Ever wondered what the Apple looked like before it grew into a city? Image © Val Druguet.



Chapter 9: Fruition

From Manahatta to Modernity, sort of.


Time for some time travel. Rewind to 1609, when Henry Hudson first parked his boat on the river that would later bear his name, and later, when the Dutch first landed in the New York area, in time to 'settle' into the new offices of their West Indies Trading Corporation. Ask Eric Sanderson what it looked like, he's directing the Manahatta project, a computerized modeling of NYC's ecology at the beginning of the 17th century. Apparently, the whole NY region was bubbling with biodiversity. Not just large numbers of species, but levels of abundance (large populations of each) that would probably blow the contemporary mind. Bears and wolves and beavers and more. Packs of them. Millions of them. New York, primeval. Functional and healthy. Bountiful. So full of food, in fact, that the native Lenne Lenape survived by spear and fishing net alone - no organized agriculture, no work - no need to. For Europeans coming from a nature-depleted Europe whose soils had already been over-exploited to the bone by millennia of intensive agriculture, such proliferation was a promise incarnate. Not just a promise of plenty, a promise of more. Like some chicken coop to a fox, Manahatta had incremental wealth written all over it, especially for people like Dutch businessmen. Take the following quote from one of their scribes, Johan de Laet: "The land is excellent and agreeable, full of noble trees and grape vines, and nothing is wanting but the labor and industry of man to render it one of the finest and most fruitful lands in that part of the world…"

Mission accomplished, indeed.

400 years have passed and when we look at 'Manahatta' today, we're basically looking at leftovers, plus a few 'non-natives' thrown in for the sake of confusion. Simple stuff like Clover and Honey bees and Rugosa rose and House sparrows. All of them, foreigners. Today nature in New York is truly cosmopolitan. Worse, it is over-simplified and contagious: Gotham's generic cocktail mix of global biology represents the initial symptoms of a transcontinental 'McEcosystem', one dangerously monotonous, monocultured bouquet of sameness, creeping in through every port and pore, into every nation state on earth. All localized, specialized species will disappear. The end of endemism. Only generalists remain. A planet smothered in kudzu vine and white-tailed deer. Make way for the ecological Jet set, a gift of globalization, international trade, big boats and airplanes.

To cheer myself up I point out to students in the field that when we see a bee from Europe rolling his big fat abdomen in the orange pollen of a Rugosa rose from Japan, it's like we're watching some white dude indulging in Dim Sum at a joint down in Chinatown - yet another 'Nature of New York'.

Come to think of it, maybe New York place is not so much about immigration or transformation after all - maybe the City has more to do with the ongoing battle between uniformity and diversity. New York has always offered both - just look at its architecture; a whole bunch of very different looking and diverse skyscrapers, planted in rows nonetheless, in boring x and y axes within a gray and monotonous grid.

As a naturalist, I naturally prefer the confusion inherent in variety, its tacit promise of anarchy. Its color, too. I long for the creativity embedded in chaos. How do I reconcile with the City? On week-ends I get purposefully lost within the layout of the West Village. I take the 7 to the sweet smells of Jackson Heights. The B to the languages of Coney Island. The Beltway to the butterflies and dragonflies of Floyd Bennett Field. Diversity, be it biological, or ethnic, or cultural, is what keeps my Doctor away, not apples.

As a naturalist I also dig for the kind of ideas the likes of those of Jane Jacobs: "In its need for variety and acceptance of randomness, a flourishing natural ecosystem is more like a city than like a plantation. Perhaps it will be the city that reawakens our understanding and appreciation of nature, in all its teeming, unpredictable, complexity".

Look to the shoreline.



Some examples of New York Metamorphoses



Cabbage Whites, Forest Park, Queens. A foreign species.


Monarch Butterfly, feeding on Joe Pye Weed. Manhattan.



American Lady, Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx. Its host plants (where the butterfly lays its eggs) are Everlastings (Composite family).


Pearl Crescent, Eib's Pond, Staten Island. Its eggs are laid in clusters on leaves of asters, which the caterpillars then eat.


Silver-spotted Skipper, Eib's Pond, Staten Island. Host plants include wisteria, locust trees and beggar's tick.



Every day, 200 species of fish, including bass and bluefish and shad, hook-up (or not) at the estuary's surface with thousands of anglers from most of the world's countries. Fishing, in 120 different languages (at least). Diversity? No, DiverCity. Don't believe me? Then go down to the waterfront and linger, eavesdrop, look up and around, pretend you were a tourist, don't be afraid, take pictures: Anglers rim almost every accessible inch of the city's 300 plus miles of shore line - these men and women, come rain or shine, look outwards towards the bay, the estuary, the harbor; inwards towards the lakes, ponds, remaining fresh water rivers and streams, armed with a fishing pole and some tackle, glancing upwards, to check the weather, the moon. They are ecologically literate, they can call stuff out by name, lunar cycles or species of fish, tides, ebbing or receding, rhythms and cycles and more. The imminence of change, of changing seasons. Most of them are immigrants (typical New Yorkers) and poor. Most can't afford protein from the supermarket, for the whole family. But they do come to this city armed with technique. Regardless of their country of origin, they instantly adapt to fishing in the Hudson, the estuary; they rapidly identify what they are catching.

My second winter in New York I met a guy by the name of José up in Riverside Park. José is from Guatemala. We were both looking at a wild Turkey who had recently immigrated to Manhattan from further up the Hudson. The local hot dog vendor, Alex (who is from Albania and had played on the Albanian national soccer team against the French) had hand-tamed and baptized the turkey 'Giuliani' - although the bird was a female, bald nonetheless.

José had made enough money under the human Giuliani (he was an electrician and re-wired a lot of the revamping of Times Square) to retire early and spend the rest of his days (the guy's still in his forties) quietly perpetuating the fishing techniques his grandfather had taught him when he was growing up a kid in Guatemala.

His grandfather was Mayan Indian.

People like José are original hunter-gatherers, in tune with the environment. In tune with themselves. As I've said before on these pages, I've worked and continue to work with hunter-gatherers in the Venezuelan Amazon, and you won't find people more endowed with a complete awareness of, and curiosity for, their surroundings. People who can read the sky, and the world around them like last years Sear's catalogue, from alpha to omega, the pulsating, erratic mood swings of the ocean, the water, the devious stillness of a pond's surface. People who fulfill their humanity, their 'genetic promise', their simian calling. People who use their entire body - and that includes their brain.

"Work is for people who don't know how to fish!" That's what Brooklyn's all-time favorite angler Billy Fink says.

Come to think of it, fishing predates work. The myriad fishermen of New York collectively mirror the pre-agrarian state of humanity. So to see them profiled against the Manhattan skyline-apex of the past 200 years of modernity, of industrial revolution, of technological wizardry (and labor)-is to contemplate the near whole space-time continuum of humanity in the same frame, the history of our species encapsulated by a giant castle of shimmering glass that groans and heaves beside a river, an estuary, the Atlantic Ocean.

Not only does New York City defy space, reeling in nationalities from the entire planet, it defies time, crossing its boundaries, subsuming examples from every one of our species' past revolutions. Look at the City's community gardeners: they're straight out of the Neolithic!

Einstein said that to condense so much time and space you needed a lot of gravity. Enter the City of New York: the closest thing we have to a Black Hole.

Will New York collapse on itself ?

Or will the Apple just fall from its tree…




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