My Garden State|The Meadowlands and the Hackensack River

This is a tale of human alteration of the natural world that is leaning towards having a happy ending.  Anyone who grew up, as I did, near the Hackensack River and the adjacent Meadowlands knows that even in our lifetimes, it has been permanently altered.   I had the opportunity this week to go on a river tour of the area.  The eco-tours are run by Hackensack Riverkeeper, part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, whose efforts and education on behalf of the river are instrumental in saving and preserving the Hackensack for future generations.

Storm clouds over a landfill
Storm clouds over a landfill
New York City to the east
New York City to the east

Although the water in the river is getting cleaner, what used to be a largely freshwater river basin is now brackish due to damming upstream, draining of marsh land for farming, and building up the sides of the river with fill (much of it of dubious origins).  The mounded land  in the top photo above is a toxic landfill of unknown contents.  There was a time when garbage dumping in and around the river was commonplace.   The cycle of  environmental abuse is ending.  We treated (in some cases still treat) and permanently altered this waterway for what we thought was our own benefit for centuries. 8700 of the original 30,000+ acres of the meadowlands are now protected.  Birds, fish and other species are returning. 110 species of birds were officially counted this past spring and Osprey and Peregrines are finding nesting opportunities and plentiful food.  Spartina alterniflora–a native salt marsh plant–is fighting it out with the ubiquitous Phragmites communis.

A stand of Phragmites
A stand of Phragmites communis
Native Spartina alterniflora
Native Spartina alterniflora
Sunset over the Hackensack River
Sunset over the Hackensack River

6 thoughts on “My Garden State|The Meadowlands and the Hackensack River

  1. Good to see that progress is being made!

    Progress is indeed being made. There are kayakers, fishing, and under the Route 3 overpass, there were nesting eagles. It’s a really cool thing to witness.

  2. I spent several of my growing-up years in NJ, and I’m happy to hear about (and see bits of) this. I have a kids’ book about boyscouts from the 19teens (trashy series a la Hardy Boys), set in NJ. The descriptions of their woodland forays and esp. trips down the river are enough to make you weep. Nice to think some of this is coming back.

  3. I *love* these cloud pictures, esp the last one, so beautiful. I really want to see this landscape in real life, you’ve really whet my appetite. The marshes so beautiful and good to know that they are being revitalized.

    So, the Phragmites grass is alien and invasive? I’m wondering if that is what grows in the ditches along the 401 hwy in Ontario. It’s actually quite decorative, but possibly not a good thing if it’s crowding out the natives.

    The view of New York across the water is fascinating. And do I recognize that turnpike (from the opposite direction) from the Sopranos opening?

    On a side note, Toronto Gardens blog was dubbed in a MeMe award, and we would like to pass the honour on to you. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to visit our blog to retrieve it.

    Sarah and Helen–Thank you for your comments and for the MeMe which I will retrieve (I’m a lurker at Toronto Gardens That is the NJ Turnpike–the one that everyone says is such an ugly drive. I guess they weren’t really ‘seeing’. I am going to have to coerce you into coming to the Garden State for a visit. It’s warmer here than in Toronto in winter–practically tropical in comparison–I know I’ve been where you are in January!

  4. My partner Dave Burden is the “Shorekeeper” here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia (also part of the Waterkeeper alliance). It is encouraging indeed that they have made so much progress up there, and it’s wonderful that as a designer you are engaged and bringing other people’s attention to the hopeful results of the Waterkeeper efforts. Bravo!!!
    As for the phragmites, wouldn’t it be nice to find a use for this invasive plant? (although I realize they’d have to only be harvested when the seeds are not present and viable, right? maybe just take the middle reed part) There’s a company called “phragwrites” ( which makes pens out of them…I suggested to a Parson’s professor that he sic his students on this challenge…

    Sara, thanks for the visit. I grew up with the polluted river, so it was incredible to see it now. Phagmites was brought here by the colonists as a roofing material–thatching…maybe we’ll get back to that as a use. Thanks for the link.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *