03.03.2010, 3:59 pm
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Empire State Building and Manhattan schist, image FOP 2009

“Manhattan Island is the result of titanic forces played out in slow motion.  Whereas Wall Street tracks the market minute by minute, we, in order to understand the monumental forces that have shaped the fundamental geology of Manhattan, have to recalibrate our sense of time, to slow down to ‘rock time.’  What we experience as centuries amount to just seconds on the cosmic clock of stone.  Once we adjust our imaginations to rock time, then we can begin to understand the many lives of Manhattan.  I won’t dwell in the distant geologic past, but let’s take a scamper through the millennia. Ten thousand years ago, Manhattan was a hill beside a great fjord, the Hudson River canyon. Before that, Manhattan was a doormat to ice- at least twice in the last two hundred thousand years glaciers have bloodied Manhattan’s nose and scraped off her skin. Manhattan has also been part of the seabed, and lain for hundreds of millennia in the crust of the earth, deformed by extreme heat and pressure.  Manhattan has also been part of a mountain range, probably many mountains ranges, which over millions of years eroded away into rubble.  Manhattan has had pimply volcanoes, spent a dissolute youth in the tropics, known Europe and Africa on intimate terms, and crashed like a hot rod (geologically speaking) into North America. Earthquakes, floods, drownings, and rebirths: Manhattan has known them all. Some of the rocks on the island today are over a billion years old.” – Eric W. Sanderson, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

On February 25, 2010 FOP interviewed Eric Sanderson, author and founder of the Mannahatta Project.  We talked with Eric about the challenges of experiencing the places we inhabit–especially urban centers such as Manhattan–as ecologically and geologically dynamic spaces.  It’s not easy, for example, to experience Manhattan as a place that is right now slowly and continuously rebuilding itself into an entirely new city.

Eric’s work helps people extend their imaginations through time.  We talked about what might become possible if humans routinely moved through the world with a “triple time consciousness” –a sense of the past, present and future as shaping one another.  We asked how aesthetic experience figures in desires to imagine and design places like New York City in and through deep time.

You can experience the dynamic Mannahatta project site here and hear Eric give an overview of the project in his TED talk from TEDGlobal 2009. The entire project is told in the dramatically illustrated Mannahatta book.  Last year’s Mannahatta exhibition is documented on the Museum of the City of New York’s site.  And, if you are a subscriber to the New Yorker Magazine, you can read an archived profile of the project and tour the city with Eric while the project was in process (October 2007).


Murray Hill circa 1609, image: Mark Boyer WCS

FOP: How did you come to place the Mannahatta project in 1609, 400 years ago, as opposed to longer ago?

ERIC: I chose Sept. 12, 1609 because of the social and political history associated with that date. That is the day that Henry Hudson arrived. New York City traditionally marks its beginning point with Henry Hudson’s voyage. In fact, most history books on New York City start with the Half Moon sailing into New York harbor and then they spend hundreds and hundreds of pages describing what the implications of that were. And so I was interested, as an ecologist, to go just a moment before that to try and bring that historical record into some kind of context.

FOP: It seems as though you were able to imbue the project with a sense of longer span of time by writing about the Lenape  (who had been living in the area for nearly 10,000 years). We definitely appreciate that about the project.

ERIC: Yes, to understand what is going on at any particular point moment in time you need to understand the history that feeds into that point in time. There are all kinds of processes that are going on in nature that move at different time scales. So to understand the afternoon of Sept. 12, 1609, you have to understand, maybe, 200 years of land use from Native Americans. That’s the kind of timescale that we modeled over.  As well as understanding the glacial history of the landscape, in terms of how ice had shaped the landscape and shaped the hills, and then how the retreat of the glaciers left parallel beds of sediments that then became important for how water moved through the landscape, both in the surface and subsurface. Then of course, all of that is laid over the bedrock geology and the much longer geological history of the island.

Glacial scoured outcrops of the Manhattan Formation in Central Park and Crotona Park, images USGS

FOP: Have people responded to the 400-year timeframe as a long time?

ERIC: For New Yorkers in particular, it is a very very long period of time to think about. One of things that fascinated me about New York when I first moved here is how, compared to other great cities around the world, New York City seems like a place that doesn’t seem to think about its history. When you go to London or Paris, or even Delhi or Tokyo, there is this sense that you are part of a historical phenomenon. That there were people before you and they were doing things, and there will be people beyond you and they are going to be doing things and you are sort of part of that. This is part of what it means to live in that place.

In New York City, people come here and accept it as they find it at the time, and then start to build their futures from whatever they have found. I think that is such an interesting part of what it means to live here. It also seemed like an opportunity for me to get in some insights of what it means to be a New Yorker that weren’t already in play.

“No images of the Lenape from Mannahatta exist today. This photograph is from Kansas, circa 1900, shows a Lenape dancer dressed as the Mesingoholikan, an incarnation of the spirit who negotiated between people and the spirits of animals they killed. In their language, Lenape meant “the Real People”; to their peers in the region, they were honored as the “Ancient Ones,” respected as the oldest of the northeastern Algonquin cultures. The Lenape and their ancestors had inhabited Mannahatta and its surrounding areas for perhaps ten thousand years prior to Hudson’s arrival.”  – Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

FOP: We’ve been working with some writers in our project that have actually said it is impossible for human beings to cognitively grasp very long spans of time, such as 10,000 years or more. They say we haven’t, or can’t, evolve brains that are capable of this. Do you think people can grasp or live in relation to longer spans of time?

ERIC: As an ecologist, I think that every organism has characteristic scales of time and space that it lives over. If you think of an insect, such as a butterfly that only lives in its adult form for a couple of weeks and flutters around in a particular area, that is its experience of the world. And if you think of human beings being a part of that, we have a distinctive lifespan that is getting longer, but is generally less than 100 years. We have, only in the last 100-150 years, developed the capability to move across huge geographic space, to leave where we are and go to the other side of the world. And those are very short changes in evolutionary time. So, I could see how some people might say we are somewhat scale limited, just like every other organism.

But, I also think that the human life history trick is to be able to communicate with each other and share ideas. And because we have invented technologies such as writing we can essentially share ideas across time, and we have invented technological tools like science that help us understand long historic time. I don’t think it will take millions of years for us to learn to live in millions of years. I think we can adapt more quickly to think about those things.

I remember reading a book about how Darwin was influenced by Lyell’s work in geology. And I think he had a copy of Lyell’s Principles of Geology with him when Darwin traveled around the world on the Beagle. That sort of geological time opened up Darwin’s imagination to imagine biological evolution. You can’t really get to the idea of biological evolution unless you imagine long periods of time for evolution to occur over. We’re still not done figuring out what all the implications are.

“Half-Park” Mannahatta|Manhattan, image Mark Boyer WCS

FOP: At FOP, we interested in using art, aesthetic experience and graphic design to create contexts that open up people’s imaginations in new ways towards geologic change. We were drawn to the Mannahatta book and project because we see it functioning in this way. We were particularly interested in its signature image: the split image of contemporary New York on one side and Mannahatta on the other. We don’t read that image as “before”/”after.”  We actually experience it as simultaneous—as these two Manhattans are still co-existing somehow.  The forces that shaped the area 400 years ago are still at play today. They are different, but the same forces are still here. What do you think of this way of responding to this image?

ERIC: That’s really great. I remember the very first time I held a copy of the book in my hand. I came home and was sitting with my eight-year old son, thumbing through the book, and that image is right across from the title page. He looked at it and said, “Daddy, that’s so great. You can just walk down the street and right into the forest!”. And I said, “Yeah! It’s like the half-park” and he said, “Yeah, we don’t need Central Park, we need Half-Park!”

So yes, I think a big part of the project is to help people recognize “ecological potential” as they call it. Which means lots of different things, but for me it means that any given piece of land or water wants to express itself ecologically, and take in all the factors and nature that are impinging on it across scales of time and space.  In cities, human infrastructure sometimes constrains that potential. But by modifying the infrastructure we can release some of that potential, often in unexpected ways.

geologic subconscious of the city, (from the humans passing through the geologic series), image FOP 2009

FOP: We also think what’s interesting about the Mannahatta image is how it places the viewer within a space of “triple time consciousness,” an awareness of a continuously unfolding span of time that includes past, present and future. This consciousness allows us to be able to move through the city and sense the amazing history of Mannahatta imbuing contemporary Manhattan, and still sense the future as taking shape. Do you think it is possible for people outside the sciences to have this consciousness and what might it make possible?

ERIC: I think everybody can have it. I think in the same sense that we live our lives and we realize we’re kids and then we’re adults and then we’re older people and eventually we die. That sense of being part of a continuity of change over time is part of us and part of what it means to be a living person, a living organism. I don’t think it is a huge stretch to then take that metaphorically–to see your society, and your culture and your self as part of this larger ecology, and as also changing over time. I think that kind of time consciousness is very important in cities. Particularly when we think about how natures interact with each other in the city.

FOP: Yes, there is a great part of the book, the last chapter that’s about the year 2409.  It imagines that the city has been slowly rebuilt over time, building by building, into a much greener city.

ERIC: I think some of our planning processes are so constrained because they are scaled to such short timescales. It’s hard to plan over long timescales, but I think it’s also hard to get agreement over short timescales. Sometimes there are really difficult issues to be figured out.

Hearst Tower, NYC, image AIA (Hearst Tower opened in 2006 and was New York City’s first skyscraper to achieve LEED Gold accreditation. 80% of the steel used was recycled. Rainwater is collected on the roof and is funneled into a 14,000-gallon tank in the basement and accounts for 50% of the tower’s usage).

“Skyscrapers, like everything else in our landscape, are not permanent. Over the next four hundred years, nearly all the buildings on Manhattan will be torn down and rebuilt, not through whole scale change, but block by block, building by building.” – Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

FOP: At FOP we’re particularly interested what it might mean to “design for deep time”, something that is becoming more and more necessary but isn’t quite practiced in design schools as such yet. Ecologists, designers and urban planners could share their plans for deep time with the public and help them see their environments over thousands of years, and help them find ways to live in relation to extremely slow changes. This kind of thinking could help shift perspectives from the short term to the long term and highlight the huge design implications that result.

ERIC: That’s right. Nature does have ways of sorting these things out and so increasingly I think it is our political, economic and cultural structures that are the inflexible thing. And yet, in some sense, those should be the most flexible things, right? Like beach erosion, or the way the climate works, or the way species have evolved to have particular life histories, those things took millions of years to kind of work themselves out to where they are today. Whereas our social systems, most of them have been invented in our lifetimes and they will get reinvented again. If you think of the evolution and adaptation of social systems, as opposed to biological systems, social systems actually change much more rapidly than biological systems do and yet we can’t imagine this in our heads. The social system seems more real to us than the natural system.

I also think that plays in to the really big environmental changes that are going on in the world and the why people perceive them, whether is its climate change or species extinction. There is this despairing move that people make when they say it’s okay that all people may die out because the earth will continue. I think that’s a way of actually not making the changes they need to make, and it’s kind of like resigning themselves to calamity, which I think is really really awful. Another underlying motive in a lot of my work is to help people realize how dramatically the world has changed over time, and therefore, why it is really important to realize that and then do things. But also give them the psychological tools or support to act proactively. To say, yes, human beings as a species have had a traumatic impact on the world, but we’re part of the natural world and we have the capacity to change and make other choices.  So let’s try to work out ways to make these kinds of choices instead of those kinds of choices.

FOP: What do you think of the term “Anthropocene”, which some people are using to suggest we’re in new geologic era—one distinguished by the impact that humans are having?

ERIC: I did some work a number of years ago on what we called the “human footprint”. We actually made a map of how human beings are influencing the world by adding together maps of human population density, infrastructure, and land use, and power infrastructure based on lights you can see from a satellite at night. That map shows that 83% of the land’s surface has already been touched by people and 98% of the places where it’s possible to grow rice, wheat and corn are already influenced by people. It’s another piece of evidence that’s sort of showing the historically extreme way that one species is influencing the world today, and try to put the human influence into historical context.

Mannahatta expanded in outline into Manhattan, image Mark Boyer WCS

FOP: We really appreciated the visuals in the Mannahatta book. They are much more than illustrations. They seem to invite a sense of wonder. Could you say a bit about this invitation, the design of the book itself, and your sense of the power of aesthetic experience in learning and thinking?

ERIC: The first thing to say is there are other characters that were very important in terms of the design of the book. It was designed by Abbott Miller at Pentagram. Mark Boyer did the illustrations, the reconstructed images.  I’ve been working with him for 6 or 7 years now and working over many different iterations of those images.  And working with different technological tools to try and get the images as true to our vision of what we think, based on the science, as we possibly could. When I was first taking with Abbott and Deborah Aaronson, who is the editor at Abrams, about the book, I said: “it’s really important to me for the book to be very beautiful and compelling in an aesthetic way, but to not overwhelm the text and ideas. I really wanted it to be a beautiful book but I didn’t want it to be a coffee table book, where people just looked at the pictures and didn’t read the text. And I think the design of book was very successful in that way.

FOP: How do you know when it tips toward becoming too beautiful, or too informational? Is it a personal aesthetic?

ERIC: Well, I don’t know, but at one point Deborah told me to go to a couple bookstores and browse around and look for books that have the design feel that I wanted. I did that and the only one that was a little bit close was a translation of Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, it a very beautiful book. It’s a translation of the poem, but its offset with illustrations, that aren’t direct illustrations of things in the poem, but pictures of objects and art that is associated with the time period that works very effectively to create an atmosphere when you’re reading the poem of that time. So, I brought that in and showed them that. It is really hard to do.

Battery Park City coming into existence in virtual time on the Mannahatta project site, screenshots from the Mannahatta website

FOP: Is there any part of the Mannahatta project that you see as purely aesthetic? For example, we had the experience of using the website and zooming in on Battery Park City back in 1609. The site shows the area outlined in a thin orange line, signaling the land that yet wasn’t there. For us it read, visually, as a void, a powerful aesthetic image that allows a viewer’s imagination to fill in possibilities. Do you hope people discover this kind of experience on their own, within the context that you have set up?

ERIC: I’m not an artist at all, so I have to collaborate with people who have a better artistic sense than I do. But, I work for a conservation organization, so I hear about and have to tell these really terrible stories about what is going on in the world about the human relationship to nature.   I wanted the Mannahatta work not to be that kind of sad story. I wanted it to be a positive, beautiful, aesthetic story. I wanted the whole project to convey my experience of being in nature – and nature with all of its parts.  It’s so beautiful and moving as an aesthetic experience.  And at the same time it’s so fascinating–this complex system and realization of how these species all work out and how they interact with a physical environment–as well as being something that’s sort of mysterious and spiritual in that sense as well.  There is so much about it that we don’t really understand. When you are in nature, you sort of get this sense of being part of this much large thing, much larger scheme, and being small in that scheme. And yet also being unique and important in this scheme. It wouldn’t be the same if you weren’t there. I wanted to bring all those kinds of feelings and thoughts to Mannahatta and to try and give them to the people of New York City. To give them in a way that they could take them in, and make them part of their idea of what New York City can be.


At FOP, we are excited by how Eric’s work as an ecologist takes on aesthetic effects and evens seeks them.  The boundaries between art and science in the Mannahatta project are in constant flux and dialogue.  Experiencing the Mannahatta book, site or exhibition allows viewers to re-imagine what they thought they knew about a place that has the status of a cultural icon. Another version of what New York City “is” gets thrown into the vast mix–one that repopulates the city with native trees, stones, rivers, and people. In Eric’s project, a thoroughly Anthropocene city embraces its Pleistocene (and beyond) past.  The project’s pleasing juxtapositions image New York City’s past and future as co-existing- and feeding into an unknowable future that is wide open to imagination.

We see Eric’s work with Mannahatta as a gesture not unlike artist Agne’s Denes’ Wheatfield—A Confrontation (staged in Battery Park City in 1982). Both Sanderson and Denes dramatically re-visualize how we see the city through their ecologically minded work. Their speculative visualizations of the city, and all that results from the associated aesthetic experience, invite us to stop and look again.  These works place the city at the conflux of the forces that continuously make it: geology, ecology and biology.

Wheatfield—A Confrontation, Commissioned by Public Art Fund, 1982 Agnes Denes

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

What a delightful and interesting read! Excellent questions, couldn’t wait to read how Eric would respond. As usual, he was informative and insightful. Kept me engrossed from beginning to end.
Thanks to FOP!

Comment by Durl Kruse

great article – found it from seeing Agne’s picture walking thru the wheat on a blog and was intrigued.

Comment by simon

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