Gordon Hesse


Adapted from the book Preface

Growing up in the coastal community of Lavallette, NJ in the 1950s, I can remember traces of how the landscape must have looked before it was consumed by greater human density. There were dunes at the end of my street, Trenton Avenue, and there were vacant lots with bayberry, holly, beach plum, and yes, poison ivy.

Signs of transition were evident, even to me, before I turned ten. Although the commercial fishermens' pound boats were gone, the pilings they strung their nets on remained far offshore. The railroad was gone, but the bed where the tracks ran had not yet been turned into today’s south-bound Route 35 through Lavallette.

In the evenings, often the line of surf fishermen along the shoreline stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. I remember the camaraderie of these friends of my father and neighbors who fished for subsistence as well as sport. Bored when the fish weren’t running, I would lie on my back in the sand and stare at the sky and see the Milky Way. I looked for constellations; if I couldn’t find them, I’d make up my own. Even as a six-year old, I pondered a Creator and how the stars might light the way for all the years, events, and adventures ahead of me.

This was a time when the early impact of the new Garden State Parkway was first being felt. Change was in the air. Margaret Thomas Buchholz writes about what was happening around me in her book Shore Chronicles Diaries & Travelers’ Tales from the Jersey Shore 1764-1955:

“Entrepreneurs bought cheap land and built restaurants, and motels offered rooms for less than ten dollars a night in the middle of small towns unaccustomed to short-term tourism. Speculators acquired large expanses of bayside land and quickly plowed under bayberry, cedar and holly trees. Creosoted bulkheads evened off the irregular shoreline and dredges buried the bay meadows under an avalanche of sand.”

Although I had grown up within seven miles  of Island Beach, my first sight of it was high upon the catwalk atop Barnegat Lighthouse,

on the other side of Barnegat Inlet.

At that time, admission to Island Beach was restricted to dedicated anglers, hunters, beach buggy enthusiasts,and shack owners. From that height, I remember seeing dozens of fishermen’s shacks and blinds, most looking dilapidated.

When I finally began to explore Island Beach as a grown-up, I was increasingly seduced by its nearly ten miles of natural beauty. I felt a sense of nostalgia there; it evoked my earliest memories in Lavallette before  condominiums and highways choked it with the masses. Island Beach cast a spell of timelessness that sneaked up on me gradually—it was Neverland.

I began to take photographs, trying to capture the sensual sweep of the dunes and experience the serenity of its slowed-down world. The place had a sense of expanded time that increased the depth of reflection and relevance. This became even more profound when I moved away from the Shore, but was drawn back to Island Beach. That led to proposing an article about it to George Valente, the publisher of Jersey Shore Magazine and my first book, All Summer Long, an oral history of lifeguarding in New Jersey. George had wanted to do a book about Island Beach State Park for years, and this blossomed into a discussion about creating a volume that captured the magic of this wonderful landscape, its history, and its critical role as a sacred environment.

Once I began work in earnest on this book, the wonder of Island Beach seemed to spring forth like a lovely blossom. The serendipity of this seemingly simple barrier island held a magic all its own: it was as though it had “just one more thing” new to show me each time I visited.

One time during a volunteer dune grass planting, I looked up to witness riders up on five horse at full gallop before a surging surf; the energy of the moment was profound. Another time, late in winter as snow was in retreat, the vision of two cross-country skiers gliding across the beach came into view; numerous other times the clouds, surf, sand, and seasonal vegetation provided a sky and landscape no camera could capture.

The dramas of lives lived, saved, and lost - both in personal accounts and in the historic record - resonate with those of every life. This seemingly simple place has a history that begs to be expanded and recorded before it fades away. Hopefully, this book will leave a respectful imprint and capture some of the history, folklore, beauty, culture, and significance of this precious gem of a place.

Gordon Hesse

© 2017 Gordon Hesse


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