First published in The Record, April 13, 2017
A photographer finds beauty, and a refuge, in the Meadowlands
Back behind Bib’s junkyard, over the abandoned railroad tracks and down a muddy hill, Ron Shields slipped his brown kayak into the swamp. The water was the color of spoiled milk. Each paddle stroke sent sludge to the surface like a billowing black cloud.
Shields didn’t look down. Instead he looked up, toward a flash of movement in the reeds. He dipped his paddle into the water, spun his boat hard to the south, and glided toward a tree swallow, its turquoise wings sparkling in the hazy light.
Shields drifted within 10 feet of the nest before the tiny bird chittered and flew away.
“See how close you can get to stuff out here?” said Shields, 66, a nature photographer who lives in Kearny. “There’s a lot more here than meets the eye.”
If you have ever driven the New Jersey Turnpike, “here” is a place you almost certainly have seen, and just as certainly have never visited. On Tuesday morning, Shields went looking for birds and nature in the Kearny Marsh, a rectilinear quadrant of tall reeds, mud islands and brackish water at the southwestern boundary of the Meadowlands swamp.
It is a place of extremes. The marsh presses against two landfills and the toll plaza where Route 280 dumps traffic onto the turnpike. To the east lies the junkyard. To the west is the turnpike itself, and beyond that the Empire State Building.
On Tuesday morning the wind blew from the southwest, carrying the roar of turnpike traffic and the smell of burning garbage from the trash incinerator in Newark. Shields raised his binoculars to watch an osprey just as a wide-body jetliner, on its final approach to Newark, blasted by overhead.
“The noise? I block it out,” said Shields, a former principal at Harrison High School. “I did once get audio of a screech owl, but there was a jet overhead. So all you could hear was the jet.”
Shields visits the swamp two or three times a week. This may seem strange — he is retired, after all, with plenty of time to search for beauty in places less touched by industry.
Americans have been making weird wilderness treks like this for a long time, however. On Aug. 31, 1839, Henry David Thoreau and his brother John launched a wooden boat into the river near their home in Concord, Mass. Henry later recorded the trip in his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.”
Thoreau included scenes from the early industrial revolution, as when the brothers passed “some lumberers [who] were rolling down timber to be rafted down the stream. We could see their axes and levers gleaming in the sun, and the logs came down with a dust and a rumbling sound, which was reverberated through the woods beyond us on our side, like the roar of artillery.”
A hundred and seventy-eight years later, Shields feels a certain kinship with the scene.
“I read Walden Pond. It feels like that,” he said. “You get planes overhead and New York City in the distance and all the cars on the turnpike, but this is an oasis. Everybody is going by, and you’re standing still.”
Tuesday was a slow day in the marsh, Shields said. Recent rains had inundated the place, flooding the islands of mud and reeds that provide a habitat to so many bugs and birds.
And still there was much to see. Shields raised his Canon camera and 400-millimeter lens to photograph four female mergansers, birds that resemble small ducks but with pink beaks and brown feather mohawks. He saw huge cormorants, and an osprey dive for a fish. He saw two snapping turtles, each with a shell as wide as a manhole cover.
“Hear that? That’s a moorhen,” Shelds said, smiling and pointing to his ear. “It sounds like he’s laughing at you. Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha!”
Shields even found many of the man-made things beautiful. As he paused to watch an egret fly away, the black shadow of a turboprop plane glided over the wheat-colored reeds. Shields paddled to the northeast corner of the marsh, where Hurricane Sandy’s powerful waves washed out the old Boonton Line railroad’s gravel roadbed, leaving two rusted rails suspended for 30 yards in midair.
“Isn’t that amazing?” he said. “It’s also nice because it’s so hard to get here, so nobody comes.”
The result is not ugly industry battling beautiful nature, but rather a pleasing orchestra of the two. The bass notes arise from the low roar of jets taking off from Newark Airport. Truck tires on the turnpike supply the tenor. In the alto range, Canada geese land on the marsh, gliding their bellies against the water. The soprano notes come from the swaying reeds, which scrape each other in the breeze.
“What’s nice is that in the summer the leaves come in,” Shields said, “and they hide the junkyard.”
From the turnpike, the swamp appears forlorn. But after visiting for eight years, Shields finds that the tricks of wilderness exploration still work here. When the wind is pushing the water into waves, he finds protection in the lee of the reeds. Each day he plans his route by the wind and tide, keeping the sun at his back to help catch birds by surprise.
“In a couple of weeks it’ll be breeding season for the carp,” he said. “There are so many of them in the shallows you can reach out and touch their backs.”
After exploring for more than three hours, Shields paddled back to the trail. He passed the landfill, where a yellow bulldozer shoved trash down a hill. A great blue heron unfolded its huge wings and flew away.
“Looks like a pterodactyl!” Shields said. “This place is a real gem. You just have to look a little deeper, listen a little harder.”