Field Work in the Sourlands and Restaurant Reviews

What I did before going out to eat yesterday

Two dinners out, two days in a row, both with a tired two and a half year old. Beren was a peach, albeit a bit wiggly.

Yesterday we ate at a upscale chain restaurant in a mall-like/town-like setting. A private room was set aside for a pharmaceutical corporation's meeting. This is what people think when I say, "I'm from New Jersey." The food was bland, and though priced otherwise, was akin to the modern Friendly's menu. Honestly, I think Friendly's food probably has more flavor. The menu was filled with meat + starch + some kind of sauce with a foreign word in it, lending a sense that surely I am taking part of something classy.

I had spent the entire day stumbling across the Somerset County Sourlands Preserve monitoring plots randomly scattered across the 4,000 acre tract. Our goal was to assess forest health regarding deer.

I was about 5 minutes late to meet my director, Mike, and two volunteers. The power steering went south in our pick up truck that morning. When Jared and Beren dropped me off, I knew the volunteers would not last long. "We'll be here until noon," the father said. "I'm not into this [nature], but he is," he continued and gestured to his son, who was in his early teens. Both wore shorts.

After a couple weeks of forest health monitoring in deer country/multiflora rose country, I decline all invitations to the beach. My legs and arms look as though I have a serious mental health problem and/or am a big fan of Marquis de Sade.

We hiked on trail briefly and cut off trail, blasting into a few stretches of multiflora rose. The mosquitoes were horrible. As I took canopy density readings with the densiometer, I tried to hold still as my neck and arms were bitten. "I can see the mosquitoes above my head in the densi," as I stared into the concave mirror encased in a walnut case. It is a beautiful piece of forestry equipment, and we've casually nicknamed it "densi".

After taking readings of the Secchi board for the density of native and non-native woody plants, we returned to the trail. Though only 10:00 a.m., the heat and humidity were high. The trail led out to the Texas Eastern Pipeline, a many mile long slash through the Sourland's forest. Uplands along the pipeline are filled with Chinese lespedeza and mugwort. Lowlands and stream corridors are overrun with phragmites. Occasionally, common and purple milkweed and sundrops dotted the landscape, already greasy and vibrating with the day's mugginess.

After crossing one dicey muck patch, the father and son decided to turn back. Mike and I thanked them and picked up the pace. We still had fifteen more plots to go and just six hours left. We carried our lunches, water bottles, GPS, map, 100 meter tape measure, clipboard, a one meter square foamcore Secchi board, and a 1.4 meter tall poly pipe to afix the Secchi board to. We walked over boulders. We fell over boulders. We fell into boulders. I wondered how anyone could possibly be interested in rock climbing or bouldering as a hobby. Volunteer with me, you might get cured.

"Do you want to navigate? My brain needs a break," Mike said. "Sure," I said. I unstuck the Secchi board from my armpit and handed it to him. I took the GPS, map, 100 meter tape measure, and clipboard, and I headed deeper into the forest.

After a couple more plots, the landscape became rolling. We stopped at the crest of one rise and looking down. "Hmm," I said. "Oh, this is the gates of Hell," replied Mike. You see, Mike and a co-worker had established ten tree saplings at each of our plots. He had already been here in the winter, carrying water, lunch, a GPS, map, clipboard, pin flags, surveyors tape, hundreds of bare root oak seedlings, and a planting bar. Perhaps we do have a mental health problem.

"Yes, this is the gates of Hell. I remember this," he repeated. "Whoa," I murmured. Our banter is usually more like the dialogue from a war movie. We pepper in philosophical discussions between the curses and occasional groans of pain when a thorn digs particularly deep. I really hadn't ever seen an expanse quite like this.

Last week's survey site, Baldpate Mountain, was rough with many sections featuring 100% cover of 4' to 5' tall rose thickets across boulders and challenging topography. But this, this was truly bad. The canopy was fairly open. Below the tall, tall trees was a dense mass of rose, Japanese barberry, and green briar that glinted in the summer sun. The plants grew from either soggy muck or boulders of varying sizes. Windthrown trees were throughout, their root masses taller than me. I navigated us around the mess, until were directly 300 meters south of our plot. "There's nowhere left to go. We just have to punch through," I said. We finished 18 plots and hiked out to the parking lot by 5:09 p.m.

Of course, I really needed a shower before we went out to eat. I chose to wear pants rather than reveal my hatcheted legs by donning a skirt. My hair was sopping wet. As Jared drove us to the restaurant, I noticed bits of food, dust, and blood stains from the last time I wore the pants - on our vacation to the Catskills where Beren injured his toe badly. Beren wore a dingy tee shirt that was last year's favorite and a pair of athletic shorts. Jared actually looked nice.

We met a couple friends and entered the restaurant. Beren's dinnertime had passed and bedtime was approaching. We entertained him with toys and laps around the restaurant. On one lap, he paused to lay on the cushions in the waiting area. I could hardly hear my companions who were just across the table. "Who said what?" I asked more than once.

We ordered from the kid's menu - a cheeseburger and fries instead of a burger and fries or chicken strips and fries. How about some vegetables? Not that any child would eat them because most restaurants, at least the ones I can afford, do not know how to prepare vegetables. The burger arrived and was served on a generic brand bun, probably laced with lots of preservatives.

That said, I enjoyed sinking into the seat and talking to friends. Plus, we had no dinner dishes.

Tonight, we planned to drop off our tired, old beater truck at our mechanic's garage. Tuesday is rough. Both Jared and I work, and typically Jared makes a big meal on Mondays to carry us all the way through to lunch on Wednesday. Two packs of chicken intended for this purpose had spoiled in the fridge, so we were without a meal this evening.

After snacking on chips and cheese and "sawsah" (salsa), we decided we really should drop off the truck and not flake out. We dropped the truck off and stopped at a pizzeria. The place had a framed article called "Twenty-five Best Restaurants in New Jersey." Not sure what magazine, not sure what the limiting factors of the twenty-five best were. Twenty-five best in towns of less than 1,000 people? Twenty-five best restaurants with three seats out front and thirty in the back?

Anyway, I ordered spinach ravioli and mushroom sauce and Jared ordered mushroom ravioli and vodka sauce. When my meal arrived Beren, again past his dinnertime and approaching his bedtime, climbed from my lap and into Jared's. The ravioli with vodka sauce looked a lot better. My plate looked like a full diaper. Indeed, the mushrooms were rubbery and contained occasional bits of grit. Also, tonight's restaurant and yesterday's shared a kid's menu - meat and starch, hold the vegetables. Bottom line - we make better food at home.