Not all that long ago, residents along the border of South Toms River and Beachwood had some neighbors "move in" to the woods. This group was known as The Gatherers, an organization that held both environmental and self-betterment goals. Originally planned for development, this 88-acre tract of Pine Barrens was instead preserved by South Toms River, with encouragement from the Gatherers.
These woods had their share of problems, including illegal dumping, gangs, and drug dealing. The Gatherers wanted to turn them into a positive place, both educational and beneficial to the community. The land was cleaned up. The gangs and drugs could not continue in the suddenly busy woods. Volunteers, often from the surrounding neighborhoods, even including children and teenagers, helped the Gatherers with their tasks. Nature hikes and talks were given. Self-improvement and life skills programs were run. Survival skills were taught to anyone interested, including how to build shelters in the wilderness. These shelters, along with the main "hut" (The Gatherers called this their Longhouse) are likely for what the group was most well known.
Unfortunately, trouble was soon brewing for the woods' new management. For the most part, former drug dealers, gang members, and just plain bored kids who used to cause mischief in the woods had moved elsewhere, but some were not all too happy losing their patch of land. In addition, residents who did not know anything about The Gatherers were concerned with the strangers, fires, and odd dwellings being built in the woods. Arson and vandalism became problems. The Gatherers rebuilt, even recruiting the help of some of the vandals, but the problems still persisted. Eventually, the hut and shelters were permanently taken down. The Gatherers seemingly removed all traces of themselves.
It was in 2003 when I received my first email regarding the strange "huts" in the woods. I was given directions, and off I went. The Longhouse was close to an abandoned basketball court and looked like a combination of a very large teepee and a wigwam. All that was inside were a few decrepit chairs. Just down the path a bit were a few smaller dwellings; all looked only partially finished. Nobody was to be found anywhere. I took some photos of the huts and left.
It would be another two years until I returned to see what became of the huts. This time, forgetting the original directions given to me, I entered the woods on the Beachwood side. A stream runs through the middle of the woods. So as it is in all Piney woods, a makeshift bridge had been built; this one was attached to the remnants of a trestle. This trestle has been nicknamed the Wounded Heart Bridge due to the line of poetry spray painted on its side: "After all these years the woods still soften the wounded heart."
Upon reaching the other side, I immediately sought the basketball court to get my bearings. Upon finding it, I realized that all the huts were completely gone. The smaller ones had vanished without a trace, while the Longhouse lay in neatly stacked wood piles. I managed to find an underground dwelling down a nearby trail, which had also become a victim of vandalism. The small room had its door smashed; shattered glass and half-burned magazines were strewn about. Feeling somewhat upset and assuming the Gatherers had disbanded, I headed home and wrote about what I had discovered. Since 2005 and after the publication of my book (which includes the Hut of the Gatherers), I have received a few emails from members of the group claiming that it still exists and has plans to return to its former South Toms River base.
Fast forward to December 2010. While geocaching (something I will discuss at a later date), I found myself back in this patch of woods. Once again crossing over the old trestle, I briefly looked around for any new huts, teepees, wigwams, or other out-of-place buildings. I found nothing.
The illegal dumping has resumed. Evidence of vandalism is also apparent. The woods have once again become a place of mischief. For now at least, the dream of a community coming together, learning from and respecting nature is on hold. Will the Gatherers return and once again build their unique structures?