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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'An American River'

The river can be divided into three long stretches. The Upper Passaic is a largely downhill romp through meadows and forest along the south- eastern edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Central Basin is the long, flat, flood-prone middle reach that flows north for some 40 miles through an ancient lakebed. The Lower Valley, where I grew up, is a 35-mile-long corridor that sweeps down from the cliffs of Paterson to the sea level marshes of Newark.

This convoluted journey from pristine headwaters to Superfund site mirrors the triumphant and tragic relationship between nature and industry in America. The wildness and beauty that awed the first settlers some 400 years ago eventually powered the mills, farms and factories that produced clothes, food, steel and electricity, a robust international trade and a large and solid middle class. But along the way, the mighty frontier that helped forge American enterprise and character fell victim to an industrial fervor that seemed, at every turn, to sacrifice natural resources for financial gain. The power and much of the breathtaking natural beauty of our national rivers survives today only in isolated patches, and then just barely. “Our tools are better than we are,” wrote the late naturalist Aldo Leopold in his 1949 environmental classic A Sand County Almanac. “They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” As my great grandmother, Emily Sullivan, liked to say: “Don’t shit in the nest.” The Passaic River is an object lesson in what can happen when we ignore that simple, salty advice.

The Passaic changes character in the Lower Valley portion of its run. Above its mouth in Newark Bay, the Dundee Dam crosses the river. The Passaic is freshwater above the dam. Below, the river becomes a swirl of freshwater and seawater whose salinity varies with conditions of weather, river flow and ocean tide. Water levels in the river fluctuate about five feet with each daily tide. During extreme high tides, the Passaic can rise as much as eleven feet. When conditions are right—a high tide during the dry summer season, for instance—the tongue of saltwater from Newark Bay can lick the Dundee Dam, a full 17 miles upstream.

The tide was going out on the day the football player lost his helmet. I remember the river receding as we played on the Homelite field that afternoon. I imagine the white helmet drifting down through the lighter layer of fresh water, then farther still through the heavier salt layer, until it reached the river’s mucky bottom. It may be there still, buried like dioxin beneath two generations of mud and silt. Or maybe the tide took the helmet with it, out to sea.

The Aqua Patio passengers were all quieter on the return trip, even Bill and Andy. I wondered what everyone would take away from this experience. Andy used the Passaic River cruises to shake people up, open their eyes, confront them with the tragedy and the possibility of the Passaic. Later that summer, he would take the mayors of Newark and Harrison out on the river. Baykeeper hosts cruises for local business leaders, for the press and for the general public too.

“Our job is to make advocates of people,” said Andy. He was giving me a lift back to my car, steering his Subaru Outback slowly along the paved streets that wind through the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners’ plant from the riverside dock to the parking lot at the main entrance. “Remember Moby Dick?” he asked, out of the blue. “The first chapter is all about Manhattan. When industry and pollution kind of took the water away from people, the people responded appropriately: they turned their backs on the waterway and took on other interests. Same thing with the Passaic. When the Passaic became foul, when it was no longer a place to picnic and boat and swim, it became less known to everyone except the people who worked on it. And those people used it as a highway and a toilet, and when it started to smell bad and people started to hear warnings about it, the Passaic became an unknown place.”

I left Andy standing in the parking lot, deep in conversation with the two environmental engineers from the cruise. I tooted the horn and waved to them as I passed through the gates and out of the plant. Then I fished my rumpled directions from the glove compartment and followed them backwards to my brother Paul’s house in Cranford, where I always crash when I’m visiting New Jersey. We call it the Cranford Hilton.

My maiden voyage on the Passaic River had the desired effect. Andy would have been pleased. I didn’t get over my fear of the river. But after the boat ride that fear mingled with curiosity and a kind of compassion. The river had touched me. Look at me, it seemed to say. Listen.

The lower Passaic has been unknown and unloved for more than a century now. That’s a long, sad estrangement from the two generations of New Jerseyites who live on and near its shores. But unknown is not unknowable. Unloved is not unlovable. Driving back to Cranford that evening, I decided to kayak down the Passaic. Paddling its length seemed like a good way to get reacquainted. It was time I got to know my hometown river.

1 U.S. Geological Survey, West Trenton, New Jersey, 2011.

2 From In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams, 1956.

From "An American River" by Mary Bruno. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Dewitt Press.

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