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Visibly exhausted from fighting relentless tides, burnt from the sun and annoyed beyond belief by blood-thirsty gnats, I couldn't help laughing, not just at my brother's sarcasm, but at the sudden realization that the reputation of New Jersey's Meadowlands as a dump and a festering wasteland retains its grip on the public perception.
Much work has gone into restoration of this threatened ecosystem over the past three or four decades. They still have a long way to go— not just in cleaning up this swampy place just across from Manhattan, but in reconstructing the attitudes of people who know too much about its sordid and shameful past as a dumping ground for everything from garbage to dead bodies to abandoned trucks.
Chris and I began and ended our canoe trip in a canal in Lyndhurst, N.J. on the edge of an industrial park that was built on old landfills. The reed-covered land all around us was composed entirely of garbage several feet deep, and it was nice and neatly exposed by the carving action of the water, revealing a profile made of mud, old wires, rubber hoses, cassette tape, shoes, bottles and other random discarded man-made items that were no longer identifiable. The smell was funky, to put it mildly.
Bane of land developers
So the stage was set, or so it seemed, for me to reinforce my thesis: that this wetland was the site of a bitter conflict between Nature's awesome beauty and Man's shortsighted ambitions. As I saw it, the Meadowlands represented a victory for Nature, which had persistently resisted Man's attempts to develop this marsh in the midst of one of the world's hottest real estate markets.
Proof of this victory, I thought, would be the rotting carcasses of Man's failures in the region: the empty, dilapidated industrial enterprises rendered into badlands by the mighty forces of the marsh. I would photograph these sights and paint them, thus illuminating the resilience of this obstinate wilderness.
But on my last trip, in January, instead of finding blight, I found myself seduced by the aesthetics of my surroundings, natural and manmade alike. I was left wondering if I was looking for the wrong thing, and whether my arrogance was somehow causing me to overlook the sublime beauty of the place. But this time, a garbage-lined canal seemed to suggest that maybe I was right to begin with.
The canal opened to a creek and then to the Hackensack River, which we paddled down. Our first stop was the edge of a landfill that had been closed some time ago. We found nothing much there, except for some odd brick structures and several black pipes used for venting gasses from the rotting garbage underground.
As we were leaving, I reached into the water to retrieve a white construction helmet with the words "Think Safety" printed across the back.
"The meadowlands giveth," proclaimed Chris, and I placed the helmet on the canoe's bow, where it would ride for the rest of the day.
A little while later, we pulled into a small canal, where we discovered a partially submerged object that looked like something from the frame of a car. The water had an eerie green glow where it was penetrated by sunlight and a strange brown, oily film on the surface that didn't look at all natural. It was there that we also had our first encounter with the Meadowland's gnats.
A man in the bushes
Soon after, we stopped at the foot of an abandoned railroad bridge, and as we climbed ashore, a very pierced and tattooed guy emerged from the bushes. He wore a black T-shirt decorated with some kind of demonic skull pattern, and he carried a portable radio. He explained that he came to find his wallet, which he thought he had lost the last time came to fish there, and he brought the radio to test an electrical outlet that he thought might be live. It wasn't, and after a few minutes of chitchat about fishing, he left. Only in The Meadowlands, we thought, could a person appear out of nowhere in such a remote place.
We headed back up river, this time cutting across an area of marsh and impounded water that covered a few square miles on the river's west side. It was almost pristine, with clean water, plenty of birds and virtually no trash. There were large expanses of salt hay, a type of grass originally found in the Meadowlands before the invasion of the common reed.
Here it was quiet, and the air had a clean, saline freshness that I found pleasant and calming. Then I saw something that brought me back to reality. Out in the middle of this seemingly untamed expanse of tidal marsh was a large refrigerator hung up in a patch of reeds. Whoever discarded this thing had sufficient sense to remove the doors.
And the winner is….
Against a fierce outgoing tide, we paddled until we were back in the canal near the industrial park where we'd started. I had shot four rolls of film but wondered if I'd found what I was looking for. This land made of garbage was indeed a battleground. But who was winning?
As we were preparing to take the canoe out of the water, Chris reached for my helmet on the bow and it fell overboard, where it was quickly swallowed by the fast-moving current, disappearing forever beneath the surging, greenish water.
"The Meadowlands taketh away," he sighed. Score one for Mother Nature.
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