Photos and text by Joseph Sapia
Garden and Afield in Helmetta-Monroe-Jamesburg, 2016, May 22, Sunday, to May 28, Saturday
From my yard in the Helmetta Road area of Monroe and the surrounding Pine Barrens
— “KNOCK OUT’ ROSES: The “Knock Out” roses are putting on a spectacular display, the best I recall since planting them in my yard in 2008.
— RACCOON/S AT THE BIRD-FEEDER: The battle continues between me and the raccoons at the bird-feeder. I have been putting the feeder in the garage at night, but the raccoon/s sometime beat me to the feeder.
Raccoon at my backyard birdfeeder
— CANADA GEESE GOSLINGS: Adult Canada geese are out and about with their goslings. The adults are amazing parents — and humans can learn from them, (Photo 6, at Helmetta Pond.)
Canada Geese at Helmetta Pond
— NEW JERSEY STATE BIRD AT THE FEEDER: An Eastern goldfinch at one of my bird-feeders. Easily identified as a male because of the bright colors.
Eastern Goldfinch, the New Jersey state bird
— NORTHERN GRAY TREEFROGS: These called strongly during the week. See http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/audio/no_gray_frog.wav.
— GARDEN: I planted May 21 and a week later plants were sprouting, most noticeable the Mammoth Gray-Stripe sunflower. Although I do not use fertilizer or pesticides, I water regularly. Once the plants get going, I water before 10 a.m. so as not to lose water to evaporation as the day warms.
— BLACK BEAR MOVEMENT: Reports continue about black bear sightings in Central Jersey and across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. I am surprised there have not been more reports closer to home. If a bear is sighted, it is likely a 1-1/2-year-old male, perhaps 80 to 100 pounds, looking for its own turf. (What to do when encountering a bear, http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/pdf/bear/bearfacts_know.pdf.)
— YARDWORK: I trimmed the shrubs, then started cutting the grass. I have to finish the lawncutting today. I still have to plant black-eyed Susans.
— BLAST FROM THE PAST, CIRCA LATE 1960S: Paul Migut with an 8-horsepower roto-tiller at his Uncle Stanley “Pon” Ceslowski’s garden on Old Road at Helmetta Road, Monroe. Over the years, Pon, Paul and Jim Becker worked that huge garden.
Paul Migut, circa late 1960s, at Pon’s garden
More knock-out roses
Joe Sapia, 59, is a vegetable gardener, who gardens the same backyard plot as did his Italian-American father, Joe Sr., and his Polish grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda. Both are inspirations for his vegetable gardening. And he draws inspiration on the local Pine Barrens from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in the local Pines, and his grandmother.
By Joseph Sapia
Holly at Cranberry Bog
As Timmy Mechkowski and I walked in back of Helmetta Pond, we came across a patch of Lycopodium.
“Look at all that ground pine,” I said. “It must like it just a little bit wet.”
The ground pine brought memories of his late mother, Catherine “Kay” Holsten Mechkowski. She used to make Christmas wreaths, using running ground pine as the foundation; common ground pine, as we were seeing on this day, to fill in the wreath.
Timmy Mechkowski and ground pine
“Every now and then, she would find holly (in the woods) and poke them in,” Timmy said.
On this day a year ago, between Christmas and the calendar changing from 2014 to 2015, Timmy and I walked afield in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where we grew up. As one year turns to another, we may reflect on the general past or our reflections could turn afield, here, to a time when there was less development and, in turn, more open space.
“Many years ago, I used to know these woods,” Timmy said.
Helmetta’s Timmy Mechkowski
Although Timmy, 54-years-old, lives adjacent to field, water, and woods, just as he did as a child, and works the land – in his case, gardening and cutting firewood on his property – he no longer ventures deep into the woods.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” said Timmy, speaking of the last time he explored the woods. “I was a kid, 17-, 18-years-old, had to be.”
So, on this day, Timmy and I hiked the woods.
We started about noon and walked counter-clockwise to places that locals would recognize, more so if they knew the woods, less so if they did not: the Ditch, Helmetta Pond, the Dance Pavilion, Jamesburg Park, Baron’s or Swing Hill (basically, the same place, but my mother’s generation knowing it by the former, those younger than me calling it the latter), Snuffy Hollow, the Pipeline, Cranberry Bog.
Not only do places afield have local names, but things in the woods, too, have names.
“What do they call that, a widow-maker?” Timmy said.
A massive widow-maker! An estimated 15-feet-or-longer part of a tree hung up 20 to 25 feet or so off the ground.
The typical view of Helmetta Pond is from the side of the former George W. Helme Snuff Mill, or from Helmetta looking toward the woods. Today, we had the other view, from the woods toward the Snuff Mill.
Nearby, a large oak had toppled thanks to the wind of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Its flipped root pan and clinging soil measured about 10-feet-tall, or well above Timmy’s approximately 5 feet, 8 inches.
Timmy Mechkowski in front of a tree uprooted, thanks to October 2012’sSuperstorm Sandy. The root pan is about 10-feet-tall
“Now, what is this, mountain laurel?” Timmy said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“I know some things,” he joked.
Actually, Timmy knows a lot, a fine mix of his maternal and paternal farming roots and his town upbringing. By trade, a mechanic. One of my first picks if I had to choose a team to live off the grid.
A coating of ice on a small pond near Helmetta Boulevard, which slices through the woods, was evidence of the day’s temperature of about 32 degrees.
Invasive phragmites grew in the swamps on both sides of Helmetta Boulevard. Yet, not far away, one was in a classic Pine Barrens uplands ecosystem of oak and pitch pine.
“Another pristine area,” I said. “This is beautiful, right here.”
Where the Dance Pavilion stood about 100 years ago – apparently the idea being to bring people out for a good-time night in the woods to sell them lots here – we could still find remnants.
“This is pretty cool,” I said, “you could still see them, the steps,” leading to where the pavilion stood on the top of a small hill.
Here, in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, there is a quick mix of nature and humans, some old, a lot current.
As we bushwhacked with Jamesburg Park behind us and Swing Hill ahead, swamp to our left, high ground to our right, a nearby path of white sand was hidden by the woods’s vegetation.
“You couldn’t even see the path a few feet away,” I said.
In the Swing Hill-Snuffy Hollow area, there was evidence of how this area of the woods is more accessible to the outside world: a stream washed out because of off-road vehicle riding and garbage dumped. But this walk was wrapping up, anyway.
On our walk, we passed swamp, uplands mixed with oak and pine, swamp hardwood forest and Atlantic white cedar swamp, sphagnum bog, a stand of baby pitch pines and invasive white pine, and what apparently was a coyote den, sometime the hum of the New Jersey Turnpike, only a mile or so away, in the background.
Coyote den under the roots of an uprooted tree
The woods is a funky place, a place to gather Mother Nature’s bounty. This Christmas, I did not get around to gathering materials for a wreath. Mrs. Mechkowski’s wreath is different than mine, which I make using pine boughs and inserting winterberry.
To next Christmas and, hopefully, a wreath. We are moving that way as another year has gone by.
On the way home, we saw winterberry, what I use for a wreath, and holly, what Mrs. Mechkowski used. For now, the outdoors is still here, but changing, too….
Winterberry at Cranberry Bog
Joe Sapia, 59-years-old, grew up in and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin@aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia