Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not Far Removed

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1998. All rights reserved.

Every day for three years I joined millions of people on a mass migration between home and work in the crowded urban corridor between the suburbs of New Jersey and the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan.

My wife was in graduate school at Rutgers University and I was working in an office halfway up the Empire State Building. My memories of those years are a succession of bus rides, train trips, taxi fares and street scenes; the smell of stale smoke, urine, fried meat and diesel exhaust is imprinted in every reflection.

Between the tunnels that fed us into the thick of midtown and the snarl of traffic circles, train stations and Turnpike toll booths that marked a steady succession of townships and cities, was a shock of open space: marshes, weeds, boggy dumps, mud flats, tall grasses and protruding boulders.

Like most other commuters, I presume, I looked out the window and thought "wasteland." Undoubtedly despoiled with toxins and polluted beyond repair, it was obviously a place without worth or it would have long since been developed.

Almost a dozen years later, I realized I missed something. New Jersey nature writer John Quinn produced a convincing study of the Hackensack Meadowlands showing that despite its poor reputation, the area supports a vital ecosystem of birds and fishes and lush plant life far more extensive than anyone would imagine.

Ducks of many species migrate through the Meadowlands; some even reside there. Striped bass are common in these waters, though folks are warned against catching them for the frying pan. Several species of frogs survive in the brackish waters and peregrine falcons have been nesting on factory smokestacks.

Titled "Fields of Sun and Grass," Quinn's skteches and observations of the Meadowlands reveal a rural place not far removed from the urban congestion of Times Square.

At one point, he climbs a graffiti-decorated rocky outcrop called Snake Hill that overlooks forests of chimneys and standpipes, marshy flatlands, and a convoluted tangle of roadways branching off the steady stream of the New Jersey Turnpike that fades into a horizon of hazy buildings.

"Sitting there in the November sun, assailed by the noise of a hundred thousand machines, the collective voices of perhaps a million people and a half a billion birds, I found my convictions as a naturalist challenged by the overwhelming visual and auditory assault," Quinn reports.

"I saw and heard this exultation not as a craven offense against nature but rather as a spectacular confirmation of it."

The Meadowlands is a toxic place, defiled by some of the worst byproducts of 20th century society, and yet it lives and thrives and, in some places, is being restored. It demonstrates how nature incorporates the works of man, however complex and intrusive, and pursues its own agenda.

I once believed that what we call "rural" and what we know as "urban" could be clearly separated. Now I'm not so certain. Even small towns are sporting espresso bars these days and the most remote ranch may be linked via the Internet to daily trading on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, there are crops being grown on rooftops in every major city and more urban dwellers are taking an interest in being frugal and self-reliant. And, as Quinn demonstrates, there remain pockets of open space near the most densely populated cities where a person can stretch out and, for a few moments at least, feel what it's like to be in the country.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Not Far Removed
Artwork: The Marshes of the Meadowlands Glitter with Sunlight
Fields of Sun and Grass