Man vs. Nature, or something: An artist in the Meadowlands

The Meadowlands: Quest for dilapidation

5 minute read
I know my thesis is in here somewhere.
I know my thesis is in here somewhere.
According to what I believe is the most accurate account, Jimmy Hoffa's final resting place is a landfill in Jersey City on the banks of the Hackensack River. This is the nature of things in The Meadowlands. Between the mud, reeds, myths and legends, things sometimes go in and never come out. Even a good idea can vanish without a trace.

If you're unfamiliar with this place, let me describe it: Beyond the guardrails of the New Jersey Turnpike, just north of the black, rusting, crumbling, behemoth span of the Pulaski Skyway, just west of the Greatest City in the World, lies a vast, fecund and infamous swamp known as The New Jersey Meadowlands.

This wetland had been targeted for development as far back as the first arrival of Europeans to the area, and it continues to inspire land-hungry entrepreneurs to this day. What makes The Meadowlands so unique is that it's almost dead-centered in a particular part of the Earth (the New York metropolitan area) where demand for improvement is extremely high, yet a large portion of the Meadowlands remains intact, its economic potential unexploited.

My grant proposal

This is the subject of a grant proposal I wrote last September for a project I call "Five Miles From Times Square." I put the story of The Meadowlands into the Nature vs. Man context, and I put myself, the artist, on the sidelines and in the cheering section of poor, oppressed Mother Nature. I use The Meadowlands as an example of how sometimes Nature gets its way, and how arrogant Man can never really overcome the power of Nature. I think you can see where this is headed.

So into the swamps I went. Well, not really.

In January of this year, I took a little road trip to the area with cameras in hand and my "thesis" in the back of my mind. I needed to find evidence of Mankind's inferiority in The Meadowlands.

Signs of life

I parked my car along the banks of the Hackensack River in Secaucus, in a little park with a brand new boat ramp and a lovely raised walkway, complete with color signs showing diagrams and pictures of ducks, fish, krill, crabs and all the little creatures of the wetlands that one might find with enough time on one's hands. Apparently they had been here.

They are the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, which is charged with overseeing the area's economic development. The commission purportedly operates these days as a state-run environmental conservation organization, and its commissioners pursue this goal by offering tradeoffs to developers. A little development here, a little conservation there. Besides a few tree-hugging artists, who's really keeping track?

What they did, I found, is remove all of my potential subject matter, at least that which I could access on foot. My calling card as a painter is urban dilapidation. How could I expect to come away with good imagery if everything was so, well, pretty?

An angry guard

I spent most of the day driving from place to place, occasionally stopping the car, looking for a way to get in without sinking up to my armpits in mud or being chased away by an angry security guard with a frothing Rottweiler. I captured much of the day's foibles on video, the highlight of which was my discovery of a cache of softballs behind a ball field.

With my thesis in tatters, my spirit waning, and the sun setting, I decided to try a place that I had scouted out a year earlier— a place near Carlstadt that had a little road jutting out about a quarter-mile into some of the densest reeds of what is known as the upper meadows. At the end of this road stood acres and acres of 12-foot-tall reeds. Eventually I worked up the courage to dive in and head towards a deer blind that was about 100 yards away.

After what seemed like an hour or so of fighting my way through the reeds, I reached the deer blind, climbed up and observed my surroundings. I was in a long, shallow valley, a sea of reeds, flanked by the town of Carlstadt to the west and the Palisades to the east. Just beyond the Palisades loomed the purple and periwinkle towers of Manhattan. Low-flying planes drifted into nearby Teterboro Airport every few minutes, while breezes gently rustled and undulated the reeds below me.

Taste of beauty

The sun was falling, bringing me closer to what photographers call the "golden hour." In the distance, the white noise of the Turnpike— a sound that's inescapable anywhere in the area— echoed softly through the valley. My pulse slowed, my blood pressure eased, and I succumbed to the sublime beauty of the place.

"You never give us anything pretty," an ex-professor of mine once groaned to me. He was right. I always search for the ugliest landscapes I can find, and the beauty is in the raw emotion of the image. But here, today, it was different.

When I was editing the video later that night, I realized that the footage of the return trip out of the reeds amounted to a grand total of six and a half minutes. So much for my hour-long bushwack through hell and back.

All I know is that The Meadowlands owned me that day. As for my thesis and the evidence I was looking for, let's just say that it's all stuck in the mud.♦

To read a response, click here.
To read a follow-up by Matthew Green, click here.

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