I was a 12-year-old boy, riding my bicycle in a place and time as foreign to me as could ever be imagined. From just a few miles away my family and I entered a different culture, the Meadowlands. My first home was based in concrete and cars to my new one graced with tides, grasses and birds. I was suddenly thrust into a life that once was dominated by after school baseball and football games to one that was surrounded by adventures in the meadows, walks in the woods, owls, muskrats, roadside produce stands, horse trails and farm animals crossing the road.
As I peddled down this encroaching industrial road, the kind of road that would eventually be pave over, dismantle and forever change much of my beloved childhood Meadowlands, I came to a sudden dead-end. Tired and hot I stopped near the driveway of a warehouse that I will come to know till this day as a highly invasive species made of steel and concrete. As I took a breath and thought about where my bike ride into the unknown had brought me, I put my foot to the ground and wiped my forehead. Then something happened that is as real and vivid as if it happened this morning.
I looked up to see as strange a sight as any alien species I have seen in the movies. There in the trees bordering the dead end street were white birds, with plumes like something I had seen only on TV jungle movies decorating the limbs and making sounds that made a 12-year-old boy wonder if what he was witnessing was actually happening.
I looked around me wondering why these birds were here and why there was no one else standing by me watching in amazement? What kind of place had my family and I come to live in? Roads, warehouses and oh yes, at the same time wildlife struggling against all odds to carry on. I don’t recall how long I stayed there gazing up but I did eventually decide to peddle away. I can remember stopping and looking back at the magical white plumes that will forever become a part of who I am and at the same time would always leave a part of my heart empty forever.
As I came to learn soon after I had witnessed nesting Snowy Egrets, the very same birds that once were killed by the millions and placed on ladies hats but never in my young mind could I ever imagine I would see them so grandly and so close to my home. I can remember telling my new found friends about my amazing discovery and them kind of shrugging their shoulders and looking at me in much the same way I looked at the Egrets. After all, we were just young boys that thought the place where we lived would never and could ever change.
Now I am not sure when it was that I retuned to see my wonderful birds or how much time lapsed before I peddled my bike once again to bear witness to this natural wonder but I do know when I got there the birds were gone and my heart just sank. I looked all around in a kind of panic. Maybe I had the wrong street? Could this be real? But as reality finally hit me there were no birds to be seen; no trees, no bird sounds, only concrete and cars.
Where had they gone? How could someone do this? Were the birds hurt? Who allowed this to happen? Why was there was no one else standing with me in mourning? The loss compounded with a feeling of extreme loneliness. Was no one else wondering what happened or sharing their grief along with me? I became afraid that maybe I was the only one in the entire world who cared. Now only an enormous nothingness stood there. Like it never happened or ever existed, my birds were gone forever. I rode back home constantly trying to makes some sense of the tragedy I had witnessed. I had no understanding how those images would affect me throughout my life and more than 50 years later.
Now I am not one of those old-timers that think everything was better in the so called good old days. I know our New Jersey Meadowlands is better than it has been in many generations. After all I grew up witnessing some of the worst crimes against nature that ever could be committed and now I have also been blessed to witness the Meadowlands today rising from the ashes into an incredible environmental gem that could never have been imagined. And yet it is those losses that stay with me forever.
Through years of environmental successes and even more so through the tough battles those Snowy Egrets in those trees always seem to appear to me. I go back and try to imagine what a 12-year-old boy could have done to stop it, who should I have told and if I knew then what I know now. But of course, it would not have mattered but that is what loss does to us. It compounds the what ifs and never lets us forget, and maybe that’s how it has to be.
Today I am blessed to lead people through our Meadowlands, showing everyone the wonders of what could happen when good people who care work together to do what is right. And yes I do get to show people the great birds like our Snowy Egret that still bless our Meadowlands, but seldom do I talk about my childhood Snowies. Maybe it’s too difficult and maybe it’s still hard for me to relive but those Snowy Egrets down that dead end street will always be part of the reason I do what I do. Maybe it’s out of respect or reverence or a way to just heal but I like to believe the spirit of those very same birds live in the birds that we now get to enjoy.
They say an environmentalist has to believe in a better tomorrow or they could never deal with the losses that seem to always be part of the job. But let’s all make each other a promise that no matter who we are, where we live, we will do our best to have no more losses like those Snowy Egrets of my childhood. And that we will all stand together and never be the ones standing alone on a street watching our birds and our environment disappear for the next generation
See you in the Meadowlands