And incorporating The Thoreau You Don't Know.
And then there is "My American Revolution," my latest book.
Yes, the SuperBowl is in the Meadowlands, as opposed to Times Square
Here’s some of a piece I wrote in the WSJ today:
If I were in charge time of Super Bowl halftime entertainment at the Meadowlands—aka MetLife Stadium—I’d skip this year’s musical acts and do an old-time variety show, with, sure, multimedia and computer-generated graphics, but also some good old-fashioned floats, each re-enacting great moments from one of my all-time favorite places, which this Sunday isn’t just center-stage but is the stage, whether you know it or not: those most amazing, mostly derided, but vital and increasingly essential New Jersey Meadowlands.
You may know the Meadowlands as a wide-open swampy dump that people joke about, but imagine the hi-def displays describing the formation of this giant inland estuary during the last ice age. See Lake Hackensack, the vast glacial lake, drain slowly to create a supersize geologic bowl that now sits across the Hudson River 5 miles from Times Square. Now, picture a float highlighting the Meadowlands’ role during the American Revolution, the stream-cut salt marshes frustrating British troops as they chased Washington’s little army south to the Delaware, the muddy swamps affording the beat-up rebels one more chance. (Does the U.S. owe its existence to the New Jersey Meadowlands?)
And now, as we pause between razor-blade commercials, here come the floats celebrating the cutting-edge industry that set up on the Meadowlands’ edge—Newark was a hotbed of invention, and Kearny built warships and DuPont made chemicals that we would rather not think about now but amazed us back then—followed by the forgotten mines and graves and rumors of pirates gold and muskrat trappers and farmers who cut the salt hay that, as packing, helped make bananas the ubiquitous fruit they are today.
As someone who for two decades has loved hiking through and just exploring the Manhattan-sized Meadowlands—I’m one of those people with his face pressed to the NJ Transit’s train window as it runs between hills of old garbage and marshes and ponds—I have always watched football games in the vain hope of hearing an announcer expound on the place’s glories. My dream color commenting: “The loft on that ball reminds me of the bald eagle I spotted over Overpeck Creek earlier today, Joe.” “Yes, Troy, and the snow is whiter than the herons I see when I am paddling in East Rutherford—to think there are snowy owls at DeKorte Park’s Nature Center, just 3 miles from our booth!”
But that has never happened. What has happened are the Hoffa jokes. Oh, the Hoffa jokes. Oh, the end zone as punch line. I get it, though. In the popular imagination, the Hoffa legend is the Jersey Meadows’ defining epic, and it stems, as best as I can tell, from a nearby Jersey City dump that burned underground (thanks to a slew of chemicals) from the time I was in first grade until I graduated from high school in New Jersey, in 1981. The FBI sat on the place for just a short time, but the legend stuck, thanks to many other bodies discovered dumped in the vicinity over the centuries. More scary but less discussed was the reportedly high incidence of leukemia in East Rutherford back in the 1980s, when landfills were just being closed.
Dumping—of all kinds—gets at what made the Meadowlands. The Leni Lenape left shellfish middens. Colonists dumped trash. Barely regulated hills of garbage grew through the 20th century to towering heights before being sealed. We dumped in the marsh because it was our least valued real estate; it’s why airports and sports arenas pop up in meadow lands everywhere—e.g., they don’t call it Fenway for nothing.
Unfortunately, we had it backward. From the point of view of organic matter produced (think stuff for fish to eat), a salt marsh is a dynamo, and the organic materials generated in the Meadowlands, especially since we started closing the dumps and enforcing the 1972 Clean Water Act, make the green-seeming Catskills seem tame. If you look at the region across state lines—follow the Meadowlands tributaries up into the Highlands of New Jersey and New York, or watch the raptors that lunch in the Hackensack Meadowlands Wildlife Area, south of the N.J. Turnpike’s Vince Lombardi rest area, and then have dinner on North Brother Island in New York’s East River—you start to see that in terms of watersheds and wildlife, the Meadowlands is the region’s heart and center, its ecological Times Square.
When I went out with shovels and a metal detector digging for Jimmy Hoffa in 1996—didn’t find him, thank God, but found some pillars from New York’s old Penn Station—the cops looked at you like you were crazy to have a canoe in Secaucus. Today, I can jump on a train at Manhattan’s Penn Station and in eight minutes be in Secaucus, from which 10 minutes on foot gets me to the free boat rentals offered (April through September) by the Hackensack Riverkeeper, which with groups like the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and its land trust have helped convert former dumps back into thousands of acres of productive salt marshes and parks like the glamorous, no kidding, new River Barge Park in Carlstadt.
I am part of a group, the Campaign for the Meadowlands, working with NJ Transit to highlight the Secaucus train station as a gateway into what is for more and more people a giant, underutilized and still undesignated national park. The Secaucus station was built as a transfer point, but we like to think of it as akin to a lodge at the Grand Canyon. Sounds like a joke, but the bird counts in the salt marshes in the Meadowlands (280 species) are greater than in Yosemite.
Our disgust for the Meadowlands accidentally preserved it as a break in the sprawl, a faraway wild place in the great megalopolis’s midst. Then again, the meadows tend to get their own way. The Super Bowl is about one victor; the Meadowlands are about what comes after defeats and the unexpected riches that result, especially if you consider all of the things that were proposed and never built: a giant dairy farm to produce milk for New York City in the early 1800s, futuristic cities in the early 1900s and the world’s largest mall, in 2011 and still pending. (The multicolored building near MetLife Stadium that looks like a high-heeled shoe—Gov. Chris Christie called it the ugliest building in the state—is an indoor ski slope that awaits its indoor snow.)
Wait, did I say no musical acts at halftime? Maybe one—Springsteen doing “Rosalita”: My machine she’s a dud, I’m stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. Out of the mire comes new life, which is to say sometimes opportunities come even from breaking down in the muck.Robert Sullivan is a contributing editor at Vogue and the author of “The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City” (Anchor).
“There’s a level at which words are spirit and paper is skin. That’s the fascination of archives. There’s still a bodily trace.”Susan Howe (via theparisreview)