When you think of the Jersey Shore, you probably don’t think of nature preserves, hiking trails, or freshwater ponds, but they do exist. Open a map on your cellphone, and look for green open areas — they’re there, but they’re not always obvious. Across the highway from a skateboard park, in Long Branch, NJ, is Jackson Woods — a multi-acre park made up of a pond, a brook, and winding paths bounded by trees, viny plants, and Phragmites australis. From the road, you wouldn’t expect it to be as large as it is — maybe 100 feet wide — but it is deep, and wedged between a few neighborhoods and an apartment complex. Even though I had passed it hundreds of times in the past ten years, I didn’t visit the park until 2018. I wish I had visited sooner.
Jackson Woods, as it turns out, is a true “hidden gem” of the Jersey shore. The pond — while it doesn’t seem to have fish, it does have turtles and plenty of dragonflies, which are great subjects for fans of macro photography. Throughout the grounds, you’ll find all sorts of trees, vines, flowers, and even the occasional colorful fungus. Within the woods, there are several winding paths that criss-cross through the park, a bridge that takes you over a brook, and even a pyramid-like structure made of blocks of stone. I visit the park to take photos, and for a quick getaway from the stereotypical loud and drunken aspects of the Jersey Shore. Like any park, it has its imperfections — invasive species like knotweed, occasional graffiti, the odd rubber tire sticking out of the earth, and trash here and there — as do most parks and public spaces.
After my fourth visit to the park, I met Tom Booth. He saw I had a camera, and asked about the photos I was taking. At the time Tom has the caretaker of the park. In the past, he fought developers who would have turned it into yet another gaudy Jersey Shore condo complex, ensuring the park would remain a peaceful haven for the residents of Long Branch. My conversation with Tom left a lasting impression on me. Tom had chosen to devote his life to something he loved — the park — and made certain it would be preserved for others. Tom was the antithesis of most of the people I meet on the Jersey Shore, most of whom are loud, thoughtless, hateful pigs. Tom was a true mensch.
Sadly Tom passed away last year. There is a bench by the pond dedicated to his memory.