2010.03.03 Back to NYC

Written by David Green.


I have a rather extensive list of unwritten stories that might someday appear here in print. Some have been on the list for years and I don’t really have any good explanation for that.

Take the Derrek Tew story from a couple of weeks ago, for example. I have a short list of ideas that I write down on my weekly news list. I don’t know how many weeks in row now—how many months, years?—that I’ve written the name “Derrek Tew” but never moved beyond that.

The story I wrote about Derrek was largely based on notes from an e-mail conversation Derrek and I had in 2006. And I finally decided to do the story two weeks ago. On a Saturday afternoon.

It was a good story, but I knew that four years ago. It’s just the weird way I operate.

One of the old stories on my list is called “Morenci Through the Eons.” It’s the deep history of the area, going back millions of years. Somewhere I have the name of the geology professor at the University of Toledo who was going to help me, but it’s been a few years. I hope he hasn’t retired.

My old Morenci story came to mind while reading a Christmas present: “Mannahatta: a natural history of New York City.”

A scientist named Eric Sanderson got hooked on the past and wrote an entire book on the natural history of Manhattan. He didn’t go back millions of years; he just stuck with the last 400, chronicling the incredible changes from lush forested island to the premier city.

Black bears, mountain lions, wolves and beavers lived on the land the Lenape people called Mannahatta, “Island of Many Hills.” Now there’s about 1.6 million people inhabiting the 23 square mile island, with millions more visiting every day for work.

The project became an obsession for Sanderson. It took him on searches for old maps, required tedious hours of matching the old and the new, and led him on quests throughout the city to discover traces of what he says would now be considered America’s premier national park—if it still existed as Henry Hudson found it when he sailed into the region Sept. 12, 1609.

There’s much that makes Manhattan special today, but it was special 400 years ago, too, for much different reasons. There were more native plant species per acre than Yosemite. More birds than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Forests with 70 species of trees. More than 200 kinds of wetland plants; 30 varieties of orchids. A wonderland today; a wonderland then.

Sanderson had scientific data to consider—pollen layers on the bottom of ponds, tree rings, the shape of rocks, soil profiles—but the thing that really set the project into gear was a map created by the British army. It was made 170 years after Henry Hudson arrived, but even then the island was rather wild. The first blood of the Revolutionary War was drawn in a wheat field in the center of New York City. It proved to be an important battleground in the war and the British chronicled their battlegrounds well.

Sanderson started his project by taking the British Headquarters Map and laying a modern road map of the city on top. He matched “control points” visible on both maps and the past started to come into view.

He saw the series of sand hills that once ran across the edge of Greenwich Village. There are still traces of Murray Hill—a bicyclist can feel them when pedaling along Fifth Avenue near the New York Public Library.

Maiden Lane follows the path of a small spring-fed stream and Minetta Street trails another. Streams drained through Times Square; marshes captured the water flowing down Washington Heights. Springs bubbled up throughout the area and a few can still be found.

I’m really overdue for a visit to the big city. It’s been a few years. That’s why I somewhat reluctantly agreed to go with Colleen this week. She was awarded an expense-paid trip to NYC for a library conference and I’m going along. The Observer will have limited open hours this week and the following issue of the paper might be somewhat limited, too.

This visit will be different. I’ll be looking through the forest of skyscrapers and trying to see the trees.

  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.base Ball
    UMPIRE Thomas Henthorn tosses the bat between team captains Mikayla Price and Chuck Piskoti of Flint’s Lumber City Base Ball Club. Following the 1860 rules, after the bat was grabbed by the captains, captains’ hands advanced to the top of the bat—one hand on top of the other. The captain whose hand ended up on top decided who would bat first. Additional photos of Sunday’s game appear on page 12 of this week’s Observer. The contest was organized in conjunction with Stair District Library’s Hometown Teams exhibit that runs through Nov. 20.
  • Front.chat
    VALUE OF ATHLETICS—Morenci graduate John Bancroft (center) takes a turn at the microphone during a chat session at the opening of the Hometown Teams exhibit at Stair District Library. Clockwise to his left is John Dillon, Jed Hall, Jim Bauer, Joe Farquhar, George Hollstein, George Vereecke and Mike McDowell. Thomas Henthorn (at the podium) kicked off the conversation. Henthorn, a University of Michigan–Flint professor, will return to Morenci this Sunday to lead a game of vintage base ball at the school softball field.
  • Front.cross
    HUDSON RUNNER Jacob Morgan looks toward the top of the hill with dismay during the tough finish at Harrison Lake State Park. Fayette runner Jacob Garrow focuses on the summit, also, during the Eagle Invitational cross country run Saturday morning. Continuing rain and drizzle made the course even more challenging. Results of the race are in this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.
  • Front.hose Testing
    HOSE safety—The FireCatt hose testing company from Troy put Morenci Fire Department hose to the test Monday morning when Mill Street was closed to traffic. The company also checks nozzles and ladders for wear in an effort to keep fire fighters safe while on calls.

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