Discussion Post: The Meadowlands and Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wildnerness”

The Meadowlands
I found Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands rather difficult to read at times; I didn’t fully grasp what the Meadowlands were until I googled them, and sometimes I felt as though I was reading a long-winded placard in a local museum. However, overall I enjoyed the book and found some aspects/segments of the book to be particularly interesting. What really caught my attention is how Sullivan seems to fluctuate between regarding the Meadowlands as “wilderness” and referring to it as a trash dump. In his history of how the Meadowlands came to be, Sullivan calls the marsh “the largest garbage dump in the world” (16), but in the following page he describes them as “empty and wild”, with a “physical power” (17). Sullivan details all the trash dumped in the area in one chapter, then lovingly lists all the flora and fauna that used to grow there in the next. Even when waxing poetic about the trash and pollution in the Meadowlands, Sullivan slips in notes about the wilderness that still exists or used to exist there–such as in “Valley of the Garbage Hills”, when Tony Malanka “reminisced about wildlife…[turtles, pheasants, rabbits, songbirds]” (104). This seesawing between two very different descriptions of the Meadowlands might seem contradictory, but I think he does this to emphasize the dual nature of the Meadowlands. After all, the marshlands are “a thirty-two-square-mile wilderness, part natural, part industrial” (18). The Meadowlands in themselves are a contradiction; they are not the sublime, extensive, virgin acres  stereotypically thought of as the poster children for wilderness, but neither are they all steel and chrome and human work.

I really like what Mayor Just says in “Snake Hill” when talking about how his political opponents would laugh at him if they came upon him with the pails of rocks that he collected from the demolished Snake Hill: “‘They wouldn’t have known the significance of the rocks'” (30). It reminds me of a rock I excavated from my backyard while we were uprooting old plants to make way for new ones. That rock was singularly nondescript; it was not particularly lustrous or beautiful or unique. In fact, I had taken many rocks out of the ground before, but this was the first one that I took out after deciding to pursue paleontology as a possible career. In a weird way, the rock that I struggled so hard to pry from the ground represented my new-found interest in paleontology, and getting that rock out seemed like a personal achievement and a milestone. I still have a picture of the rock on my phone. To any one else, it would just look like an average rock, but to me there is significant meaning behind it. This also relates to the author’s interest in the Meadowlands; he was exploring them from a young age and his passion might seem strange or unnatural to other people, because they do not understand the significance of the Meadowlands. Most people regard the Meadowlands as trash or wasteland, but to Sullivan they are something more valuable.

At first, I was disgruntled by the ending of the book, but upon further reflection I think it was actually wonderful. Sullivan finishes with an encounter with a strange old man who has a strange backstory–a recurring theme in his book, as Sullivan meets and describes several people with interesting backstories and quirky personalities. (I was wondering why the author focused so much on people rather than on the Meadowlands themselves, but Sullivan may have done this because he wanted to show the people inhabiting the Meadowlands as a reflection of the environment and its uniqueness). By stating that he probably won’t explore the lower parts of the Meadowlands, Sullivan leaves them as an enigma, with parts still unexplained and undiscovered. So, even though he wrote a book about the Meadowlands and intimately encountered the marshes, he still doesn’t know everything about them, which cements the Meadowlands’ air of mystery and complex nature.

I very much enjoyed Cronon’s article and found it to be a fascinating read. When I read the paragraph about wilderness fulfilling Judeo-Christian values so as to construct a cathedral in God’s own creation, I was skeptical, but then he hit me with this: “Many environmentalists who reject traditional notions of the Godhead and who regard themselves as agnostics or even atheists nonetheless express feelings tantamount to religious awe when in the presence of wilderness—a fact that testifies to the success of the romantic project.” That blew me away because I have definitely felt a speechless awe and wonder in the face of natural beauty–for example, when I was in Wyoming among the hills, digging up dinosaur bones. Boom, mindblowing. I also personally related to Cronon saying that people use wilderness as a chance to escape. When I was young, I would go exploring in the woods by my house and I would feel extremely peaceful; when I was in Wyoming, I would take trips up to the Sundance Formation all by myself, so I could get away from the other annoying interns and be alone with myself and my thoughts. I definitely use wilderness as an escape method, so it was interesting to read Cronon’s take on that.

I loved reading about how the definition of and the associations with the word “wilderness” changed over time. Cronon said that in modern times, people look at wilderness with a sense of peace and serenity, whereas in the past people regarded wilderness with fear. (This made me wonder if Robert Sullivan experienced wilderness in an older sense when he canoed through Walden Swamp, because he described the experience as “viscerally thrilling, but… counterbalanced by… a kind of nervous tension” and feeling frantic and lost at times.)

The biggest point that Cronon was trying to make was that humans must be mindful and self-conscious. Cronon emphasized that we can’t consider ourselves completely separate from nature, even though nature does not necessarily need us in order to thrive, because then our ideal picture of wilderness involves no human influence whatsoever and the only way to achieve perfect wilderness would then be to wipe ourselves out. Cronon’s point that we need to “stop thinking…according to set of bipolar moral scales” is very relevant, because so many times humans prefer to think in black and white and avoid grey areas, but those grey areas are the keys to better acceptance and understanding.


Hope this isn’t too long. Looking forward to discussion on Wednesday!

2 Responses to Discussion Post: The Meadowlands and Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wildnerness”

  1. John Krygier says:

    Super posting. Great personal insights along with some bigger issues (that we managed to discuss in class). Ultimately, these postings are to show you are thinking (and reading) and to generate enough insights for discussion. Excellent – keep up this level of postings on the readings.

  2. […] Responses – Week 2 (9/2): The Meadowlands (pub. 9/1) – Week 3 (9/9): Desert Solitaire (pub. 9/8) – Week 4 (9/16): Fanaticism of […]

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