Eric Sanderson

"In fact, what we need to be talking about isn’t with nature or without nature, but between nature."

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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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