On March 10th and 11th, Philip Ethington (Hypercities) and Eric Sanderston (Mannahatta Project) visited the University of Nebraska, guests of the Plains Humanities Alliance and the Department of History.

Sanderson explained the remarkable and detailed mapping of Manhattan by the British, and the ecological and geological structures underlying the city. He argues that these forms and forces continue to have meaning and relevance in our lives, even if they remain distinctly out of sight. Sanderson has undertaken a massive project to map the layers of Manhattan’s ecology and infrastructure successively through four centuries. He’s been featured at TED, in The New Yorker, and in National Geographic. And the project is indeed exciting, especially the idea of reconstructing the rivers and islands of the region in 1609 as Henry Hudson would have encountered them.

But it is his long duration outlook that I find most appealing. A 400-year history of a region, a river, a place, and all that it contains.

Ethington, for his part, has undertaken a 12,000 year digital history of Los Angeles and does so by describing the way people have “inscribed” their beliefs, institutions, technologies, and ideas on the landscape. Ethington’s “deep historical regionalism” emphasizes the continuing influence of past “inscriptions” in the land, leading him to term his brand of urban history, a “ghost metropolis.” Both Ethington and Sanderson suggest the many ways that spaces places have, create, and perpetuate meaning, the many cracks and crevasses where places hold history. If want to know about the past, we should look at the ground beneath our feet.