July 10, 2009

The "fresh, green breast of the new world" - Mannahatta/Manhattan

A particularly noisy robin lives near me, perched somewhere in a sycamore tree on the east side of our building. Already sensing the light of day and anticipating the morning, the bird chirps incessantly through the hours of nautical and civil twilight until shortly after the sun rises. At this time of summer, on the island of Manhattan, the tweeting often begins around 4:20 a.m. and continues until 6 a.m. I've heard the bird for a long time now, and only this week, while out on the first dog walk of the day, have I seen it with my own eyes and caught it in its song. While I live on the west side of the building, facing the sunset over Greenwich Village and the Hudson, I wonder how anyone on the east side of the block could sleep through this incessant chirp.

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York CityYesterday, while visiting the enthralling exhibit, Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City at the Museum of the City of New York, I thought about my bird when I came across the following quote from an early visitor to Manhattan, dated 1630, and posted on a gallery wall: "Birds fill the woods so that men can scarcely go through them for the whistling, the noise and the chattering.” Adjusting to life in Manhattan most always involves coping with an often-discordant symphony during the early hours, but I never realized until now that the earliest visitors and residents may have also suffered from lack of sleep.

What a beautiful place this Mannahatta, the verdant paradise Henry Hudson and fellow sailors came upon almost 400 years ago. Switching from audio to visual for a moment, the visual aspects of the exhibit at the museum, with several geographical sections including Inwood, Foley Square, Turtle Bay/Murray Hill, Harlem, and Times Square illuminated in their own display, are stunning in their virtual renderings and computer simulations of the bygone natural world. Explaining that the pre-neon Times Square, for example, was a natural draw with its convergence to two streams, it's no wonder that we continue to assemble there. Now the lawn chairs make more sense.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous quote from The Great Gatsby, one of the most beautiful passages in American literature and that adorns one wall of the exhibit, speaks to the imagined awe of the explorers' first encounter.* The exhibit could have shamed us for our crass destruction of such a beautiful environment, but the organizers take a different route. Instead of bemoaning the lost Eden and advocating its return, the exhibit, curated by Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, aims to heighten awareness of the theme of diversity throughout the area's history. At the time the Dutch arrived, the place had already lost its Eden qualities, as the small native-American population cleared and rearranged the land for their own purposes. Yet, here were hundreds of species of plants, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals living in a hilly-forested place with many islands and streams and in several distinct ecosystems. In time, a great diversity of ethnic groups and nationalities would come to live here and rearrange the landscape.

Like the two New Yorkers stumbling across the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon in Lerner and Loewe's 1947 musical, it is still possible to encounter glimpses of Mannahatta now and then. In fleeting moments, a walk down Minetta Street in the Village, for example, feels like walking beside a stream. Of course, it should. Minetta Brook, from the Dutch Mintje Kill meaning "small stream," once flowed there, part of its wandering course from 23rd Street down to the Hudson. In most parts of the city you can watch volunteering native plants push up through cracks in the pavement or between cobble stones or from under the tracks on the High Line. Even in the elaborately landscaped and affected "natural" parts of Central Park, in the Ravine and the Ramble, the original Mannahatta makes an appearance here and there. The birds know where to find it, and they'll let others know the location by their sounds in the twilight.
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Images: above, computer simulation in exhibit; below, NW entrance of Central Park by Walking Off the Big Apple, Thursday, July 9, 2009.

Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue (link to website)

Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City
Through October 13, 2009

Also recommended: Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: The Worlds of Henry Hudson
Through September 27, 2009

Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered
Through September 13, 2009

* "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925

For more on The Great Gatsby and New York, read the related entry on Nick Carraway's Walk.

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