a visit to a refuge or an encounter with New Jersey's natural world, starting with a search for black bears in northwestern New Jersey and continuing with visits to sites such as the Meadowlands, various points along the shore, and up again through the Pine Barrens and central Piedmont region. In some cases, a chapter is focused on a single trip, but in most cases Wheeler includes a few sites centered around the same habitat type or activities such as fossil-hunting and birdwatching. While there are far too many interesting natural places and ecological problems in the state to cover in a single book, Wheeler does well in selecting a representative sample. I was particularly pleased to see sites from the state's urban core included in the book.

The sites are grouped into parts by geographic region, and each part is prefaced by a map showing approximate locations for the sites mentioned in the following chapters. I noticed one error on the map for part 3 (The Jersey Shore), which places Cheesequake State Park in Monmouth County. (It is actually in Middlesex County.) The chapters are illustrated with black and white photos, many of which were taken by David Wheeler while others were supplied by other photographers (often the people that he interviews in the same chapter). Color photos are printed on plates in the center of the book; I especially liked one of a Bald Eagle flying across the path of a rower on the Millstone Aqueduct.

The narrative is informed by interviews with the people who work or volunteer at those locations or who visit them regularly. In many cases, the people Wheeler interviews are responsible for keeping New Jersey's natural areas wild or restoring degraded habitats. Middlesex County's Dismal Swamp, for instance, might not exist as a natural area without the efforts of Robert Spiegel, one of the many environmentalists who appear in the book. In other cases, the interviews add expert commentary on ecology or historical background.

It is great to read about someone else's experience in a park or refuge, but I wish books like this gave a little more information about visiting sites. Theoretically a park or refuge should be good in any season, but in my experience each shines especially in one season over others, and the prime season is not always obvious. For larger refuges (or obscure sites) is there a preferred entry point? Is a site open to the public or only by special permission? I think information like this would be helpful for moving people from reading about New Jersey's natural areas to visiting and enjoying them.

That said, Wild New Jersey provides a window into New Jersey's natural history. It will likely be most interesting to newcomers to the state or people who grew up in the state but have not explored its wild side in depth. Readers who (like me) have spent a lot of time in New Jersey's natural areas will probably find much that is already familiar. I have visited sites from at least half of the book's chapters and have met many of the people interviewed for it. Even so, I found much of interest here, and I imagine other readers would as well.

This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher.