By Eric W. Sanderson, with illustrations by Markley Boyer, Abrams, New York, 352 pages, $40
Walt Whitman loved his city, but hated its name. “New York,” in his view, evoked memories of England, dependency, oppression. He preferred the “aboriginal name” – Mannahatta – “a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient.” How Whitman would have enjoyed this book!
In “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City,” Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society asks, “What was Manhattan like . . . that September afternoon [September 12, 1609] when Hudson arrived?” With eloquence, he then proceeds to tell us, his words enhanced by the dramatic illustrations of Markley Boyer.
Mannahatta is a treasure trove of riches about the remarkable island where many of us work and live. The research methods are innovative, including an analysis of the British Headquarters Map made during the Revolutionary War showing with great accuracy the natural landscape of Manhattan, and landscape ecological research making use of satellites and computers. (With his emphasis on landscape ecology, it comes as no surprise to learn that when moving from suburban northern California to New York City 10 years ago, Mr. Sanderson brought with him his volumes of Thoreau, Emerson and Muir.)
Most interesting for me are the “mysterious people,” using the author’s term, who Hudson encountered as he and his crew on the Half Moon “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.”
The mysterious people were the Lenape Indians who, with their ancestors, had inhabited the land for more than 400 generations. They were the “Ancient Ones,” respected as the oldest of the northeastern Algonquin cultures. The Lenape named the island, with its 573 hills, “Mannahatta,” meaning, “Island of Many Hills.”
The Lenape had settlements by the Collect Pond (now Foley Square), where existed the best soil to grow corn, beans and squash; Chinatown; the Upper East Side, and Inwood. Estimates of their number on Manhattan at the time of Hudson’s arrival range from 300 to 1,200.
The Lenape caught shad returning from the sea to the river, along with sturgeon, herring, trout and eel. They consumed oysters in large numbers, with shell middens – piles of shells – reaching 15 feet deep. Oyster shells were used to decorate clothing and for cutting tools.
Hudson’s first mate, Robert Juet, records on Sept. 12 that: “This morning . . . there came eight and twentie canoes full of men, women and children. . . . They brought with them oysters and beanes, whereof wee bought some.”
On Mannahatta, the Lenape hunted white-tailed deer, black bears, ducks and geese. They gathered wild strawberries, huckleberries, blackberries, cranberries, cherries and plums.
“The forests that Hudson saw,” writes Mr. Sanderson, “were comprised of oaks and hickories and American chestnut, white pines and hemlock and Atlantic cedar. . . . We know that there were likely over 230 kinds of birds on the island that afternoon and nearly 80 kinds of fish in the rivers and streams.”
Black bears may have been browsing for blueberries that day in present-day Central Park, and beavers swimming in a pond in present-day Times Square.
With its immense natural wealth – forests, rivers, wetlands, hills, wildlife, birds, fish and abundant plant life – “If Mannahatta existed today as it did then, it would be a national park – it would be the crowning glory of American national parks,” the author writes.
Mr. Sanderson’s seeks “to discover something new about a place we all know so well.” He achieves his goal, noting that over the last 400 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.”
This book will change forever the way I view my city. In Chinatown, a few blocks from my SoHo office, and in the Upper East Side neighborhood where I live, I will honor the memory of Mannahatta’s first residents, the Lenape. Bicycling on summer weekends in Central Park, I will be on the lookout for browsing black bears. In Times Square, beavers, not tourists, will engage my attention. (One visitor to the city, Henry David Thoreau, who had come down from Concord to tutor Emerson’s nephew and explore publishing opportunities, was delighted to encounter a beaver on arriving in Manhattan.)
After reading this book, some New Yorkers may feel a diminished importance in the total scheme of things. The Dutch ruled here for 39 years (1625-1664); the British for 119 years (1664-1783), and our nation has done so for 226 years. In the timeline of Mannahatta, compared to the Lenape, and the luxuriant forests and wildlife, we are but a flicker of the eye.
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.