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The Welikia Project

Mannahatta circa 1609 / Manhattan circa 2015

Mannahatta circa 1609 / Manhattan circa 2015

Mannahatta then, Manhattan now

Mannahatta then
Manhattan now

So.

Did your stomach just drop? I’m sure you feel the weight of the import of whatever messages these images may convey. They can carry a lot of messages. One isn’t sure where to even begin… First, perhaps we should dwell in the emotions that rise; feel them, watch them, name them. These images give a visceral experience. Why?

For many of us, this place isn’t even our home, and we may have never even visited. But it still hits home, doesn’t it?

Something in us knows that something important is here in front of us.


These images are from the Welikia Project (formerly the Mannahatta Project) – a project of the Wildlife Conservation Society to rediscover the ecology of the New York City area before colonization.

Welikia (pronounced “way-LEE-kee-uh”) is Lenape for “my good home”. Lenape is the Native American language spoken in the New York City region at the time of first contact with Europeans.

The goal of the Mannahatta Project has never been to return Manhattan to its primeval state. The goal of the project is discover something new about a place we all know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life. New York does not lack for dystopian visions of the future…. But what is the vision of the future that works?” – from Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

One of the main messages in this special view of the past we don’t usually get to see – the land before our cities began – is one of avoiding urban sprawl, for the future of current natural areas.

With more and more of the human population moving to cities, with several mega-cities of 10 million people or more on the horizon, and with a growing urban sprawl development pattern in the USA and elsewhere, we realize that we have the opportunity to “do” cities a better way. Going back to 1609 allows us to see what NYC was before it was a city and to reimagine the city’s development in a way that would incorporate more of the natural cycles and processes (such as the hydrological cycle) that made the island the ecological gem that it was. This is not merely an academic flight of fancy. Rather, in undertaking this exercise, we will discover ways in which we can restore some of the ecological processes lost to NYC in particular, and more broadly, we will learn how to create cities that are more “livable” for people. For instance, maintaining natural waterways like streams and incorporating more open space and tree plantings into city planning would increase a city’s aesthetic value, water quality, and air quality for city folk. Making cities more pleasant and rich places for people to live will increase city folks’ standard of living, attracting more people to cities and minimizing sprawl development between cities where the ecological gems, the “Mannahattas” of today, currently reside.” – from the Welikia Project “About” page

Whether we “do” cities at all, in the future, and whether or not one prefers that cities might one day return to their primeval state, for now, if we do have cities, it’s important that we integrate them into the local ecology, instead of just paving over it, erasing it, and forgetting it was ever there and that ecology exists and matters, to us as well as to wildlife… matters to our lives right now, as well as to our common future.

The Welikia Project includes – besides the fascinating interactive map of Mannahatta/Manhattan – resources for teachers, students, and researchers, and an expanded effort to do the same research for all of New York City’s boroughs, with the ability for you to sponsor a block of your choice. This might be an excellent contribution for a coven, grove, or other group to make together, or for Pagans and others in New York City to make to get helpfully involved with the land under their feet.

Could something similar be done in our own locales, elsewhere in the world? Of course! Soon after reading Lorna Smithers’ moving piece, here at Gods & Radicals, on culverted waterways and resacralizing landscapes, I happened to go to my local river festival and found a booth for a project looking for support to bring not one, but two culverted streams that converge and flow into the river near my house back above-ground, and reclaim land currently crusted with run-down shops on the site to create a park and informational signage about the reclaimed waterways! We can do this. Look around, or start something, yourselves.


Thanks go to The Decolonial Atlas (a blog worth following!) where I discovered the Welikia Project, with a stomach-dropping shock to my system when I first saw the images I brought over here to share.

1 Comment »

  1. This is really fascinating and positive to hear that people are looking back to the old ecological processes and cycles of New York and resurfacing rivers. Whilst I don’t think any of these can be fully reclaimed as they once were, it does herald a more sensitive and more attuned way of living for the future. It would be good to see shamanic practitioners and spirit-workers playing a role in this process.

    Liked by 1 person

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