Musings on Swamps, Whales, and Rats

May 25, 2004

The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, and Rats by Robert Sullivan

Introduction

JOANNE BAUER: We are delighted to have author Bob Sullivan with us. I can't believe that in just a few years, you have published three fascinating books, The Meadowlands in 1998, A Whale Hunt in 2000, and then most recently Rats.

Let me read the blurb on the back of The Meadowlands to give you a feel for the kind of work that Bob does:

Imagine a grand New Jersey version of John McPhee's classic The Pine Barrens and you'll get some idea of the idiosyncratic, fact-filled, and highly original work that is Robert Sullivan's The Meadowlands. Just five miles west of New York City, this vilified, half-developed, half-untamed, much dumped on, and sometimes odoriferous tract of swampland is home to rare birds and missing bodies, tranquil marshes and a major sports arena, burning garbage dumps and corporate headquarters, the remains of the original Penn Station and maybe—just maybe—of the late Jimmy Hoffa. Robert Sullivan proves himself to be this fragile, yet amazingly resilient, region's perfect explorer, historian, archaeologist, and comic bard.

I'm very pleased to turn the podium over to Bob Sullivan.

Remarks

ROBERT SULLIVAN: Thank you for inviting me this evening. I am honored that you would think of me and environmental ethics at the same time.

My plan was to talk you through what I was thinking in writing those three books, because they always end up in nature sections and they're called "environmental books."

My reaction is, "No, that's not what they are: they're not nature books; they're not environmental books. They're about us; they're about people."

The last book, Rats, is sadly, pathetically, psychologically deficiently, a reaction to that. I thought: "Okay, if you're going to call me a nature writer, I'll show you."

My first book as Joanne said is The Meadowlands. I just have my two notes on this and my other book [on whales and whaling]. I have written down here "maligned landscape."

I was born on the island of Manhattan; grew up in Queens; and then went to high school in New Jersey. When you go to high school in New Jersey, and you get old enough to drive, you come into New York City to Madison Square Gardens to hear Yes play.

When you drive to the Yes concert or to watch the Rangers play, you go over the Meadowlands. You go over this horrible place that's really smelly and disgusting. Every joke about New Jersey is really a joke about the Meadowlands. They say, "What exit are you?"—and that's about the Meadowlands. And they say, "Oh, New Jersey smells and it's industrial," and that's about the Meadowlands.

You've just learned how to drive, and invariably you think you'll find a quicker way, or your father tells you a quicker way, and you end up down in the swamps. It's an area full of fascinating, industrial ruins. Industrial ruins are more hip now than when I wrote the book.

You're driving over this maligned landscape all the time, and then you mature. You live in Brooklyn, and you get married, and your wife is about to have a child. She ends up going to New Jersey to give birth, even though you live in Brooklyn. You've been taking her to the Meadowlands a lot on weekends to look at the ruins, take pictures, walk around and explore.

The doctor asks, "How are you going to get here from Brooklyn?" And you say, "Oh, don't worry, doctor, I have a shortcut through the Meadowlands. I can get here off the highways—I can do it in forty-five minutes." And then the doctor induces your wife, doesn't let her leave the hospital.

Next you move to Portland, Oregon, where your wife is from. I'd been writing stories for The New Yorker. We had a baby, and I was wheeling around with the stroller and writing stories. We were pretty much evicted from our Brooklyn residence.

So we went to Oregon—I'd never been west of eastern Pennsylvania. It was supposed to be cheap in Oregon.

I try to blend in quickly; I walk to work in camping gear. I get a little office downtown. I become a foreign correspondent for all my friends in New York, all the editors I know. "Oh, you live in Oregon. Can you get to Nevada by this afternoon?"

But it's really exciting. When I was writing the Rats book, I realised that the word "reverence" comes from a Greek word that combines fear and awe. And I think of my Pop, who instilled reverence for the countryside in us kids, and of Edmund Burke's essay on the sublime and the beautiful and the terrible, and there's fear and respect in there.

Anyway, I go to Oregon, start hiking, love it—camp, hike, camp, drink out of a camping coffee cup.

Four times a year I went up on the same trail on the mountain, on Mount Hood. I would get to the top, look out on the landscape, and say, "This is so beautiful. What am I missing?"

I realized I was missing the Meadowlands. I wanted to see the Meadowlands. So I went back to New Jersey and started to check it out.

Then I was writing articles, and I thought, "I should write a book because people will think I'm never going to accomplish anything."

Then I started thinking, "Everybody here is trying to find this wild place that nobody has been to. They're trying to do first ascents in the Olympic Peninsula. Or I knew a guy who was flying to Afghanistan to do his first ascent there. And people were saying things like, "We've found a really pristine, untouched spot in the Willamette Valley."

Then finally I decided: "I'm going to the Meadowlands and I'm bringing a canoe, as well as some water purifiers, and my friend Dave from high school and I will go check it out." Actually, there was a line around the block to go with me, people were so excited about the idea that you would go to a polluted swamp.

So Dave and I went there, and basically I pretended I was an explorer in a National Geographic documentary. And I was thinking I needed some cred—not street cred, of course, more like explorer cred—and then I realized I've got it, because Dave is related to Meriwether Lewis! So I'm out in New Jersey with Meriwether Lewis. And I looked at this place that everybody hated and tried to figure out what the story was.

An interesting thing about pristine wilderness is that it doesn't have a story. It's out of context somehow; it's not a part of us. You almost go there because it doesn't have a story.

So what's the story of the Meadowlands, what are the stories that nobody wants to hear? I used to joke that the Nibelungenlied, or epic tale, of the Meadowlands is the Jimmy Hoffa story. I did find a guy who had videotaped the construction of the end zone of the Giants Stadium, where he is rumored to have been buried.

So I went through the story of why people might think he was buried there: why is Jimmy Hoffa always talked about? This is a story that sounds ridiculous. On the other hand, the FBI staked out this plot of land for weeks and weeks.

It was a burning dump for years. The Pulaski Skyway, which goes over the Meadowlands, almost came down because the dump was on fire. They had to hire a firm, which I'm sure is now part of Halliburton or Boots & Coots, to come up from Texas to put out the fire in the Meadowlands.

Why did the fire start? Because it was a swamp. They put garbage in swamps. Why do they put garbage in swamps? Because nobody likes swamps. And it's the great ecological joke on you because as it turns out, the swamp—not that any one part of it, but this huge estuary—is a cleansing place, a place where everything is reborn. In decay, in death, comes new life. And so the joke's on you. You threw the garbage and you threw the five-gallon drums of benzene in the swamp. So I went in and checked this story out. And here's my theme poem for it:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.1

It's written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose nature journals are just extraordinary—describing the steam on his chocolate, before he even goes out to look at the clouds.


And my theme line is from Al McClure, Animal Control Officer, Health Department, Secaucus, New Jersey, whom I met one day walking around the Meadowlands. He said, "I'll tell you one thing. If you dig out here, you sure as heck are going to find something."

Those were the two themes for my book. The idea from Hopkins, that there's a freshness even in this most trod-upon land, even in this most maligned land. Just because it's maligned doesn't mean it doesn't have a story.

So I fleshed out the Jimmy Hoffa story. There was another story that interested me: a spot in the middle of the swamp called "Walden's Swamp" on the maps. We went out there, and it turns out it's not land; it's phragmites.

Phragimites [an invasive type of reed] are a big issue. Should you plant them or not? In the Meadowlands they try to plant spartina grass, but on the West Coast, like in Willapa Bay, Oregon, I did a big story on how they wanted to get rid of it, because they don't like it.

My second book is The Whale Hunt, written totally by accident. The New York Times called me up and said, "You're near Neah Bay, right?"—which I had actually just heard about on the radio.

A native American tribe called the Makah lives there. Their real name is "wih-dich-chuh-ahtx." Makah means "people of the cape." Makah is the name that they were given by the American translator because the Indian guy they were traveling with said, "They're people who are generous with food."

I heard about this tribe that had hunted whales years and years ago, but nobody remembered for sure how.

I love small towns, and I feel that even New York City is a small town disguised as a big city. I can walk out the door and run into somebody. I can run into somebody in eight million people.

When I heard about Neah Bay, I thought, this is a small town of only a thousand people. They used to hunt whales, and they don't know how to do it any more, but they're going to try to do it. The whales are back off the endangered species list and they say it's okay to try. Maybe some people are saying that they could try to hunt whales because that was their culture, that was their economy, that was their religion, everything about this tribe had to do with whales. Pretty interesting stuff.

We'd lived on the West Coast now for about eight years. My wife grew up on West Coast Indian stories. If you were going to have somebody copyright nature and logo nature, you would hire the northwest coast Indians, because they have the coolest designs. They are so stylized, so beautiful and so beyond anything that Disney puts out.

To make a short story unbearably long, an editor calls me and says, "Why don't you run up there and do a story? Take your time. Take a week, take two weeks."

It was an amazing drive out to the very northwest tip of the continental United States. The land comes to a little point, and right off the point there's an island, which is like the exclamation point dot on America.

I drove through town, I walked to the end of this hill, and I looked out on the end of the world. A thousand people, 75 percent unemployment, a town where you could just say, "I've got to go meet somebody, I've got to find them," and you go down at noon and see them.

It was just a great place and a tough place and a sad place and a beautiful place. I took a week, I took two weeks, and then I said, "Give me a month."

A year went by. I was originally supposed to write 3,000 words, which is nothing—it amounted to what I spent on gas four months ago; forget about money at this point. I wrote a story about how this tribe is saying that in a couple of weeks they're going to try hunting a whale.

Then I go away, and come back the week that they're going to hunt a whale, and everybody in the media world is there. The town is "live on CNN, all the time." The Today Show is buying the whaling crew steaks, trying to get in good with them. And everybody is thinking they've got the exclusive story. They're trying to get interviews with everybody in town, a town of a thousand people. You can talk to pretty much everybody in a week.

Then the most amazing thing happened. With cameras poised on them, they did not hunt a whale. I would argue that to not do something in front of cameras in the United States of America today is one of the most amazing triumphs you could ever come up with. They did not hunt a whale.

There were all kinds of people coming in to protest them from out of town saying, "Native Americans wouldn't do this. You're not real Native Americans." People in town started saying, "I don't want to do it anyway." Nobody knew what was going on.

It came down to this: the captain of the whale hunt and the people were saying, "it's not spiritually pure."

In the end, I was very happy because I had the chance to write the opposite of Moby Dick.

Moby Dick begins very slowly, an amazing first paragraph about a guy just feeling down and out and going to sea. It begins slowly, with an accumulation of the tale: the tale, the tale, the tale, building and building and building, building to a crescendo, to the stage of cymbals clashing—Ahab and his anger at the whale, with Starbuck's conscience in his eyes, the cymbals clashing. In the end, it all goes down, and one person, Ishmael, lives to tell the tale.

In my book they had the cymbals in their museum, they knew what they were, they had the songs; but they had to flesh out the details and they had to ride around with a Xerox from a historical manual saying, "Okay, apparently we have to identify the main whaler—Wayne, pull up over here because we've got to get Donny—because we have to go back to figure out the ceremonial side of things." And they didn't know what to do.

It was like coming up to somebody who was Irish Catholic and saying, "Apparently we used to do something that was called communion. It was at a Mass. I don't know what a Mass is, but we want you to do it, you're in charge of doing it, and nobody really wants you to do this, and it's going to be live on the 11:00 o'clock news, so good luck to you."

I was happy that my whale that I wrote about was not a white whale. It did not symbolize everything so clearly as that whiteness of the whale does. In fact, it was gray. It was gray, gray, gray, and you couldn't know it was gray. The whalers sat there and people said, "It doesn't mean anything to them" and "Look at them, they're laughing"; alternatively, people could say, "I think it meant something to them."

Instead of Ishmael being the one person surviving to tell the story, there were so many people to tell the story. Everybody sitting at home in Portland watching on the news, or in Washington, D.C., tuning in and watching everything on C-SPAN, could say, "I saw it, I know what happened," or "I read about it, I know what happened." A million, a billion stories, as many as you wanted there to be. So it was the opposite of Moby Dick.

As I said before, my books keep ending up in the nature sections, but they're not nature books: they're about people. Nobody is looking for books about polluted swamps in the nature section, and nobody wanted to read The Whale Hunt because everybody already had their mind made up. My mother maybe read it. I'm not sure.

And finally, Rats, and then I'll leave you alone.

What's the thing that nobody thinks is natural? What's the creature that people have a problem with? Of course it's rats.

I was in Chicago on what my kids call the "Rats over America Book Tour," and I'm in downtown Chicago on the lake, and there's a big giant building with a giant whale, the Whaling Wall of Chicago. It's a white whale in the middle of Chicago. I'm thinking, "When was the last time a white whale was here?" I know from geology that parts of the Great Plains were under water, but it was a long time ago.

I'm thinking, "When did we go from being a whaling nation, a nation whose first great global business was whaling, to being the nation that wants to swim with cetaceans, swim with dolphins—and what's the creature we don't want to swim with?" And of course it's rats.

And then, while I was out with exterminators at a big convention getting some hours towards a possible license in Illinois for pest control, I met a guy who said, "I have some big clients." He started naming a list of clients that any pest control person would be proud to have, and then ends by saying, "And also this particular animal rights group."

I said, "I happen to know that the ASPCA in New York here, when they trap mice, release them outside the building. I also know mice will come back up to about a quarter mile. So they'll probably come right back." I asked, "So what about these animal rights people?"

He said, "No. I was talking about rats with this animal rights group, not mice."

I said, "What do they do with the rats? Do they trap and release them?"

He said, "No, they're rats." So that's it, there it was, the line in the creature sand.

Thoreau is completely misread in a general way—he's thought of as a guy who went out to nature to get away from it all, to be in the wilderness. He didn't go to be away from it all. He went to nature to think about how he was living in society, how we live in society. He looked at the concept of wilderness, but he applied it to how we live amongst ourselves, with people. Plus he would go to the tavern every night.

So I thought, "Okay, I'll take Thoreau and I'll do a 'rat alley' thing'—I'll build myself a little place in this rat alley." In all the reviews that I have thankfully gotten, everybody says, "This book has no structure at all"—not everybody says that; a couple of people say it (okay, like two people, but, you know, I'm sensitive).

What they don't realize is that the whole thing is a bad parody, a bad joke, on Thoreau. Emerson wrote about him, "In the end, he loved any plot of land that he was standing on. No plot of land pleased him more than the plot of land he was standing on, this little acre of moss."

This was it: can you stand in an alley in New York, in the most disgusting, despised place you can find, the most forgotten place?

The guy who originally owned my alley—which was called Eden's Alley, I'm not kidding, and it was rat-infested when we found it—sounds like a crummy landlord. Mr. Medseth Eden preyed on bankruptcy in the early 1700s. He owned two pieces of land, including this gross, disgusting, unknown, nobody-cares-about Eden's Alley down by the South Street Seaport in New York.

I love the Seaport because its geography reflects the history of the city and its natural history as well. For instance, Wall Street is called Wall Street because there really was a wall there, and it was there because right next to it is Maiden Lane, which is named for the stream that the maidens washed in, and you could see the bend in the stream off Wall Street when you go there.

My alley was once a hill. You can see it after a while, but not until you sit there for six months and recognize a rat as it goes down into this giant hole, and you can't figure out why the hole looks giant until you realize it's because you're on a damn hill.

I sat in the alley for a year, watched rats, read as much as I could about rats. They did what I read they were going to do in the papers. But I really ended up watching the habitat of rats, which is the city. If a grizzly bear is an indicator of wildness in some sense, so the rat is an indicator of people, of humans, of city life.

Rats clearly have a bad reputation; there's no question about that. I think that the reason we don't like rats is because they so expertly, so perfectly, point out exactly how vile we humans are.

Emerson wrote of Thoreau, "I think his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord did not grow out of any ignorance or depreciation of other longitudes or latitudes, but was rather a playful expression of his conviction of the indifferency of all places and that the best place for each is where he stands. He expressed it once in this wise quote: 'I think nothing is to be hoped from you if this bit of mold under your feet is not sweeter to you to eat than any other in this world or in any world.'"

The other poem that got me was "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Walt Whitman, because if you look at hundreds of rats running around the alley, and then you come up on this subway stop at Sixty-eighth Street at rush hour and see all the people herding down into a single file, then these lines from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" really get you:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
...
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.

So that's how I did Rats.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: So where have they put your rats book?

ROBERT SULLIVAN: It's in the nature section. It's also on the history table, and I'm happy to say it is just out in front.

They thought it wouldn't sell at all, so they paid me accordingly, which is fine. But it's fun to hear people say how surprised they are at the book. They say, "I can't believe people are buying that book about rats." Then again, I was in San Francisco the other day and I saw three businessmen dressed for work—they were all in suits; and one of them had a white handkerchief out and he was trying to help this rat that was stuck in the sewer out of the sewer—and you can't believe you're hearing this story.

QUESTION: Thank you for restoring Thoreau. If you go to the cemetery where Emerson and Thoreau are buried, there are no notes or mementoes to Emerson. But Thoreau's grave is piled with little personal notes under stones. I think you surmised the reason for this.

QUESTION: The next time you hang out in the alleys, make a documentary film about it.

ROBERT SULLIVAN: They always want me to put pictures in my books. I wish somebody could have done a documentary film on the whale hunt.

I still think about the rats coming towards us. A guy who lived in the alley was showing us how he had control of them, and he did: he arranged it so that they all came towards us. They were going to cut into a lot and go down into a hole, but we didn't know this. We moved closer together, and I remember thinking, "So this is what it's like to be burned at the stake," as the rats got closer.

There were also lots of times when people would come into the alley and they wouldn't see me. I would see them because I was hanging out in the alley; but I was afraid that I would startle them and then they would kill me.

We did try to live-trap the rats at one point, and didn't do a good job of that. Later, though, I went out with the Health Department and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  After September 11th, they were worried about plague as a bioterrorism tool.

They wanted to take blood tests from the rats alive and keep them alive—so it was a great situation where my rat-trapping needs and my government's rat-trapping needs coincided.

But the other thing that was amazing was one night in the spring towards the end of my research, there were a lot of rats out on the cobblestones, which incidentally came from lots of other places as ballast in ships.

A lot of times I would take measure of the rat vis-a-vis the cobblestone, and the cobblestone-sized rat was a general-sized rat. One night I asked, "What is that between the cobblestones?" It was a rat crawling up out of the cobblestones. And wild rats are disgusting; I wouldn't want to take them home with me.

Wild rats versus pet rats is a popular question on the Rats over America Book Tour. Not in New York, not in Washington, not in Chicago, not in other cities—but as soon as I got to Berkeley and Pasadena, people brought pictures and stories of their pet rats and I had to explain to them the difference.

Wild rats, pet rats, Tattus norvegicus, Norway rats—they're all the same species. But pet rats are bred. Right at the beginning of the book I say, "This is about wild rats, not about pet rats." I'll tell one quick story about how rats may have come to be bred as pets. I think that it comes from Jack Black, who, aside from being a well-known movie star today, was the rat catcher to Queen Victoria. Jack Black set aside rats as he caught them, rats that he liked. There was a trend that started in Victorian England where women began keeping rats as pets, thus beginning the so-called "fancy rat" craze. I love the term "fancy rat" for its oxymoronic nature. One of the collectors at the time that Jack Black gave to was the children's writer Beatrix Potter.

Black then sent a whole bunch of albino rats to "scientists in France"—that's how it was phrased. Now, the Wistar rat, which is an early prototype lab rat, was bred by scientists in France.

Recently, a guy came to me and he said, "My wife got these albino rats from 9/11. They were refugees of the Towers. They were saved. They were pet rats. She took them home. She works for the ASPCA. She cared for them. She had them in a cage and brought them home."

They live in Bedford Stuyvesant, which is a tough neighborhood. They brought the rats home, and they soon died of cancer because bred rats get tumors easily.

The boyfriend felt bad. The boyfriend was walking home one night, empty cage, walking home, sees some rats on the ground, grabs a juvenile rat, can't believe how feisty it is, brings it home, puts it in a cage, begins to feed the rat. The rat grows. They're noticing they can't cuddle him and pet him.

They keep feeding the rat. The rat grows. Now when they go to pet the rat he says it's like trying to pet a piranha—you put your hand in the tank and it's like you can't pull it out.

So now they came to me kind of in a frenzy, as if I'm going to be able to help them. They said, "We want to release the rat, but we're afraid to let it out. We're afraid it's going to come at us. It's huge now and we don't know what to do."

So the wild rat and the pet rat are very different. I always say it's a case of the same species raised in different circumstances so that they come out completely differently, kind of like Europeans and Americans.

QUESTION: I understand that at restaurants, when they send out inspection teams they send them in Armani suits so as not to frighten the customers.

ROBERT SULLIVAN: The rat guys that I know do not wear Armani suits. They're not worried about freaking out a restaurant because they want the restaurant to be freaked out.

In Washington D.C., they just started sending in rat inspectors for the city at night, which if you think about it makes total sense, because rats aren't out in the day unless there's a really bad problem.

A lot of the private pest control people, exterminators, when they go to the four-star restaurants, the big restaurants, the big hotels, they're explicitly instructed to not wear anything indicating their firm.

I saw the movie Spy Game awhile ago, with Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, where Pitt is a CIA agent. Redford spends the last day of his career trying to get Brad Pitt out because he has been caught behind enemy lines, and they found out that he's a spy, and the American government is denying that he's a spy for them. It's the same thing with pest control guys in restaurants.

The nice restaurants, if there's construction in the neighborhood, they have the city inform them about it in case it brings rats out into the open, and they will do pest control before the construction.

If you want more rats, you should poison them, because the rats that remain will produce more rats; they will be larger and have—and I love this word applied in this habitat—larger litters. So there will be an even bigger problem.

As it turns out, it's all about garbage. If you get rid of the garbage, you get rid of the rats. In fact, rats end up eating rats.

After [rodent control expert] Dave Davis retired he wrote an unpublished paper that looked at the Enlightenment from the point of view of food sources. He showed that we had this creative outburst because we had a large food supply, and then he drew a parallel with today, as we have so many resources now. He cites another researcher who filled a room with wild rats and fed them garbage. Then he took the garbage away and watched them fight and kill each other. And Davis believes that humans will do exactly the same thing when their resources begin to run out. Rat studies and population studies are not so far apart as you may think.

QUESTION: Speaking about a rat of another kind, what is the story of Jimmy Hoffa? Was he there?

ROBERT SULLIVAN: They thought he was in one dump, and they staked it out for a long time. But it could have been a loan shark that was related to Jimmy Hoffa who was living there.

In the back of somebody's car, they found blood and hair and everything. But the son-in-law had a great story—said he had just come back from "cleaning salmon."

As much as it's a joke, it's relevant to the Meadowlands. Likewise, Secaucus, which is at the center of the Meadowlands, is a place that was a pig farm, and it easily segued into a garbage dump when they got rid of the pigs. There was a time when Johnny Carson could say "Secaucus" on "The Late Show," and people would just break into hysterics, because the place smelled so bad.

I get this perverse thing where if people hate it, then I love it all the more.

It's bad to say we're all like rats. I'm not trying to say blatantly we're all like rats, but to be honest, I love thinking that we're all like rats.

One of my favorite writers is Ian Frazier— you may have read his book Great Plains.  He wrote a collection of stories, the title story of which is about Ann Landers, whose parents always said to her, "Nobody better, better than nobody."

That's the way it is with rats and humans, too. You're just a rat—and you're a rat.

 


1"God's Grandeur," Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89). Poems. 1918.[ BACK]

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