This book was illuminating in a lot of ways, in that it sought to explore a piece of land that has been subject to so much human error. It really raises the question of what to define it as – wilderness, or wasteland? At one point in the book, Sullivan refers to the area as “modern meadows”, which to me implies that modernity is associated with this dissention of nature; in line with the definitions of wilderness we viewed last class that pose the wild at direct opposition of human development.
The increasing impact and interference we’ve had with our environment is made clear in opening chapters, as Sullivan traces the encounters of humans with the area, citing how we “went from leaving huge piles of oyster shells to dumping increasingly poisonous waste, from homes, then from workshops, then from factories” (16). I find this quote interesting as it traces stages of industrialization, workshops transitioning into factories as we have increased and multiplied output so many times over in the past two centuries. The Meadowlands serve as a case study of sorts that illustrate these advancements, encasing such trial and error but more importantly the ill effects it has on the environment. With this, I think I better understand why the definitions we read in class pose nature as the opposite – at the end of the day, industrialization and infrastructure are detrimental to the environment, and this book illustrates all of the ways that takes form. As sad as it is, referring to the area as “modern meadows” is a reality, far removed from our romanticized associations with the wilderness.
In the chapter Achievement of the Future, Sullivan talks about the various ways in which farmers used the land for industry, citing a prosperous brick-making industry that utilized the natural clay found in the Meadowlands, which eventually seeded in lieu of steel production. Similarly, the cedar forest that once stood tall in the area was largely cut down for lumber, and used to make boats and shingles. I find these examples interesting, as they reflected this ideal of “living off the land” to me at first, until I remembered these ventures were ultimately fueled by monetary success, much like all the other proposals of what to do with the land.
Though I did find this book monotonous after awhile, Sullivan takes care in relating an exhaustive account of the meadows and its history. The encounters he has with others, though brief, add a humanizing aspect, especially in the chapter “Valley of the Garbage Hills”, when he speaks to Malanka, a man who inherited a dump he wants little to do with. As he explains, “I’m just sitting here paying for the sins of my family” (103). The lonely picture Sullivan paints of this man in a desolate building, tied there only because of the past, evoked a similar feeling that his descriptions of the Meadowlands had on me. If anything, I think these moments made it harder to discern what exactly the message was for the reader, but maybe that’s the point – humans have done some serious damage to the environment in the past, but whose to blame in the present?