Play a little movie for your mind’s eye: A retreating glacier gradually uncovers a long low valley. Pooling meltwater makes a chain of mirrors for the sky. Slowly the waters rise and a continuous lake forms, dammed up behind the former glacier’s terminal moraine. Eventually, the water breaches the moraine and leaves behind a green world of low-lying meadows dotted with stands of larch and spruce. Humans thread their way through the landscape occasionally, on foot or by canoe, hunting or fishing, building small settlements and giving them up again as their needs and local environmental conditions change.
The climate warms; the waters rise again. Gradually, salt marsh begins to form at the edges of the meadows as the sea pushes up into the valley, creating an estuary. Cedars move in where the stands of older trees give up their hold. Eventually a vast system of tidal wetlands forms, fed by two separate rivers. Then things stabilize. The seasons come and go for a few thousand years, but each day dawns on a landscape that remains essentially the same, wild and peaceful, quiet though crowded with a rich array of plant and animal species. Reeds rustle in the wind. A bird calls. A rabbit screams as it is carried off by a raptor. The water gurgles in and out of creeks on the tides. Every spring and fall, the squawking, honking, and screeching of migrating birds adds depth to the silence and the wind resonates with the whooshing of a million wings.
European farmers arrive, with their cattle and their agricultural traditions, which tell them that salvation lies in improving the landscape. They do their best, but for the most part their efforts are modest, the forces of nature too vast, and their tools too simple to permit extensive change. Imagine primitive farm houses, inhabited by ragged families clinging to survival by their fingernails. The cows roam on higher ground in summer. Their owners mow the salt grass meadows for winter feed. Scraggly fences go up here and there, writing the notion of ownership across the valley slopes. A few ditches are dug, painstakingly, in an effort to drain the soggy low-lying meadows. Somehow, they must be made to support more cows, more people, more dreams of wealth and power.
The native hunters and fishermen are pushed back, and hostilities ensue. Dikes are thrown up, but time and weather bring them down again. One farm might fail. Another. A dike might breach, a ditch silt up. A whole family might die of fever. It hardly matters, because others take their place.
Bit by bit, the newcomers begin to sculpt the mud. Land is bought in large swathes. Roads appear. Straggling communities of farms become villages, then burgeon into towns. Brick kilns, tanneries, copper mines, and lumber mills show up in between the meadows. More roads are built. Those made from cedar planks swallow up the last of the valley’s trees.
Large-scale reclamations are attempted, to wring more profit out of the land. It begins to look more and more like something we are familiar with. Ferries and railroads help bring produce and manufactured goods from the hinterland to the coastal cities. Eventually all the upland areas are taken in hand, increasing the pressure to reclaim the marshes. The whole endeavor survives only by growth, like a malignant tumor. The towns grow together, making a single continuous urban wasteland, cross-hatched with roads and bridges, turnpikes, railroads. More and more, the valley is a place to get through, rather than a place to be in.
Ports grow larger. The machinery becomes more powerful, and the people more organized. Farms are pushed out by industries. Sounds of engines drown out the sounds of life. The last meadows are done over into suburbs. An airport is built. And all the remaining lowlands are filled up with garbage. Eventually, 51 separate and unregulated garbage dumps sprout in an area no larger than 32 square miles.
As time goes on, it must become increasingly apparent that what was begun as an experiment in improving the landscape is ending up an industrial desert, a slough of suburban despair. The Hackensack Meadowlands are now nothing but a misnomer, a historical name by which to measure the cost of improvement. To wring more profit from this poor place in an orderly manner, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission is created in 1969. Its task is to help speed the development process for the last remaining virgin land and to regulate garbage disposal, which, it can no longer be ignored, is not just unsightly but outright poisonous.
Then, finally, the movie takes a slightly different turn. Just in time too, I have to say, because the plot is awfully depressing, and besides it seems I’ve seen this movie many times before. Do we have to watch it again?
Hold on. Not long after its inception, the development commission decides that a far better mission would be conservation. Indeed. It throws itself up as the protector of the few unspoilt stretches of wetland, it attempts to restore the natural marshes at the foot of the garbage mountains, it opens an educational park and research facility on the waterfront, as a memorial to the decision never again to allow uncontrolled dumping.
There’s no turning back the clock, of course, no digging up of garbage, no pulling out of roads to make room for the natural salt grass, no removal of housing or factories, even when they appear to be falling down of their own accord. Upon first arrival, the impression is still overwhelmingly of utter degradation. Finding the park is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Nevertheless, there’s ample reason to be grateful for the tag end of history, because it gives us at least a choice of morals. It’s undoubtedly possible to see the story as yet another illustration of the rapacious predatious nature of humanity or any subgroup thereof (see, for example, my own meadow lands). We’d have reason on our side to figure it’s too little too late. But we might also think about the meadowlands as evidence of our extreme adaptability and resilience. Time to get serious.