Archive for March, 2009

25
Mar
09

making a stand, calling a halt

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.

frozen wetlands

wetlands in winter

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.

garbage mountain

garbage mountain

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.

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04
Mar
09

magic mountain

Where the New Jersey Meadowlands inspire a sense of doom, the Ivy landfill near Charlottesville, Virginia, is its very opposite, with its 350 acres of wholesomeness, optimism, and can-do spirit, seasoned with a herd of deer and a mountain lion stalking their steps in fauning season. Even if 87 of those acres are covered in garbage buboes.

Ivy Landfill, Covered with Snow

Ivy Landfill, Covered with Snow

It doesn’t hurt that it’s so pretty out here, garbage and all. Overwhelmed by mountains, a vast temperate rain forest quietly biding its time, virgin snow and deep-blue sky, a measly little PVC pipe sticking up out of the earth here and there seems a minor thing. Even if it’s going to take 30 to 50 years for that pipe to become unnecessary—at the current best guess of sanitary engineers—it just doesn’t look like the end of the world. Outlook, it seems, has a good deal to do with the view.

Ivy’s operations manager, Mark Brownlee, a mild man in his late fifties or early sixties with a very red nose, kind eyes, and a musical southern twang, took me around. After an awkward start and the usual suspicious/incredulous questions (“What program is this for? Who are you with?”), he became pretty straightforward.

Ivy got its start in life in the 70s, as Charlottesville’s city dump, before the introduction of current landfill regulations. Later the landfill also accepted waste from other communities in Albemarle county. When I lived in Charlottesville, in the spring of 1990, I did my best to help it grow–albeit in blissfull ignorance of what happened to my stuff after I gave it up for adoption, once a week. It seems I’m partially responsible for the bubo to the left of the road in the picture above, since Mark told me the bubo to the right contains only construction and demolition debris. I remember arguing with my husband over who should take out the trash, but I have absolutely no recollection of thinking about my garbage, ever once, beyond its short trip to the curb. Of course, I don’t. I had better things to do, back then, than worry about what happens to my garbage.

Garbage Transfer, Front Row Seating Provided

Garbage Transfer, Front Row Seating Provided

In 2001, the landfill closed. A layer of clay icing has been added on top. Pipes stick up everywhere like birthday candles. Mark allows as how the Rivanna Waste Authority, which he embodies, has to be vigilant and inventive, to make sure the landfill doesn’t come to haunt its upscale neighbors, like Freud’s return of the repressed. So methane is monitored, captured, and flared off.  Leachate is collected and trucked to a treatment plant. Bacteria are injected into the landfill, in the hope that they will neutralize harmful substances. Volatile organic compounds are extracted by the shiny new soil vapor extraction machine, one of the very first to be installed, according to Mark.

Residents can deliver recyclables, including cell phones and paint, newspaper and cardboard, as well as reusable items, among which, remarkably, is a huge contingent of exercise equipment, good intentions gone to waste.

The Edge of the Magic Mountain

The Edge of the Magic Mountain

All the while, the upscale neighbors are kept informed of all developments with an unusual spirit of openness. That’s what impresses me most: this simple willingness to lift the veil. It compares exceedingly well with the more usual response, which is to come running with loud protests and write down my license plate number if I take a picture of the outside area of a landfill.

And in the meantime,  the garbage still arrives, in its never-ending way. It goes from the garbage truck onto the conveyer into another truck, and then off to a Waste Management landfill just outside of Jetersville, Virginia, a mere bump on the map which doesn’t seem to have a whole lot going for it besides space for everybody’s else trash.

01
Mar
09

Meadow Lands

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo, telling travel stories to Kublai Khan, describes Leonia, a city that refashions itself continually. Everything is new all the time, he explains, shiny, spotless, and just-unwrapped. “It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity.”

An increasing drawback of Leonia’s predilection for the new is the accumulation of the old, which rises at a staggering rate on the outskirts of the gleaming city even as it becomes more durable. “The bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become stratified, extend over a wider perimeter. Besides, the more Leonia’s talent for making new materials excels, the more the rubbish improves in quality, resists time, the elements, fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains.”

Most of Marco Polo’s invisible cities are highly allegorical, but in this instance it seems he just happened to look out the window when he flew into Newark and saw the Meadowlands.

Meadowlands Mountains, Obscuring Manhattan.

Meadowlands Mountains, Obscuring Manhattan.

Of course, at this time of year, the glowering trash heap looks more disconsolate than when the grass is green. But it obscures the Manhattan skyline just as effectively in June as it does on March 1. It’s not just tall, it is also wide. And as far as I can tell it is still growing.

Over by Disposal Road in Lyndhurst, NJ, there’s every sign of continuing excrescence. At least I see plastic liners exposed in the bosom of these artificial hillsides. There are also, as usual, plenty of no-trespassing signs. In the far distance I think I can make out the spire of the Empire State Building, poking up above the rubble.

Calvino offers another thought, for context, and it seems especially appropriate at the moment, with the Dow way down and the ranks of the unemployed swelling daily: “In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered … It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our sceptre, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.”

Back in 1982 I was puzzled and wrote in the margin, “who speaks these words?” That is, who are these heirs to all the long undoing. Today, I think, the answer seems obvious: it is us. We are the inhabitants of Leonia, the dime-a-dozen emperors who conquered, not with marching armies or galloping horses, but with plastic.

So let’s sit on the steps of the garbage palace for a moment and consider the view:  isn’t it time for a change?

Contemplating Manhattan from Lyndhurst, NJ

Contemplating Manhattan from Lyndhurst, NJ

Postscript March 5, 2009: As a curiosity, there is in fact a Leonia, New Jersey, just a few miles up the road from the Meadowlands.




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