Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A look back in time

My monthly National Geographic magazine arrived in the mail yesterday. The cover carried an intriguing computer rendition of how Manhattan Island likely looked in 1609, next to its appearance today. This stuff is fascinating to me, as I have always wished I could travel back in time and see our country as it might of appeared to the pioneers or native Americans. I love to squint my eyes and try to imagine landscapes without power lines and pavement and people, two hundred or more years ago.

The Mannahatta Project people, who supplied National Geographic with the computer renderings, have done this. According to their website these folks have been working for over a decade, looking at historical maps and records to recreate the 17th century landscape. In one sense it is a wonder to see what "man hath wrought" in a couple of hundred years, sculpting the land to make it habitable and creating marvels of engineering. On the other hand it is sad to virtually see the beauty that once was, and is no more. Lakes that provided water for Indians, first polluted, then filled in and eventually paved over. Rich fisheries that have declined, and scenery transformed to blight.

Interestingly, just posted a video by Bobby Corrigan showing rodent activity and behavior in lower Manhattan. Norway rats are not native to North America and, as Bobby points out, lower Manhattan island was likely one of the first places in the continent where rats made landfall.

For better and worse, we humans have made our mark on this fair land. One of our biggest ecological sins, in my opinion, is the way we have redistributed a variety of plant, insect and vertebrate animals to places they did not evolve and do not live peacefully with native ecologies. The landscape of Manhattan island is now honeycombed with the warrens and runs of Rattus norvegicus. Prairies of Texas are now populated with Solenopsis invicta, the red imported fire ant, to the harm of native quail and snakes and myriad insects.

It's important that the public and, more importantly, our children know these things. There are still pests to keep out, and there are still plenty of places that resemble 1609 Manhattan, and there is a need to have both our New York cities and our wild places. Kudos to the Mannahatta project and all those people working to instill an appreciation among kids for our native landscapes. Now if we could just keep crazy ants and fire ants at bay.

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