Is there some trace of the land’s past still resident? Although songlines are not part of our Western cultural history, the concept of stories preserved in a particular landscape has a powerful appeal. Here in New England we often joke about the tenacity of our Puritan ancestors whose energy still seems to linger in spite of our embrace of 21st century cosmopolitanism. We try to smooth out our tablecloth, but the bubbles of Cotton Mather and the Salem witch trials don’t disappear, they just move down a plank or two.

I have slept on the ground from Bolivia to Bhutan, and every landscape offers up its own dream images and energies. But in all the years I lived in Manhattan, I never did spend a night sleeping and dreaming on its bare bosom. If I ever did, the images might reflect the Manhattan being assembled by the Wildlife Conservation Society as part of their Mannahatta Project (the Lenape tribe’s name for the island.) The WCS is meticulously analyzing every historical document in order to reconstruct the primordial landscape that existed before Henry Hudson and his crew first saw the island in 1609.

Looking south from Soho. Fresh water marshes, Collect Pond and forests of poplars and pines. (Rendering by Markley Boyer for the Wildlife Conservation Society.)

At the core of the Mannahatta Project is Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist. He heads up a WCS project called the Human Footprint which traces the human race’s impact on the earth. “It’s hard to think of any place in the world with as heavy a footprint, in so short a time, as New York,” he said. “It’s probably the fastest, biggest land coverage swing in history.” In addition to future websites and a book, “Sanderson hopes to create a 3D computer map which would allow you to fly above the island, land wherever you want, and look around. Eventually, Sanderson would like to put up plaques around town calling attention to vanished landmarks.” (The New Yorker)

Looking to the northwest from Foley Square. Marshes existed where Canal Street is today.

My future techno fantasy: The i-Travel, a hand held for time travel. Key in a year, and the landscape is transmogrified for you, on the spot. Who knows, the Mannahatta Project may be an early prototype.