John Zeaman’s introspective narrative about the New Jersey Meadowlands, “Dog Walks Man: A Six-Legged Odyssey,” begins with a personal anecdote that will probably be familiar to most families. Young kids want a pet. Mom and Dad initially refuse, but ultimately relent, reciting the familiar parental refrain: “Okay, you can get a dog/cat. But only if you take care of it.”
In the Zeamans’ case, daughter Claire and son Alex began begging for a dog after the deaths of several smaller, less hearty family pets. There were turtles, gerbils, fish, lizards, a squirrel, a parakeet. Parents John and Janet eventually relented and the family selected a poodle puppy that the kids named Pete. Of course, it wasn’t long before “dad” was, as Zeaman writes, “duped” into going on twice daily walks through the Meadowlands so Pete could do his business.
The book is a personal account of Zeaman’s 20 years spent getting to know the Meadowlands through the daily ritual of walking his dog.
Before long, Zeaman said he didn’t just anticipate the walks with Pete – he needed them. A former arts critic for the Bergen Record, Zeaman said the walks allowed him time to think and meditate.
“Many people live on the outskirts of the Meadowlands, but never venture into the Meadowlands,” he said. “People see it as a no man’s land, this nether region that nobody goes into except a few joggers and oddballs. And there are all these rumors that if you go in there you’ll step on a hypodermic needle. I lived here for 10 years before I ever went in.”
Zeaman threw himself into a multi-year meditation of the region in an effort to try to capture and articulate the rough beauty that is the New Jersey Meadowlands. The insightful and occasionally humorous results are captured in “Dog Walks Man.” The book, which was published last fall by Lyons Press, is a memoir interspersed with accounts of Zeaman’s years spent getting to know the Meadowlands through the daily ritual of walking his dog.
“A lot of the Meadowlands had been used for dumping in the post World War II-era, right up until the 1970s when the Clean Water Act was passed,” noted Zeaman, who lives in Leonia, where he walked Pete along the northern end of the Meadowlands. The area of the Meadowlands most explored by Zeaman, he said, is a 120 acre section between a set of horse stables in Leonia and Palisades Park. “Because of the stigma of the dumping, nobody went in this area. It was kind of understood that this area was the forbidden forest.”
“More and more, I found my life bound up in this activity of venturing into the Meadowlands with [Pete],” Zeaman added. “And it reconnected me to nature in this most unlikely spot, given the reputation of the Meadowlands.”
What he discovered was a “wonderful wilderness” filled with animals. Each day he saw owls, foxes, woodchucks, deer, and evidence of coyotes.
Adventures with Pete
Over the years that span the course of Zeaman’s book, his constant companion, Pete, goes from being a spry puppy to an aged and slow senior dog so tired and old that he has to be lifted in and out of the family car.
“Towards the end of Pete’s life, [during the walks in the Meadowlands] he was really walking me, rather than me walking him,” said Zeaman. “That’s why the book is titled ‘Dog Walks Man.’ ”
Of course, even when Pete was young, most of Zeaman’s walks were guided by Pete’s nose. And being a poodle, Zeaman said Pete was a natural retriever.
“I would just let him run. Naturally, being a dog, he would follow his nose and get into all kinds of things,” noted Zeaman. (Notably, Pete once found a sex toy during one of their morning outings.)
Zeaman was once convinced there was a dead body buried in the Meadowlands.
“You always hear the jokes and the rumors, the most famous being the long-discredited story about Jimmy Hoffa being buried there,” he said. “I did one time find a mound of dirt that I thought was a [buried] body. It was the right size. And there was a shovel nearby.”
But the fact that Pete – and his nose – took no interest in the mound persuaded Zeaman it probably wasn’t a body. He dug it up anyway only to find twigs and bits of wood.
Turns out, some local dirt bike riders were using the mound as a ramp.
Zeaman now walks two newer family dogs even though Pete is gone and his children are grown. Currently he’s working on a children’s book with daughter Claire, who is an illustrator, and he’s planning another memoir on the ways urban residents interact with nature.
“Dog Walks Man” can be purchased through Amazon.com for $14.89.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.