One of the best things about producing stories for State of the Arts is the places I find myself—from Audible’s newly renovated “Innovation Cathedral” in Newark, featuring stained glass windows of scientists such as Galileo, to the ruins of the old Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, where Woody Guthrie spent his last days. Greystone’s remaining buildings were torn down soon after my crew and I were there, reminding me of one of the enduring values of documentary filmmaking. 

My latest production, Keeping the Pinelands, took me to yet more very special places—an Atlantic White Cedar swamp at dawn, a prescribed fire taking place next to the Garden State Parkway, and a spot where a rare Pine Barrens orchid bloomed. I produced Keeping the Pinelands for NJ PBS, and it premieres this Wednesday at 8:30 pm. During its production, I learned more about this unusual and precious area—the largest open space left on the East Coast between Richmond and Boston, comprising over 20% of New Jersey. That’s one of those facts that out-of-staters have a hard time believing, given that we’re also the most densely populated state in the union!

Skyward view of Maya Lin's Ghost Forward installation in Madison Square Park.

Ghost Forest installed in Madison Square Park, photo credit Maya Lin Studio

Although Keeping the Pinelands doesn’t focus on the arts, it was a State of the Arts story that led me to the topic. In 2021, I produced a story about artist Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest, an installation in Manhattan of giant Atlantic White Cedar trees that had fallen victim to climate change. Forester Bob Williams had helped Maya Lin source the trees, and he took me and my crew on a tour of South Jersey’s cedar and pine forests, from devastated and dying stands, to areas with mature hundred-year-old trees, to restored sites thick with young saplings. While we were in the field, talking about the ecosystem and our responsibility to help maintain it, I was inspired to pursue an old idea of mine: a documentary about the role played by people and fire in our nation’s pine forests. It was a film that a college friend of mine and I had wanted to make, many years before I started working at State of the Arts. It didn’t happen then—but it has now, with the focus on the Pinelands of South Jersey.

Larry Birch, Fire Observer for the NJ DEP's Forest Fire Service at a prescribed burn on the Stockton University campus

Larry Birch, Fire Observer for the NJ DEP’s Forest Fire Service at a prescribed burn on the Stockton University campus

I hope you take the time to check out Keeping the Pinelands. In my experience, artists are among the people most open to understanding the interrelationships in the world, its beauty, and the immeasurable loss for everyone when natural areas disappear. Keeping the Pinelands focuses on our role in shaping and maintaining the environment, from the people who first arrived in South Jersey’s periglacial landscape 10,000 years ago, to the cranberry farmers, birdwatchers, forest rangers, and residents of today. The new season of State of the Arts starting in September will bring more stories from the Pinelands. Look out for a profile of Mt. Holly “native materials” basketmaker Steven R. Carty, and a look at the upcoming exhibition, A Pinelands Portrait: Art of the Pine Barrens at Stockton University Gallery.

And I hope you find the time to explore the Pinelands on your own this summer!

Susan Wallner
Series Producer, State of the Arts