At nearly 400 pages, the tome Mannahatta appears to be, quite literally, a heavy undertaking. Add to that a subtitle – A Natural History of New York City – that hints at hours of boring commentary, and you might find yourself approaching it with great trepidation. But if you succumb to such feelings, you will miss a fascinating read.
Mannahatta is punctuated generously with computer-generated pictures of the island of Manhattan as it looked in 1609 when Henry Hudson and his Dutch crew sailed up its western flank. In addition, there is artwork depicting that period and subsequent centuries of changes to the island. This makes the book far more than a coffee table accessory. It is as much a lesson in history as it is one of geography, geology, cartology and biodiversity.
In fact, Mannahatta (the Lenape word for “Island of Many Hills”) is an adventure story that follows author Dr. Eric W. Sanderson’s journey as a curious scientist from the University of California who endures culture shock when he moves to New York to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo. After stumbling across the British Headquarters Map of Manhattan that was used strategically during the Revolutionary War, Sanderson becomes inspired to reconstruct what existed on the island 400 years ago.
We cheer the author on as he doggedly pursues clues based on information he’s extrapolated from a pricey book that allows him to implement a computer overlay matching the features of the British map (which he discovers was taped together incorrectly who-knows-how-many centuries ago). The map provided a verification of the topography, shoreline, streams and wetlands – which, in turn, allowed Sanderson to make logical leaps in his documentation of the ecosystem. Undaunted by hiccups in his search, he gleans clues from a variety of historical records that allow him to assess the area’s original condition as well as its human footprint over the years
Evidently, the Mannahatta of 1609 was every bit the promised land as it today, albeit for different reasons. Numerous species were abundant on the island, including bears, wolves, beavers, over 230 types of birds and forests of oak, hickory, chestnut, pine and Atlantic cedar. Furthermore, the waters surrounding the island provided ample fishing of more than 80 types of fish for the native Lenape Algonquins, who’d thrived there for 10,000 years.
Unfortunately, the arrival of the Dutch, and later the British and others, was the beginning of the end for those indigenous tribes, who’d kept the island ecologically sound over the millennia. This, too, is documented in the book. The Lenape used bow, arrow and spear to hunt deer, black bear, ducks, eel, shad, clams and oysters. They also gathered fruits, berries and nuts. Sanderson painstakingly includes a table detailing the common names of animals and plants likely used by the Lenape and their specific purpose (for example, tubers of Jerusalem artichokes were dug, dried and pounded into flour).
A stickler for data, he’s also provided several indices which list the flora and fauna, natural features and Lenape sites. But what keeps the book hopping is his ebullient writing style. “I won’t dwell on the distant geologic past, but let’s take a scamper through the millennia,” he writes, in his typically buoyant tone. It’s this sort of merry approach to an otherwise cut-and-dried topic that is so satisfying for the reader who walks away from an encounter with Mannahatta feeling educated and upbeat.
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