Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Blight: A Meditation on Indigenous People’s Day
October 12, 2010—For 80-plus miles, from just north of New York City to the upstate city of Poughkeepsie, the Metro North railroad tracks run along the eastern shore of the Hudson River, only yards away from the water. In my childhood and youth, that ride along the Hudson was merely “home” to me—I was raised in Croton, which sits more or less halfway between the two cities. It was only later, after I had seen the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Ohio, the Nile and the Rio de la Plata, the Rhine from beginning to end, and the Danube, the Thames, the Avon, and most of the rivers of France–only then did I grasp how extraordinary that stretch of the Hudson shore is. Across the river, which widens at the Tappan Zee and then narrows again, are the cliffs of the Palisades; in every direction, hills rise out of the water, somehow rising out of mist even on the sunniest day. Its beauty never fails to thrill me, nor have I ever seen anything to match it.
Only a few score miles away is its opposite number in every sense, the ravaged country along the Amtrak railroad between New York City and Washington, DC. The first time I rode that train was on August 28, 1963, from New York to Washington. (That was the day Martin Luther King told the world he had a dream.) Between family visits—my oldest son and his family have lived in Maryland for decades—and protest marches, I’ve taken it scores of times since. For mile upon mile, the tracks pass a nightmare spectrum of blight: dying trees and poisoned waters give way to long-abandoned factories, windows broken, walls graffiti’d, which yield in turn to piles of garbage and old tires dotting tract after tract of decaying homes and broken neighborhoods.
Yesterday I traveled from New York to Washington and back on Amtrak (headed, as it happens, for a family wedding). As I looked out the window, I was struck by a curious thought. Inspired, no doubt, by the fact that it was Indigenous People’s Day, I wondered, what if a Lenni Lenape Indian of 500 years ago—one of the First People of New Jersey—were to time travel along this very route today, as Amtrak skirts the toxic land along the water we call the Hackensack River? What would she think?
What would she think of the deadly marshes? What would she think of the now-useless buildings? What questions would she ask in the face of this endless blight, the bitter fruit of “development” and greed?
Only two, I should imagine, one of which we know the answer to, the second of which is as agonizing for us as it would be for the time traveler: “Who has done this to our Earth, and how can we heal Her?”