Unfolding the Map
Our stop at the edge of the Pine Barrens, in Egg Harbor City, lets us peruse about things that get lost in the Pines. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) identifies one thing as progress. But other things might be lost in the Pines as well, including the Jersey Devil. To see where this cryptid may haunt the dreams of folks, delve into the darkest corners of the map.
"I came to the southern limits of the woods at Egg Harbor City, a landlocked town fifteen miles from Great Egg Harbor. The plan years ago to dig a canal from town to the Great Egg Harbor River and thereby link with the sea did not work out. It wasn't the first time so-called progress had got lost in the Pines."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 8
Egg Harbor City, New Jersey
Cryptozoology. I hadn't heard of this term until a few years ago but chances are everyone who reads this has come across cryptozoology before. Cryptozoology is the search for animals whose existence has not been verified or proved. If you've ever wondered about the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot, or the chupacabra, you've been delving slightly into cryptozoology. I remember when I was young, camping in the woods of Northern California, and being frightened to death by the possibility that Bigfoot might have been out there, watching me, tracking me, perhaps even intending me harm. Shadows in the day often became an apelike creature observing me from the edge of the forest. The cracking of twigs in the forest at night, in my imagination, presaged the rush of a hairy, smelly beast upon me. Yet, as I have written elsewhere, even in my fear I wanted Bigfoot to exist. I wanted this relic of the genetic evolution of humans to be real.
Why does this come up in the context of a post about Egg Harbor City? Because Egg Harbor City is located at the edge of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and the Pine Barrens is supposed to be the habitat of a cryptozoological specimen - the Jersey Devil. Thus, and I'm writing somewhat facetiously here, LHM might have possibly run across this creature in his trip across the Pine Barrens.
What is the Jersey Devil? Well, according to numerous sources I've read, it has wings, a large head that resembles a horse, stands on two legs, sports wings, and hisses and screeches in a blood-curdling manner. The earliest legends were started by Native Americans, who believed that a dragon-like creature lived in the Pine Barrens. Later, according to Wikipedia (take it for what it's worth) Swedish explorers thought enough of the legend to name the channel in the area the Drake Kill, "drake" meaning dragon. Apparently, the Devil has been spotted a number of times in the past 100 or so years, including in 1909 when a Trenton councilman claimed to have heard wings flapping outside his window and found tracks of cloven hooves in the snow outside his house, and in 1978 when two boys ice-skating on a frozen lake smelled an odor of rotten fish and saw a pair of red eyes staring at them. Even the brother of Napoleon saw the Devil while hunting on his New Jersey estate in 1820.
Cryptozoologists believe that the Jersey Devil could be a new kind of creature, or an animal previously thought extinct. Some cryptozoologists believe it could be a dinosaur such as a pterosaur or a dimorphodon.
I used to be all over this kind of stuff. I thrilled reading about creatures that might be out there that we haven't discovered. The fact is that we are still discovering new species all the time, and rediscovering ones that we thought were long gone. The coelacanth is a famous species that was thought to have gone extinct approximately 65 million years ago, but was found in 1938 to be happily living off the coast of South Africa. In Oregon, a new species of spider was recently found living caves, and a new species of lemur, the GERP mouse lemur, was discovered in Madasgascar. Cryptozoologists simply argue that there are new species (and old ones) out there that have eluded us. Bigfoot/Yeti, Nessie, the Jersey Devil are all waiting to be discovered. I remain hopeful that more interesting and exciting species are just waiting to pop out at us.
However, I remain a healthy skeptic. One major reason that I am not sure that we'll find the Jersey Devil or creatures as wild and fantastic as that is that human encroachment on what used to untrammeled territory grows. Huge swaths of the Amazon are being cut down daily, possibly driving species, most of which we'll never know, into extinction. In the Pacific Northwest, the possible home of Bigfoot, huge areas of forest have been clear cut. The Pine Barrens are being encroached upon by the mega-urban areas around it, giving a Jersey Devil less room to roam. Polluted waters, climate change, and other environmental factors caused by humans have consequences foreseen and unforeseen. If you're a believer in the wild and fantastic creatures, you have to ask if they can survive the massive changes being perpetrated on their ecosystems. If you're skeptic, well, they were all figments of overactive human imaginations anyway.
Regardless of what happens, I think that we'll always find mysterious phenomena, and we'll find ways to explain them. We might actually discover what makes them or, if not, we'll use our imaginations. It's the human way. Being from Northern California, I've decided that I much prefer Bigfoot to the Jersey Devil, but I'm glad they are still around even if it is only in our imaginations. And who knows. A small part of me hopes, against hope, that they just might really be out there.
What better song to accompany this post and its topic than the Theme to the X-Files? That show was a favorite of mine - I watched it starting with the first episode of the first season, and because I watched it I was cool before others knew about it. Of course, the subject matter dealt with aliens, but also with unexplained phenomena like the Jersey Devil and Bigfoot. It was a great show!
If you want to know more about Egg Harbor City
Next up: Millville and Bridgeton, New Jersey