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  Field Notes From
Swamps of Jersey: The Meadowlands

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View Field Notes
From Author

Richard Conniff

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Melissa Farlow

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Jodi Cobb (top) and Randy Olson

image: compass
In a Former Trash Heap

Field Notes From Photographer
Melissa Farlow
I was with the Hackensack Canoe Club one evening when we put in canoes and started going up Mill Creek, a winding little stream that meanders through the Meadowlands. I sat low in the boat. I couldn’t see very far because the hills and tall phragmites plants were above us. Egrets, terns, and teal flew up as we rounded the bends in the creek. I felt as if I was in the wild somewhere. Then we went around another turn, and I could see the Empire State Building and the dikes used at one point to try to drain the Meadowlands. I saw very different environments just by going from one side of the waterway to the other. I needed to do some aerial photographs of the Meadowlands, so I decided to work from a fixed-wing airplane, for the freedom of flying around and looking at the area. It is usually my first choice before I go to helicopters. But we were in the busy airspace of Teeterboro, Newark International, Kennedy, and LaGuardia airports. Commercial liners as well as small private planes were flying around all the time. We were flying west the first time we went up. I looked up and saw a 747 heading right for us. Its landing gear was down for touchdown at Newark International. My pilot said, “Don’t worry! I’m flying the plane. You just take the pictures.” But I was thinking, How can I concentrate on photographing when this huge plane is coming right at us! I could see the lights. This thing was close!
After that, I did most of my aerial work from helicopters. That way I could stay below landing planes.
On several occasions, county officials took me to an area where I might see nighthawks roosting. It was right next to a small prison, so the county people introduced me to the prison staff and told them I would be working nearby. One evening I decided to go by myself. Evidently, the guards on duty had not been told about me. They thought I was there for no good. I tried to explain, but they got in my face, yelled at me, and told me I would be arrested if I didn’t leave. I was pretty shaken up, but I didn’t want to cause any trouble. So I left for an appointment with some officers from the Arlington Police Department on the other side of the Hackensack River.
I spent an hour photographing the officers during target practice at an old dump. After I finished, they handed me a semiautomatic weapon and let me fire it. How ironic that was. On one side of the river I was treated as though I was staging a prison break, and on the other I was given a gun.

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