The Pine Barrens are a 650,000 acre forest in New Jersey without much population. The non-fiction work is about this region and the "Pineys" (the word was regarded by some as offensive) who live there, about 15 people for every square mile. This density stands in sharp contrast to the urban density of the northern half of the state. Under the virgin woods, there is an untapped reservoir of clean water, but the aquifer seems easy to distrupt.
In the first chapter or section of the essays, McPhee meets the widower Frederick Chambers Brown who lives in Hog Wallow. He and his seven children live in the Pines. He has no phone. Also, McPhee meets a local named Wasovwich who helps him to hike like a native among the Pines.
In the second section, there is a discussion of the history of the Pines including the Tories and the Quakers. When industrialization occurred, the domain was known for it's iron, and there are little iron towns like Batsto which are the ghost remnants of that time.
In part three, McPhee addresses the Pines' reputation for savagery. The people who lived in the Pines were often regarded as animalistic, illiterate and incestuous. This is where the word Piney gets its pejorative connotation. It is also used among the community as a term of endearment. McPhee explains that the community's popular depiction in main stream culture has been unfair and biased.
The fourth section describes the unique tradition of the Pines communities to tell stories. Many of the folkloric stories are European in origin, but they have taken on regional features. Most notable are the stories of the Jersey Devil and the Leed's Devil.
The fifth section describes Chatsworth, one of the most representative populations in the Pines. Two-thirds of the residents are unemployed since many can still live directly off the land. The police almost never bother the residents. They usually handle the occasional violence of outsiders who use the Pines as cover for crimes.
The sixth section consists of three stories: the Chatsworth fire of 1954 (500 acres lost), then the story of Emilio Carranza, the famous Mexican pilot who crashed in the Pines during a flight from New York—the community still remember this tragedy with a yearly memorial, and finally, the story of Mario Ruspoli, the 2nd Prince of Poggio Suasa who built a house for himself on the land of his wife. The random demonstration of extravagant wealth is memorable in the community.
The seventh section is a biological and sociological analysis of the problem of forest fires in the area.
The eighth section covers hunting, explaining the unique terrain and how that effects a hunt. Their game is primarily fox, but they do hunt plenty of deer as well.
In the final section of the essays, McPhee finally discusses the plan for a supersonic jetport and the development of a new city. Perhaps the conservationists will slow down plans for development, but in the long run, eventually, the population growth in New England will force new communities to develop, but McPhee ends his work by predicting that this won't happen in the Pines for some time.