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In a Former Trash Heap
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New Jersey

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By Richard Conniff Photographs by Melissa Farlow

Home to rivers of grass and rabid sports fans, a one-time trash heap shines in Manhattan’s shadow.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In the strange territory called the Meadowlands, just west of Manhattan, a battered volcanic knob of rock juts up from the mudflats and reed thickets. Its history, like its name, is colorful. Snake Hill was once home to the indigent and the insane, and prisoners in the county jail here broke up the rock with sledgehammers. Its solidity once inspired a passing ad man to use “the rock” as the symbol of a great insurance company (though the concept somehow got refined along the way from Snake Hill to Gibraltar).

On a windy summer evening, this remnant of the Triassic is an excellent spot to sit and look out on one of the weirdest and least reputable landscapes on Earth: the New Jersey Meadowlands. Everybody’s trying to get somewhere else. Rush-hour trains moan and clatter across the wetlands. Trucks on the New Jersey Turnpike roar right through a cut in the rock. A tailwind sends a flight of swallows whipping past and strips back the leaves on the trees so only the pale undersides show.

But what I am feeling, as I sit here on Snake Hill, is deeply, and a little disturbingly, at home. I can see the long traprock ridge of the Palisades, which form the eastern boundary of the Meadowlands. I was born over that way, in Jersey City. Behind me, forming the western boundary, are the green suburban hills where I grew up. The lowlands in between, on either side of the Hackensack River, were a wasteland—“the dumps”—when I was a kid in the 1950s. I remember my family driving back and forth on the broken, cobbled pavement of the Belleville pike, with overloaded garbage trucks fore and aft, past endlessly rising, bulldozer-swarming trash heaps.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Can nature perpetuate itself in an urban setting? Tell us your stories.

What are you willing to do to preserve wild areas in urban settings? Cast your vote.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Contrary to their name, wetlands are not always wet. Marshes act like sponges absorbing water in heavy rains and floods. In order to absorb water they cannot always be saturated. But sometimes wetlands appear dry even when the water level is only one foot below the surface! This is because the reeds that grow in many wetlands have such dense root masses that you can walk on them and never get your feet wet.

United States Environmental Protection Agency
Check out the environmental profile of your neighborhood or read about the Clean Water Act, Superfund sites, wetland monitoring, and mercury contamination.

Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission
This official site posts the HMDC’s management plan for the district in addition to listing local activities.

Hackensack Riverkeeper
Find out the latest on environmental threats to the Meadowlands or report possible pollution incidents along the Hackensack River.

Meadowlands Sports Complex
Read about the latest events coming to the sports complex or find facts and figures on the stadium and arena.


Quinn, John. R. Fields of Sun and Grass: An Artist’s Journal of the New Jersey Meadowlands. Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Sullivan, Robert. The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City. Scribner, 1998.

Tiner, Ralph W. In Search of Swampland: A Wetland Sourcebook and Field Guide. Rutgers University Press, 1998.


Yeadon, David. “New Jersey’s Surprise Wilderness,” National Geographic Traveler (Oct. 2000) 120-122, 124.

“Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” 3rd Edition. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Thornhill, Jan. Before & After: A Book of Nature Timescapes. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Let’s Explore a Meadow. National Geographic Videos, 1994.

Hartz, Jim. “New Jersey: A State of Surprise,” National Geographic (Nov. 1981) 568-599.

Levathes, Louise E. “Gateway—Elbowroom for the Millions?” National Geographic (July 1979) 86-97.

Hitchcock, Stephen W. “Can We Save Our Salt Marshes?” National Geographic (June 1972) 729-765.

Cunningham, John T. “I’m From New Jersey,” National Geographic (Jan. 1960) 1-45.


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