From Hudson to 9/11

Times smartly pairs two lower-Manhattan anniversaries

Remember remember the month of September. So says a smart tribute in today’s New York Times, pairing the eighth anniversary of 9/11 and the four-hundredth anniversary of Dutch explorer Henry Hudson’s first voyage, on 9/12, into what would become New York Harbor.

The op-ed, by Eric Sanderson, author of Mannahatta: A Natural History, is an ode to both humans’ and nature’s “remarkable capacity to recover and renew.” Sanderson is the founder and director of the ten-year-old Mannahattan Project, a Wildlife Conservation Society initiative to map the original ecology of the once forested island at the heart of New York’s concrete jungle.

“The pain and the loss [of the 9/11 terrorist attacks] remain indelible,” Sanderson writes in the Times. “In light of this, it is possible to take some comfort from the past—to know that while the lives lost almost a decade ago will never return, this place of earth has the capacity to be reborn.”

That is, of course, a somewhat whimsical statement. Sanderson’s tribute carries an artist’s rendering of what Manhattan may have looked like in 1609. There is a long, idyllic looking beach along the southwestern tip of the island—about 1,000 yards shy of where the World Trade Center would later stand on reclaimed land. According to the op-ed:

Modern ecological research has shown that Mannahatta [as it was known to the native Lenape people] was an island of remarkable biological diversity. Its 55 ecosystems encompassed stately forests, rich wetlands, sandy beaches and rocky shores, eel grass meadows and deep marine waters. This 25-square-mile island had 66 miles of streams and more ecosystems per acre than Yellowstone; more plant species than Yosemite; and more birds than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park does today.

Little of that natural splendor remains, however. Today, Manhattan is a land of polluted air, water, and earth. True, even in such a paved-over part of the world, left untended, ecologists expect nature would quickly recover ground. Two years ago, science journalist Alan Weisman drew quite a few headlines with his book The World Without Us, which argued that without people, wilderness would fairly rapidly subsume human infrastructure. As part of its coverage, Scientific American carried an interesting timeline describing “The Fall of New York City.” Within twenty years, “dozens of streams and marshes form within Manhattan.” Within 500 years, “mature forests cover the New York metropolitan area.” And within 15,000 years, “the last remnants of stone buildings fall.”

Geologically speaking, that’s a pretty rapid transformation. But humans don’t operate on geologic timeframes. In fact, they have a lot of trouble caring about anything more than a generation down the road. Not to mention that, far from disappearing, we are quickly breeding ourselves into a world of 9 billion individuals. Many of them, as New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin has pointed out in a number of posts, will be teenagers and young adults in the developing world that will be anxiously seeking food, water, shelter, education, and employment.

It is the lack of such amenities that allows violent zealots like Osama bin Laden to inculcate terrorists for plots like the 9/11 attacks. Sustainability and national security have never been so intimately coupled. If the world cannot figure out a way to meet the basic needs of a booming population—from bread, to electricity, to jobs—in a resource-constrained world, the future will be grim.

“Resilience is a hallmark of any successful system, whether for a forest, a wetland or a city,” Sanderson argues in his anniversary tribute. “There is a process in ecology called succession—the orderly advance of ecosystems from one state to another. There are moments of terror and unfathomable destruction, and then stability returns and life takes hold again, often with a firmer grip. This applies, of course, both to nature and to human society.”

True enough, perhaps, but that process does not fly on autopilot. Sanderson quotes Jane Jacobs, an early critic of urban planning and development, who once wrote, “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.” He or she should have added that the seeds of destruction are there, too. More important is which ones we decide to plant and water.

Sanderson has an excellent line in his op-ed where he describes Henry Hudson piloting toward the Manhattan shore where the twin towers would stand, and fall, almost 400 years later, his small, wooden ship “cleaving the waters with the narrow prow of history that would one day create New York City in its wake.”

We are still cleaving those waters, but our prow has grown wider and the boat now carries almost seven billion people. Resilience—for nature and human society—is an option, as Sanderson says. But unless we get our act together, so is foundering. For the press, sustainability is indeed the “story of our time.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.