The book Mannahatta, a Natural History of NYC by Eric Sanderson was the best book I read in 2009, and I must have read 40 green building books.
For weeks after reading it I walked around New York in a daze, spellbound by the historical tapestry the book had woven of my surroundings.
If you haven’t yet heard of this book, it describes the island of Manhattan in the year 1600 as a lush garden of Eden teeming with abundant wildlife. Using advanced topographical scanning of the existing island the author overlays old maps, historical landscape descriptions of specific spots and computer algorithms to recreate what seems like a perfectly accurate model of how it was.
It is pure genius.
And the Manhattan of 1600, aka Mannahatta to the locals Indians, was so full of life that it is mind blowing. I wandered the streets as if in two realities. In one I would see a building or a street, in the other I knew there once was a pond there, or a hill with a certain kind of forest.
But the most impactful element of the book was how it literally blasted my awareness open to a new possibility. To see Manhattan, arguably the most humanly altered plot of land on the earth, as a verdant ecosystem more dense with nature than the most alive rainforests changed me in ways I can’t describe.
As a green builder and green contractor who strives each day to make New York a more natural place through gardens, green roofs and living walls, I connected to the Manhattan of the past in a way that was very powerful. It was like by seeing the past I could also see a possible future.
It fueled my vision with new imagery, not fanciful imagery from make believe, but real imagery that existed in the very same place I was striving. It was once like my dream and it gave me hope that it can be again.
And also I felt like that guy in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when he keeps getting an image in his head of a mountain. It consumes him. He draws the mountain, he shapes it out of his mashed potatoes during dinner, he creates a model out of it in his house.
And then one day he sees the very same mountain on television. And it clicks. He knows then that he isn’t crazy. He knows then that he needs to go to that mountain. And of course it turns out that is where the aliens land.
I had that same experience minus the aliens
Here I am passionately working as a green contractor and builder because I have this vision of a green New York. It was an image in my head. I could see it in my minds eye. I didn’t have any examples. It was just in there driving me.
And then I get this book and see exactly the same imagery. In exactly the same place.
It totally blew me away.