Proposal • Robert Sullivan
A proposal to complete Nancy Holt’s unfinished land art work Sky Mound
I went out on the Hackensack River in a friend’s boat recently. We put in at a spot on the southern tip of the island-in-the-marshes that is the town of Secaucus, the very same spot I had put in twenty years before, on my very first time paddling out into the Meadowlands. The New Jersey Turnpike marches out from a beat-up hill in Secaucus, crossing high over the water, the freeway a gigantic bolt of concrete and steel. Just like two decades ago, out on the dark and beautiful tidal river, the low, flat, estuarine infinity feels more like a passage through an open prairie than through the clogged arterials of the East Coast’s traffic. Also like twenty years ago, we could hear the morning rush-hour traffic thundering above us, oblivious to us and to what it was we were paddling out to see from the water: the legendary Sky Mound, the late Nancy Holt’s unfinished land art masterpiece.
To me, the modern Meadowlands are themselves a masterpiece of environmental activism. The swampy bottom of an old glacial lake that edges fourteen separate municipalities, the Meadowlands attracted dumping and spilling and polluting for centuries. By 1969, the year the state of New Jersey formed the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, or hmdc, the swamps and marshes were a hell on earth: dumps burning household waste from all over the region, noxious wastes illegally dumped. Over the next two decades, the hmdc enacted a regional plan that made other states jealous. It was a time when New Jersey had a reputation as an eco-pioneer. The most densely populated state, notorious for its refinery-oriented turnpike views, New Jersey is still close to two-thirds rural.
Nancy Holt’s Sky Mound was—in a very literal way—a centerpiece of these New Jersey-led efforts to re-see our landscape in terms of rivers and streams and watersheds. In 1986, the hmdc reached out to Holt. She proposed converting the fifty-seven-acre landfill into a park. (Her proposal precedes by decades Freshkills, the Staten Island dump-turned-park in the tidal marshes that are a southern extension of the Jersey Meadowlands).
For many reasons, Holt was an inspired choice. She grew up in and around Clifton, New Jersey, in sight of the meadows and, after majoring in biology at Tufts, moved to New York City, falling in with a group of artists that included Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and Michael Heizer. She eventually married and otherwise collaborated with Robert Smithson, the pioneering land-art practitioner who also grew up on the Meadowlands’ edge. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is the poster child for the land art movement: the 1,500-foot-long ring of stones spiraling out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake (inspired in part by the Helix at the Jersey entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel). But nearby in Utah is Holt’s equally dramatic if less well-known work, Sun Tunnels, an orchestration of four nine-foot-wide, eighteen-foot-long concrete cylinders that engage the site visitor with the sky, and more so, with precisely where they are in the world.
Sky Mound is, in state terminology, Landfill 1-A, the first dump that the hmdc officially closed in the Meadowlands. It rises in the awkward rectangle created by the crisscrossing of the New Jersey Turnpike and local highways as well as the tracks that carry New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains across the Hackensack via the beleaguered Portal Bridge, the bridge that in its old age frequently stalls all the East Coast’s rail traffic at once. Holt’s design worked in collaboration with the closure of the landfill, incorporating the shape of the dump as it was sealed. With hmdc engineers and architects, she incorporated the placement of the drains and pipes installed to channel off 1-A’s liquids and gases for treatment or, in the case of methane, energy. Over several years, Holt transformed 1-A into a viewing platform, where, at the top, a visitor came upon a pond, various topographical features, as well as some smaller mounds that would frame a visitor’s sightlines at summer and winter solstices, at equinoxes, at the major standstills of the moon.
It would have, as I see it, worked to alter the perceptions of visitors to the site—who would, for instance, see the skyline of Manhattan as a distant and almost geological note on horizon, and the Hackensack estuary as its center—as well as alter the perceptions of people racing by. On holidays, methane that vented from inside the hill would burn through a metal tower, echoing the refineries just down the turnpike and, like Sky Mound’s other aspects, the earth’s elements, fire, earth, water, land. If you know what you are looking for, you can see Sky Mound today in its unfinished state, from the trains that pass it, from the bus on the New Jersey Turnpike, from a plane as you approach Newark from the sky. “It was going to have millions of visitors per year,” Holt joked in 2013 at a presentation at Princeton University.
For close to a decade, Holt worked with the hmdc, designing and monitoring the artwork as the trash settled, as the mound continued its slow descent into the mire. Then in the mid-nineties, the hmdc changed its mind, and Holt’s plans were put on hold. On this, the fifth anniversary of Nancy Holt’s death, I propose that Sky Mound be completed.
Lately I have come to see the fate of Sky Mound as aligned with the fate of the Meadowlands—and really all of what we have long thought of as our wasted spaces, by which I mean the lands on the edges of our cities that we have traditionally filled in with factories and dumps, with sewage and energy plants, and, most recently, with expensive housing and retail. The hmdc, when it set out, was a national example in how to heal a broken place. Then, in 2015, Governor Chris Christie folded the pioneering commission into the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. More recently, the authority sold off the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute to Rutgers University. Some argue the authority will continue to protect the Meadowlands. It appears to me to have been gutted of its capabilities.
Meanwhile, a few miles away (in the marsh where Holt and Smithson collaborated on another Meadowlands artwork, a film called Swamp), the state aligned itself with a new project, a mega-mall called the American Dream. The mall, first proposed in 2002, went through five governors and nearly as many would-be developers. A giant indoor amusement park was conceived as part of the recent trend in retail toward “customer experiences.” A plan to build over an actual Meadowlands stream with an artificial one was abandoned when an outdoor gear store subsequently pulled out of the deal. Two summers ago, the current governor, Phil Murphy, announced the near completion of American Dream, estimating forty million visitors a year and 16,200 “sustainable” jobs, what he described as “union jobs that can support a family and help secure their place in New Jersey’s middle class and to our goal of long-term economic growth.”
At last, the mall opened in October. A SpongeBob SquarePants roller coaster in the Nickelodeon amusement park is up and running, though the majority of the stores won’t open until next year.
But middle-class communities aren’t going to be saved or sustained by a mall. Even if it does give New Jerseyans something more than part-time work at h&m, or as ticket-takers at the indoor ski slope, our communities are not going to be saved until we rethink how we see where they are and what’s around them. The Meadowlands are the region’s ecological centerpiece, surrounded by the band of hills and low mountains that give drinking water to New York, New Jersey, and southwestern Connecticut. Salt marshes like those in the Meadowlands are among the most ecologically productive landscapes in the North America.
This fall, after Rutgers released a report detailing the cost of rising tides on his state’s economy, Governor Murphy signed an executive order establishing a statewide climate change resiliency strategy. Simultaneously, the American Dream partially opened and New Jersey Transit announced it was interested in hearing from customers about new ideas for how to connect its Secaucus station with the mall, which, by the way, is an easy paddle in good weather from the canoe launch the hmdc helped establish in Secaucus to the one they also built in East Rutherford.
The Meadowlands are on the front lines of climate change. State and federal officials have been working with communities to anticipate the flooding that is shifting from occasional to chronic, and, in doing so, looking at ways to not just preserve but restore wetlands in the area, mitigating floods with green space. At hearings last year (held by the state, under the instigation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition), longtime residents wondered about everything from biodiversity to how the stadiums and the malls should help pay for flood control and prevent development in the wetlands. A woman from Little Ferry, a borough in the Meadowland’s northern reaches, asked how she and her neighbors could stop developers from, in her words, “tearing down things we’re trying to put back in place.”
In answer to her question, the state official offered that most sustainable efforts come from the local community, which brings us back to the matter of seeing where we are, which brings us finally to the work of artists in general and Nancy Holt’s Sky Mound in particular. If you climb up on Landfill 1-A or the hills around it (given that Sky Mound is officially closed to the public), you see, first, that it is most obviously convenient to malls and rail lines and the highway system. But then you begin to see the far hills that surround it. You see that cities mark the bends in the Passaic and the Hackensack. You see where streams end and the vast miniocean that is Newark Bay begins, the bay’s edge marked by the infrastructure of the Port of Elizabeth. You start to see that Sky Mound is the ecological Times Square of the region, the center of an array of rivers and estuaries that run up the coast from New Jersey, through New York, and up the tidal strait called the East River, which connects the estuaries in New York Harbor to Long Island Sound, the endpoint of rivers throughout New England and Canada. All these waters are surrounded by the Highlands, the various hills that enclose the harbors like the bleacher seats in a stadium—and that are the source of drinking water for seven million people in New Jersey, and more in New York and Connecticut.
Sky Mound recenters our region, allowing us to see past state and municipal boundaries to the ways that water runs, water being the key to life, the marshes being the key to restoring the water, nourishing it, keeping it and us healthy. Sky Mound helps us understand that what’s in and around the old dumps on the swampy edges of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut aren’t the ruined back alleys of where we live, but the main life streams that, thanks to regulation and nature’s grit, survive.
I concede that the logistics of reviving Sky Mound are complicated. Its park-like top was covered with solar panels a few years back, among other things. But there is precedent for an Earthwork being posthumously completed, and Nancy Holt was involved. In 2005, in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the Hudson River Park Trust and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, she directed the completion of Floating Island, her husband’s unfinished piece, first sketched in 1970, at the time that Holt and Smithson, who died in 1973, worked in the Great Basin. The thirty-by-ninety-foot barge was landscaped with earth, rocks, and trees and then towed by a tugboat around the island of Manhattan for a week, a floating response to Frederick Law Olmsted’s also entirely man-made Central Park. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, along with perhaps the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and the developers of the American Dream mall, should likewise work to fund the completion of Sky Mound with a tax on ski or surfboard rentals, though environmental awareness pays for itself in the long run. (New York and Connecticut could kick in too, or stop drinking water!) Replacement solar panels might be spread across a New Jersey Transit parking lot or another old dump, or along the roofs of American Dream.
Sky Mound would re-set the region, allowing us all to become the dot on what I think of as the Meadowlands ecological exclamation point, the salt marshes being the reason the region was settled in the first place.
It’s worth noting that the two-acre wheat field planted by Agnes Denes in 1982 on the landfill that eventually became Manhattan’s Battery Park City—a land-art piece, currently being celebrated alongside the rest of Denes work at The Shed, that famously helped people rethink farming and cities in the days before urban gardens were a trend—was eventually harvested, the landfill built over. Meanwhile, Nancy Holt’s landfill is still there.
When I was out in the Meadowlands the other day—looking for watery views of Sky Mound and, in a way, rethinking my own understanding of the art work—we paddled into what’s now called the Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area, a marsh that was blocked up and contained in the 1920s for mosquito control until the system of floodgates and impoundments were broken by a Nor’easter that hit the Mid-Atlantic in 1950. The broken tidal gates that we paddled past were specific reminders of the ways in which building our infrastructure in what were once coastal salt marshes is proving to be disastrous and unsustainable long-term planning.
Then again, the broken impoundments are also illustrations of hope: when the old impoundments were washed away, the marsh’s health began to recover. It transformed from man-made pond back to a place washed by tides, and all the life that has returned thanks to the storm was obvious as we paddled in.
It felt even healthier than the last time we put in in the same spot, twenty years before. It also felt more convenient, given that there was a boat launch. Twenty years ago, people questioned our sanity when we put in at that spot. “Canoeing in the Meadowlands? Are you crazy?” was a refrain I heard repeatedly. Today, there are parks and launches all around the thirty-two-square-mile district. Getting into the water seems more than sane than staying out.
The same goes for completing Sky Mound, which means seeing a monumental state-initiated work of art through to completion, as well as restoring New Jersey’s monumental ecological stewardship. It means realizing that the Meadowlands, like wetlands everywhere, are not at the periphery of our immensely populated region but at the center.
Robert Sullivan’s books include My American Revolution (FSG), Cross Country, and Rats (both Bloomsbury). He teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and is a contributing editor at A Public Space.
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