Robert Sullivan, a journalist, takes readers on an epic journey through an industrial wasteland called the Meadowlands – just outside New York City.
I like Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands because I relate to Sullivan. With a penchant for quirky adventures, and a dry sense of humor to match, Sullivan’s writing becomes infectious.
For instance, at one point he goes on a months-long quest to find the annihilated remains of Penn Station. When he finally discovers the bones of the landmark building, he calls his wife. She is happy for him, he reports.
I imagine myself rooting around on some half-baked quest. My wife isn’t generally interested in many of the things I am. When at long last I’ve completed the adventure, she sighs, rolls her eyes and says “I’m happy for you” in a flat, condescending sort of tone. I feel you, Mr. Sullivan.
Beyond Sullivan’s ability to relate to a vast audience of American men with exasperated wives, Sullivan paints the picture of a desecrated wilderness temple. The Meadowlands, according to Sullivan, were once a paradise of flora and fauna. Hundreds of different plants colored the meadows. The rivers were filled with fish. Muskrat populated the swamps and grassland.
Now, the fish have adapted to swim in black, garbage-runoff infested waters. Old factories, pumping refuse into the waters, ruined habitats for countless critters. City planners and developers paved paradise and destroyed the stomping grounds of the old timers.
In The Meadowlands, Sullivan has managed to weave beauty and wonder into a tale of industrial ruin. He almost makes the Meadowlands sound like backcountry Idaho, or his mentor’s rural Alaska. It is outdoors writing at its finest – just a stone’s throw from one of the world’s greatest metropolises, New York City.
Sullivan takes readers on one of his favorite trips – up to Snake Hill, which was almost leveled – and we even follow him in city adventures on the edge of the wilderness. With almost childlike glee, Sullivan tells of how he went in search of the world’s largest collection of foreign-language translations of Gone with the Wind after hearing a rumor it existed in a nearby town. He describes a trip through the Meadowlands in a cheap canoe, a feat he is quite proud of until he finds a man who makes the trip regularly.
Another of Sullivan’s accomplishments in The Meadowlands is to find the people behind the subject. We meet some of the key players in the Meadowlands, like environmentalists and developers, as well as those whose lives revolve around the Meadowlands. A beat cop and a mosquito researcher come alive to readers.
Sullivan’s descriptions are vivid, but not overdone. Sometimes, they are underplayed to leave it up to the reader’s imagination. In that way, the Meadowlands become everybody’s back yard. What city in America exists that wasn’t once pristine wilderness? How far can you go without finding evidence of landscapes ruined or defaced by industrial development?
But Sullivan never points the finger. His point is not that corporate greed or industrial arrogance ruined the Meadowlands forever. He does detail accounts of how the Meadowlands were changed from their original form, and how some of those changes had unintended consequences, but he gives the information to readers in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
Yes, the Meadowlands have been corrupted. But fish are still caught in its streams. Yes, waterways were altered, but you can still paddle a canoe through the trash-laden waters. Just avoid drinking the water, even after it has gone through a fine filtration system.
Despite its flaws, imperfections and even destructions, Sullivan clearly loves the Meadowlands. And he wants his readers to love them, too. In the end, The Meadowlands is a story of redemption. The area went through perhaps the worst beating industrial America could have dealt it. But it has found a way to survive, even thrive in places. It gives me hope for nature, hope for life. After all, plants are starting to grow on abandoned garbage dumps.
FInd The Meadowlands here: