Columns

2010.03.03 Back to NYC

on . Posted in By The Way

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.

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