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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
New Jersey

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 boardwalk.

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 Maine.

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 said.

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 property.

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 further downstream.

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 insulation.

"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 a fireplace.

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 her securely.

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 power.

"When I first got out there, I started realizing the depth of emotion I possessed rapturous moments and gut-wrenching pain.

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.

This website has no official or informal connection to the Tracker School or Tom Brown Jr. whatsoever


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