When you drive the New Jersey Turnpike through Linden and Elizabeth, the oil refineries whip past your windows in gray flashes. If you’re heading northbound at night, the Linden Cogeneration Plant rises out of the swamps, a tangle of spidery wires, spindles and smokestacks strung and woven through the darkness. An eternal flame burns atop one of the smokestacks on the southbound side, a lighthouse guiding us toward oblivion.
The sites fill you with an overwhelming sense of dread that we’ve so tortured the earth and the water that they are no longer earth or water. They are just like the gray, indiscernible, fleeting masses of the refineries. They have become their creator.
If you look up, though, as your car hurtles through space, you’ll see jets queuing up to land at EWR. The spectacle lifts you from the gloom. Somehow, you think, we’ve managed to master flight. Surely we can straighten this mess out, if we want to.
Your head swims with the comings and goings of the passengers traveling twice your speed overhead. Their arrivals and departures whisper about the possibility of better places in better times.
But anyone who has flown into EWR will tell you that it’s no better up there. After hours of breathing in your fellow passengers’ farts, you look out through a dingy window to see a dingy horizon on the other side of the dingy Arthur Kill. In the middle of the Arthur Kill, beside one of the Linden refineries, is an island that bares the name of some distant relative who used to farm salt hay there in a time when salt hay was more useful than petroleum. Only birds live there now.
And maybe that’s it, you think, as you watch that appendix-shaped spit of land flicker and fade into the night as it’s swept under the jet’s wing.
Winter has given way. The nesting birds are sleeping just above the gray waterline in the meadowlands. You think, maybe there’s still hope for this species, too.