“A Conversation With the History of a Place”
A Review of
A Natural History of New York City.
By Eric Sanderson.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
A Natural History of New York City.
Hardback: Abrams, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
My observations and conclusions thus far sum up to this: In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity, intricately mingled in mutual support. We need this so city life can work decently and constructively, and so the people of cities can sustain (and further develop) their society and civilization.
— Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities, 137
Jane Jacobs’ Manhattan in the 1960s was already a megalopolis with approximately the 1.6 million people that live there today. The marks of a healthy city community she identified – such as density, diversified uses of spaces, and neighborhoods – turn out to be equally useful when describing natural ecologies, namely the pre-colonial island of Mannahatta, home to at least fifty-five distinct “ecological communities” of old-growth forests, salt marshes, swamps and the like, several hundred plant and animal species, and a human population of between two- and six-hundred people, the Lenape. The monumental task of assembling a vision of Manhattan as Henry Hudson and company would have first seen it on September 12, 1609 has been the task of Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist based out of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City is the resulting book chronicling years of research and map-making, and filled out with extensive illustrations of the verdant green of Mannahatta (that’s right) by Markley Boyer, which are a striking contrast when acting as diptychs with bird’s-eye photographs of present-day Manhattan.
Mannahatta, the “Island of Many Hills” turns out to have been “characterized by a diversity different from that of Manhattan today, a diversity of all life, a celebration of frogs, fishes, and fowl…Fifty-five different kinds of neighborhoods, or ecological communities, were once found on Mannahatta. This is a remarkable number for a landscape as small as Manhattan…Fifty-five distinct assemblages of life is more than is found on the average coral reef or in most rain forests of similar size” (138). Given the enormous diversities within any of these ecosystems, much of Sanderson’s task is in identifying constituent parts and then reconstructing how the topography, climate, vegetation, animal life, and humans might have interacted.
To begin, the British Headquarters Map, drawn during the American Revolution for British troops based on Manhattan proved to be an immense help, charting streams, hills, and the shoreline prior to modern development. Overlaid on top of contemporary street maps, this “topographical and historical encyclopedia” began to give the first shape to glacially-formed Manhattan island, and to the ways in which it has been build upon in the last 400 years. With the foundation of that map, Sanderson is able to “reconstruct the climate and remap watercourses and their watersheds, and from these in combination, to derive the soils, the wind exposure, the tides, and the places where fires, floods, and other catastrophes might occur and where they might not, all to the scale of a city block” (68). All of these components are illustrated on their own layer on the overall map of Mannahatta, which form the basis for where life thrives. Add to this the native Lenape tribes that lived on the island who hunt, grow crops, set fires to clear land, and build small communities, and create their own set of relationships within the natural world, and a full vision of Mannahatta as a complete ecosystem begins to emerge.
Extensive illustrations and even more thorough appendixes complete the types of plants and animal life native to 1609 Mannahatta; within the project and text, the emergent system for classifying the interrelations of all of these species and ecological communities is the “Muir web,” named for John Muir, and specifically his 1869 comment that “when we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” These Muir webs – represented by thousands of points, connected by lines in so many ways that the density begins to look like a black hole towards which everything else is attracted – seem to be one of the most fascinating results of the Mannahatta Project, as they attempt to describe the wonderfully complex structure of the interconnections of an entire ecosystem. It is not dissimilar even to current models for a Unified Theory in physics, albeit with components like beavers and aspen trees, rather than quantum or strings; either way, the complexity of life reveals itself as all interdependent, a wonderful model for a built city like Manhattan.
The final chapter, “Manhattan 2409,” proposes several things to be learned from the diversity of Mannahatta and Manhattan, and forward into the next 400 years. Rebuilding a local food economy, restructuring suburbs into denser structures and reclaiming green spaces, collecting and recycling fresh water, and cutting the dependency on cars in the city are some of these characteristics Sanderson begins to suggest; to flesh out these potentially ‘green’ benefits of cities, David Owens’ Green Metropolis is an excellent read alongside Mannahatta.
The Mannahatta Project, in addition to this beautiful publication, is available online at www.themannahattaproject.org, and was featured on the cover of the September issue of National Geographic. The website has an interactive satellite map of Manhattan with Markley Boyer’s CGI reconstruction of Mannahatta overlaid, and block-by-block classifications for plants, mammals, birds, and more; there are also several curriculum plans for students that look excellent, all for free download. For anyone with personal ties to Manhattan, this could be a fascinating history of that particular place, and for the rest of us, it’s no less amazing to study the diversity of life presented throughout. Sanderson’s narratives describe as much his wonder of the process as anything, and Boyer’s illustrations merit long observations on their own as well. Rather than treating Mannahatta as distant history, this book invites a conversation with the history of a place in light of the current realities to see what can be gained from the strengths of both.