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There's a wilderness within sight of Manhattan



As the crow flies, there is a place exactly five miles from mid-town Manhattan where you can sprawl in a skiff and cut your sight in every direction with a scene as unchanged as time itself, and as old too; and then there is enough of the wild and the beginning to give you that particular feel of completeness that is marked by far-off and lonely places. You not only imagine that you are away; you are, and the wild hugs you. You can curse or scream or sing at the top of your lungs. No one would hear.
The skiff has a five-horsepower outboard motor, the boat and the motor old and slow, but I need little speed. Here is nothing that I want to master, and it is a good thing to be alone and a little afraid. Here is an alleyway of cattail reeds seven feet tall; it's a labyrinthine winding where I am lost, and since it has no importance, no one has mapped it. Where it breaks finally, the effect is of a boundless and glassy lagoon with a sky of sheeted lead. The gulls are here from the sea, but the sea is miles away, and all over the horizon is walled by the reeds. The silence is immutable, but then the sky is broken by the peak of the Empire State Building, and the incredible contradiction squeezes until belief is strained to the breaking point.
It is possible to be factual about the meadows, but as a quality they are almost impossible to describe.
Why they are called the meadows, I don't know, for they are not meadows at all, but a great area of swamp and morass and twisting waterway, and hillocks of mud and rock and dirt flats – all of it hugging New York City invisibly, ten miles north to south, and in places five miles wide. The Palisades obscure it like a stage flat, and a string of towns and cities circle around it. In the old days the Dutch settlers, made homesick by the stretching fens and lowlands, built their stone houses low on the slopes that draw away from the meadows. A cellar full of water made them feel at home, it was said; and for the most part the houses are still there.
In those times, the meadows were trackless, inscrutable and to a very large extent unexplored, except where a fat Dutch keelboat could go. During the American Revolution, a dozen battles were fought around the perimeter of the meadows; but in itself, the wilderness was impassable. When Tom Paine traveled north from Amboy to join the retreating Army of the Revolution near Hackensack, he walked the edge of the meadows to avoid being taken by the British; and in a few vivid lines, he described the weird silence and boundless stretches of "the Dutch fens."
The metropolitan complex developed around it and encased it. On one side of it, the stony bulk of the downtown Palisades and Manhattan Island lies a mile across the river. To the south, the city of Newark, and from Kearny to Hoboken, a vast industrial complex. The shipyards and oil refineries arose around Newark Bay, and northward, on the high ground east and west of the meadows, a whole string of towns, villages, and factories. Here and there, where an island of earth or rock broke the surface of the meadows with a hard bottom, an industrial unit built in with a causeway. The railroads from the west had to cross the meadows to enter New York, and they too built causeways and found hard ground for switchyards and sidings; and then, in time, that miracle of engineering, the Pulaski Skyway, was flung across the meadows and high above it. Finally, on the eastern edge of the meadows the Jersey Turnpike linked the hard ground of the north and the south, and meanwhile five million people had made their homes and work in a tight circle all around.
That the meadows, wild, seemingly boundless, and so often beautiful beyond description, should remain as they are within this, the greatest urban concentration on the face of the earth, is in itself a curious thing; and that they should contain a wilderness virtually unknown to the millions who skirt them and cross over them daily is perhaps the strangest facet in the development of the metropolitan area.
For myself, living in Jersey and skirting the meadows all my life, I came into them without any expectations or even anticipation. My wife and I love canoeing, and for ten years we've gone here and there, where the water showed promise, with a nineteen-foot aluminum canoe roped to the top of our car. Like so many Americans, we discovered the unspoiled charm of America seen from the water, as contrasted with America seen from the road. When we moved finally to a small town in North Jersey, we put the canoe on the dock of a small boathouse on the Hackensack River. Between Hackensack and Oradell, a matter of seven or eight miles, the little river is as idyllic and lovely as something out of a Victorian English novel; but south from Hackensack, a mass of iron bridges and factories leaves the tidewater filthy and discolored.
We tried it for a mile or so and then gave up; in answer to our inquiries, we were told that it led down to the meadows and eventually to Newark Bay. But I had seen the meadows from the road often enough to inhibit any desire to enter them, and we left downstream alone as far as the canoe was concerned. Three years later, I put a five-horsepower motor on a skiff and started downstream – and I became one of that singular group of people who "discover" the meadows and succumb to the strange enchantment of the place, no small part of which is a matter of proximity. The same thing in Maine or Maryland would be impressive but not extraordinary; but the boat-landing on the Hackensack River where I start is less than five miles from the George Washington Bridge, and there is a point on the meadows where a line flung from the Empire State Building would have to be no more than four miles long.
Downstream, there are three miles of river, the factories hanging over the water and the bridges lacing the shores together. The river is tidal; at low tide, the mudbanks steam in the sun and the bare wreckage of ancient hulls shows skeleton-like on the shore shoals. But when the three miles are past, the river floods majestically into the strung lagoons of the meadows, and suddenly the horizon recedes into great distance, the wind blows, and the plain of reeds ripples into the blue sky. From here on, mile after mile, the far-flung wild and loneliness of the meadows prevail. There are times when you see the turnpike, but more times when you see nothing but the grass into the horizon. The waterfowl are unafraid; the gulls come in from the sea and the game birds stop in passage.
You can continue south, or you can turn into one of the many labyrinthing brooks and passages that thread the meadows, their number doubled at high tide. Nor is this without danger, for you can foul your propeller and screw and lose yourself in the tangle of morass, cut off from all sight and sound, and be left in a place as unvisited as an African jungle. Your cries would go unheeded here, nor is there land to walk on, water to swim in or any possibility of knowing direction.
This is for small craft; the larger boats stick to the main channels, marked and mapped; but with a flat-bottomed skiff, there is an almost endless area for exploration and discovery. Often enough, threading my way in and out of this jungle, I wondered that no film or book had chosen this strange and impossible setting. Even in the full sunshine, it has that quality; but under a grey sky, its eeriness increases and its loneliness prevails more insistently. Southward, the meadows change: causeways, railroads and overflung highways let civilization look at you; but in your boat, you are separated, for you are in a place where few go by a method few use. This passage south will bring you to Newark Bay, and through the Kill into New York Bay, if you so desire, or you can turn up the Passaic River and double back north to Paterson. In all, there must be fifty or sixty miles of waterway in this small area that is dredged and marked – and perhaps another hundred miles, undredged and unmarked. And in the meadows proper, there is change, mood – and miles of that total lonesomeness that you find only in a place unwanted and untouched. All of it within ten miles of mid-town Manhattan.
That the meadows cannot remain as they are goes without saying, and if you find your way into them and through them, you will take away a memory utterly implausible a generation hence. For these fifty square miles are potentially the most valuable unbuilt area of its kind in the whole world. Consider it, an area larger than Manhattan Island, paralleling Manhattan Island, and less than five miles away – and empty.
If the meadows were simply a case of a swamp that could be dredged and drained, they would have disappeared years ago, but actually they constitute the silted-up remains of a tidal bay, in all probability the ancient mouth of what is now the Hudson River. The original tidal basin is gradually being silted over by the small rivers that enter it, geologically a quick process, but in human terms a very long time indeed. A million years from today, left to itself, it might well be dry land, but at the present time, the whole of the meadows is subject to tidal motion, and no amount of dredging would provide channels to dry it. The only way to allow it to emerge as dry and habitable land is to dyke it off from the sea, as the Dutch did with their land for so many centuries, and there is no doubt that within the next decade this will be done. (Engineers from Holland are now surveying the area.) Once done, thousands of New Yorkers and Jerseyites will find themselves living in neat new suburban communities, closer to Manhattan than most of Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Meanwhile, the last of the wild and the old continues in its silence and isolation – and totally within the metropolitan circle. Ten minutes by car and any sort of boat of low draft – and you can get away from it all and find whatever men find in a place that is silent, somber, unchanged from long, long ago, and often magnificent in its strange beauty.