We are all sharing one of the most unique places on earth. The Nature Conservancy acknowledges East Hampton as one of the Last Great Places in the Western Hemisphere, but I ask, “only half the world?”
Where else can you find generations of hardworking local farmers, including a handful of Polish immigrants, who resisted speculators’ offers for millions of dollars that would destroy the best soil in America by creating checker-boarded lots with huge homes set at razor-edge angles intruding on the pastoral landscape? God bless them for their stubborn insistence through times of difficult subsistence that this resource, this brown gold, is for growing food and not second homes.
Now we have innovative programs for the purchase development rights so our farmers may continue to till the soil; also we have strict subdivision requirements: more than 70 percent of these precious agricultural resources will remain productive forever.
Where on Long Island can you find cathedral-like white pines topping 100 feet, rising as far as you can gaze, piercing a cerulean sky? These statuesque giants, used for ships’ masts in the 17th and 18th centuries, have been protected from the chain saw through private landowner contributions, a real estate transfer tax funneled to the Community Preservation Fund for open space purchases, and mandatory reserve area designations requiring 70 percent of each subdivision to remain undisturbed and contiguous to other large blocks of open space.
The results are viable forest ecosystems that support small migrating songbirds that are able to rest at last in our deep forests after their arduous migration from Central and South America. They come here instinctively sensing they are safe from domestic cat predation and parasitic cowbirds, found in fragmented, suburban environments. These warblers, flycatchers and tanagers should be arriving any minute now.
When you sit down to dinner, screech owls pop out of their tree cavities in Stony Hill and Hither Woods (the largest maritime forest in the New York State), perching precariously and swooping silently into the night to hunt and feed their fuzzy owlets. Actually, just about the time you’ve fed your family and are clearing the plates, they are back stuffing a juicy morsel into the gaping mouths of their offspring. Feeling a certain simpatico?
Cowboys in East Hampton? Yep. As you wait impatiently this summer to cross Main Street, imagine how you would have felt 350 years ago, when it was cattle and not cars barreling past you and driven by cowboys. It is said that the reason Main Street is so wide (purportedly wider than the Great White Way in New York City) is the annual cattle drive out to Montauk for summer grazing. A specialized grassland called Montauk Downs (not the golf club) is the result. It still exists today and has been protected from grazing bulldozers. The very first working ranch in America, Deep Hollow, is still turning out trained cutting horses, herding canines and fattened organic beef on the hoof.
Only in East Hampton could you be visited by a man holding human vertebrae with an arrowhead imbedded at an acute angle.
“Massacre Valley,” he said. Must have been a Narragansett who caught an arrow from the Montaukets during the raid to kidnap the Grand Sachem’s daughter.
“Doc says it’s a 14-year-old boy.”
When Fort Hill and Massacre Valley were slated for housing lots, men on the bulldozers refused to dig any further; they walked away from their machines after beginning to unearth human skeletal remains facing east. The town stepped in and bought the land for a cemetery. Now all people who have loved and lived in Montauk may rest in peace, facing the rising sun together.
But it’s the light filling this place we call home, reflected by 100 miles of aqualine coastline and broad buff beaches, that creates the liquid, ethereal visual quality shimmering across our landscape.
Some of the best artists in the world are drawn here because of the magic of that light filtering through forest and field.
Only in East Hampton could you take a lunch break, a few years ago now, and share the view overlooking Gardiners Island—the largest island on the eastern seaboard in private ownership—with a man who rode up on his bicycle at the same time every day, swathed in white from his shock of hair to bib coveralls, and exchange pleasantries, noting his guttural accent and splashes of paint on his arms and face.
It was later that I learned from his granddaughter that his name was Willem de Kooning and that the splashes of paint I had observed would fetch millions of dollars in the art world.
Because of wise development, the preservation ethic of the people of East Hampton, and our recent adoption of a Dark Sky lighting ordinance, we are one of the only places along the northeastern seaboard where you can lie back on the beach when night falls and enjoy the quiet splendor of the Milky Way. That privilege alone gives me a deep sense of peace.
Best soil, tall pines, cowboys, arrowheads in vertebrae, Milky Way, world famous artists, liquid light … yes indeed, we are blessed with a place that is truly unique, except in one way.
Like other towns on Long Island, we are losing one of our greatest treasures. Next up? “Oh, where have you gone, local Bonacker?”