Swank Swill and Garbage Juice: A Lovely, Icky Urban Eco-Tour

The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City , by Robert Sullivan. Scribner, 220 pages, $23.

Alice drops down a rabbit hole to Wonderland, Robert Sullivan slips through the Lincoln Tunnel to the Meadowlands. Either way, it’s a short ride to a topsy-turvy world. Mr. Sullivan explores 32 square miles of blasted swamp, part wilderness, part wasteland, that was once the world’s largest garbage dump. He covers an area just a little bigger than Manhattan and easily as weird, id to the city’s ego. If Lewis Carroll had written Robert in Meadowland , the result could hardly be more entertaining than this delightfully intelligent and good-humored chronicle of through-the-looking-glass adventures.

Mr. Sullivan embarks on his explorations without a stated agenda. He travels by bus, by rental car, by foot, by canoe. Sometimes he pretends that his urge to visit what he calls “the world’s greatest industrial swamp” is a dark Melvillean compulsion: “I needed a bigger fix,” he says. Sometimes he exults, a modern-day Walt Whitman: “I sing the Meadowlands. I am the dot on the Meadowlands’ exclamation point.” Sometimes he is Henry David Thoreau, setting out for Walden Swamp (no joke, it’s right there on the map, across Berry’s Creek from Giants Stadium): He makes a niggling list of his supplies and their cost and paddles off to contemplate “nature and civilization.”

He plays these grand roles tongue in cheek, and charms you into thinking it’s all just a lark. Don’t be fooled. Though he flirts and teases, Mr. Sullivan has a serious purpose. He goes out and looks at nature as he finds it, ruined or in recovery. He doesn’t argue, preach or even lament. He refrains from flaunting environmentalist bona fides or railing against developers and polluters. Ralph Waldo Emerson, out for a stroll in the woods, claimed to become “a transparent eyeball.” Ditto for Mr. Sullivan.

Here he is, cruising East Rutherford: “I drove west on a road bordered by factories and warehouses and 10-foot-tall reeds and only once saw a human: a speed-walking woman with kinky orangeish hair and a deep salon tan who was wearing wraparound mirrored sunglasses and neon-colored Nikes and a bright pink suit that stood out like the plumage of a tropical songbird as it swished past the monochromatic reeds. A big piece of plastic blew across the road like a tumbleweed. Eventually, the road dead-ended in a swamp. I got out of my car and walked into the tall grass, pressing it behind me with great effort, and arrived at a couch that was purple and looked new and turned out to be very comfortable.”

He marvels, he muses, but mostly he reports. Occasionally, he sees things that prompt him to do a little research. From history books and old-timer reminiscence, he salvages scraps of history, which he presents in an offhand, anecdotal manner. We learn about the cedar forests that once covered perhaps half of the Meadowlands, 50-foot trees that grew in “dense, dark stands” until they were axed to build boats and make roof shingles. We learn about inventors and engineers who devoted bootless brain time to the task of taming the swamps-some sought to exploit the wetlands, others merely planned to ease our passage over them: “The Meadowlands blocked the path to the rest of America like a big pothole.” We learn about the pig farms that once flourished in Secaucus. The animals were fattened on leftovers trucked in from Manhattan’s posh hotels and restaurants-swank swill.

The best parts of the book are Mr. Sullivan’s eyewitness accounts of places and people. He takes us on a tour of the reclaimed landfill (now “practically bucolic”) where he thinks Jimmy Hoffa might be buried. He goes digging for the old Pennsylvania Station, the one decorated with 84 Doric columns, the one they tore down in 1964 and dumped somewhere near Secaucus. When at last he locates sections of the granite columns and meticulously records and photographs his find, he’s comically proud of his archeological prowess. He goes on patrol with the brave men who battle the Meadowlands’ ferocious mosquito population. He introduces us to Leo Koncher, an 83-year-old gent who canoes the swamp by summer and when the waters freeze switches to cycling. Part of Leo’s winter gear is an inner tube that serves as life jacket in case the ice breaks: “You really don’t need it,” says Leo, “because the bike makes a hole and the handlebar bridges the gap and you can pull yourself up and you have winter clothes on so it’s like a wet suit.” We also meet Anthony Malanka, owner of a closed dump, two huge grass-covered mounds of garbage sinking slowly into the swamp. Mr. Malanka checks on his dump every day to make sure it’s free of trash and litter. “They make you maintain it until perpetuity and all that shit,” he explains.

Much of the story Mr. Sullivan tells with unflagging cheerfulness is in fact hair-raising. Think a moment about the contaminated liquid that trickles out of old dumps. Experts call it leachate; Mr. Sullivan calls it “garbage juice” and “black ooze … an espresso of refuse.” Modern landfills are equipped with leachate collection systems-“landfill colostomy bags.” But the poisonous ooze from the dumps of yesteryear seeps on: “By one estimate,” Mr. Sullivan writes, “a little over a billion gallons of leachate flows forth each year from out of the twenty-five hundred acres of old landfills in the Meadowlands.”

Instead of lecturing the reader on the intricacies of environmental policy, he lets us eavesdrop on a quarrel, tinged with personal animosity, between an environmental activist and a naturalist who works for the state-for the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission. The state official advocates pro-active ecological management: “We broke it, we got to fix it,” he argues. The environmental activist favors a hands-off approach. Mr. Sullivan doesn’t choose sides.

If he has a philosophy, it goes like this: Look as closely as you can bear. Look at what’s actually around you, at life on the planet now, smoldering dumps and seeping leachate and all.

He teaches by example. Paddling toward the Kearny Marsh, on an unnamed body of water under an elevated section of the New Jersey Turnpike, he notes that the “waterlogged cigarette butts were bloated and curled as if impersonating shrimp.” He sees a “three-inch-thick rusted cable sticking up out of the water like a water snake.” Nearby, an egret has a “long curved white neck the shape of a highway off-ramp”; its feathers are “the color of Styrofoam.” Close to the center of the Kearny Marsh, he finds himself in a “shallow, sewerlike creek”; under the surface lies “a hidden berm of trash, a refuse-strewn Sargasso Sea.” Dipping his paddle, he dislodges “huge chunks of ripe debris … as if from a field of underwater cabbages: a foul borscht.” On another expedition, while navigating the Hackensack River, he floats under a highway exchange and observes “the migratory patterns of the cars.”

Yoked tight together in these descriptions are items we’d like to keep separate. By mixing up junkyard debris with kitchen ingredients, or highway engineering with delicate wildlife, Mr. Sullivan reminds us that a dump supports its own ecology; that no ecosystem is pristine; and that kitchen and septic tank are inextricably linked.

Mr. Sullivan is the naturalist as garbage collector, cataloguing with impartial interest man-made or man-mucked detritus, flora and fauna, including the occasional Homo sapiens, all struggling to live on the same (or adjacent) plot of land. Manhattan needs Mr. Sullivan. It’s time the city took a long look at its flip side.

Swank Swill and Garbage Juice: A Lovely, Icky Urban Eco-Tour