Monday, September 07, 2009

Muir Web

TLS September 4 2009

from Peter Coates's review of Eric W. Sanderson's Mannahatta: The natural history of New York City:

On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson, a British navigator in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, entered the river that now bears his name. He was searching for the elusive Northwest Passage to the Orient, and continued upriver for over a hundred miles in his yacht, the Half Moon. Neat the site of Albany, New York State's future capital, the water became too shallow for further progress and Hudson finally accepted that this wasn't the way to Cathay. The consolation prize was the discovery of the island that the local people, the Lenape (a branch of the Algonquin Indians), called "Manna-hata" [In the Algonquin language, "Island of Many Hills"].
One of [Sanderson's] project's most innovative contribution to historical ecology is the concept of the "Muir web". Named after one of Sanderson's heroes, John Muir, the prominent American conservationist and pioneering advocate of national parks, this web maps the dense network of connected parts that constitute the natural world, showing the full set of requirements and associations of every plant, animal and habitat features. . . . Sanderson has provided a block-by-block, street-by-street guide to the former ecology of the city. Visit the project's lavish website (, type in a location, and you can see what it looks like now and what it looked like then.
Mannahatta's main ridge line, along which ran a Lenape hunting trail, is now occupied by Broadway. The bit of Manhattan that bears the closest resemblance to Mannahatta is easy to locate: Inwood Hill Park, a largely unmodified patch of hilly ground at the island's northwest tip, contains the last remnant of forest and salt marsh, as well as evidence of Lenape use and habitation.
Strange as it may sound, Manhattan is already one of the greenest places in the nation, with a space-saving concentration of people and high use of public transport. . . . As we increasingly live in cities, we must work out how to make them more habitable and sustainable. This is especially so because, as Sanderson reminds us, cities aren't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, by concentrating our ecological footprint, cities can be just what the earth's non-human life needs to relieve human pressure elsewhere.

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