THE STATE WE’RE IN 2/21: Seeing miracles in the Sourlands

By Michele S. Byers

“Everyone wants to witness a miracle. Yet, if Walt Whitman was right and we are actually witnessing them every day, why aren’t we more aware of our good fortune? Isn’t it … miraculous that trees have sensors that can detect the length of daylight? Or that trees can ‘eat’ sunlight and turn it into nourishment for the entire tree? Or that trees actually expel their leaves before winter, which protects them from being torn apart by heavy snow loads?”

“We can find miracles by looking at the humble moss, the tiny plant that was the first vegetation to grow on land billions of years ago when earth was cooling.” Moss can dry up for years at a time, seemingly dead, but miraculously come back to life with a little bit of water.

Helping people see and enjoy nature’s miracles is the goal of “Seeing the Sourlands,” Jim Amon’s recently published book of nature essays and photographs from the Sourland Mountain region of Central Jersey.

“Seeing the Sourlands” includes 64 thoughtful essays, all accompanied by gorgeous photos of native plants and animals of the Sourlands region. The essays also touch on universal topics like the meaning of beauty in nature, the cycles of the moon, biodiversity, and how being outdoors benefits physical and mental health.

Proceeds from the book’s sales benefit the Sourland Conservancy, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect, promote and preserve the unique character of the Sourland Mountain region at the junction of Somerset, Hunterdon and Mercer counties.

Jim, a nature writer and photographer who lives in Lambertville, is the perfect person to write this book. “From my earliest memory, I would always rather be outside than in,” he says. His longing to be out in nature shaped his life.

At age 11 in rural Ohio, he began taking impromptu camping trips in the woods. In high school, he trapped muskrat and sold the pelts to save money for college.

As executive director of New Jersey’s Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission for nearly 30 years, Jim transformed the canal from an abandoned waterway into a wildly popular state park. For another decade, he headed the land stewardship program of the D&R Greenway Land Trust, a conservation group he helped establish.

“Seeing the Sourlands” began in 2015 as a blog of the same name, posted on the Sourland Conservancy’s website. Jim’s aim with his writing and photography is to increase the public’s understanding – and love – of nature. “My theory is, if you know it, you’ll love it,” he says.

Jim is completely self-taught as a naturalist. “I often think that I’m writing these essays for someone like me, who has no formal training in the sciences,” he muses.

From years of leading nature hikes, Jim found that many people aren’t aware of how forests and other ecosystems work. “Even people who are interested have no idea what’s in front of them,” he says. “They’re in a forest but they see nothing but green.”

In his essays, Jim tries to demystify nature.  He draws the analogy of walking down your neighborhood street: you feel comfortable because the patterns of your neighbors’ lives, their dogs, their houses and local traffic are familiar and somewhat predictable. People tend to feel more at home outdoors, he believes, when they understand nature’s cycles and patterns.

One of Jim’s favorite essays is about “forest bathing,” a health practice first popularized in Japan and now spreading around the world. “When people are in a forest, their blood pressure goes down and their sense of well-being increases,” he explains.

Jim says this is certainly true of himself: “I find that when I go to a natural place, within a few minutes I get this wave of well-being sweeping over me,” he said.

Jim is retired now, but he still spends plenty of time outside. Two mornings a week, he and a group of friends volunteer at D&R Greenway’s Sourlands Ecosystem Preserve in East Amwell – removing invasive plants, clearing trails, putting in native plants and other stewardship work.

“I’m doing for free now what I used to get paid for,” he jokes. “Boy, have we ever polished that preserve up! It looks really good.”

And he relishes the hours spent observing and photographing the Sourlands … and helping others recognize the miracles he sees every day.

Don’t wait! Pick up a copy of “Seeing the Sourlands.” Even folks who don’t live in the Sourlands will enjoy this book.

To buy the book, go to the Sourland Conservancy website at  https://interland3.donorperfect.net/weblink/WebLink.aspx?id=23&name=E195020 or call the Conservancy at 609-309-5155.

“Seeing the Sourlands” will also be available at several public author talks in the next several weeks: Thursday, Feb. 27, at the Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill; Thursday, March 5, at the REI store in West Windsor; Thursday, March 19, at the Sourlands Spirits office in Hopewell Township; Sunday, March 29, at the Pennington Borough Library; and Thursday, April 23, at the D&R Greenway Land Trust office in Princeton. Check the event websites for times.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.