Mannahatta: a Natural History of New York by Eric W. Sanderson

During the last ice age, tribes from present day Europe migrated westward and ended up in what today is known as North America. Many years later, in 1609 to be exact, Henry Hudson and his English-Dutch crew sailed up the river that would one day be named for him, and they came across an island with a splendid natural harbor – the Lenape living there called the island Mannahatta (often translated as “island of many hills”).

Soon enough, the Dutch established Nieuw Amsterdam on the island. The British changed the name to New York, but over the centuries Mannahatta more or less held on to its Lenape name. And that was not the only trace of ancient times that survived. When the British took over Manhattan, they renamed Breede weg Broadway, and Broadway followed a north-south path that the Lenape used. The Lenape in their turn followed the north-south corridor of animals that may have established the pathway when they arrived after the last ice age. In other words, “Broadway” may be thousands of years old.

Eric W. Sanderson is a landscape ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, and he is also the director of the Mannahatta Project, the initiative that produced the remarkable book Mannahatta: a Natural History of New York.

The book’s premise is simple enough. What did Henry Hudson and the crew of Halve Maen see and hear when they passed along the long island known to the locals as Mannahatta? Who and what were there before them?

Like now, Manhattan 400 years ago was a diverse island. It was home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, with over 50 different ecosystem types – a lush paradise. With the aid of “historical accounts, archival maps, ecological principles and [stunning] computer modeling,” Sanderson and his team show a splendid natural world that now is completely altered by mankind: Times Square was once the site of a beaver pond; Foley Square was the site of a freshwater pool that took care of most of Manhattan’s water needs for two centuries. As Sanderson writes: “If Mannahatta existed today as it did then, it would be a national park – it would be the crowning glory of American national parks.”

But contemporary Manhattan is not a place outside of nature, and “inside of New York a new way of thinking is emerging.” Beavers are actually returning to the New York City area, and – as it turns out – dense cities prove to be ecological places to live: “the average New Yorker emits 7.1. tons of [carbon dioxide] into the atmosphere each year; the average American 24.5 tons.”

The concrete jungle, then, may be closer to nature than it is often believed to be.

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