Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City
By Eric W. Sanderson
Markley Boyer (Illustrator)
Abrams. 1st Edition edition, 2009
On a recent warm afternoon, I contemplated the paradox of canoeing through New York City. After launching from an abandoned city pier in the South Bronx, we headed downstream with the tidal current towards a small spit of land near Roosevelt Island.
It is rare to find a place to touch nature in New York City as it has ebbed and flowed throughout time with little change. Feeling the current against my paddle, I drifted into a regular daydream, one I do not dare to own: What did this landscape look like before it was conquered by steel and concrete?
Eric W. Sanderson’s book, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, has created this reality. After 10 years of cartographical and ecological research and computer modeling, Sanderson’s team has reconstructed a picture of the Manhattan Island Henry Hudson’s eyes would have seen Sept. 12, 1609, when his 85-foot long Dutch ship the Half Moon crept into the New York harbor in his expedition to find a northwestern route to Asia.
The 352-page coffee table book is a must-have for the beautiful full-page color computer-generated images that depict Manhattan exploding with green forests, estuaries, blue streams, yellow meadows, dark ponds, wildlife, and well, indigenous Lenápe settlements. Also known as the Delaware, the Lenápe people had occupied the coast from Pennsylvania to New York City for 10,000 years before Europeans blew in on boats.
“It is appropriate to ask whether we find descriptions like this incredible because we have lost the ability to believe in them,” Sanderson writes.
Sanderson’s adventure of piecing together Dutch and British maps with GPS data from original standing rock outcrops around the city is a thrill to read for New Yorkers familiar with his references. As a landscape ecologist at the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Sanderson deeply understands how all of nature’s elements weave together into complex ecological systems — which became critical to piecing together Mannahatta’s shattered puzzle.
“Using this data, we can make virtual time travel possible to see what Hudson could see, but not understand,” Sanderson writes.
However, 400 years later, it remains clear what Hudson saw and understood.
“The landscape that Hudson discovered for Europe that day was prodigious in its abundance, resplendent in its diversity…” Sanderson writes. “If Mannahatta existed today as it did then… it would be the crowning glory of American national parks.”
The projected images of Mannahatta (Lenápe for “Land of Many Hills”) show that red-maple swamps stood where Times Square does now. The Lower East Side was a large salt marsh. Bogs filled Central Park and sandy beaches extended along the Hudson River from the Battery to 42nd Street. Twenty-one ponds, 573 hills, 66 miles of streams and old-growth forests reappear. Sanderson’s portrait of Mannahatta provides a lens to see why European explorer-capitalists would have drooled over this little island. That while his exploration did not lead to the East Indies like he had hoped, this location was surely as rich: “… skins and peltries, martins, foxes,” Hudson promptly reported to his financiers when he returned to Amsterdam. Less than a year later, Dutch private traders, including the famous Adriaen Block (which a school in Flushing, Queens, is named after), launched profit-seeking fur expeditions into the area.
While Mannahatta provides us with beautiful pictures and descriptions, the book gravely lacks significant political, economic and historical information and analysis to explain the forces that transformed the island to what we recognize today. While exposing the original landscape of Mannahatta, Sanderson does little to reveal the true forces that razed this pristine island — capitalism, greed, genocide and imperialism.
A lesson hardly learned 400 years later.
MAPPING THE ABUNDANCE
It would not take long for the diverse flora and fauna of Mannahatta to be hauled away to fill European coffers.
“Hudson’s quest was tied into the historic current washing over the powers of Europe … to reach around the globe: to discover, exploit, expand, to do business… this island would become a fulcrum in the international power struggle, the key to control of a continent and a new world,” writes Russell Shorto in The Island at the Center of the World, a 2004 ground-breaking glimpse of the role of the Dutch in early American history.
Since the driving economic force at the time was beaver fur, which could be felted and made into fashionable Russian and English hats, these creatures became the focal point of European explorations into the area.
Just like the Dutch, Sanderson zeroed in on the beaver. Using the creature as a model, Sanderson explained how one species could be used to reconstruct an entire ecological system: each animal is related to a myriad of other species and habitat elements that they require and provide. From there, his team developed probability maps for vegetation, soil types and animals that made up the islands’ 55 estimated ecological systems. On page 203, he presents a map of the probability distribution for beavers across Manhattan. This is a map that Hudson would have loved to have, indeed.
Within 20 years of arriving to North America, the Dutch were already beginning to tear apart the island’s ecosystem, which heavily relied on the beaver. Shorto writes that in 1626, a Dutch official noted goods arriving from New Amsterdam, including oak and hickory timber, dozens of skins from otter, mink, wildcat, rat, and some 7,246 beaver skins. The demand for beaver in the larger New England area bred conflict, inciting the Beaver Wars, the French and Indian War and several large intra-tribal wars.
As the beaver populations were extinguished in the eastern United States, fur traders slowly headed west, further into a continent already inhabited by millions of Native Americans as documented in Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
The Lenápe did not fare well, either. New York City historians and CUNY professors Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace estimate that some 15,000 Lenápe existed in the greater New York metropolitan area in some 80 settlements at the time of European settlement in their book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. The book 1491 documents the early pandemics that whipped along the New England coast after the arrival of European fishers and traders in the 1500s, killing an estimated 90 percent of the coastal native populations. The Lenápe who survived disease would witness generations of colonization, as treaty after treaty with the new “Americans” moved them further west from the coast, first into Pennsylvania, then to Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, then finally to Oklahoma in 1866 (another community exists in Ontario). In fact, 400 years later, Lenápe descendants now living in Oklahoma (known as the Delaware Tribe of Indians) just regained their federal tribal status July 28, 2009.
While Sanderson’s book is quite an accomplishment in landscape ecology and urban history, it is, however, a dangerous read without understanding the historical political landscape.
Although Hudson is not solely to blame, what happened after he left New York harbor in 1609 incited the now 400 years of colonization, exploitation and genocide from the Atlantic to the Pacific by the Dutch, English, French, Swedish and Spanish — and ultimately by Americans themselves. This is hardly a reason to celebrate the anniversary.
Mannahatta has certainly remained the island at the center of the world — largely because it was the cradle of the American industrial revolution and the financing of western U.S. expansion and exploitation, and, after World War II, for global capitalism. Literally everything that existed on the Lenápe’s traditional lands was transformed on a rapid and massive scale into a resource with value to sell, consume or destroy.
The landscape was forcefully altered by this way of thinking and being — which, like smallpox, slowly spread across the continent. Legendary Native American Movement founder and author Jack D. Forbes (who shares ancestry with the Delaware-Lenápe) called this the wétiko disease, “the sickness of exploitation,” in his book, Columbus and other Cannibals.
Sanderson attempts to make this point — in a silly marketing ploy — at the end of the book when he imagines New York in the year 2409. He advocates that by instituting some changes (such as installing green roofs, eliminating cars, generating renewable energy and growing food locally) we can dramatically reform New York City. In a futuristic version of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, his ideas are simplistic and lack the depth necessary to understand the real history that shaped Manhattan.
What’s the point of learning about Mannahatta’s original landscape if the reader does not understand the forces that destroyed it?
“It is a conceit of New York City … to think it is a place outside of nature, a place where humanity has completely triumphed over the forces of the natural world” Sanderson writes. “Yet this conceit is not unique to the city; it is shared by a globalized twenty-first-century human culture, which posits that through technology and economic development we can escape the shackles that bind us to our earthly selves … As such the story of Mannahatta’s transformation to Manhattan isn’t localized to one island; it is a coming-of-age story that literally embraces the entire world.”
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