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Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City Hardcover – May 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this brilliantly illustrated volume, Sanderson and Boyer recreate the ecology of Manhattan as it was that 1609 September afternoon when Henry Hudson first saw it, "prodigious in its abundance, resplendent in its diversity." The project began as a simple thought exercise, when senior Bronx Zoo ecologist Sanderson (Human Footprint: Challenges for Wilderness and Biodiversity) tried visualizing pre-colonial Manhattan, but was promoted to full-blown science project after Sanderson discovered an "extraordinary" 1776 British Headquarters Map detailing the island's natural terrain. Developing a "georeference" system to coordinate the old map, Sanderson "relates its depiction of the old hills and valleys to their modern addresses." From there, he reconstructs data missing from the historical record using standard scientific tools-examining pollen layers, tree rings, archeological information, etc. Sanderson's text integrates political and sociological history; examines the culture of the original inhabitants, the Lenape (their word Mannahatta means "Island of Many Hills"); and covers a wealth of ecological data; he even shares his vision for the ecologically sustainable city of 2409. This wise and beautiful book, sure to enthrall anyone interested in NYC history, boasts maps, charts, photos and artist renderings, thorough appendices (including Lenape place-names and Manhattan's flora and fauna), and an extensive section of "Notes, Sources, and Elaborations." 120 color illustrations.
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The detailed descriptions of the island's natural features -- its streams, ponds, hills, woodlands, and so on -- as well as its flora and fauna are fascinating. But what really did it for me were the illustrations: breathtaking views of the beautiful, unspoiled terrain. The pictures alone were worth the price of the book, and in fact my only "complaint" is that I wish there could have been more of them. (Keep in mind, there are already lots and lots of them.) Though, given the incredible amount of detail in the text, I do realize that there simply wasn't enough room for more.
Just so you know, this is a heavy book; it's printed on thick, almost hard-stock paper. I think this definitely helps show the clarity of the illustrations (you can't see through the pages to what's on the other side), but this is not a good book to take with you when you're traveling. Much better to read it at home.
The final chapter, which gives the author's take on what New York City might look like 400 years from now, seemed quite unrealistic to me. He envisions a city whose population resides in densely packed strips along the rivers, while the great majority of the outer boroughs are given over to farmland. There are no cars in Future New York, and the subways have been converted to solely carry freight. People get around on foot, on bicycle, or on streetcars (i.e. old fashioned trolleys) -- and never mind that the reason the subways were built in the first place was because the existing streetcar network couldn't handle the overwhelming passenger traffic, not to mention they were too slow, mired in surface-street congestion. As for long-distance travel, I couldn't quite tell from the simulated satellite view, but it kind of looked like the city's airports have been converted into farmland as well. I guess we'll all be riding trains across the country, or ships across the ocean. ("Back to the future" indeed!)
Certainly, this "back-to-nature" view of the future runs counter to the recent historical trend of suburban sprawl expanding ever outward. It's simply impossible for me to imagine the people of the future being willing to pack themselves in like sardines in high-rise apartment buildings whose windows overlook acres and acres of "empty" farmland right next door. For such a change to occur would require either a sea change in society's views towards its own living arrangements whose scope would be unprecedented in human history -- or else, governmental zoning regulations so draconian that Joseph Stalin would turn away from them in horror.
Nevertheless, I realize that I'm being nitpicky. We can all speculate about what the future holds, but that's not the point. This is not a book about New York's future, but about its past. And in that, it succeeds gloriously. If you've ever wondered what today's "concrete jungle" looked like when it was a real jungle, this is the book for you.
First, my background: I am a historical ethnobotanist and specialize in native plant use in the Hudson and Delaware River valleys. The authors' list of Lenape plant uses is dismally small and inaccurate. Plenty of literature is available on Lenape plant uses, but most seems to have been ignored.
For one example: there is no evidence (that I have seen) on native people using bedstraw (Galium spp.) for bedding. We know that, when camping, the Lenape would have used various fern species, grass species, and when available, hemlock branches (in winter).
Perhaps the old European name 'bedstraw' led the author to the conclusion that native people used it for mattresses.
The list is even dangerously misleading; jack-in-the-pulpit roots and skunk cabbage must be extensively processed before they are edible, not simply 'dug up' or gathered. Both plants are otherwise poisonous, and the important detail of processing is left out of the list. The Lenape today eat (and in the Precontact period, would most certainly have eaten) safe greens in the spring, such as common milkweed shoots. Who would want to eat something difficult and practically inedible such as skunk cabbage? Additionally, there are truly important plants in Lenape daily life that are not included in the list.
Finally, a mostly-fake Lenape story is cited that was written by a known fraud (who bears the grammatically-incorrect 'Lenape' name 'Hitakonanulaxk').
I am sorry to have written this review; however, with these few things corrected, this would be an excellent book.
As an intermittent visitor to New York, first in 1968, I've had an ongoing interest and have purchased quite a number of books on the subject from Amazon.
This particular book is superb for anyone interested in Manhattan or in the process of providing an historical setting for any such significant location. It's great value. I thoroughly recommend it, even for general interest.