The Last Piney
Jason Nark | Philadelphia Daily News | September 2012
THE WOODCUTTER lives alone in the land of legends, in the Jersey pines, where moonshiners and pirates once hid among the ghosts and ghouls, where ruddy creeks and empty roads still twist on for miles.
On this September morning, lizards skitter over the sweet-smelling pine logs that Bill Wasiowich split and stacked on the lot where he lives. It’s down a narrow, dirt driveway, just before a bend in the road, in Woodland Township, Burlington County.
Tools are scattered about the moss-covered workbench where he prunes his pickings from the forest. On the front porch of the Crooked Barrel Gun Club, where Wasiowich lives rent-free, hummingbirds and bees hover above jars of sugar water he hung.
In his “sixty-something” years, the Trenton native has been an orphan, a high-school dropout, a wanderer, a shrimper, a worker waist-deep in a sea of bobbing cranberries, and mostly a loner who’s earned his keep deep into New Jersey’s rare, untouched places.
Today, he’s the last true “Piney” of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a piece of folklore in the flesh with bushy eyebrows and sap-covered pants.
“I’m a worker. I’m just a guy who gets the job done. I’ll be doing that right to the bitter end, I guess,” he says, looking down at the faded floorboards on the hunting club’s back porch.
Wasiowich doesn’t romanticize the impossibly rural life he lives in New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state. It’s not an experiment, or fodder for a book or reality-TV program, and frankly, not something he’s interested in going on and on about all morning. He’s never been sick, he says, but doesn’t owe it to anything particular. In a lifetime in the woods, he’s seen one timber rattlesnake, and he threw a stick at it.
Legends? Folklore? Ghosts? Wasiowich just wishes he had a pick-up truck again.
“I got my license revoked. I had no insurance, no registration. You name it, I didn’t have it,” he says, walking across his yard. “I always had a pickup truck, though, either quarter-ton or three-quarter-ton, sometimes with the four-wheel drive and big tires. “
Wasiowich, according to his own account, pays no taxes or rent. The gun club has let him live there, as its caretaker, for decades.
He cobbles together enough cash for groceries – and hitches a ride to the nearest supermarket – by chopping firewood, harvesting the “minisweetheart” and “hog’s bush” in the forest for florists, and other odd jobs.
“There’s no sense in making more than you need,” he says of money, bundling the ornamental twigs on his workbench.
Raised around the Pine Barrens by foster families, Wasiowich says early travels taught him a few lessons. For one, he doesn’t like cities or having a boss, and alcohol, he says, is nothing but poison that takes “all the work out of a man. ” Work took him to Georgia and Key West for a spell, but he didn’t enjoy pulling the heads off shrimp or picking limes, so he kept on moving and came back to the cedar swamps and sugar sand.
Nowadays, the nameless rooster that roams the yard is his alarm clock, the sunset his punch clock.
“I guess I’ve had a lot of good days and a lot of bad days, like anybody else,” he says, toeing the grass beneath the workbench with his boots. “But you do have to enjoy the work. I’m out here and I do what I want. I’m a completely free person. “
Wasiowich wouldn’t be answering these questions if it weren’t for The Pine Barrens, the 1967 book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee. Many credit McPhee, a Princeton native, for first painting the pines as a place worth preserving, and for dispelling myths about”pineys” like Wasiowich. He appears throughout the book with other pineys now long gone.
“I just thought he was the real article, a person native to the woodlands, and he was a real loner,” McPhee says in a telephone interview. “He was a straightforward individual. I hope he’s doing well out there. “
At the time McPhee’s book was written, the Pine Barrens were being scouted as the location for a major airport, where a bustling city would rise up between Philly and New York. The airport would have been the largest in the nation, says Mike Hunninghake, a spokesman for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, but after then-governor Brendan T. Byrne read McPhee’s book, the scales tipped in favor of preservation.
“The publication of that book started a nationwide conversation on this place,” Hunninghake says.
Today, the Pinelands National Preserve covers about 1.1 million acres, the largest body of open space on the East Coast between Boston and Richmond. It seems impossible that Wasiowich’s home is roughly 50 miles from Philadelphia or Atlantic City or the house where MTV filmed “Jersey Shore. “
A state forest in the Pine Barrens was named after Byrne and he continues to champion the area. McPhee, who teaches at Princeton University, remains modest about his book’s impact.
“I didn’t go there on a mission. I went to find interesting people in interesting places and tell some stories,” he said. “I feel good about it, but it wasn’t my purpose for being there. “
Back at the Crooked Barrel Gun Club, Wasiowich has mixed feelings about preservation in the pines. He laments losing certain freedoms, the ability to wander about with his pitchfork and wheelbarrow, raking sphagnum moss or picking pinecones without running into fences and forest rangers.
“You can’t hardly make a move anymore without breaking some environmental law,” he says, gesturing to the forest beyond the yard.
But he also hates to hear dirt bikes ripping through the fire cuts, or see pines felled for a few new houses, and wants no part of the “suburban life” he says is closing in around him.
“I’ve seen whole places wiped off the map, gone like they never existed,” he says, his voice rising.
Hunninghake says the landmark efforts that saved the Pine Barrens are all that stand between Wasiowich and the “march of Walmarts. ” Without them, Wasiowich may have packed up and left a long time ago.
“I wish there were more people out there like him,” said Hunninghake. “The fact that somebody can still live their own life, and not get sucked into the technological world, is a marvel. He’s a true anachronism. “
When McPhee met Wasiowich, the author described him as being “as shy a person as I have ever had a chance to know” but also said he aspired to marry and raise a family. Wasiowich told McPhee how he once scared off a reporter looking to tell the piney tale, with a Winchester rifle.
Now, he’s content to feed the hummingbirds, the cats he doesn’t bother to name, and the raccoon that ambles up to his front porch at night. He doesn’t regret never marrying. He’s not religious and doesn’t vote, he says, “because it doesn’t really matter who you vote for, does it? “
“I’m just going about my business out here, cutting wood and selling it, that’s about all I’m doing,” he says.
Like that reclusive rattlesnake he threw a stick at as a boy, Wasiowich just wants to be left alone, to live life on his terms out in the pines. Being called a “piney” doesn’t offend him, he says, or fill him with pride. A rattlesnake wouldn’t mind being called a rattlesnake.
“I guess a piney is something that gives a place identity. I guess it makes a place different from another place,” he says when asked to explain why reporters amble down his driveway every now and then. “The way I see it, I’m no different than the pines, or the animals and plants out here. “
Writer bio: Jason Nark, a South Jersey native and graduate of Rutgers-Camden University, wrote for the Camden Courier-Post before joining the Philadelphia Daily News in 2008.