Our Natural State

It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes. Could you, in such case, tell surely of any company of civilized men, which belonged to the most respected class? -- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The first I knew that New Jersey had once been the forest primeval of American nudism, I was too young to understand it.

I know it now, of course. I know a lot more now than I ever thought I would: New Jersey was the keystone state in the history of nudist America. It has several claims to this title, most of which I can even write about in a family magazine. That first inkling of its greatness hit me with some force when I was five years old and motorboating up the Great Egg Harbor River in Atlantic County with my dad. Near Mays Landing, in Atlantic County, the line of green-brown pines on the riverbank gave way to a vista of waterside frolic I would not witness again for 32 years.

There in the tea-brown water of the Great Egg Harbor, hundreds of people splashed about and played in the sun. Dozens lay on the narrow beach. Dozens more strolled upon a large jutting pier, or jumped from the pier into the river. Men, women, boys, girls. They looked casual, they looked composed. Some of the women gazed through binoculars at the numerous gaping boaters parked off the beach, who gazed through binoculars at them.

This was a place called Sunshine Park, an enthusiastic but perhaps naïve attempt at the establishment of a nudist utopia on earth. I kid you not. Founded by a Baptist minister named Ilsley Boone in 1935, Sunshine Park hoped to bring to America the strange but compelling back-to-nature movement that had taken such a hold in Germany nearly 30 years before.

Originally Boone hoped to develop the land as a colony, a place where those of like mind could gather and be naked together and establish a new way of life. The fact of their shared nudity would erase all distinctions of class, status, income, and all other ornaments of vanity. And so would the world be redeemed, simple as that. Nudity would join us all in a blameless community under the sun. Blameless and suntanned, I should say. He even founded an elementary school there.

Things did not go entirely as planned for the colony. The demands of the working world put an end to dreams of year-round residence at the park, though on weekends it boomed. Eventually it did develop a clientele of year-rounders, though never very large. And it did manage to form a community. Those who went there knew each other extremely well, to say the least, and for the most part remained close for the rest of their lives.

Not long after founding the camp, Boone also founded a little nudist magazine, Sunshine and Health, which he began sending through the mail. This got him promptly into trouble with the Postal Service, which seized his mailings as obscene. Boone fought this charge all the way to the Supreme Court, and by some accounts lost a considerable fortune doing it. Eventually he won, and Sunshine and Health continued to publish. For about 20 years quiet little Mays Landing was the unlikely seat of nudist defiance in America.

All of this I learned many years later when, trying to make sense of this wild naked anomaly of my childhood, I researched Sunshine Park down to its very sand. I found out a number of things that make New Jersey notable as an early haven for naked Americans.

--New Jersey housed the first permanent nudist camp in the country: Sky Farm, located in Liberty Corners, opened on May 15th, 1932. Sky Farm remains a going concern even now.

--New Jersey contains a perhaps unknowable number of secret naked beaches. I'm thinking in particular of Higbee Beach in Cape May County. Higbee Beach is state land, and the state prohibits naked sunbathing. But people do it anyway.

What interested me most was the odd morality that New Jersey seemed to impose upon getting naked in the outdoors. Contrary to what lascivious persons might wish to believe about nudism, sex had nothing to do with it.

"Their bodies are free but their souls are in corsets," wrote one newspaper correspondent after a visit to an early nudist camp.

In the early years, the parks of New Jersey prohibited touching in public, drinking and even dancing. In the early years, no single adult male or female got in the park without a partner. Sunshine Park welcomed families. Also, no one got in without being naked. This provision almost certainly coerced the faithful to the desired concept of nakedness. And it seemed to create the communal feeling so much hoped for by the founders.

"It was a paradise in those days," said a woman I'll call Nancy, who came to Sunshine Park as a teenager in the 1940s. "For a 13-year-old girl it was a safe haven.

"I went there with my parents and stayed there," she said, "but eventually the park became my parents. It sounds strange to say, but the river and the land became my parents. I knew I belonged there, and didn't need parents anymore."

Some years ago I interviewed another woman who had raised three children at Sunshine Park. She spoke of the place like it were Shangri-La, a special place not only in geography but in spirit.

Photographs everywhere in her little house showed Sunshine Park as it was in the '50s and '60s, including one of her daughter's family, showing husband, wife and young daughter all playing nakedly in a creek.

Alas, the purist nudist concept lost force in the 70s, as drinking and dancing and erotic shenanigans gradually displaced the strictures put in place to keep nakedness separate from sex. The old park founders left the picture and new people took their place, new owners who lacked something of the original vision but brought their own sort of enthusiasm.

And New Jersey got more crowded. Sky Farm now confronts development all around it. And though residents still sometimes go naked there, Sunshine Park officially closed in the mid 1970s. This was largely because, in a rapidly developing area, you could no longer get away with a sewage system that was basically a bunch of holes in the ground.

Still, nakedness has far from disappeared from the beaches and riverbanks of New Jersey.

This I understood with impressive conviction during a recent visit to the Gateway National Recreation Area on Sandy Hook. There, in a place called Gunnison Beach, about a tenth of a mile beyond where the most confused pedestrian might wander by mistake, one of the most heart-warming spectacles of the state can be seen.

On any warm day, May through October, Gunnison Beach hosts anywhere from a few dozen to several thousand beach-goers who have just said no to clothing. I would like to describe the experience of taking my own clothes off in the midst of several thousand people and the bright sun, but readers might wish to reserve their imaginations for the broader picture.

I will say that once you get to an environment where everyone else has chucked the clothing, you feel like an absolute pervert keeping yours on. And yes, there is something transcendant about dropping this first and last claim of the civilized world upon your body. Somerthing happens. You recover an innocence you never knew you had. It is the most difficult and the most easy thing to do. The woman I went with, worried all week about this visit, joined the crowd without a moment's hesitation upon arrival.

As for the broader picture, there is a happy companionability among everyone present, as if all were engaged in some conspiracy. The majority are men, probably 65 percent, though the presence of women is compelling, even surprising. The majority are white, though the presence of African-American, Asians, even Indian and Pakistani, flatters our notion of diversity. Ages run from babies to the mid-60s, the large middle comprising the 30s, 40s and 50s.

The crowd is especially thick by the water, a few people in shorts, one or two women in bikinis. The ones wearing clothing look positively encumbered. Boyfriends and girlfriends hold hands or splash one another. Women in pairs and groups walk together. At the waterline, a parade of strollers has been in progress since before noon.

Gunnison Beach is a "clothing-optional" beach, this being the new term to describe nude recreation. Gone are the strict rules requiring nudity at nude recreation spots. Gone are a lot of the old rules, except those insisting on courtesy and the taking of pictures only with scrupulous permission. Nakedness is no longer required, nor is any club membership. You go to the place. If you feel like it, you take your clothes off.

And if you do, keep saying this to yourself, as God's workmanship wanders past you in all its frail and stunning forms: It's not sexual, it's not sexual, it's not sexual.

Also, and this is most important: you should really, really remember to take the sunblock.

© Rob Laymon

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