Sunday, July 5, 2009

America the Beautiful, Manhattan the Sweet?

Independence Day weekend seems like a good time to write a bit about the ecological history of New York City. The city is situated on an estuary, a semi-enclosed coastal body of water with rivers and streams flowing into it, where saltwater and freshwater meet, creating a diverse ecosystem. Early European visitors to Manhattan describe it as an Eden with fresh air, verdant landscapes and an abundance of wild fruit, fowl, fish and oysters (more on those bivalves in later posts).

I’ve always been amused that many of these early written accounts speak of Manhattan as having a "sweet smell." Anyone who is familiar with the unique putridity left behind after a rainy-day garbage collection in Manhattan, can attest to the seeming absurdity of the idea of this place ever smelling "sweet." Some time ago, I had the extreme misfortune of slipping and landing in a puddle of this muck. After three washes, my jeans still reeked of garbage, and I ended up throwing them out.

I find this dramatic juxtaposition fascinating, and cannot wait to see the exhibition Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, currently at the Museum of the City of New York. The show recreates Manhattan as it was when Europeans first arrived and explores the balance of nature and urban development over time.

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