spurse_FW5 :: The Meadowlands Evolve

This weeks fieldwork session #5, created by spurse in conjunction with the BMW Guggenheim Lab, was another in a series of eye opening, off-site experiments that spurse has dubbed “Live Feeds“. The Lab was consisted of a reading assignment with a site visit to New Jersey’s Meadowlands via a boat tour of the Hackensack River. The title of the outing was, “The System as Ecosystem: Rivers of S**t, Rivers of Comfort

After meeting at the BMW Guggenheim Lab at First Park, signing in and receiving our clipboards with reading assignment and experiment worksheet, our group of over twenty lab researchers headed to the subway. Gathering downstairs, Iain pointed out our route on the subway map then made some key observations using a nearby BMW Guggenheim Lab advertisement poster as reference. The poster showed the island of Manhattan in shocking inversion of its current state, the idea is ingenious. All the island is depicted as a continuous natural area save the rectangle where Central Park is which is illustrated as dense urban fabric of streets and buildings. The four outer boroughs and New Jersey are all flattened and grey-scaled into the background. Iain uses the graphic as a starting point for today’s conversation as it is a shining example of the standard mode of modern environmentalist and contemporary urban dweller thinking that the natural world and the city are separate opposites. This example of clean, untouched nature verses the cultural capitol good of cities and the other wasteful urban environments, although profound in it’s own right, is exactly that ideology that spurse is challenging through their Live Feed series of experiments at the lab.

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Through he turnstile with an MTA card swipe courtesy the BWM Guggenheim Lab and we were on our way. Waiting on the subway platform and in the subway car, we began reading the assignment given to us at the Lab. It was a selection from chapter one of an essay by Jane Bennett entitled, “The Force of Things: Steps toward the Ecology of Matter“. The writing focused on what the author called “Thing Power, or the Out-Side” and “debris”. Unfortunately it is not available online to link to but, at a very basic level, the short reading encouraged the experiment participants to think about the inanimate objects that compose everyday curbside trash. this debris has been caught on a drain grate only to be spotted and contemplated by an individual, or, just as easily it could have slip into that drain and disappear from the critically discerning eye forever, only to be flushed “away”. The fact that it is contemplated doesn’t necessarily make it more important than that which escaped rationalization. It will all eventually end up amongst more of the same and comprise in parts larger mounds of trash that is sorted, sifted and buried in the landscape and our culture. It was rather deep reading to digestion during a packed subway ride but I think the overall goal of opening the reader’s mind’s eye to alternative ways of looking at normally overlooked objects and ideas was accomplished.

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We transferred at Penn Station to a train to Secaucus, New Jersey. While tickets were being procured for our group Iain gave us a bit more background information for our experiment. Standing in the busy transfer station he told us of the three types of waste that have defined the Meadowlands over the years, people waste in the form of the contagious, terminally ill and psychotic exiles who were deemed expendable and shipped off to meet their fate, environmental waste in the form of industrial factory byproducts which contaminated the air, spoiled our water and polluted our land both immediately and stretching out for unquantifiable distances from the production sites and finally, product waste in the form of garbage that was deported from New York and other parts of New Jersey to create a completely new landscape of toxic hills and mountains in this once low lying area which previously hosted freshwater wetlands. Again the idea that “nature” is balanced and exists separately from human waste when in reality these two things are more closely tied than we realize.

 

 Our train to Jersey was delayed and ran very slow, it actually gave us a chance to take a closer look at some of the newly constructed saltwater marshes on the Jersey shore adjacent to the train track and some of the remnant flooding from Hurricane Irene which ravaged the area a mere five days prior, and was the reason for this tour being postponed for a week. We finally arrived in Secaucus and began our short walk to the Hackensack Public Boat Launch, where the Hackensack Riverkeeper has their outpost.

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We loaded onto the two boats and departed on the eco-tour provided by Hackensack Riverkeeper (they suggest you “Like” them on Facebook).

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The eco-boat tour included views of the distant city beyond mountains of trash that has been trasformed into verdant hills, supporting grasses and wildlife, protected areas where marsh grasses are being established… 

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Energy production plants directly on shore…

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Dredging of the river bottom to cap and fill recently converted industrial sites in the area and some truly beautiful and productive wetland areas…

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As well as more bird spotting than I’ve come across since my days living in Central Florida.

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Enjoy some of these short clips featuring the new landscape of the Meadowlands with narration by Captain Hugh. I’ll summarize after the jump…

 

 

Our group was split into two, each getting the same tour with separate Captains so our experience during this part of the experiment varied slightly. The Captain of the boat I was on talked about the social, environmental and cultural histories that surround the Hackesack River. From early settlers filling in the wetlands, otherwise known as “wastelands” in order to create meadows, thus the “Meadowlands”, and lure new residents to the area. Afterwards as interest waned, industry began to move in capitalizing on cheap land adjacent to major waterways for shipping. The area became the de facto spot for illegal dumping, which lead to legitimization of the practice when New Jersey authorized it as an official landfill site and it became one of the dumping grounds in the world. By the mid 1900’s things where extremely bad, the toxic dumps where poisoning the river and even spontaneously combusting creating fires that burned for years at a time underground, only compounding the issues. The federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and all the polluting of the river was halted. Unfortunately as water quality got better, more development began occurring along the waterfront and the The Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (HMDC) was created by the state to act as a zoning authority for the district. The HMDC was initially charged with protecting the Hackensack by enforcing “orderly development” but the test of time has shown that even the most well intentioned development has no p[lace in such sensitive areas. A group of concerned citizens, spearheaded by Captain Bill Sheehan, created an advocacy group to change the policies. The Hackensack Riverkeeper was created and successfully put policy and lawmakers to task. Under pressure from the group New Jersey transformed the HMDC to the NJMC (New Jersey Meadowland Commission) and redirected its efforts from development to conservation. 

After the tour Iain and Petia presented an insightful talk to wrap things up. They pointed out some of the inflection points involved with the day’s activities, among these where the idea of the commons and realization of post-natural environments.

The commons was discussed through analysis of the profoundly meaningful name that Riverkeeper has bestowed upon itself.  As Captain Hugh Corola told us, Riverkeeper is not a government entity like the HMDC was or the NJMC is. Riverkeeper started as a group of concerned citizens that came together and formed a non-profit organization. As a community advocacy group that coalesced in the mid 1980’s Riverkeeper designated itself as the keeper of the river which was viewed as a common resource, as such, the enjoyment of the river should be a universal human right. Riverkeeper set out to enforce this right. This notion of the commons reinforces the idea that when left to the people, a self organizing group will emerge to regulate the fair and equitable distribution of the resources associated with the commons. This flies in opposition to “The Tragedy of the Commons” theory which catalyzed the environmental movement in the 1970s and is another deep set idea that spurse is working past in these Live Feed sessions at the BMW Guggenheim Lab as well as in other work the spurse collective is part of. 

 

Building upon this idea of the commons as a universal human right is the fact that humans are not the only, or even the primary, species involved with keeping the commons. In fact, in more cases than not, the commons would not be enjoyable at all without the input and healthy populations of other plants animals and organisms. Phragmites communis is now the dominant species of the Meadowlands, a pioneering species claiming new land for future growth of other marshland species. Another way to look at this re-colonization of this species is in terms of land development. We often speak of land development in terms of cutting and clearing to make way for buildings and automobile infrastructures. If you look at the new goal of the NJMC and realize that conservation is actually an inappropriate term in this case, unless we want to conserve the post-industrial, toxic landscape that existed there. To take this idea a step further it must be realized that the Meadowlands cannot be “re”naturalized because of the intense pollution that is now an inherent part of the site. The entire chemistry, hydrology and ecology has been changed. There is no going back to the pristine natural state. A deeper look at the geological history begs the question of what the “natural” state of this area is anyway. So there is no going back, there is only going forward. Although this is actually an extreme example of this post-human landscape, it is becoming more and more evident that this is the case not just here but everywhere to varying degrees.

Here is a bit of video footage from the train on the way back to Penn Station of the Jersey shore, still saturated with Irene’s ravaging waters, The image is looking from platform 2 back at the Meadowlands you can see the power plant we passed on the river in the background to the left as well as just how closely tied the built and the natural are in the ditch still swelling with stormwater foreground.

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*Authors full disclosure note: I’ve written about Riverkeeper before and worked with them as they where involved with some Green Drinks NYC events I helped organize.

 

 

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