am able to remember that we are also surrounded by basic elements: earth, sky, sea.
What Lorenz and her handmade rowboat
o=er is a physical experience of a landscape that weaves between the natural and
the artificial; had I not paddled through
the arterial maze of waterways that dissect these mountains of garbage, my arm
muscles would have no knowledge of the
immensity of our daily throwing away.
When we reach the double-parked,
rusted blue barges along the West Mound,
we tie o= our tiny boat and clamber up a
giant tire at the barge’s stern. After three
hours paddling, it takes a minute to shake
my sea legs. In the first barge, a striped
plastic net holds down heaps of milk cartons, memos, cardboard boxes, ice cream
containers, manila envelopes — all en route
to a paper processing plant nearby. Next to
the paper-filled barge sits an empty one,
and we climb its ladders and peer down.
The sheer volume of the hold is astounding. Twenty-five feet deep and hundreds of
feet long, it’s close to a football field in size.
At the height of operations, nearly fifty of
these barges were unloaded here each day.
loREnz AnD I agree that our journey won’t be complete without a stop at
Mound Four, the largest of the man-made
hills of Fresh Kills and the place where
the World Trade Center rubble is buried.
After closing in early 2001, Fresh Kills reopened briefly at the end of that year. No
other place was large enough to accommodate the fallen towers.
The hike up the hill is easy, and the
view from the top spectacular. On every
horizon sits another source of the ground
beneath our feet — the tip-tops of Manhattan’s skyline, the gas tanks of New Jersey,
the shipping barges moving in and out of
the harbor, the smoke stacks, churches,
rows of houses, and even a few fingers of
natural landscape weaving through the
city and the sprawl.
If Fresh Kills says something about us,
the language it speaks doesn’t reside on its
surface. Lorenz and I had to root around
in the bowels of the place, had to see it
through the lens of art, before we finally
came to understand what these mounds
are trying to say: this stu= is us. When
we leave our trash on the curb it does not
magically disappear, nor does it suddenly
become any less our own. Trash in a gar-
bage can, trash in a garbage truck, trash in
a landfill — it’s all ours.
We once believed that our desire to
build higher, to possess more, was with-
out consequence. And even though we
now know better, giving up our industrial-
size appetites and the identities that ac-
company their fulfillment is harder than
anyone ever imagined. But as sobering as
this sounds, there’s also something joyful
and revelatory about Fresh Kills as expe-
rienced from Lorenz’s boat. Perhaps be-
cause her art is participatory, the viewer is
granted a vision of a new New York, a city
that is both man-made and natural, a city
that harbors half a century of plastic bags
and bottles and also an ocean and a bewil-
dering system of currents and corridors
where any New Yorker can find herself
happily lost, just a mile from home.
We eat our lunch of leftover pasta atop
Mound Four. The tide rolls out, and three
ospreys circle above us. You can tell ospreys apart from other sea birds, Lorenz
explains, by their straight wings, recessed
heads, and graceful, exacting turns. The
sunlight illuminates their rosin-colored
silhouettes from behind. We lie atop our
mound of trash for a while, marveling at
the sky and the circling birds.
Elizabeth Rush’s writing has appeared in
Granta, Witness, the New Orleans Review,
and elsewhere. She teaches at the City University of New York and is at work on a nonfiction book about how marginalized people
are responding to sea level rise.
Marie lorenz’s canoe built from old packing crates offers passengers a new way of looking at
new york City’s forgotten channels, backwaters, and dumping grounds.