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From the August 2009 Conservationist

Manhattan island split in half with it's original, natural state on the left and developed state on the right

From Treeline to Skyline

The Manahatta Project: New York City's Natural History

By Eric W. Sanderson

(Excerpts from Mannahatta by Eric W. Sanderson)

On a hot, fair day, the twelfth of September, 1609, Henry Hudson and a small crew of Dutch and English sailors rode the flood tide up a great estuarine river, past a long, wooded island at latitude 40° 48´ north, on the edge of the North American continent. Locally the island was called Mannahatta, or "Island of Many Hills." One day the island would become as densely filled with people and avenues as it once was with trees and streams, but not that afternoon. That afternoon the island still hummed with green wonders. New York City, through an accident, was about to be born.

Hudson, an English captain in Dutch employ, wasn't looking to found a city; he was seeking a route to China. Instead of Oriental riches, what he found was Mannahatta's natural wealth-the old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife, and mysterious people, as foreign to him as he was to them. The landscape that Hudson discovered for Europe that day was prodigious in its abundance, resplendent in its diversity, a place richer than many people today imagine could exist anywhere. If Mannahatta existed today as it did then, it would be a national park-the crowning glory of American national parks.

Simulation of an aerial view of Manhattan in the early 1600 showing forests, marshes and fields covering the island
The vast rich landscape Hudson found
on Mannahatta housed animals we could
only imagine seeing there today and
contained more native species than
many modern-day National Parks.

Mannahatta had more ecological communities per acre than Yellowstone, more native plant species per acre than Yosemite, and more birds than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mannahatta housed wolves, black bears, mountain lions, beavers, mink, and river otters; whales, porpoises, seals, and the occasional sea turtle visited its harbor. Millions of birds of more than a hundred and fifty different species flew over the island annually on transcontinental migratory pathways; millions of fish-shad, herring, trout, sturgeon, and eel-swam past the island up the Hudson River and in its streams during annual rites of spring. Sphagnum moss from the North and magnolia from the South met in New York City, in forests with over seventy kinds of trees, and wetlands with over two hundred kinds of plants. Thirty varieties of orchids once grew on Mannahatta. Oysters, clams, and mussels in the billions filtered the local water; the river and the sea exchanged their tonics in tidal runs and freshets fueled by a generous climate; and the entire scheme was powered by the moon and the sun, in ecosystems that reused and retained water, soil, and energy, in cycles established over millions of years.

Living in this land were the Lenape-the "Ancient Ones"-of northeast Algonquin culture, a people for whom the local landscape had provided all that they and their ancestors required for more than four hundred generations before Hudson arrived. On Mannahatta these people lived a mobile and productive life, moving to hunt and fish and plant depending on the season; they had settlements in today's Chinatown, Upper East Side, and Inwood, and fishing camps along the cliffs of Washington Heights and the bays of the East River. They shaped the landscape with fire; grew mixed fields of corn, beans, and squash; gathered abundant wild foods from the productive waters and abundant woods; and conceived their relationship to the environment and each other in ways that emphasized respect, community, and balance. They lived entirely within their local means, gathering everything they needed from the immediate environment, participants in and benefactors of the rhythms of the nature that obviously connected them to their island home.

Two images of Manhattan, forested in the 1600s and completely developed in 2000
Over the past 400 years, Manhattan has
evolved from a land of extraordinary
biodiversity to that of extraordinary
cultural diversity.

Many things have changed over the last four hundred years. Extraordinary cultural diversity has replaced extraordinary biodiversity on the island; today people from nearly every nation on earth can be found living in New York City. Abundance is now measured in economic currencies, not ecological ones, and our economic wealth is enormous-New York is one of the richest societies the world has ever known, and is growing richer each year. Millions of people fly in from all over the world to a narrow, twelve-block-wide island to gather in buildings a thousand feet high to see what's new and what's next. Thousands of tons of materials follow them into the city-foodstuffs from six continents and four oceans; concrete and steel and clothing from the other side of the globe; power from coal, oil, and atomic fission-all the resources necessary for the modern megacity, delivered as the natural systems once delivered, through elaborate networks, though now the networks are composed of people, products, money, and markets, as opposed to forests, streams, sunshine, and grass.

Central Park and Manhattan seen from the air in summer
A visual reminder of the once-forested
landscape, Central Park is the green
heart of today's Manhattan - an essential
component for its people and wildlife.

To many outsiders, Manhattan Island is a monument to self-grandeur and a potent symbol of the inevitable-but yet to be realized-collapse of our hubris. But inside of New York another way of thinking is emerging, a new set of ideas and beliefs that do not depend on disaster to correct our course and instead imagines a future where humanity embraces, rather than disdains, our connection to the natural world. Many New Yorkers celebrate the nature of their city and seek to understand the city's place in nature. They see their city as an ecosystem and recognize that, like any good ecosystem, the city has cycles, flows, interconnections, and mechanisms for self-correction. New Yorkers love their place with a ferocity that the Lenape would have recognized; active observers of and participants in their neighborhoods, where every change is a source of discussion and debate. We know, when we stop to think of it, that no place can exist outside of nature. As was true for the original Manahate people, our food needs to come from somewhere; our water, our material life, our sense of meaning are not disconnected from the world, but exactly and specifically part of it.

Understanding the ecology of Mannahatta helps us bring into focus the ecology of Manhattan today and plan for the urban ecosystem of the future, while at the same time enabling us to reflect upon the value of the wild 'Mannahattas' that still exist in the world.

Eric Sanderson is a senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. He is the founder and director of The Mannahatta Project.

The cover of the book Manahatta, showing Manhattan from the air in 1600 and 2000

All images used herein are taken from the 352-page book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, written by Eric W. Sanderson, illustrated by Markley Boyer and published by Abrams, which is now available at bookstores.