Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Mannahatta Project

There's a great article in the most recent New Yorker about the Wildlife Conservation Society's Mannahatta Project, a forensic ecology experiment that attempts to envision what Manhattan Island might have looked like before European settlers arrived.

The project is just getting underway, but its investigative naturalism sets my heart a-flutter. Researchers are poring over historical maps, surveys, and archaeological evidence to re-create a long-lost landscape.

Of course, there are two ways to interpret this project: there's the "paradise lost" perspective, which compares the Manhattan of today to the Mannahatta of 1609 and bemoans the loss of wild nature. Certainly that attitude is tempting when we consider how Manhattan Island was once surrounded by two incredibly rich tidal estuaries, which once helped to sustain some of the richest oyster beds on the planet in addition to a spectacular diversity of migrating birds and terrestrial fauna.

But dismissing Manhattan as "paradise lost" discounts the ecological diversity that still exists in the city, and loses sight of the fact that people are a part of nature, too.

The island's ecological richness is precisely what attracted people here in the first place: first the Lenape Indians, then the Dutch, then the entire world. So a more productive way of interpreting the Mannahatta project might be to look at the island not as "paradise lost," but as paradise changed, with fewer oysters but a lot more people. Through these recreations of pre-European habitats, the WCS hopes, "we will discover a new aspect of New York culture, the environmental foundation of the city... Today’s New Yorkers use the landscape in a much different way, but have the same fundamental needs, [and] finding ways to meet our needs while sustaining the natural processes on which we depend is the most important question of the 21st century."

If this project helps people imagine the wild nature that once existed here, I would hope that it will also help New Yorkers better appreciate and understand the wild nature that still survives - from the big, wild parks like Inwood and Pelham Bay to the scraggly Ailanthus trees growing out of the pavement in Red Hook.

Learn more here: The Mannahatta Project

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