Back Home in the New Jersey Meadowlands

Old becomes new again after a lifetime of experience away.

Published April 22, 2015

Shore Lines is a place for readers to recount an experience of personal significance that helped them connect with one small stretch of the world’s vast and varied coast.

I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.

Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

I’ve seen the Meadowlands—an urban salt marsh in northern New Jersey—over a thousand times. I’ve seen it at sunset through drowsy eyes, from the back of a yellow Ford station wagon with faux-wood paneling. I’ve seen it at sunrise, driving into Manhattan for my shift at a factory that manufactured coatroom chits. For over 20 years I saw it in sun, rain, and snow. Mostly, I saw it at 60 miles per hour.

A few days before Hurricane Sandy landed on October 29, 2012, and almost five decades after my first trip past the Meadowlands, I finally got out of a car and explored the area on foot and by kayak—activities that probably would have seemed suspicious during my childhood.

The Meadowlands, more than half the size of Manhattan, is the remnant of a much bigger tidal wetland sculpted by a receding glacier, and, more recently, radically remodeled by Homo industrialus. And yet lovely. Even as it’s serenaded by the whoosh of vehicles speeding along the New Jersey Turnpike and ringed with retail factory outlets and a sports complex, the vibe is serene.

Efforts to clean up this former dump began in 1969, though it took years to close most of the 51 landfills that dotted this stubbornly wild place. Even in the late 1980s, locals were still clandestinely driving rented trucks, doors unlatched, slamming the gas pedal, to “accidentally” fling anything inside, out. And on this trip home I learned that artifacts of my childhood—diaries, stuffed animals, books—were melded into the Meadowland’s mud, chucked by a relative long after I’d left home, on a midnight drive-by.

I also discovered that the outdoor skills I’d gained during the intervening years—living mostly in coastal British Columbia where being outside is easy—reframed my worldview. In the Meadowlands, I saw marsh wrens flitting in the native cordgrass; I saw red-tailed hawks whirling through the air; I saw juvenile bald eagles hunting … something. I saw, for the first time, the Meadowlands as a natural world flooded with a metropolis.

Two things had changed—me and the Meadowlands. Years of ecological restoration made it inviting both to wildlife and to birders, kayakers, and other outdoorsy people. Unlike the built environment, the marsh itself largely shrugged off Hurricane Sandy. And my own experiences in the wild changed how I see the world, even my native turf.