Eric Sanderson

Q: Why don’t we just start off? You’re from Cal­i­for­nia, I read.

A: I’m orig­i­nal­ly from Cal­i­for­nia, that’s right. I grew up in the Bay Area.

Q: When did you come to New York?

A: I moved in 1998 to take a job at the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety.

Q: What did you take from New York’s land­scape and eco­log­i­cal make­up when you first came?

I lived my whole life in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and I kind of fig­ured I was gonna stay there.
A: Well, it was actu­al­ly kind of a shock for me. I lived my whole life in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and I kind of fig­ured I was gonna stay there. Then I got this great job at WCS, so I packed up my decrepit old blue Volvo, drove across the coun­try, moved to the Bronx, and it was sort of this weird expe­ri­ence of one going from a life­time spent in sub­ur­bia to the big city. And at the sec­ond time, to be work­ing for an orga­ni­za­tion that does wildlife con­ser­va­tion all over the word, and actu­al­ly prides itself in work­ing in the wildest places in the world; in Africa, Asia, and Lat­in Amer­i­ca. I moved from Cal­i­for­nia to New York, and then I got on the air­plane a lot to fly to places that you see in Nation­al Geo­graph­ic mag­a­zine, that are full of crazy wildlife and real­ly ded­i­cat­ed peo­ple… and then we’d fly back to the Bronx, where the ecosys­tems aren’t what I’m used to. I remem­ber the first time I was in New York, when there weren’t any leaves on the trees for months, months, and months. I had read about it, but I’d nev­er actu­al­ly expe­ri­enced it. Feb­ru­ary comes, and I’m ready for it to be sort of warm and green again… and I had to wait until April or May for that to hap­pen. So I’m in kind of a whiplash of all of this. I start­ed get­ting inter­est­ed in the ecol­o­gy of New York; not just the ecol­o­gy today, but what it was like before.

Q: Do you think may­be it took a Cal­i­for­ni­an, some­body who can see the green hills past the hous­es, to appre­ci­ate the earth beneath New York’s asphalt?

A: I don’t know! There’s lots of dif­fer­ent Cal­i­for­ni­ans, of course. I guess for me it was, you know, a real cul­ture shock, mov­ing from Cal­i­for­nia to New York, and I think it was my way of try­ing to become a New York­er, actu­al­ly. And it wasn’t until I was halfway through the Man­na­hat­ta Project that a friend from Cal­i­for­nia was vis­it­ing and I took him to the New York Pub­lic Library, and I was show­ing him all the­se old maps that I’d been using. After­wards, we were walk­ing down 42nd Street, near Grand Cen­tral, and he says to me, “So, do you feel like you’re a New York­er now?” and I knew in that moment that I was nev­er, ever going to be a “New York­er,” in quotes. I was always going to be a sort of trans­plant­ed Cal­i­for­ni­an liv­ing in New York… but some­how that made it okay. And then a friend said, lat­er on, “So you decid­ed it was too dif­fi­cult for you to become a New York­er and you decid­ed to make New York more like Cal­i­for­nia.” May­be that’s where the top­ic comes from, I don’t know.

Q: That’s inter­est­ing. I’m actu­al­ly from LA and I’ve been liv­ing in New York for a few years. In LA, you know, you have the hills… I’m not from inner city LA so may­be I’m a lit­tle bit deceived… but in Chicago, you can swim in the lake. In New York, it’s almost like the East River is a high­way. You know? What is New York­ers’ con­nec­tion to the land? Or is it just a con­nec­tion to peo­ple?

A: I think that’s the old idea of New York, that it’s the “gray city,” the con­crete city, a place where nature doesn’t exist, where you can move to New York and be any­thing you want. Be a new kind of per­son, be some­thing that’s not con­nect­ed to the place you came from. There’s sort of unlim­it­ed poten­tial, which, on one lev­el is real­ly fan­tas­tic, and on anoth­er lev­el is very dis­con­nect­ed from any­where, right? I think one of the things that real­ly struck me when I first moved to New York is how peo­ple are always talk­ing about cre­at­ing the future and some­thing new and some­thing great and some­thing inter­est­ing, and aren’t real­ly con­nect­ed with the his­to­ry of the place as such. When you go to Lon­don or you go to Paris, you go to Tokyo or Del­hi, or any of the great cities around the world, you feel like you have a sense of a his­tor­i­cal process. 

I don’t think we’re in charge so much as we’re very abun­dant and have the­se remark­able skills to talk to each oth­er, to plan, to think, and they enable us to be very suc­cess­ful and com­pete very suc­cess­ful­ly with oth­er things in nature.
You’re part of a process as a tourist, and the peo­ple that live there, they feel like part of a con­ti­nu­ity of peo­ple that have been liv­ing in that place and some­how, in New York, it doesn’t have that feel. Every­body comes to New York, and there’s all the­se weird things about New York, like, why is this street bent like that? And why do peo­ple behave in a par­tic­u­lar way? And it’s just that everybody’s tak­en for given that it’s just some weird famil­iar­i­ty of the land­scape, but they have traces and a his­to­ry, a rea­son for being the way they are. So I guess I saw in that an oppor­tu­ni­ty to fill in a lit­tle of that his­to­ry of New York. To give New York­ers some­thing new that’s about their past that they can con­nect to. Of course, tha’ts hap­pen­ing at the same time that New York is real­ly break­ing old ideas about the city; the thing that’s break­ing now is that it’s a city with­out nature. There’s a whole sub-gen­re of books about nature and wildlife in the city, the sur­pris­ing nature of New York City. I think that’s one man­i­fes­ta­tion. Anoth­er man­i­fes­ta­tion is the com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, rooftop gar­dens, peo­ple going to botan­i­cal gar­dens, the water­front, the water qual­i­ty, there’s just hun­dreds and hun­dreds of exam­ples. Some at the grass­roots lev­el, and some at the orga­nized lev­el, lots in between that are all re-invent­ing what it means to be a New York­er and to live in New York City.

Q: The­se are a few ques­tions we ask to peo­ple on the streets. How do we get to a bet­ter New York City in, like, 20–100 years? How does the Aver­age Joe – what can he do?

A: What can he do? (laughs)

Q: I know there’s a whole val­ue judg­ment in that, but in your opin­ion? If you had to get a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sial here?

A: Well, I guess, you know what I feel like when I’m walk­ing around in New York? I feel like I’m miss­ing streams, right? Like if I work at the Bronx Zoo and go to lunch, it’s a very stony neigh­bor­hood. Stone streets, stone side­walks, a few trees, some kind of sor­ry-look­ing tree pits, and espe­cial­ly in the win­ter when it’s real­ly cold, and the wind blows and it just feels like every­thing is again­st you. And you know what would make my life a lot bet­ter? If I could walk past a stream. And not give up, like, the fan­tas­tic Ital­ian place I go to for lunch. Or give up work­ing in a fab­u­lous facil­i­ty like I do, the Bronx Zoo. It has this long his­to­ry, and is laud­ed by mil­lions of peo­ple. I think that’s real­ly the chal­lenge for us. We’ve thought about the city for so long, it’s like it sup­plies eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty, it sup­plies art, cul­ture, and I think there’s a desire to think about our con­nec­tion to the place a lit­tle bit more and to try and bring that to the sur­face. Whether that’s a stream, or a forest, or know­ing where our food comes from, or build­ing build­ings that aren’t so ener­gy demand­ing; all the­se things that I think are hap­pen­ing in the city. In some ways, I think it’s going to reshape the city in the next hun­dred years. This dri­ve towards – we call it sus­tain­abil­i­ty, not always know­ing what that means – this dri­ve to real­ize ecol­o­gy in the city again. I think that’s going to be more impor­tant the­se days than the lat­est archi­tec­tural fad, or the newest way of trans­port­ing your­self around or what­ev­er it’s going to be.

Q: You men­tioned streams, of course, and orig­i­nal forests. Do those exist any­more? We’ve built things on them, we’ve sort of, in some opin­ions, improved the land. Have we replaced them com­plete­ly? DO they exist, phys­i­cal­ly?

A: You can’t erase nature com­plete­ly. That’s sort of an anti-fac­tu­al idea. Eco­log­i­cal poten­tial is always in a place, and if you tear up the side­walk on Fifth Avenue and wait long enough, something’s going to grow there. A forest is going to come back, the poten­tial is there, because the soil is there and the cli­mate is there. Of course, it isn’t con­crete every­where. There’s an uncut forty-acre forest with a river run­ning through it, a real­ly beau­ti­ful river. There cer­tain­ly are places. Or Jamaica Bay, where there are salt marsh­es that are not some­thing you’d expect next to one of the biggest cities on Earth. I think you can’t make nature go away. In fact, what we need to be talk­ing about isn’t with nature or with­out nature, but between nature. I think that’s an impor­tant idea in con­ser­va­tion as well. The old idea in con­ser­va­tion was you find a lit­tle frag­ment of nature and you do all you can to pre­serve it from the evil influ­ences of human­i­ty. I think what nature restora­tion in the city is going to mean is actu­al­ly cre­at­ing the poten­tial for nature again. For exam­ple, the big land­fill in Staten Island, which for a long time col­lect­ed garbage in New York City, but now they’re trans­form­ing it into a park. They’re cre­at­ing hills where there weren’t ever hills before. Hills are going to provide habi­tats for plants and ani­mals. And right now we’re sort of just cre­at­ing the land­scape, but there are ways for us to direct it into dif­fer­ent direc­tions, if we have the right infor­ma­tion to know where we want to be. Does that make sense?

There’s sort of unlim­it­ed poten­tial, which, on one lev­el is real­ly fan­tas­tic, and on anoth­er lev­el is very dis­con­nect­ed from any­where, right?

Q: Absolute­ly. You focus a lot on New York City. How are New York­ers affect­ed by land out­side? Up North, and a thou­sand oth­er places? Is it impor­tant that New York­ers acknowl­edge the space, or that your work acknowl­edge, the space out­side of New York?

A: I think so. We start­ed this work ten years ago about Man­hat­tan, and what that was like four hun­dred hears ago. This year, we announced doing the rest of the city, which we call the Welikia project. Welikia means “my good home” in Lenape, the Native Amer­i­can lan­guage that was spo­ken here. We’re going to do Welikia-Bronx and Welikia-Queens, Welikia-Brook­lyn, Staten Island, etc, and try to do this his­tor­i­cal look at what was here in the city and do a sort of data cen­sus and sum­ma­ry about what’s still here with us. So we get to kind of list the plants and ani­mals that we think were here years ago, and then we make nota­tions about what we think is still with us, and what’s not here, and what we have too much of, and things we don’t know about. I’m hop­ing to use that to try and enable sus­tain­abil­i­ty plan­ning. And not just sus­tain­abil­i­ty, but the way trans­porta­tion works, and the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the nat­u­ral envi­ron­ment that’s here with us. All that’s done in the con­text of, “how does New York City fit into this larg­er land­scape,” right? The larg­er land­scape of the world, that is. The Lenape  got most of the resources they need­ed from Man­hat­tan, from the New York City region, right? They were the ulti­mate kind of loca-vores. Every­thing they need­ed came from here; all the mate­ri­als they need­ed to build their build­ings, their wig­wams and their long­hous­es. They got the water from streams that were going all the way down into the ground, through the island and all around, and of course today we get those same things not from here. For the most part. From far, far away.

Q: I guess mod­ern ecol­o­gy holds that megac­i­ties are less harm­ful than urban sprawl?

A: I think that’s a hypoth­e­sis. I think we don’t know that for sure.

Q: One ver­sion of a bet­ter future. Can you see, for instance, the whole east­ern seaboard or all of New York state mov­ing into the five bor­oughs? Would that be pos­si­ble?

A: I have no idea. There’s pos­si­ble, and then there’s desir­able, right? We still live in a democ­ra­cy. I think we need to respect people’s desires to live the lives they want to live, using the knowl­edge and the mean­ing and the con­cepts of what those lives are. So, it’s cer­tain­ly true that we could have a lot more den­si­ty if we think about the Amer­i­can land­scape. But that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean we all have to have Man­hat­tan kind of den­si­ty. When peo­ple talk about den­si­ty, they imme­di­ate­ly think of mid­town Man­hat­tan, which has an extra­or­di­nary den­si­ty in the Amer­i­can con­text. Six­ty five thou­sand peo­ple per square mile in Man­hat­tan. And then mil­lions of oth­er peo­ple who come to go to work there, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of tourists on a given day. That’s a lot of peo­ple. Com­pared to most sub­urbs, which are less than a thou­sand peo­ple per square mile, so, I think there’s cer­tain­ly an argu­ment to be made for liv­ing at high­er den­si­ties in sub­urbs, but may­be five or ten thou­sand peo­ple is the right num­ber. I don’t real­ly know, I think the­se are research ques­tions. I don’t think every­one needs to live in sky­scrap­ers in order to have less of a human foot­print.

Q: About water in New York; when are we going to be swim­ming in Manhattan’s beach­es? Is that going to be hap­pen­ing any­time in the near future?

A: I don’t know about the near future, but may­be once in my life­time. We some­times swim off of City Island here in the Bronx. It’s cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble, and the water qual­i­ty has real­ly improved, espe­cial­ly since the 1970’s when the Clean Water Act and relat­ed leg­is­la­tion went through. I think now it’s the dif­fi­cult prob­lem of the com­bined sew­ers. When it rains real­ly hard, the storm water sys­tem and the sewage sys­tem mix togeth­er and it over­whelms the sewage treat­ment plants. But even that; there’s big things that the DEP, the water ward in the city, is try­ing to do to make it bet­ter, some of which are heavy engi­neer­ing, hard infra­struc­ture; huge bath­tubs to col­lect the storm water and hold it until it’s not rain­ing any­more and then slow­ly let it out through the sewage treat­ment sys­tem. Then, just this fall, the city pub­lished a clean infra­struc­ture plan, which is about coor­di­nat­ing between DEP and the trans­porta­tion peo­ple. They all kind of work togeth­er to try and use more eco­log­i­cal ways to slow down the storm water and cre­ate streams, put the water back in the ground, and do the type of things we need that help us deal with the water qual­i­ty in the har­bor.

Q: One ques­tion that I don’t know the answer to, and some­thing tells me that it’s going to be  depress­ing. Where are the Lenape now?

I think there are a lot of New York­ers who do want to make a dif­fer­ence.
A: They’re in Okla­homa, for the most part. There’s two Lenape Nations out there. There’s also some Lenape peo­ple that live in Canada, Wis­con­sin, and then scat­tered oth­er places: New Jer­sey, Penn­syl­va­nia, New York City, Long Island. The Lenape kind of got locked out ear­ly on in the New York City region. Their home­land stretched all across Jer­sey and down toward Philadel­phia. They had land over the moun­tains in the Ohio River Val­ley, at that time they were called ‘The Delaware Peo­ple.’ That’s the Euro­pean name for them. After the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, when Euro­pean set­tlers start­ed to come into the Ohio River Val­ley, there were a num­ber of wars and bad things again. Again, they lost. Some of them fol­lowed the Trail of Tears to Okla­homa, to Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ry, and that’s where they are. Oth­ers fol­lowed paths to oth­er places. It’s not a his­to­ry that’s sim­i­lar to oth­er Native Amer­i­can his­to­ries. It’s inter­est­ing because there’s a lot about the Iro­quois and the Chero­kee and some of the groups out west, there’s not much writ­ten about the Delaware even though they were an impor­tant cul­ture in this part of the world.

Q: Why is it that we’re not hear­ing about the­se tribes that were inhab­it­ing the most pop­u­lous areas in Amer­i­ca?

A: Actu­al­ly, out in Cal­i­for­nia there’s a lot of com­plaints that the Native Amer­i­cans haven’t received the treat­ment that they deserve. I think, in part, in Cal­i­for­nia, that’s because it was real­ly com­pli­cat­ed. There were lots of groups. Part­ly because the envi­ron­ment was so robust, and such a good place to live. You would just go from one val­ley to anoth­er, fif­teen miles away, and peo­ple would speak an entire­ly dif­fer­ent lan­guage and have a dif­fer­ent life. There’s a new atlas of San Fran­cis­co that was just pub­lished by Rebec­ca Full­man, and she has a map of the Native Amer­i­can peo­ple that live in the Bay Area. The map is cov­ered with names that I haven’t even heard of.

Q: You’re doing an incred­i­ble job of giv­ing the infor­ma­tion, putting forth the infor­ma­tion, and acknowl­edg­ing it. How do we get peo­ple to care, and to ulti­mate­ly – I’m not sure if it’s an emo­tion­al reac­tion that we need from New York­ers, but how do we get them to want to make a dif­fer­ence? To improve their future?

A: I think there are a lot of New York­ers who do want to make a dif­fer­ence. What I talk to peo­ple about is mean­ing in their lives. What kind of life to do you want to live? What kind of life do you want to leave for your chil­dren and your grand­chil­dren? I feel very for­tu­nate to have grown up in Amer­i­ca. Had a chance to have an edu­ca­tion, a place to live, a place to vote, and all those oth­er great things about being here in Amer­i­ca. I feel like I’ve got­ten so much from Amer­i­can soci­ety that I owe some­thing back. I feel like I real­ly owe some­thing back. I want to try and give back to soci­ety and give back to my land­scape, back to my world. That’s real­ly the way I’ve been try­ing to ori­ent my career, and what I try to do for my work. Not to scare peo­ple, but to kind of care­ful­ly explain what I under­stand as a sci­en­tist, from my per­spec­tive, and try to encour­age them to see the pos­i­tive things that we can do both in the short-term and the long-term.

Q: You say, “mean­ing.” I’m won­der­ing if may­be the Judeo-Chris­tian reli­gion that we have….does it con­tribute to, may­be, dis­re­gard­ing our nat­u­ral sur­round­ings?

A: I’m cer­tain­ly not a reli­gious schol­ar. It seems to me that there are threads with­in the Judeo-Chris­tian faith, as in all faiths, about respect­ing nature and being con­nect­ed to nature, and tak­ing it as a bless­ing that’s given by God. But I also think that there’s a sense of peo­ple over every­thing else in nature, which is prob­a­bly not a help­ful way to think about our rela­tion­ship to the rest of the ecolo­gies around us. I don’t think we’re in charge so much as we’re very abun­dant and have the­se remark­able skills to talk to each oth­er, to plan, to think, and they enable us to be very suc­cess­ful and com­pete very suc­cess­ful­ly with oth­er things in nature. Those same capac­i­ties – to plan, to think, to desire a sense of mean­ing – are what make me think it’s pos­si­ble that we can live in a more com­pat­i­ble way with nat­u­ral envi­ron­ments and the ecolo­gies of the world.


For more about the Welikia Project: welikia​.org

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