by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
If you take out a map and trace your finger between New York and Philadelphia, you’ll find some of the nation’s most densely developed suburbs. But midway between the two cities, you’ll come across an expansive green swath called the Sourlands.
The Sourland Mountains make up a 17-mile ridge extending from the Delaware River near Lambertville to Neshanic in Somerset County, and form Central Jersey’s largest unbroken forest. The ridge is the backbone of the Sourlands, a 90-square-mile region of farms, forests and scattered residential development.
The origin of the name “Sourlands” is a bit of a mystery. One theory is that it’s derived from “sorrel-land,” which describes the reddish-brown soil. Another is that it was named for the Sauerland region in Germany. A third possibility is that early Dutch settlers called it “sauer landt” because the rocky soil is sour, or difficult to farm.
This unique region is the focus of a new documentary, “Sourlands,” by independent filmmaker and Hopewell resident Jared Flesher. The film premiered on June 27, and two more screenings are planned for July in the Princeton area.
Jared is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively about the environment, global climate change, agriculture and renewable energy. He wanted to address all of these big issues in a local context. “I wanted to take those huge stories and just look at one green spot,” he explains.
His home turf turned out to be a perfect spot. Jared took a cue from “Pine Barrens” author John McPhee and told the stories of local residents.
“The Sourlands has its ecological problems, but there’s a lot of sustainability here,” says Jared. “I didn’t have to go far to find good stories and inspiring people to put in the film.”
“Sourlands” was filmed over the course of one year. Three chapters frame the story: Farmers, Forest and Energy. The first tells of local farmers struggling to make a living in poor soil with increasingly extreme weather.
Jared describes the Sourlands as a “hardscrabble place” whose character was shaped by rural poverty. “For a long time, it’s where you went if you didn’t have a lot of money,” he noted. Farmers with money bought land in the more fertile Hopewell and Amwell Valleys.
The film’s second chapter is about preserving biodiversity in a forest besieged by hungry deer and invasive plants. During his filming, Jared was amazed to discover that he could actually see and hear more neotropical songbirds in areas of the forest where native plants like spicebush were plentiful and deer browse was minimal.
The third chapter, Energy, highlights three local residents who are living more sustainably by promoting renewable energy. The Sourlands has become known as “Solar Alley” for the number of rooftop solar panels.
For more information about “Sourlands,” including the dates and locations of upcoming screenings, go to www.sourlands.com. And if you want to visit the Sourlands and hike the beautiful forest, visit the Sourland Mountain Preserve webpage at www.somersetcountyparks.org/parksfacilities/sourland/sourlandmtpreserve.html.
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