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Bill Gillard

Turn Back Or Die

I've lived in New Jersey my whole life, you've got to understand that. Loved it even. Springsteen, Smithereens, the Lincoln Tunnel with its Jersey DNA helix, down the Shore, the New York skyline, the whole deal. Thought I'd stay forever. But not anymore. I got big problems with Jersey . First, where'd all these people come from? Why do they want to live in my state all of a sudden? And who wants to pay $5000 a month for a mortgage on a swampy little dump at the end of the runway? And why's my daughter's elementary school overcrowded and dangerous? Life in Jersey has gotten to the point where we can’t keep moving to smaller and smaller apartments. I mean, my wife and I could have afforded a house in, say, 1998, but now? Forget about it. No chance. Then I got offered a good teaching job in Wisconsin, a great place to raise a family, people told me. And why not? Houses for $100K, lots of natural beauty, no crowds. So we started packing up to leave New Jersey, but we couldn’t go before saying goodbye to all of our favorite places. In particular, I had to take one more walk in the woods of Kinnelon to a place called New Pond. Never heard of it? Good. I wish no one besides me had ever heard of it.

A summer day. Good for a long walk to see an old friend. I parked my wife's minivan and walked north along the rutted dirt road. I saw something that made me laugh. It's so refreshing, the way New Jersey people communicate. You make eye contact with someone, they'll help you out. But when we're not in each other faces, there's no telling what you'll get. Road rage? Vandalism? Murder? Could be anything. Which is why the words spray painted onto the boulder just off the side of the road were kind of reassuring. Turn Back Or Die, it read, capitalized just like that. I knew exactly what the writer meant. If you were a stranger, turn around right now. Go home. Too many new folks busting through here all the time anyway. Turn back, I'd tell them, too. In person, you'd get a please. Painted on a rock, you get a murderous threat. Exact same thing in Jersey-ese, if you're fluent. I couldn't read it without thinking about my decision to move. How could I leave my home? How could I allow myself to be pushed out of a whole state?

The road wound along the shore of Splitrock Reservoir which is owned by the City of Newark. It's just one of Newark 's water sources; you can see the others just off Route 23 once you get up into Newfoundland and West Milford. The land surrounding these big lakes has remained undeveloped all these years despite development pressure from the suburbs that encroach from the east and, lately, from the west, too. This watershed is a wild place, filled with bears and hawks and snakes and all kinds of weird stuff like rusted out cars and ruined smelting towers. The late July air hung humid in all the greenery; the breeze off the reservoir kept the shade cool and the water stirred up enough to splash against the rocky shore. I walked north for an hour, the reservoir to my left the whole time. Only a little bit more, then I could turn off the path, up over the ridge to where I thought New Pond should be. Only a little more.

Then, in the distance, I heard motorcycles. Not just one, but maybe five or six revved their engines, came toward me. No shelter to the waterside, the only way to go was up. I scrambled over the rocks, up the hill through the underbrush. The motorcycles sounded like they were coming from the south, the direction I had come. They were the "turn back or die" gang, no doubt about it. They had seen my wife's minivan, smashed all the windows, filled it with dead stuff, set it on fire, pushed it into the reservoir, and now they were coming for me, tracking me by my scent. That was only logical conclusion. And when they had me, their Weird New Jersey midget albino cannibal biker nun selves, when they had me, all I'd be able to say was, "Yup, you warned me. The sign on the rock was loud and clear. I shoulda listened. My bad." I found a fallen tree and a boulder halfway up the hill and made my stand. By that I mean I lay down behind the log and half buried myself in leaves to hide. The bikes revved and roared, but the sound got no closer. Minutes passed. I think a salamander crawled into my shorts.

I went to high school in New York City and commuted every day from Kinnelon, about two hours each way. Being from the suburbs, they called me the token country boy in a school filled with city kids, sons of immigrants from Ireland , Italy , and eastern Europe. One time sophomore year I brought one of my friends, JZ, from Queens out for a weekend visit. We walked the trail from Smoke Rise out to New Pond one summer afternoon. We were both big Dungeons and Dragons guys, but I always got on his case about realism, playing my mountain man trump card every time, as if I had some special knowledge of the wilderness. And maybe I did, a little, anyway. Taking him out to New Pond, a place beyond any houses, I showed him what I was talking about. We sat on a fallen tree on the side of a hill in the woods. The trail wound below us along the stream that drained New Pond. Around the bend fifty yards ahead of us, a man and two boys walked. They were headed upstream and didn't see us. I whispered to JZ be quiet and don't move and we can be invisible out here in the woods and most people don’t look closely at anything. The walkers approached, chatting all the way, the boys grabbing sticks and throwing rocks. JZ tensed up—I worried that his Catholic school self would shout "here we are" out of guilt for spying on them. But, really, they came to us, right? The family came to within ten yards of us before moving on and rounding the bend in the trail on up ahead. They never saw us. JZ started breathing again. "That was cool!" Like magic, I told him. And it was magic. The woods around New Pond could startle and amaze my friends from New York , could amaze me, too.

Not a salamander in my pants. Just ants. The sound, now clearly not motorcycles was also clearly not coming from the south along the reservoir. Instead, it seemed to come from the woods up and over the ridge. ATV's? Someone cutting some firewood? Satanic rituals? Sounded like construction equipment, but that was impossible this far out. I walked up and over the ridge, stopped at the edge of a clearing. A clearing? Did I just say clearing?

In front of me, the forest was gone. But I knew I was in the right place, knew my Hagstrom Morris County map had nothing but white for miles around this reservoir. I knew there could be no mistake. Yet here it was. A wide swath, probably a hundred yards across, blasted and blown up, like some vacant lot under the B.Q.E. Here were deep craters, like perverse wombs, waiting for a McMansion to spawn. But it couldn't be here—the City of Newark protected this place. No one could build here because it would wreck the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people. Behind me, there was, indeed, a small rise between there and the reservoir. I wondered if that little rise allowed these builders to convince someone that chem-lawn run off from these new estates would do nothing to the water quality, that the cleansing action of the forest would not be missed at all (the City of Newark making a questionable real estate deal? Never!). So close to the reservoir, this destruction. So close!

Cut into the forest were not only these foundations, but also a wide paved road, bounded by cobblestone curbs and storm sewers, that draped itself over the hillside where there had been until recently nothing but trees. In about fifty steps, I walked from the leafy forest floor across broken rocks, gravel, and discarded broken concrete fill, onto the cobblestone curb, the down onto the soft black tar that radiated heat through my shoes directly into my soul. Yes, it was that bad. Through my soles to my soul. I put my head down and walked stiffly forward, my fists at my side.

Past five more craters, the frame of a huge house took shape on a lot surrounded by skunk cabbage and phragmites, those tall, fuzzy-headed, grass-like plants that grow wherever there is water. Ha! Plunked down in the middle of a wetland. They'll have a wet basement forever, and I, for one, am glad of it. I hope they get cave crickets and centipedes and all kinds of other scary things that will give their rich-people blood pressure something to get stirred up about. Closer, I saw a crew of guys in tee shirts and jeans scrambling over their work in progress. They spoke Spanish and paid no attention to me as I walked down the road in front of the house. In the street sat a truckload of lumber wrapped in plastic. The label on it read 100% hardwood from Washington state, the Cascades. So here I was, in my own woods that had been ripped down and paved over, gated and wrecked, watching men from all over Latin America use wood cut down a continent away used to build McMansions for investment bankers from New York City . Globalization had come to my little place in the woods and wrecked it.

See, the problem is if you don't love a place, if you don’t feel like Wendell Berry about every little piece of dirt in your world, wherever it is, you can do crazy things to it like build strip malls, pave swamps, put up fences to keep the deer out, all those kinds of anti-world things people do when they don't deep-down love a place. I watched the movie Station Agent a few weeks before my walk. The librarian told me it was a great movie, said it had been filmed in Rockaway and I would love it. Wrong. The opening scenes were supposed to be Hoboken , and anyone around here knows that Hoboken is a mile square piece of bottom land at the edge of the Hudson River . In the movie, the main character walked down the hilly streets of Hoboken and—yes, that's what I said, the majestic rolling hills of Hoboken . What? The characters then sat on the roof of a building in "Hoboken," watched passenger trains roll through what was clearly Newark to anyone who paid attention, and still they called it "Hoboken." Then they emerged downstairs in Rockaway, New Jersey , an old Morris Canal port, now a crowded working class town along Route 80, which they again labeled "Hoboken." Later in the film, the locations switch from Rockaway to Newfoundland to Hibernia to Lake Hopatcong (or Green Pond—I'm not sure) so fast, my head hurt. The movie showed the characters walk about ten steps and magically appear ten miles away in another town. How could these filmmakers come out here to a real place in the world and mess with it like that? They spent so much time being meticulous with nuances of character and soundtrack, yet they felt the need to scramble the landscape of New Jersey beyond recognition. It's like someone rearranging the furniture in your room without asking first. Like paving my woods.

Still, I hoped that I was wrong, that somehow I had misread the map and that this section of Kinnelon Estates (that's the name of this particular housing project) was far away from New Pond, that my place still remained undisturbed after all these years. The further I walked from the woods, the more finished the houses became, the less I hoped. The first occupied one had more windows than I was willing to count and a four car garage. The play set outside would dwarf most elementary school's, but it sat quiet and brand-new looking. No signs of life at all, even on this gorgeous summer day. The kids were probably inside playing video games in their home theater or off somewhere on a "getaway" from all this opulence. Downhill I went, like raindrop might, looking for the low ground.

My family and I used to live through the woods from here, not too far, in a gated community called Smoke Rise. My father is a poor kid from Scranton who made good money for a while on Wall Street. That lasted for maybe ten years, my teenage years. So we moved to the woods and lived in a big house. That is, the woods had houses in them. Not like where we moved from, Wayne , where the houses have woods in back yards. My brothers and I spent long days in the woods playing, riding bikes, exploring, playing hockey in the winter. New Pond was a favorite destination, once we found the trail that led to it. We climbed on the glacial erratics, the house-size boulders the melting ice left there for us. We fished and swam out there all summer long. Even went back in the winter a time or two to see how the place looked leafless and white. Now I suspect that our house probably landed with an Dorothy-like thump on someone else's Walden, so I am sympathetic to the argument that things change and all forest evolves into houses, that all dirt eventually becomes blacktop. But out there where it was still wild, I just felt like things ought to remain that way. I guess, if those McMansion people just wanted to take a walk, to go look for wild turkeys or beavers or hawks, if they drove in from Manhattan or Montclair or wherever and quietly strolled through the forest, what could I say about that? But they came with bulldozers and brought along their 6,000 square feet of rain forest hardwood flooring with them.

I should have known what I would find down that hill. Around a corner, crossroads of South Glen Road and Quail Court (doesn’t it just make you cringe to hear such fakery?), stood the construction trailer, a low-slung, white aluminum polyhedron beyond the sidewalk with a vacancy around it for parking. Behind it, shielded from the world by the few trees that remained, was New Pond, or, rather, what was left of it. All along the shore were tree falls from a new beaver population. Lots of destruction for such little animals. Up until then, I had never seen any evidence of beavers in Kinnelon. Heard one once, but never saw one. Lots of trees had come down, all crashing into the water making a strange sight, all that deadness on the edges of the whole pond. The runoff from the lawns recently installed had made the water bright green. That color announced the beginning of the end for my little pond. First thing that happens is too many nutrients overwhelm the pond's balance, causes too many plants to grow too fast. That's called eutrophication. Then the fish die and decay, choked off by the growth of plants, lack of light, and severe swings in available oxygen. That much death makes the water so toxic it can support nothing but bacteria for a while. Algae blooms and die-offs fill in the pond from the ground up. Plants grow, then trees, then the pond is no more. At the north end, the little stone mill dam lay buried under a pile of branches that had floated there after beavers chewed them apart. I kicked at the pile, demoralized, opened up a new flow over the dam, but my heart wasn't in it. There was nothing left for me here, my Jersey home in the woods, all surrounded by houses and roads, all of its mystery gone.

I was fourteen years old when we moved here. It was the day I started high school in New York City, so I didn’t know anyone at all in Kinnelon. I did like maps, though, and noticed a circle of blue in an uninterrupted swath of emptiness just to the west of Smoke Rise. Next to the blue circle, the name, New Pond. A thin line of blue connected it to the big lake. No problem—we just walk the undeveloped west side of the big lake, find the stream, and follow it up hill to its source, that small pond in the woods. At first, the going was easy, a steady uphill through breaks in the ridges and glacial remains. This side of the lake, like a lot of the forest around here, was littered with big boulders and steep stony ridges, the remains of the last glacier to roll through these parts about 100,000 years ago. The stream ran flatter at the top of the ridge and the underbrush thickens. Soon I slopped through muddy thorns, the ground beneath me no longer rocks and ledges, in its place a wide expanse of swamp. It has to end sometime, right? Maybe just ahead the sky opens up over New Pond. Sure. Just ahead. My dog, Sunny, walks patiently at my side as I take careful steps. Eventually, I'm completely stuck, sinking slowly into the waist deep, fern-covered ooze. Sunny, at eye level, pants her dog breath into my face. If dogs could laugh, then she laughed at me. New Pond would have to wait for another day. I found out later there were trails to New Pond already cut into the forest. Ah, well.

I trudged out of Kinnelon Estates, my paved forest, not by their gaudy front entrance but, rather, at the back end of the development, the way I had come, where the landscape told the more hopeful story. The neat blacktop bounded by cobblestones gave way to gravel; the storm sewers dropped away in favor of ditches. The finished houses became frames, the frames became open foundations, the holes in the ground became deforested clearings, the clearings became thick, leafy woods. I was back in my forest, a beautiful place, like so much of New Jersey , if you meet it face to face, if you know how to read it. South along the reservoir an hour later, the road widened, my wife's minivan, unburned, unsubmerged.

The big rock, Turn Back Or Die.

That's for you, New Jersey . A call to action, to at least think a little bit before we pave every last, soggy, mosquitoed inch of the place. As Aldo Leopold—Wisconsin 's conscience and my new home state hero—said all those years ago, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." When he talked about the "biotic community," he meant all of it: the land, the water, plants, the critters, us—everything, even in New Jersey . He also said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” His book, Sand County Almanac, which I read in college without really understanding it, is in every library out here. We'll see if the people of Wisconsin take the land ethic to heart any better than the people of the formerly Garden State.

Anyway, down the road, back home, my wife and I packed our things, jumped onto Route 80 west into the sunset, to America's Dairyland.

And why not?

It'll be years before some investment banker figures out how to commute between New York and Appleton, so I figure we're good for a while.

©2007 by Bill Gillard

Bill Gillard is a refugee from the high cost of living in his ancestral homeland of New Jersey. Although he plans a return in glory one shining day, he currently teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin and feels lucky to have gotten the gig.

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