Posts Tagged ‘Pete Dunne’

Dunne’s Private Eden

Great sunrises are among the uncelebrated benefits of being a bird watcher.

                                                                                                                                          – Pete Dunne in Bayshore Summer

And yet, Bayshore Summer is not another Pete Dunne birding odyssey. It is an ode to the Jersey shore, intended to “portray  and preserve something of the unique and dwindling heritage of this little-known region” and to “honor dying traditions because readers, already estranged from the land, may wish to know them”.

Even as an outsider, a non-native who has lived in this country for less than a decade, I can sense that the Garden State, New Jersey, is considered exceedingly uncool. Why, only yesterday, someone called the state ‘the armpit of the USA’. Pete Dunne is a New Jersey native. Not only that, he has chosen to spend much of his adult life in “arguably the most maligned state in the Union”. His New Jersey is not one of congested turnpikes and plentiful traffic, much of which is headed towards the ‘city’. He comes from southern New Jersey, far from the madding crowd, and lives in quiet, rural Cumberland county which the trusty Wikipedia describes as “a low-lying, generally featureless coastal county, with many salt marshes near the Delaware Bay”. Featureless, or not, much of southern, coastal New Jersey has a rich natural heritage and tremendous ecological value. As an advocate of the region, Dunne writes with affection, contemplation and sadness on what the bayshore was, is, and he fears, will become.

Dunne begins on a sunny Memorial Day,a harbinger of summer. The warm season in NJ is contained between two “legislatively contrived and non-celestial” holidays. Summer(unofficially) begins on Memorial Day and (unofficially) ends on Labor Day. After feasting, visually of course, on shorebirds, Dunne delves into the delicate relationship between shorebirds, horseshoe crabs (whose eggs provide the birds with the fuel to travel to Arctic breeding grounds), and man (who has over-harvested the crabs). Over the next two hundred odd pages, he traps crabs, loads salt hay, and goes fishing in the waters of Delaware Bay. He also discusses New Jersey predators. Green eyed (some), blood thirsty, winged tormentors.


Such as the innocent sounding strawberry fly, or the more notorious greenhead fly. Despite harboring such loathsome offenders, New Jersey remains Dunne’s object of devotion. Perhaps, Jersey Tomatoes have something to do with this. As a (Jersey tomato) fan says in the book:

“There isn’t much that you can say that’s nice about New Jersey… but it sure does have the best tomatoes.”

Discussing bayshore institutions, such as tomato farming and poaching (yes, poaching), and bemoaning the light pollution that has stolen the stars from Jersey’s night sky, Dunne also mentions interesting asides, such as:

What is Wawa?

Wawa, in the language of the Lenape people, means “goose”, and the Canada goose is the emblematic bird of the Wawa chain.

Indeed. And I thought it was a silly two syllable name for a convenience store (and never noticed it’s logo – to my credit, I haven’t many Wawas and have never stepped into one).

Dunne’s books, whether they discuss birding or not, share a common thread: our relationship and estrangement to the natural world and its consequences. As in the rest of the world, man is guilty of over-harvesting the finite treasures that the Jersey shore has to offer. Dunne expresses his dream: restricted development, and a national heritage designation that will afford the area the biological protection it sorely deserves. And strict standards. And starry starry nights.

Dunne’s books, whether they discuss birding or not, share another common thread: his strange conversations with inanimate objects and, in this book, a long-dead person. In Prairie Spring, Dunne chatted with the painting of a horse, in Feather Quest, he spoke to a tree, and in Bayshore Summer, he continues the tradition by striking a conversation, rather one-sided, with a nineteenth-century nature book writer, Dallas Lore Sharp (1870-1929). Sharp, who sang the praises of Cumberland county in his books, focused on “getting people – most specifically young people – out into the natural world”. His books, are of course, a century old, and sadly dated. An updated version of this, “a literal blueprint for getting young people out and engaging the natural world” would not only be timely, but really a perfect project for a nature enthusiast and gifted writer like Dunne. It would also make an excellent gift for my son.


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