Ensconced in the angle created by the junction of two interstate highways and less than a five minute
ride from the stone and glass towers of downtown, it’s the wildest open space in the city. Once a rough swale along the Connecticut River, after almost three-quarters of a century accepting trash the now closed Hartford landfill rises like a mesa about 130 feet above the surrounding landscape.
The final resting place for what is broken, used up and unwanted, this 80-acre tomb for the wasted goods of life is becoming a fairytale meadow rich in wildflowers. Having a bird’s eye view of the city, it may offer the finest panorama along the banks of New England’s longest river. To the north and south, the grand corridor of the Connecticut valley spreads out like a map with trees, fields, water, roadways, church spires, smokestacks, bridges, rooftops, and all the tackle and infrastructure of modern life visible for miles. West and east not far distant, the horizon rises to lumpy, rugged highlands punctuated by a few antennae and towers.
Opened in 1940 as a classic open-burning dump, between 1953 and 1977 it took ash from the city’s incinerator. Leased in 1982 to the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, a quasi governmental entity, the landfill stopped accepting raw garbage in 1988, remaining open for ash from a waste-to-energy plant and bulky and special wastes until the end of 2008. Now in the final stages of closure, the mountain of trash is being wrapped in a synthetic liner, covered with soil and seeded. Methane gas is recovered from 82 wells generating enough electricity to power 1,500 to 2,000 homes. Soon a six-acre array of solar panels will produce enough power for another 1,000 homes during peak sunshine.
Although currently closed to the public while bulldozers move soil and workmen lay piping and other closure facilities, not long ago I had the rare opportunity of riding to the top with a group of ornithological enthusiasts counting birds. The finished part of the uneven plateau was a startlingly lustrous prairie of waist high grass where daisies, lacy yarrow, buttercup, white and red clover, hawkweed, fleabane, the purplish pea-like blossoms of cow vetch as well as other common roadside flowers bloomed profusely.
The grasses and sky resounded with avian life. Redwing blackbirds cruised just above the meadow and seemed to chase each other. Uncommon Savannah sparrows and other birds alighted on fencepost-sized gas wellhead pipes. A spotted sandpiper with a clutch of young crossed the gravel wheel track, and killdeer scurried away from us performing a fake broken wing routine. A great blue heron flew overhead with its long legs outstretched and we spied red-tailed hawks deep in the sky. We spotted a kingbird, indigo buntings, orchard and Baltimore orioles, grackles, cedar waxwings whose tail-tips looked as if dipped in yellow paint, goldfinches and other birds. It was a giddy carnival of color and song.
Once a smelly eyesore, this accidental high meadow is becoming a place of intriguing beauty, source of energy, and reserve of biodiversity. Bird expert Jay Kaplan calls it the best grassland habitat in the region. Here is recycling writ large, a debauched and degraded landscape transformed and healing into something else, a spot with a second chance. If we don’t trash the opportunity with structures and overly organized activities, it’s a place where future generations might literally stand on the broken things and dreams of the past and find quiet, contemplation, and the thrill of wild creatures in the midst of urbanity.