There’s that feeling—you know it—when the electricity comes back—a light switches on, the refrigerator starts humming, that annoying generator belonging to the people up the street finally stops roaring, you can recharge your phone—and it’s like magic, like a blessing bestowed out of the blue: light, preservation, communication–all that was missing for an hour or an evening or more.
This happens most often after a power overload, or a transformer giving out, or some sort of storm; maybe something you’ve experienced before, But sometimes, something more...dire, or unexpected, or extreme. Things happen, and what comes after is changed. Events occur that alter the land—and what can exist on it.
A couple years ago, I was home in the southernmost end of New Jersey, and my neighborhood was hit by what I thought might be my first tornado, though the National Weather Service determined it to be a “microburst.” The roar was so loud that I didn’t hear an enormous tree snap behind us and fall into my backyard. The wind flipped planes at a nearby airport, blew boats onto land, ripped roofs off buildings. Hurricanes are fairly normal along the Jersey shore; weather events that act like tornados, however we label them, are not.
There are things that leave before we can get to them. And then there are other things that are left behind.
Several years before, I read that there was going to be a dinosaur park near Snake Hill in the Hackensack Meadowlands. A dinosaur park, it turned out, was not a place where dinosaurs go to picnic and commune with nature, nor a place where actual dinosaurs had left evidence of themselves. Instead, it was a set of installations of large robotic dinosaurs, along with some educational films and signs.
Snake Hill, itself, is that odd mountain that juts out of the middle of the Meadowlands, those wetlands and brownfields that stretch across much of the northeast corner of New Jersey, across from New York City. The hill is a geological anomaly, an island of magma jutting hundreds of feet above the silt and salt hay of the swamps below it. Prudential’s “Rock of Gibraltar” logo was supposedly modeled after it. If you’ve ever driven or taken a train to New York City from the west, you’ve probably seen it out the windows. If you fly into Newark Liberty, your flight path passed close by.
It is a prehistoric kind of place, once you ignore the infrastructure knotted all around it—train lines, two spurs of the New Jersey Turnpike, other highways, runway landing towers, radio towers, warehouses, etc.—so I guess it made sense to set up an animatronic world of dinosaurs there. A place to bring the kids who’ve grown up on Jurassic Park remakes. My own children are grown, and I hadn’t had a pressing need to go there, but I’d been thinking about it for a while. Because I like the reedy wastelands of the Meadowlands. Because it was dinosaurs. Because it’s such a New Jersey idea.
Then Hurricane Sandy hit, and now the dinosaurs have moved on. I missed my chance.
Dinosaurs in New Jersey are not that unusual.
We used to dig for them behind my the elementary school in Poricy Creek, better known as Fossil Creek. Our teachers would take us down a path that traversed slippery banks of red clay, to reach the stream at the bottom of the hill. I remember sloshing through the shallow water, someone holding up a tube of stony material that we were told was the vertebra of, something, millions of years ago.
The creek, back then, was a place people in the area went to have a look around. Now it’s a “Park” with signs and rangers and tours. The website clearly acknowledges that most of the fossils found are of shellfish because that area was underwater millions of years ago (and may be again, in the near-distant future.) And yet, right under that disclosure, it displays a video of animated brontosaurs, pterodactyls, and other crowd pleasers. As if, with any luck, you might stumble across an intact velociraptor skeleton.
So, there are dinosaurs, and there are dinosaurs. And there’s where the water was, and where it is now, and where it might someday be.
Things get buried a lot in New Jersey. Not just dinosaurs.
The buried things that cause the most problems are not named, or marked, or acknowledged, at least not without a fight. Ask the residents near the banks of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, which flow near and through the Meadowlands, about what’s been buried there—dioxin and Agent Orange and all the rest of the chemical leftovers from one of the places where modern industry began on this continent.
Ask the families in Toms River—their story has been told now, in Dan Fagin’s award-winning book by that name– but it began many years earlier, long before the childhood brain tumors cluster. When what was buried started to bleed into what was extracted. In this case, toxic chemicals into the town’s drinking water.
Ask the folks in Essex County whose homes were built on landfill brought from the site of a watch factory, soil contaminated with the radium used to make watch faces glow. Soil that itself glowed almost literally with deadly radon gas—a neighborhood turned into a Superfund site, houses evacuated for years while new dirt was trucked in to replace the excavated fill. New dirt. Think about that. The dirt of people’s yards, the soil that grew their grass, that their kids played on, that cradled the foundations of their homes, was poisonous and had to be replaced.
New Jersey is the fourth smallest state in the US. It is number one in Superfund sites. Living in this state, we have to care where the bones are buried. Our environmental protections have historically been among the strongest in the country, exactly on account of our dismal history. But that history is embedded in our DNA. Sometimes literally.
There are more exciting dinosaur excavations, past and present, in this state. The first virtually complete dinosaur skeleton in the world was dug up in New Jersey, the Hadrosaurus, discovered in Haddonfield in 1858. So yeah, this is a thing we do. This Hadrosaurus has always been displayed out of New Jersey, in Philadelphia. Which is where, according to Bruce Springsteen, they blew up the Chicken Man. That line starts the song “Atlantic City,” and if you want to see New Jersey’s contemporary dinosaurs, the place to go is the Atlantic City boardwalk, lined with the hulks of casinos which are dead or dying, mired in the tar pits of recession, and expanded gambling everywhere else.
The media like to call it “Superstorm Sandy.” I’m not sure that is an official weather category. “Hurricane” seems appropriately disastrous. And it was—killing scores of residents, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, causing widespread power outages, flooding, environmental damage, and long term economic hardship.
Sandy was not a typical hurricane, if such a word as “typical” can be used for weather events of that magnitude. But in these days of warming climate, it is already seeming more typical, as unprecedented storms like Harvey and Maria appear with increasing frequency. Sandy wreaked destruction not just along the Atlantic Coast, but along the Jersey Bayshore south of New York City, and up the rivers—the Raritan and the Hudson and, yes, up into the Meadowlands, where a levee in the floodgate system that controls the wetlands was breeched by the tidal surge, causing thousands to flee the sudden inundation.
The winds destroyed trees and houses and electric wires—and the dinosaur exhibit in the shadow of Snake Hill. The one I never made the time to see.
In the chorus of the song, Springsteen sings, “Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact/
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” But, I’m not sure about that. Judging by the song’s tone, I am not sure Bruce is, either.
I lose electricity for a day because of the recent microburst. My phone, is, naturally, low on battery. My “prehistoric” land line comes in handy. I have some nifty solar lanterns that give a beautiful, defuse glow, perfect for reading by. Toward evening, I open the refrigerator just long enough to get out some bread and wine.
In the late afternoon, the storm past, I take a bike ride to check on the local damage. A few blocks away, I hear a motor running, and figure it’s someone cutting up a fallen tree already, or maybe a generator, powering someone’s home. But then I see the guy coming up the street, object in his hand, and I realize he’s carrying a gas-powered leaf blower, fossil-fueled—that other legacy the dinosaurs left for us—and he’s raking it back and forth, herding the leaves that have been stripped from the many fallen trees and branches, scattering the appearance of calamity, but not the fact of it.
Leslie Doyle lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Front Porch, Gigantic Sequins, MARY (winner of their Editor’s Fiction Prize), Electric Literature, Fiction Southeast (finalist for the Hell’s Belle’s Prize for Short Fiction), The Forge, The Fourth River, Signal Mountain Review, The Peauxdunque Review, and elsewhere.