It never fails. While traveling down the Turnpike on our weekly summertime migration to the Jersey Shore, there’s a certain patch of road where our children would immediately stop what they were engaged in, pinch their nostrils and simultaneously chant “what’s that smell?” Our response, in stereo, to that nasally drone is “New Jersey!” Finally after all these years, it’s time to get up close and personal to the possible source of their odorous distraction.
Following the signs to The Meadowlands Environmental Center takes you on a brief journey which snakes through giant grass covered domes dotting the putrid landscape. It’s November of 2012 and Hurricane Sandy has just paid an unwelcome visit to these marshes. Flattened Phragmites and some other invasive species appear to fight each other for the life giving power of the sun. Tattered security tape whips in the wind like a main sail on a tall ship. Even after this powerful natural event the native and migratory inhabitants continue to interact with this ecosystem in (what appears to this observer) a harmonious balance. The concrete and asphalt interstate packed with moving vehicles runs almost silent in the background. I admire the beautiful silence of the flora and fauna from my perch on the curvy blue metal bench. For a brief moment a low flying aircraft spoils the blissful serenity. Tall metallic wire towers cut into the bright blue cloudless landscape like a well-spaced army of giant dominoes These animals appear unnerved by the distractions and carry on with their daily tasks of foraging and preening. Nearby a young muskrat appears from a large patch of Spartina grass. It climbs over a newly downed light post and follows its keen sense of smell to a discarded half eaten apple. The security guard at the gate joins me in observing the herbivore that doesn’t seem to mind all of the attention. He gleefully informs me that there are about 24 species of mammals here, as well as over 75 different types of fish, shellfish, copepods, reptiles and amphibians here. I return the favor and gleefully thank him for the useful information and continue on my journey of observation and discovery.
The palate of earthen tones drastically changes upon closer scrutiny. A bright yellow plastic bottle is peering through flattened phragmites and cattails. Pieces of chalky white Styrofoam rest in a pool of murky water. A red soccer ball is partially covered by a shredded purple plastic garbage bag. I carefully edge closer to the water I notice a large black and green aluminum can resting in the sediment. The role of student and observer is switching to detective and self-ordained advocate. How can a place to study nature and its wonderful accouterments be home to these distractions? Could it be either (1) a careless visitor who has no respect for this place or (2) fallout from the recent hurricane that has yet to be properly disposed of? Do I march over to the security guard sternly pointing out these issues demanding he provide me with an answer? After carefully thinking it out I have resolved that in the Spring I shall revisit this place when my question should be answered. I’m betting it’s Sandy.
A lone bumble bee buzzes over my head and rests on a nearby cedar tree. It basks in the warmth of the sun while picking its way through some loose bark, possibly looking for a place to hibernate. One might be surprised on finding such a creature especially this time of year, but it’s one of 78 species of bee that live here. At one time thousands of acres of trees graced the Meadowlands. Most were cut down for construction or to prevent pirates from hiding and attacking ships anchored in Newark Bay. It wasn’t long before the rest of the woodlands fell victim to development and polluted industrial runoff.
One might wonder how this wonderful place ends up in the middle of what was once a polluted urban waste land? After many years of neglect and misuse, a commission was formed to revitalize the ecosystem. Damage from industrialization and sprawl had turned what was over 15,000 acres of wetlands down to a mere 5,000. Man’s neglect of this critical estuary was threatening the diversity of plants and wildlife, not to mention an adverse effect on the migration pattern of over 270 of our feathered friends. Known as The Atlantic Flyway, this journey takes them up the coast with virtually no mountains, hills or ridges to navigate. Food, water and shelter are in abundance. This valuable estuary provides them with all the resources necessary to continue their yearly trip. For over three decades the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has worked to protect these valuable resources, and along with the regional branch of The Sierra Club they continue to provide a sanctuary for this productive and thriving environment. This ecosystem is effective as it acts as a liver by filtering and breaking down the toxins that man created that disrupt the course of nature. We must act collectively to respect this planet so future generations can share in the beauty and mystery and wonderment of this hidden oasis.
Patrick Elliot is in his first year @BCC. He is in entertainmnent/hospitality management and lives in Bergen County.