WALKING THE CENTER of Lockatong Creek in late summer, my pants rolled up, I saw the tree. I had been stepping carefully so as not to catch little fish in my rubber sandals. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many young fish in a stream anywhere. Here I was in central New Jersey, doing my best not to squish them between my toes. The whole place was fecund as can be, with pickerelweed and wapato and marsh pennywort and broad swaths of emergent plants growing in the rich mucks between flat-cleaved Lockatong shales.
I was watching for fish, but mainly I had my eyes on plants. My GPS unit clipped to my belt showed me standing solidly between two parallel lines, four hundred feet apart, that represented the proposed PennEast natural gas pipeline corridor, which stretched from the Delaware River at the base of the New Jersey Highlands to the bottom edge of the Sourlands, where a Triassic dike of diabase rock forms a low, rounded ridgeline.
The New Jersey Conservation Foundation had hired me to locate as many rare, state-listed plants as I could within the proposed pipeline right of way, before eminent domain seized the land and the center of the corridor became pipe and fill, landing and riprap. Almost every day there was something rare to report. A plant couldn’t stop a gas pipeline, but still, it was there and would have to be reckoned with in some small, probably bureaucratic way.
A little ways downstream, I climbed a steep bank out of the water to take a better look at an exceptionally large tree: a shagbark hickory, her plates of bark peeled in great irregular strips like shredded rags frozen on a clothesline. Her roots spread wide like a wooden kraken, rendered visible in profile by the cleft of the bank. From the great exposed roots, suckers sprang, so that the tree comprised one massive trunk and then eight or nine smaller ones. The main and oldest trunk had the widest girth I recalled seeing for a wild hickory.
Hickories are known for their dense, aromatic wood. They take their time on their architecture, compounding strength with fine structure and not sparing quality in the interest of speed. Although the shagbark along the stream would look slender compared to a sycamore or tulip tree of the same age, I had no doubt her years along that fertile streamside bank numbered in the centuries.
The nuts of the shagbark hickory, Carya ovata, are similar in flavor to the pecan, Carya illinoinensis. The two species share a genus and also a proclivity for rich bottomlands. Pecans are larger and much more easily shelled, but to my taste shagbark has the better flavor: a dense oily aromatic richness backed by sweetness. Native Americans in this part of the country hold the shagbark in high esteem, reportedly preferring the nuts over those of all the other staple mast trees in our flora.
Up off the bank, underneath the copse of this many-trunked shagbark, was a carpet of oak sedge with a few white wood asters, bedstraws, white avens, and poison ivy. And at the base of the biggest shagbark trunk was a small and bedraggled woody shrub stem, partially consumed by the overabundant deer, bearing just a few vaguely maple-shaped leaves and numerous small dark prickles, with larger dark thorns at the nodes.
The small shrub was Missouri gooseberry, Ribes missouriense. Fairly common in the north-central prairie states, it was rare enough in New Jersey to warrant a status of “state endangered.” I took a waypoint on the GPS, some photos, and made a few quick notes to document the occurrence.
Of all the properties I had searched thus far, this parcel along the Lockatong Creek stood perhaps some chance of being spared pipeline construction. Not because of the Missouri gooseberry, but because the property was also the site of one of the more significant former Native American villages in the state. Archaeological work initiated by the property’s current owner in a last-ditch attempt to save the place was turning up a torrent of Lenape stone artifacts and pottery shards.
Several years later, the PennEast project is in limbo. The state of New Jersey had successfully stalled it, asserting that a private entity cannot condemn the over forty state-owned properties in the pipeline’s proposed route. In the meantime, PennEast has sought approval to build the project in two phases, starting in Pennsylvania. No one deciding the fate of this land is likely to ever actually see it.
In October, I return to the property along the Lockatong Creek with the historic Lenape village site and the giant old shagbark. I walk a circuitous track toward the creek, finding a few more individual Missouri gooseberry plants among the spicebush, blackhaw viburnum, pin oak, and wild yam. I figure that many of the same plant species lived here alongside the Lenape, and wondered about the Missouri gooseberry, so disjunct from its core range west of the Great Lakes. Did the Lenape introduce it to this place as a perennial food plant, still persisting centuries or more later?
When I reach the creek, the magnetism of the massive shagbark draws me downstream. The water is much colder in the fall, and I cross on rocks and then hug the steep bank until I reach the old hickory. I scramble up and then genuflect, hands in the leaf litter, searching. Pushing aside the crackly dry foliage, I find one hickory nut, and then several more. Soon, my bag holds a few dozen. I’ll plant them on our farm when I get home. O