Skip to main content

Wildlife in Manhattan is these days limited to the circling sharks in finance, the baying hounds in media and the rutting squirrels in Central Park. But 400 years ago this fall, Henry Hudson, an English sea captain searching for a quick route to China on behalf of his Dutch employers, came across an archipelago in the estuary of a river on the east coast of the New World that teemed with such an abundance of flora and fauna that few in our high-tech age could come close to imagining it accurately.

Mannahatta - the "Island of Many Hills," as the soon-to-be decamped natives called it - "had more ecological communities per acre than Yellowstone [National Park] more native plant species than Yosemite, and more birds than the Great Smoky Mountain National Park," writes Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist who works in the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo and is the author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.

  • Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, by Eric W. Sanderson, illustrations by Markley Boyer, Abrams, 354 pages, $44

"Mannahatta housed wolves, black bears, mountain lions, beaver, mink, and river otters; whales, porpoises, seals, and the occasional sea turtle visited its harbor. Millions of birds of more than a hundred and fifty different species flew over the island annually on transcontinental migratory pathways; millions of fish - shad, herring, trout, sturgeon, and eel - swam past the island up the Hudson River and in its streams... Sphaghum moss from the North and magnolia from the South met in New York City, in forests with over seventy kinds of trees, and wetlands with over two hundred kinds of plants. Thirty varieties of orchids once grew on Mannahatta."

Story continues below advertisement

You get the picture, but Sanderson, using modern technology, wants to make it crystal clear just what Mannahatta, the pristine Eden, was before it became Manhattan, the concrete jungle.

After poring over old maps and engravings, reading pioneers' accounts of early European life, doing a lot of legwork that included standing on rocks and other high points to try to establish the landscape, and overlapping these findings with satellite images and running them through modern imaging software, Sanderson and Markley Boyer, the book's illustrator, have recreated what they believe to be a scientifically accurate portrayal of Mannahatta on Sept. 11, 1609 - the day before Hudson and his crew landed.

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City See the photo gallery

"Using these data, we can make virtual time travel possible, to see what Hudson could see, though didn't understand," Sanderson says. "...We can literally reconstruct the view out of any office building or apartment in Manhattan as it appeared four hundred years ago.

"These images show us nature in all her beauty, complexity, and loveliness at a time before streets and blocks and tall buildings, before the human footprint lay so heavily on Manhattan and the world."

For all the talk of heavy human footprints, the book is not a humourless tome that despairs for the environmental damage wrought by man. It celebrates the human achievement that is the modern New York City just as much as it does the natural wonder from which it sprang. And it looks forward as well as backward; the final chapter, called Manhattan 2409 , predicts a metropolis whose buildings are carpeted with green roofs, thoroughfares that have been turned over to cyclists, pedestrians and space-age mass transit, and surrounding boroughs that have been transformed into farmland to meet the demand for sustainable living.

"New Yorkers [in 2409]will live in communities and cycles of life that extend beyond their city, knowing that they are playing productive roles in the global ecological economy and that the world is assured for their children, and their children's children," concludes Sanderson in a burst of optimism one doesn't get to enjoy much these days. "Mannahatta will be back for all of us."

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to