Catastrophic Beauty

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

An enormous swampy intrusion into the state's densest area, the Meadowlands complicate the geography of NJ's urban core. Several miles of wetlands and river channels, primarily surrounding the north/south oriented estuary of the Hackensack River, separate the gritty urban streets of Hudson County from the gritty urban streets of Newark. The relatively dry margins of the wetlands, flat and well-located but not especially suited for residential development, have played host to Newark's, Kearny's and Jersey City's beefy industrial areas. The interior seems to have resisted industrialization, with broken-down causeways and decaying brick structures showing that it's not for lack of trying.

Even if the interior of the meadowlands is undeveloped, it can hardly be called natural. Straight lines of earth, half sunken poles and concrete blocks, and other strange sights attest to the intense amount of human disturbance that this area has endured. In pre-industrial times, the area was apparently a freshwater cedar swamp, perhaps similar to such areas that we still have in the Pine Barrens. The damming of the Hackensack River upstream at the Oradell Reservoir reduced the flow and caused saltwater to creep in. I don't know enough to list all of the ways in which the area has been disturbed by humans and why, but suffice it to say that landfills are one of the most enduringly visible examples but chemical spills might be the most long-lasting. Today, apparently, every plant species common to the Meadowlands is exotic. However it's full of beautiful native birds, easily visible from the highways and train lines passing through it: graceful white egrets, cormorants drying their wings.