In September 2009 National Geographic did a memorable feature on “The Mannahatta Project”, the remarkable work of dozens of historians and scientists led by landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson to uncover the ecological origins of the land that is modern New York City. I found the idea and pictorial perspective riveting.
“Through the Mannahatta Project, we learned that the center of one of the world’s largest and most built-up cities was once a remarkably diverse, natural landscape of hills, valleys, forests, fields, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, beaches, springs, ponds and streams, supporting a rich and abundant community of wildlife and sustaining people for thousands of years before Europeans arrived on the scene in 1609. It turns out that place celebrated for its cultural diversity, was acclaimed by early settlers for its biological diversity and fertility: home to bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders, with clear, clean waters jumping with fish, and porpoises and whales in the harbor. In fact, with over 55 different ecological communities, Mannahatta’s biodiversity per acre rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains!”
The 400 Years since Henry Hudson first sailed into New York Harbour have been but a flash in archeological time. But the natural environment has been incredibly altered by us. It is heartening to realize that as intricate and complex as this city appears on the surface, we are but renters in an ecology that is always evolving. Humans may dominate and dictate systems for a time, but nature remains the boss. This historical perspective on the constructs we humans build can teach us much about our species. There is also much we can learn about biodiversity and what we can do wiser going forward.
Today as I begin showing my son New York City for his first visit, I found Sanderson’s work a good place to start the story. Sanderson did this TED Talk on the origins and findings of his reconstruction project. Here is a direct link.