“Apropos all of the garbage and broken reeds in the river, Dave asked, ‘Which is flotsam and which is jetsam?’ and I couldn’t say.”
Sullivan’s history of the Meadowlands exhibits the complex dynamics of post-industrial America from the 19th century to the present. Sullivan’s journalistic survey includes the history of industrial practices and ecological destruction of the Meadowlands in unison with anecdotal histories and people associated with the area. Plenty of environmental reporting goes on in this country relaying the direct impacts of mining, oil, or chemical spills, but lacks the anecdotal side. While I agree that it is the responsibility of companies to clean up after themselves, I think Sullivan’s angle poses a unique point-what if the perpetrators are no longer here to fix their mistakes? What if people just don’t care?
The anecdotes of murder, abandoned projects, and generational misuse of the land left behind a nasty reputation for the Meadowlands amongst residents and outsiders. Once discovering the Meadowlands were just beyond NYC, I expected to read an account of a valuable, but toxic land in the process of revitalization. I was struck by the piling evidence of apathy surrounding the seemingly wealthy land. Sullivan reports attitudes of hopelessness and even rumors of a curse on the land. Evidence of the failed housing, industry, and agriculture in the Meadowlands in unison with numerous accounts of obsessed, failed entrepreneurs paints the Meadowlands as a dismal wasteland hiding behind the facade of fertile fields. As marsh area located by one of America’s first immigrant ports exemplifies the difficult history of a repeatedly failed development due to a lack of technology and ecological information. Sullivan reports a collective attitude towards the area: Can the Meadowlands be salvaged? What are the limitations of destruction?
Despite futile attitudes, Sullivan adheres to hope. He sees beauty in the resiliency of nature: the ability of “Shit Creek” to go from “splop” to “splash,” the increase of species count from 9 to 16 in one area, and the return of birds to the marsh. While many of the native plants were destroyed by the chemical dumping and non sustainable agriculture, the ecosystem managed to regenerate (in a sense) once left alone. Although regeneration appears on the surface, how sustainable is the environment to new life when you have 40 acres of land housing mercury in its sediment and garbage dumps oozing toxic waste? What do you do when the environment is so disturbed it generates its own alien toxins?
In the final chapter Sullivan asks “Oh, Meadowlands, how is it that you will still somehow manage to be spoiled but unspoiled, trod upon and bulldozed, remediated, dumped in and sprayed all over but somehow never spent?” (204). This question poses a universal issue within contemporary environmentalism: What is a sustainable medium? Once we admit that the environment is destroyed beyond repair how can we cope and learn to live in this grey? In take away, I see the current state of the meadowlands as a grim reminder of the consequences of environmental abuse. If the land just outside of America’s most highly populated city isn’t fixed by now, can the rest be salvaged?