We received this report by Tom Clansy, our “Hunter-in-Bike”. He patrols south New jersey and got this talk from a 3o y.o. something couple. The folks looked pretty spooked, by Tom’s reckon.
IN SOUTH TOM’S RIVER, HOME IS WHERE THE HUT IS
Buried in the woods of South Toms River, on the fringes of the Pine Barrens and society in general, stands a group of primitive structures that serve as the meeting grounds for a unusual group of folks who call themselves “The Gatherers.” Located on 88 acres of land loaned to them by the town, the Gatherers have spent more than a year hunkered down on the property sandwiched between the Garden State Parkway and Route 9. To the average person who turns down their dead end street the site of a twenty foot tall tee pee shaped hut off in the pines might seem like anything but the home base of a non-profit organization, but that’s exactly what the Gatherers are. They are even supported through grants from a seemingly disparate group of charitable foundations, including the South Toms River Municipal Alliance, the Golden Rule Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, and the American Legion Post #129.
The mission statement of the Gatherers, according to their literature, is to “take human beings, born in captivity, re-educate them, and re-release them into the wild. In this way, we strive to teach people to become caretakers of the planet. Our efforts will allow the Great North American forest to be restored to 60% of its original size within the next 100 years. Working with Primitive Survival experts, outdoor enthusiasts, boards of education, Native American organizations, schools, communities and corrections departments, we design and deliver primitive alternatives to conventional suburban development and community-building.” That might seem like a pretty idealistic goal, but the Gatherers are a pretty idealistic bunch.
Part spiritual sect, part naturalist commune, part survivalist training camp, the Gatherers not only practice what they preach, but they also preach what they practice––and in their own unique language! As their name suggests, the Gatherers hold regular gatherings at their camp site and invite people to join in their community storytelling and sing-a-longs. You might want to bone up on your Gatherer-ese before attending one of these festivities though. The group’s web site (Gatherer.org) offers a crash course in their native tongue and provides a comprehensive guide to deciphering the strange spellings of pronunciations of their words.
In the Gatherers’ language traditional letters and numbers are changed around into Gatherer-speak. Here are a few examples of how they explain the changes and instructions on how to pronounce the sounds:
4 = sounds like tl, a click Donald Duck would make using the tongue blowing air through the cheek. Might be called a lateral ejective.
0 = pretend to whistle while saying “ee,” your lips are pursed and rounded, the german o umlaut sounds like it.
If these descriptions are a bit confusing, one can go to the web site to hear audio files of demonstrations of this clucking, blowing and quacking vocabulary. You can also find a partial dictionary of this language at the same web site, which lists many words and their translations. For example, one does not eat the banana-like fruit known as the plantain, they eat the “9l0nagzmih”; the thatched huts in the woods of South Toms River aren’t on the Gatherer’s land, they are on the “qckinz9zc”; when one passes wind, he or she does not fart, they “buxr0e”; and if someone cuts you off on the Parkway, you do not give them the middle finger, you give them the “bco6ou6.”
The group professes to follow the spiritual laws of “tor0” and the principles of the “mne9o.” We were kind of unclear ourselves as to what tor0 and mne9o were and what they stood for, so we decided to pay the Gatherers a visit and see for ourselves just what was going on in the wilds south of Toms River.
To find the Gatherers’ encampment we followed a sandy path into the woods off of Surf Avenue in the town of Beechwood (this, we found out later, was not the most direct route, but these were the directions we’d been given). We crossed a small cedar-tinged creek and followed the trail of soft sand into the pines. It was a sweltering hot July day as we wound our way deeper into the forest. Suddenly we saw it, a huge cone-shaped lodge built with what looked like pine fence posts laid over a tee pee-like framework.
As we approached the primitive structure a young man emerged to greet us. He seemed to be in his early twenties, tan and thin, with bare feet and a large hunting knife strapped to his hip. We were happy to hear him speak English, as we had not yet perfected our Gathererese pronunciations. We introduced ourselves and he told us his name, admitting that it was hard to pronounce. He invited us into the lodge, instructing us to kick a stick suspended from a piece of rope as we entered.
“This releases your aggressions and leaves your anger at the door,” he told us, letting us know that the Gatherers were a peace-loving tribe. The inside of the hut was surprisingly spacious, perhaps forty feet across, and very shady. Despite the heat, there was a fire burning in a sand pit in the center of the room. The young man, who was smudged here and there with soot and smelled like a smokey campfire, told us that he had come all the way from Israel to join the Gatherers in their work. He said that he and one of the other members actually lived in the large airy hut year-round. He told us that it became necessary to have someone there to watch over the place after an outsider burned down one of the groups’ woodland dwellings. Then he offered to take us to meet the “leader,” who he said was off in the woods somewhere building huts with the kids.
“The kids?” we asked, “What kids?”
“We have a kind of day camp here,” he replied, “where kids learn how to live off the land.”
“Are they local kids?” we asked.
“Yes,” he told us, as we began our walk into the forest.
Before long we saw another young man, shirtless and shoeless, standing over a pit in the sand. Down in the shallow hole was a group of young children, perhaps six or seven years old, who were clawing at the earth with sharpened sticks. I suddenly got the feeling I was in a scene from Lord of the Flies.
“What are they doing?” I asked our guide.
“Learning to build ground shelters,” he replied.
Before long we found the leader of the group, who was on a mission to collect logs with the kids to use as lodge posts. His name was Frank, though the youngsters, perhaps ten in all, called him “Mr. Frank.” Mr. Frank was also barefoot, and maybe in his mid-thirties. He was wearing black jeans, a bright red polo shirt, and a floppy suede hat. He was quite friendly and easy-going right from the start. We told him we were from Weird NJ and he regaled us with some local legends of pirate ghosts and hidden pinelands treasure. He said that he had lived in the Toms River area for seven years but was originally from Long Island, NY.
As we walked the sandy trails around the encampment listening to Frank speak about the Gatherers, the barefoot children, all girls except one, tagged along and repeatedly offered Mark and I wild blueberries to eat. They all seemed quite happy and well behaved and really seemed to like and respect Mr. Frank and the other Gatherers. But there was no way we were going to touch any of their wild berries!
Frank filled us in on the group’s plans to reclaim suburbia and knock it down to make room for more wilderness habitat. He said the land that they were currently occupying belonged to the town, and he wanted to show the town that it would be in their own best interests to destroy the surrounding neighborhoods (which were admittedly looking a bit run down) and revert them back to a natural environment where people would live in harmony with nature. He said that he envisioned a colony there in the future where people lived in primitive dwellings of their own design, and got up and went to work each day like they always had. These huts, he told us, would be supplied with electricity produced through clean energy sources, such as solar power, and would even have wireless Internet access.
Frank then went into the logistics of his plan, telling us things about tax bases and ratables, which I didn’t really follow, but we listened and nodded politely. He seemed to have the details of his utopian society in the woods all figured out. Now if he can just convince the local neighbors to leave their cozy homes to live in the woods with him––that would be the trick!
Frank told us the Gatherers are always accepting volunteers and new members to help out around the camp. He said that he recently traveled to Hungary to see the world’s foremost authority on thatching (an ancient art of intertwining reeds to make a water-tight roof) and plans to thatch the roof of the large hut to make it a more permanent year-round dwelling. He told us soon the entire area we were standing on would be covered with large primitive dwellings just like it.
As we said goodbye, or “bzczq,” to the Gatherers, Frank and the children were standing around a heap of dried leaves and grass that they had recently built on the sandy ground which looked something like a compost pile.
“It’s a human nest,” Frank said with pride. It reminded me of a prop from the movie Planet of the Apes, but I guess when you’re a Gatherer, home is what you make it.
A couple of years after our first trip to the Gatherers’ woodland commune we returned to pay another visit and see have far they had progressed with their plan to reclaim paradise. To our dismay we found that the makeshift shelters that they had constructed had all been disassembled. The timbers that had been used to construct the huts were either laying in heaps or scattered around the forest floor hither and yon. None of the Gatherers were to be found anywhere, leaving us to wonder––had they migrated to another woodland home deeper in the Pines like a primitive hunter-gatherer clan might? Or had they, like so many failed Utopian societies before them, been cast out of their own their own private Eden?