The False Sense of Wilderness

The book by Robert Sullivan, “The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City,” depicts an large marshland area in New Jersey, just west of Staten Island. The Meadowlands, has had a large part in American history, and as Sullivan points out, has been just as largely forgotten and exploited. The swamp-like area surrounding surrounding the New Jersey turnpike, used to entail forests of Cedar trees, during colonial times. The trees were then removed, and much of the soils became ruined from the salinity of the sea waters. In more recent times, the Meadowlands became the dump site for New York city, and several other cities of the world. The Meadowlands turned into  a toxic wasteland in the 20th century, filled with hazardous chemicals and burning dumpsites.

Sullivan, however, explores these barren lands, and tells their story. He interviews several people living in the area, from the mayors to waitresses to people living in the swampland. I appreciate the array of perspective he gives on this ecosystem. This book directly relates with William Cronon’s essays, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” In this article, Cronon argues that the idea of wilderness and nature are of human construction. He says that in viewing nature in the United States, or western world, there are two main views. This first view being that nature is a pristine environment, and should not be touched or changed by human interactions. The second being that nature is wild, a frontier view, in which nature needs to be explored and tamed, because nature is to be  conquered by man. Cronon explains that the human constructs of nature aren’t necessarily bad, but need to be taken into consideration when thinking about environmental aspects. Cronon states, “It is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem—for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection—but rather what we ourselves mean when we use the label.” (Cronon 1995) In “The Meadowlands,” Sullivan illustrates what trouble labeling can lead to at the end of his book when he spends time with Don Smith. Don was a detective that worked in the meadowlands for several decades who wishes that the Meadowlands be restored to the same pristine ecosystem that existed when the native Americans lived in the Meadowlands. This view of the area could be seen as unrealistic, but it is a common view that several environmentalists have. That nature should be restored, and saved, and remain untransformed, out of human interaction. Although, in the case of the meadowlands, especially the northern meadowlands in New Jersey, this view is not unlike the views of others in the area, as there have been successful development plans and restoration plans formed by HMDC.

However, perhaps human interaction in the meadowlands has gone on for too long, perhaps restoring a pristine nature there is illogical. So many chemicals and structural changes have been made to the area, will the meadowlands really be able to return to the ecosystem it once was hundreds of years ago?

Don Smith wishes for what Cronon alludes to as being the trouble with Wilderness:

“But the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. The flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world.” (Cronon 1995)

I do not think that this expectation is realistic. I completely agree that humans need to find alternative methods in getting rid of their waste-products, and that they should not be placed in dump-sites to ruin the earth’s water and air, but in reality, where else is waste supposed to go? Are the meadowlands a lost cause? Should that be the designated waste-area forever, so that only that area of the earth can absorb and reabsorb and bury all of humans mistakes? It hardly seems ethical to let radioactive waste, heavy metals and other by-products to be collected into one area to completely destroy it.

The Russian swimmer, that Sullivan encountered in his explorations of the meadowlands with Dave, seemed to think that nature took care of itself. He swam in the water when the tide was high, and alluded that if the water looked clean, and if he has been swimming in it for so long, that there is nothing wrong with the water. He did not allow the label put on the meadowlands of being a  “waste-land” to alter his perspectives and experience with the meadowlands. Perhaps there is something to be said about this man. He formulates his own decision as to whether his home-land is a waste or not. This view is quite unlike the waitress that Sullivan overhears at a diner. When discussing Amish country with a customer, the waitress says “Anywhere except for here is beautiful.”

Although the land has been more or less ruined by human industrialization and development, these two characters have very different views on the meadowlands. The different perspectives are important to observe when considering labeling nature and wilderness.

Yes, it is terrible what has happened to the meadowlands, and areas like it, but the constructions that the lands are a desolate place, and the construction that the lands need to be returned to the way it “was intended” or the perspective that there is nothing beautiful about the area all seem like a false sense of wilderness. Contrarily, however, I think that Sullivan creates a work that accurately depicts the meadowlands and its labels. He tries to gather several perspectives and histories of the lands which, I think, is the only accurate way to obtain the value that the land has, and the label that should be placed upon it. Its too bad that the author of the book could not also interview a couple of fish or birds to get their perspectives on the matter.

One Response to The False Sense of Wilderness

  1. John Krygier says:

    Good comments. Add a few images, links, etc. And some issues (5 or so) drawn from the reading that we can discuss in class.

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