By Karen Zautyk
Did you know that there used to be pirates in the Meadowlands?
Back in the 18th century, the marshes were covered by a great forest of Atlantic White Cedars, making the area a perfect refuge for the buccaneers, who would venture out to attack ships in Newark Bay and then escape into the swamps. “In one instance, in 1791, thousands of acres of cedars in Kearny were burned to eliminate (their) hiding places.”
That bit of local history is one of the fascinating facts to be found in a new book, “The Nature of the Meadowlands,” by Jim Wright of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, alongside a multitude of exquisite photographs of the area’s natural wonders.
We don’t know if the long-ago pirates hid any treasure there, but the Meadowlands itself is, to many local residents, still a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. Wright’s book is a perfect introduction.
Last week, at the NJMC’s Environment Center in De- Korte Park, the commission hosted a book launch and signing with Wright and former Gov. Thomas Kean, who penned the forward and was cited at the program as being “a tireless advocate” for the region’s reclamation.
“When I was growing up,” Kean wrote in the introduction, “the Meadowlands was a New Jersey joke”: dumping site for garbage and hazardous waste (and maybe Jimmy Hoffa), landfills where underground fires smoldered literally for years and waterways so polluted even barnacles couldn’t survive.
It also smelled pretty bad. The new book details the extraordinary, four-decades-long efforts of the NJMC (originally formed in 1969 as the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission) to halt the pollution, encourage new land uses and “protect the delicate balance of nature.”
To say this has been successful is an understatement.
The challenges to save and renew what naturalists had declared a “dead zone” were monumental. But, as Kean noted, “Dreams can come true. With vision and hard work, almost anything is possible.” (Vision, hard work and more than a little courage. One audience member at the signing who had worked with the HMDC told of early efforts to halt illegal dumping and the response of one “waste management” entrepreneur. When in his office trailer, the guy put a .45 on his desk and said, “What are you going to do about that?” Thereafter, whenever inspectors went to that particular problem site, they were accompanied by the State Police.)
In a chapter called “The Dark Ages,” Wright details the progressive deterioration of the Meadowlands, “beginning shortly after World War I.” New, rapidly thriving — and ecologically ignorant — industries opened the floodgates to the eventual massive pollution.
But the tide began to turn in the 1960s when environmental awareness began to permeate society at large, and government in particular.
As regulations were enacted and enforced, recovery began. Today, the Meadowlands bears no resemblance to the wasteland it once was. Today, the rivers run clear and the fish have returned. So, too, have the birds, including endangered species, that not only visit the marshes to feed but have chosen to breed there.
Peregrine falcons are nesting, and bald eagles and ospreys have become a common sight. Innumerable other species have made the meadows a birders’ paradise.
Wright’s book is filled with spectacular photos of the birds, butterflies, bugs and the beasts that can be seen throughout the year. Wright was the primary photographer along with Marco Van Brabant and Ron Shields, who also happens to be the principal of Harrison High School. There are dozens of other contributors, too.
The images illustrate the natural wonders to be found at DeKorte and the other parks and preserves that the Meadowlands encompasses: Losen Slote Park in Little Ferry; Skeetkill Creek Marsh, Ridgefield; the Richard P. Kane Natural Area, Carlstadt and South Hackensack; Mill Creek Marsh, Secaucus; River Barge Park, Carlstadt; Harrier Meadow, North Arlington; the Kearny Marsh; Laurel Hill Park, Secaucus, and the 741- acre Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area just west of the Hackensack River.
Guided nature walks are offered in a number of these areas, and kayakers and canoeists paddle the waters in and around them.
And to think that all this wild beauty is within sight of the Manhattan skyline boggles the mind!.
At the NJMC event last week, Wright told the audience that he sees his book “as a celebration of the Meadowlands’ amazing environmental recovery.”
“Amazing” is accurate. (By the way, whatever happened to those old cedar forests? I Asked that question at the signing, Wright answered: “A bad case of the shingles.” Actual shingles. All the trees were felled when early settlers found that cedar was the perfect material for roofing and for other construction, such as the wooden roadways that were precursors to today’s highways. Paterson Plank Road really had been made of planks; so, too, we are told, was the road that later became the Belleville Turnpike.)
More information on “The Nature of the Meadowlands” and the various programs offered by the NJMC is available at www.njmeadowlands.gov