Open, desolate landscapes of bare rock and sparse vegetation—the Burren of Ireland or the tundra plains of northern Canada—are the sorts of places that live up to the bleak image the word barrens conjures in the mind. But in the eastern United States and parts of the Midwest, the term is more relative. Settlers often called a piece of land a barrens simply to contrast it with neighboring areas of greater potential for agricultural or timber production. Barrens’ soils are usually sandy or rocky, low in nutrients, and lacking the ability to hold water. Such poor land grows thin forests, stunted and shrubby. The predominant tree tends to lend its name to the place: for example, pine barrens, oak barrens, cedar barrens. The most widely known example of this plant community in North America is, surely, the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Charles Frazier