Ever wondered what the Apple looked like
before it grew into a city? Image © Val Druguet.
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,
Look to the shoreline.
examples of New York Metamorphoses
Whites, Forest Park, Queens. A foreign species.
Butterfly, feeding on Joe Pye Weed. Manhattan.
Lady, Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx. Its host plants
(where the butterfly lays its eggs) are Everlastings
Crescent, Eib's Pond, Staten Island. Its eggs are
laid in clusters on leaves of asters, which the
caterpillars then eat.
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,
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
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…