Walt Whitman, in literary spirit
A new book - set amid the South Jersey countryside - is based on the poet's "jottings."
Lynne Shivers delighted in her discovery much the way Walt Whitman had gladdened at the droning of bumblebees and the widening whistles of the russet-backed thrushes along Big Timber Creek more than a century earlier.
"I was just relaxing and had a collected works of Whitman sitting next to me," said Shivers, whose Deptford house overlooks wetlands along the creek. She read: "And I walked along the Big Timber Creek . . ."
"Wait a minute," Shivers exclaimed to herself. "That's the creek outside my window."
The realization that the poet had not only reveled in the natural area spread beneath her, but had also written about it, inspired the Woodbury native, a writer and English professor who returned to Gloucester County in 1994 after living for years in West Philadelphia.
The result was a slim paperback,
Jottings in the Woods: Walt Whitman's Nature Prose and a Study of Old Pine Farm
, built around excerpts from Whitman's
. Shivers, along with Deptford residents Joan Tracy and Debra White, produced the volume, with financing through the Gloucester County Cultural and Heritage Commission.
Their goal is to generate money for the Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust, nearly 40 acres of meadow, woodlands and wetlands near the creek, which flows into the Delaware River.
The authors, all members of the trust, devote a chapter to its history. It was set up in 1992 to oversee acreage purchased in the late 1970s by George and Lillian Willoughby, internationally known Quaker peace activists who also advocate for open space. They live in the former Pine family farmhouse, at the edge of the trust.
The bulk of the protected land comprises property that had been part of Moffa Farm. The old farmhouse, with additional acreage, lies across Big Timber Creek in Gloucester Township. Struggles continue over whether to develop or preserve the Camden County portion of the farmstead.
Such battles have intensified as development changes the South Jersey landscape.
"I remember many, many miles of peach orchards, apple orchards, cornfields," Shivers said of her Gloucester County childhood. When she told George Willoughby about 15 years ago that she was thinking about moving back, he advised her to "hurry up."
The authors, as did Whitman, view nature as critical to the renewal of spirit. Nature, the poet wrote in a footnote in
, is the "only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life."
In the "Reflections" chapter, composed of essays by trust board members, White echoes that thought.
"When I first saw Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust," her essay begins, "it triggered the memory of my first retreat into nature." As a teenager feeling social stress, she was calmed. "Perhaps another stressed individual . . . will stumble upon our site, and find their peace for the first time," she writes.
Whitman was such a "stressed individual" when he took retreat along Big Timber Creek. During the Civil War, he worked as a nurse in military hospitals in Washington, an experience believed to have left scars. He moved to Camden in 1874 to live with his brother after suffering a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed.
The poet became friends with the Stafford family, who invited him to their farm along the north branch of the creek in Laurel Springs. Whitman stayed with the family in the summertime for five or six years, regaining his strength, Shivers said.
Eventually, he was well enough to wander. Those wanderings yielded "jottings," as he called them, essays that made up his collection,
, written across 25 years.
On his walks, Whitman might be accompanied by a "moving cloud" of bumblebees: "big fellows with light yellow jackets, great glistening swelling bodies, stumpy heads and gauzy wings."
Shivers noted: "When Whitman walked in Laurel Springs, it was open and wooded and there were farms."
Eight kinds of oaks - including pin, white swamp and swamp - still populate the woodlands, as they did in Whitman's days there. Rising alongside them are sassafras and maple, beech and tulip poplar. Two or three kinds of owls call out at night, and varieties of woodpeckers drill the hardwoods. Songbirds flit among the branches and snapping turtles move through shallow waters. There are foxes, deer, raccoon and skunks.
She and the other members of the trust hope to add trails and picnic tables, and to expand the protected acreage.
"There's value in retaining nature for its own sake," Shivers said. "It's the inherent value of natural things."
Or, as Whitman wrote: "After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on . . . what remains? Nature remains."
Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust.
Main entrance at end of Rankin Avenue, Blackwood Terrace section of Deptford.
Call 856-232-1109 or 856-374-0395, or visit
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