Forest Growth Through primitive lifestyle in New Jersey
Pine Barrens, Maine native strengthens her bond with nature, gains
greater understanding of self
Samantha Coit, of the NEWS Staff
BANGOR DAILY NEWS (BANGOR, MAINE) - December 3, 1998
For most, those two words call to mind turnpikes and strip malls,
suburban neighborhoods or perhaps a skyscraper-dotted shoreline
shimmering with casino lights, pedestrians ambling along the
State maps, however, hint of a completely different picture.
A mideastern section of the state, north of Atlantic City and
south of Lakewood, shows a space not studded with city dots or
charted with rural roads and highways.
Therein lies a vast, old-growth pine forest called the Pine Barrens,
marked by a canopy of pine trees above, white sand covered by
a thin layer of topsoil below, high-bush blueberries and scrub
oaks in between. Cedar swamps grow near rivers and tributaries
where a host of water-friendly flora, such as ferns and spongy
spaghnum moss, are common terrain.
Under this cover of pines, Michelle McCann has led a primitive
lifestyle during the past 14 months -- a life free from amenities
such as hot water, plumbing, stoves and refrigeration. There
are no creature comforts, no thermostats to turn, no light switches
to flick, and, of course, no radio and television to surf. No
telephones, e-mail, movies or fine dining.
Originally from Trenton, Maine, and a summa cum laude graduate
from the University of Maine in Orono, McCann is one of three
caretakers for Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School, an outdoor educational
program for people over the age of 18, which offers philosophy
classes and nature, tracking and wilderness survival courses.
Back home in Trenton over Thanksgiving, McCann was sporting a
wool sweater and once-rigid Carhartt jeans worn to a flannel-like
softness. She says her life in the wild has deepened her relationship
with Mother Nature, since she has had to rely solely on natural
resources for her basic needs.
As a caretaker, the 24-year-old UMgrad is charged with keeping
the Pine Barrens in their primitive state and maintaining the
natural environmental balance. Part of her job involves burning
out new growth such as oaks, which would otherwise choke the
older pines. She likens the process to burning blueberry barrens
In pine barrens, controlled burns take away the understory, or
lower layer of growth, that can damage old pine trees. "That's
why the pine barrens have survived as pine barrens," McCann
McCann says she acts as a guardian of the land, sometimes dealing
with "young kids" who venture into the woods to drink.
"Sometimes trucks come in and drive through swamps It's
mostly kids who don't realize that they are destroying a whole
ecosystem," she said, adding that caretakers help the New
Jersey Conservation Foundation oversee its recently acquired
McCann says her lifestyle is radically different to the one she
previously led. She goes to sleep when the sun sets and awakens
with sunrise. She rarely tracks the precise time of day and
is immune to appointments and stress of a schedule-driven lifestyle.
Four miles in from the nearest road, McCann carries her own water,
which flows from a natural spring. Downstream, she bathes in
the same tea-colored water, (tea-colored from the tannins, she
says), which she also uses for drinking and cooking (the water
is treated for students participating in school courses). She
has also skinned an already dead deer of its hide -- a difficult
task at first for the vegetarian -- and left it soaking a little
McCann's latest achievement has been to build a moundlike, primitive
shelter for the winter, which she designed herself.
First, she dug a 3-to-4-foot circular area into the earth and
covered the floor with cedar slats recycled from a nearby cedar
swamp. Next, she lined the walls with 5-foot-high slats and
pushed the sandy earth up around the above-ground portion for
"I've never done any carpentry, but I knew I wanted an open
fireplace," she said. Determined to accomplish that goal,
she used fire-resistant bricks and mortar made from clay to construct
To add elevation and a roof to her home, McCann retrieved three
oak trunks and two maples (which were rotten at the bottomand
going to fall anyway, she said) and joined those five support
beams at the top, so they covered the base in a teepeelike frame.
She says hand sawing the maple and bringing it back to the site
on a wheelbarrow alone took half a day. To ensure the frame
was sound, she hung her bodyweight from the apex, which held
McCann then lined additional cedar tree supports around the frame,
secured them with line, covered the entire structure with cedar
slats and filled in gaps and cracks with survival cement, a thick,
rich clay, to prevent leakage. She then layered her own handcrafted
grass mats atop the slats, covering her entire abode in forest
debris of grass, leaves and pine needles.
"So it looks like a big mound," she said.
Through a small entrance designed to keep drafts out, McCann
crouches low to enter her home. Inside, she built a raised bed
and bookshelves, which are visible with candlelight.
While mastering Arctic survival skills are next on her priority
list, the experience of surviving well in the New Jersey wilderness
through four seasons and learning to be comfortable with herself
have proven invaluable.
"If anything ever happens, I would survive and that's a nice
feeling," she said.
Perhaps more vital than the survival skills and physical hurdles,
McCann says, have been the psychological and spiritual lessons
she has gained from living in the Pine Barrens.
"You can't hide from who you are. The tree doesn't try to
be anything other than a tree," she said.
The Pine Barrens experience, McCann says, has allowed her to
more intimately know herself and her relationship with a higher
"When I first got out there, I started realizing the depth
of emotion I possessed rapturous moments and gut-wrenching
All the pain and all the joy are out there," McCann reflected,
noting society's tendency to avoid those extremes.
"The earth is a living, breathing entity, and humans are
fleas on God's back," she said.
"We are so disconnected with the Earth. We are killing that
which sustains us. It's like we don't love ourselves,"
McCann said, commenting on the modern world. "We sacrifice
everything that means something for a sense of security. "
While McCann prepares for another winter deep in the woods,she
acknowledges with a hint of nostalgia, "the pine barrens
have taught me what I need to know from them and it may be time
to go soon. " McCann, who has a bachelor's degree in education,
said she may return to Maine for a while before pursuing a teaching
career in Alaska.
"I'm glad I grew up here with the ocean at my feet and pine
trees at my back," she said.