City Lit: Marsh of Progress

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There lives among us a small band of eccentrics whose obsession with the history of toxic terrain drives them to strange acts of public devotion. I’ve indulged my own, over the last year or so, as co-director of a Gowanus Canal public history project. In September, we finished the project: ten steel viewing boxes bracketed onto the Union Street bridge railings above the slick waters of the canal, each containing old pictures of the waterway during its industrial heyday. Describing the Gowanus project to friends, relatives, enthusiastic community board members and suspicious city transportation officials over the past year, I’ve found it hard to understand why so many lack sympathy for this fetid spine of South Brooklyn, why its compelling past doesn’t fill their hearts like it does mine.

As I found out, I’m not totally alone. It was with joy and a sense of relief that I picked up The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City, Robert Sullivan’s manifesto of post-industrial appreciation. Part history, part adventure story, part essay on 1990s environmental politics, Sullivan’s exploration of the Meadowlands–New Jersey’s famous noisome bog-is as much a personal testimony as it is an ecological biography. With grace and humor rarely found in the literature of landscapes, Sullivan observes the Meadowlands as a native returned. Describing his new home in Oregon, he writes, “I would walk into the woods outside of [Portland] and see beautiful trees and huge mountains topped with spectacular glaciers that altogether only made me miss the world’s greatest industrial swamp.”

Sullivan structures The Meadowlands loosely, illustrating the landscape primarily through a series of anecdotal digressions. His explorations involve climbing up garbage mounds with dump administrators, canoeing in the shadow of the New Jersey Turnpike, hunting for pirate treasure with an elderly local and digging for the remains of the Meadowlands’ two most famous corpses: Jimmy Hoffa and Penn Station. He never finds Hoffa, but he does unearth a fractured granite column, part of the rubble from the former railroad station.

The book is classified as “natural history” in bookstores, but those expecting an environmentalist screed or a righteous moral condemnation of pollution will be disappointed. The ecology of the Meadowlands interests Sullivan primarily as a crucible for three centuries of bizarre stories. Recounting the early nineteenth century efforts of three brothers to transform the Meadowlands into a giant dairy farm, Sullivan winds up detailing one brother’s attempts to find a wife by distributing love letters to random women in the streets of New York. In another chapter, dedicated to mosquitoes in the Meadowlands, Sullivan neglects entomology, preferring to concentrate on the history of pest control.

Anxious to pay homage to literary history, Sullivan and a friend spend one summer day canoeing down a mercury-laden creek to an area of the Meadowlands named Walden Swamp. Hoping to disembark and contemplate nature, they are disappointed to find that the shore of Walden Swamp is a “giant mat of phragmites,” the ubiquitous marsh reed found throughout the wetlands. “The stagnant water was brown and marbleized with green and white and dotted with tapioca bread-like bits of wading Styrofoam,” Sullivan marvels. “We passed a small school of giant plastic soda bottles.”

His failed Thoreauvian jaunt establishes the central point of the book: the tension between those who see human influence as a rightful part of natural landscapes, and those who view wilderness and development as irreconcilable enemies.

The argument reaches a head in one of the final chapters, “The Trapper and the Fisherman,” when Sullivan sets up a meeting between two rival environmentalists. The trapper works for a state environmental remediation commission; the fisherman is from an anti-development naturalist group. Although he gives both sides equal say, Sullivan seems less convinced by the fisherman, whose desire to see the Meadowlands return to wilderness simply strikes Sullivan as improbable and, one suspects, basically undesirable.

Sullivan cannot help but wax euphoric about the volatile and strange results of humanity’s encounter with wilderness. But his understanding of the Meadowlands goes beyond post-industrial chic or a knee-jerk love of industry. He sees in the swamp a residue of history. Nature in the Meadowlands isn’t a neutral stage or a garden of Eden despoiled by human wickedness. Instead, the swamp is where nature and civilization collide. Its junk and pollution are the disturbing remnants of a confrontation.

At the end of the book, Sullivan offers a plaintive series of questions about the future of this ever-changing place. “Oh, Meadowlands,” he writes, “what will become of you if your reeds eventually lift you up and dry you and shake off your remaining swampness and transform you into yet another kind of meadow? (And what will we call you then?)” For Sullivan, besotted, the answer is not especially important. He will continue his rhapsody to his beloved.

Paul Parkhill is a housing developer for Common Ground and co-director of Place in History, a public history organization.