Sullivan and Cronon: Notes, Thoughts, and Questions

Readings: Cronon: “The Trouble with Wilderness” ; Sullivan: The Meadowlands.

Fall 2009

Notes and questions follow…

Robert Sullivan: The Meadowlands

  • Meadowlands was America’s first true frontier, the “first West”; perhaps it still is a frontier
  • p. 17: 1959 New York Times editorial- “The city and its environs are bursting at its seams. The Meadows must go.”; Sullivan says “the Meadowlands were the nation’s eyesore, the blight separating New York and America”–idea that humans can always find a better use of a space through progress; people always trying to invent a new use for the Meadowlands–anything must be better (48)–schemes to straighten streams and tributaries to make the area more suitable to industrial development; also the construction of the sports complex and misplaced office parks
  • John Smith’s war against mosquitos (112): example of progress, but at a cost to the environment: dug ditches and used deet haphazardly
  • stunning ability of the Meadowlands to persist despite extreme amounts of pollution and abuse; in a way, it’s like a wildlife sanctuary (104); also the inability of the Meadowlands to ever be fully conquered by humans–e.g. sinking buildings, very hard to access
  • p. 20: Meadowlands is “a place that people spit at with their exhaust pipes”; “anywhere except here is beautiful” (64);people have a negative perception when you say you’re from Secaucus or that you are going to the Hackensack River
  • thus, people rush by on their way to work or home without much notice; however “this is beautiful down here and nobody knows” (190); you have to work hard to appreciate the wonders that do exist in the Meadowlands
  • p. 41: if you block out the views of the trash or old industrial wreckage, you can imagine that you are elsewhere, in a more pristine environment

The Anacostia River is a neglected and extremely polluted river in Washington, D.C.

  • Meadowlands used to be an extremely biologically diverse area ( 37)–American Indians used as seasonal fishing and hunting grounds; European farmers used all available resources from the meadows, e.g. salt hay, the use of cattails for furniture and clay for local brick industry; Meadowlands has a rich history (human and ecological); also the site of many vibrant family operated pig farms that “recycled” food waste from NYC; huge industrial center (Newark) developed in the 19th century–many different kinds of inventions and innovations, e.g. plastics, shoes, leather
  • at one point, the Meadowlands was the biggest garbage dump in the world (16, 93)–more trash hills than natural hills remain; lax environmental standards and really sketchy dealings by the Mob (which owned many dumps)–bodies dumped there, perhaps Jimmy Hoffa (143)
  • p. 98: a commission was created to clean up the Meadowlands in 1968–the wholesale trashing of the Meadowlands continued up until this time; the area is still extremely polluted, e.g. hawks with chemicals in blood
  • p. 193: environmental groups have differing goals; one group thinks the Meadowlands is already overdeveloped, while the other would like to see more controlled development

Points of Interest and Questions

  • It’s fascinating how so much more lies underground than at the surface of the Meadowlands, e.g. Penn Station (154); Sullivan illustrates how we disregard our own history, even though we claim to be a nation with much pride in our past; There is a good quote about the demolition of Penn Station, and its replacement with a nondescript bunker. The quote is possibly by Jane Jacobs and goes something along the lines of “Whereas you once arrived in New York like a king, now you come in like a rat”. To me, it is a shame that such a great public work was demolished and put in a dump. Many people have never even heard about this station or its untimely demise (woman on p. 163). In this way, our society seems to be disconnected from our own human built surroundings, as well as the natural environment. When we do not have a deep sense of connection to a place, or pride in where we come from, this opens the gates to reckless behavior, like the very destruction of our own past.
  • The mayor of Secaucus, Anthony Just, believes that money would be better invested in nearby cities, not building office parks out in the middle of a swamp. I agree strongly with this; reinvesting in dilapidated downtowns would go a long way to address the social problems faced by people who have lost their jobs. Also, it would be more sustainable, preserving the wetlands.
  • How is the plight of the Meadowlands a consequence of our dis-attachment to the place in which we live?
  • Which argument makes more sense, that the Meadowlands is already overdeveloped and should be preserved, or that selectively developing parts of the wetlands will better allow for the preservation of the wetlands as a whole (193)?
  • Is it worth preserving the Meadowlands? Why or why not?
  • What lessons can be drawn from the situation of the Meadowlands that can be applied to other environments?

William Cronon: The Trouble With Wilderness

  • we must rethink the concept of wilderness; in the West, we tend to think of wilderness as the last “unspoiled” areas on earth–the places without human habitation or major impact–thus the human is removed from the picture
  • wilderness is not what it seems; it’s actually a human creation, the product of civilization, not a pristine sanctuary (myth); humans shape and mold nature to suit themselves
  • “wilderness” used to conjure up feelings of fear and uncertainty; in a biblical sense, wilderness was used negatively; in the 19th century, this switched, as the wilderness was no longer seen as worthless, but rather as places worth saving
  • doctrine of the sublime– concept that emerges by the 18th century; places where you could connect with the supernatural and glimpse the face of god
  • as more and more tourists sought out the wilderness, sublime became domesticated
  • attraction to primativism arose in the 19th century: movement back to a simpler way of living; rugged individualism; Turner thesis; the passing of the frontier brought with it hostility towards modernity (civilization was seen as feminizing); because the frontier was vanishing, work was done to preserve wilderness
  • the irony is that the wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape; it became the landscape choice of elite tourists from the city; often, parks were created by displacing vast populations of natives, especially in the American West and in rainforests
  • we set humanity and nature at opposite poles; thus, we don’t know what a sustainable place for humans and nature looks like; there needs to be a place for humans in nature; “Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that the experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit.
  • “Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home. Most of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve those problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it.”
  • we hold a romantic vision of wilderness–the need to get away from human contact for days at a time; we “fetishize sublime places”; this view tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others


  • Are humans truly separate from nature (i.e. how valid is the argument that with the development of agriculture, a permanent rift formed between humans and their environment)?
  • What is the difference between wilderness and wildness?
  • Cronin discusses the need for a middle ground in which humans will come to live more sustainably and become responsible with how we use and do not use our land and resources. How will we attain this balance? How does our current concept of wilderness detract from this goal?
  • What will it take for us to collectively change how we think about the concept of wilderness?

One Response to Sullivan and Cronon: Notes, Thoughts, and Questions

  1. John Krygier says:

    Sooper set of notes, comments, looked-up-stuff and questions. Keep it up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: