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.

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For more about the Welikia Project: welikia​.org

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