he Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan was an informative and entertaining book. The areas he described were familiar to me, nominally, at least, because of my own connection to New Jersey. My father (Bergen), paternal grandparents (Cliffside Park) and Great Aunt and Uncle are all from this State and I have visit them every summer since I was about five years old. We always go to Avon Beach, a heavily developed area with stone and concrete conglomerate jettys every several hundred yards, pavement up to the sand, and no grass in site. Sometimes, we go to Island Beach State Park, which seems “wilder” and has preserved, grassy sand dunes, or, on rainy days, we go into New York City. While Avon Beach is only a short drive away, the other two places, Island Beach and New York City, require a long drive right through the places described in The Meadowlands. Much like the businessmen in the Days Inn or the kids going down to see a Bruce Springsteen Concert, I too passed through the meadowlands without any knowledge of what was there, its history, or even its geography.
Sullivan defies our conventions of purity, wilderness, and environmental destruction. One of his most notable uses of the word “pure”, for instance, is on page 97 where he describes the leachate as “pure pollution, a pristine stew of oil and grease, cyanide and arsenic…”, even though describing this leachate as pure sounds like an oxymoron to me! The lack of living material probably makes this solution pure, in the same sense that the Arabian Desert is “clean” (read: lifeless) to T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. He also described the garbage piles as alive and used grand, glorifying language, as opposed to the two natural hills, which he considered to be not alive. I found it strange that he got lost while canoeing in the meadowlands, describing the part near Barry’s Creek as having many different identical inlets, like a mangrove swamp. I usually think of someone getting lost in a more open or “uncharted” wilderness, rather than one near the city. He uses grand metaphors that glorify the swamp and describes the people he meets in a detailed, three dimensional way that makes them seem clear. His inclusion of these well-developed humans and the prescence of very few living (but many dead) animals also defy our definition of wilderness as an unpopulated place teeming with untamed animals. While pessimists often view environmental destruction as linear and permanent, Sullivan shows it in the Meadowlands as cyclical and, quite literally, layered. He describes the various attempts to tame or “destroy” the meadowlands in an attempt to make them productive for human industry. Most attempts fail eventually. The copper mine created by the Dutchman in the 1700s eventually flooded and was abandoned. However, it returned, in a figurative sense, when people’s houses and property started sinking. The dams and dikes of the 1800s almost all failed, leaving the investors bankrupt, and even pig farming stopped eventually, leaving only old oyster shells in its wake.
Safety, and my own priggish sense of legalism, was called into question as well. I was shocked about the guy swimming in the heavily polluted creek, but realized that “dangerously polluted” to one man may be alright to another. Also, that man got a rash at the “clean” and “legitimate” Coney Island Shore, but suffered no ill effects in a creek full of dumped toxins. I felt nervous when the author climbed across a railroad bridge with burnt out ties, but realized he had probably done things that were statistically more dangerous before.
The Cronon reading was insightful and well argued. As the son of a trained historian, I am wary of the accuracy of accounts that reference the grand sweep of history. However, this author approached the big ideas of western history with appropriate nuance. Instead of acting as if the idea of wild places as holy was only a nineteenth century idea, this author references earlier times when holy men went into the wilderness to seek enlightenment and fight temptation. It is interesting how our ideas of natural beauty were constructed in the 1700s by artists seeking the sublime; a mountain is no more worthy of preservation and worship than a tree in a garden or a field in Ohio, although we have been conditioned to think of the mountain as sacred. I agree with his idea that we must appreciate life around us as well as living things in far flung areas. If we only appreciate the “sublime” wilderness, then we end up overexploiting the environment next door. Like Cronin, I am also uncomfortable with radical environmentalists who want to stop all human activity. I find this impractical and self defeating. Fortunately, Philmont Scout Ranch preaches a similar message to Cronin. They believe in responsible use and conservation, rather than absolute preservation. They raise cattle and horses and maintain infrastructure for hiking.