Where the Wild Things Were

400 years later, the Mannahatta Project unearths the Big Apple’s natural history.

EM8-LowRes39This year marked the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival on our little island—and Europeans’ first contact with the few hundred people who then called it home. Hudson’s logs report repasts of wild turkey, cranberries, pumpkins, corn cakes and other foods which would best the Thanksgiving menus of today’s luckiest locavores: oysters, lobsters, cod, bluefish, striped bass, sturgeon, flounder, mackerel, ducks, geese, strawberries, huckleberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, plums, currants, elderberries, grapes, sunchokes and beans—not to mention chestnuts and acorn flour, deer and bear.

Wildlife Conservation Society wunderkind Dr. Eric Sanderson has spent a decade unearthing Manhattan’s natural history in an effort to piece together precisely what Hudson found when he alighted back in 1609. His resulting Mannahatta Project plots out the few square miles that are today a concrete jungle but which were then home to wolves, songbirds, salamanders—and the Lenape people who had hunted, fished and farmed here for centuries. (His remarkable interactive map allows you to zoom in on any block to see what might have been there, down to the snakes and mosses alongside the two streams near today’s Times Square, or the enormous piles of emptied oyster shells for which Pearl Street would later be named.)

In honor of the quadricentennial, Sanderson teamed up with Fritz Haeg, artist-gardener behind Edible Estates, to create a garden on W. 26th Street that features the foods the Lenape grew in their fields and gleaned from the island’s woodlands, meadows and berry patches. That holy trinity of corn, beans and squash will be back next summer; now the garden bears a crop that was just as important in the days before Ziploc bags of leftovers: bluestem grass, used to line in-ground storage pits.

View “The Story of Mannahatta and the Lenape Edible Estate: Manhattan,” Sanderson and Haeg’s wonderful short film about the garden and the history of eating on the island of Manhattan.

Photo credit: Fritz Haeg

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Gabrielle Langholtz is the former editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan.