Gazing across the duck pond on Davids Lane, marking the opening of the East Hampton Nature Trail, Dell Cullum couldn’t help but smile as a wide array of wings glided over the surface of the chilled December water.“See the bird that’s different from all the others?” he asked, eyes fixated on a wood duck, its brilliant array of green, red, white and yellow swiftly dipping under a log, escaping the other ducks on his tail. “They’re chasing him because he’s different.”
One by one, Mr. Cullum pointed out the feathered water dwellers—mallards, pekins, green-winged teals and running ducks. He knew them all.
The birds are only a glimpse at the natural wonder behind this historic nature trail, the subject of Mr. Cullum’s newly released, hardcover, coffee-table-style book, “Eden of East Hampton,” a project four years in the making. Featuring vivid images of past and present printed on high-quality gloss paper, the photographer’s first book is a visual documentation of the history and the biology of a place that remains dear to him.
“My mom used to take [me] here to feed the ducks. This was a place where kids first got to get close to wild animals and be able to have some sort of a contact,” recalled Mr. Cullum, who now owns Hampton Wildlife Removal & Rescue, dedicated to retrieving animals in the most humane way possible. “Interacting with wildlife at such a close level at such a young age, it’s like magic.”
He led the way into the heart of the forest down a narrow path, which had turned to mud after a rainy morning. Mr. Cullum could recall every facet of the trail, consisting of multiple bridges and man-made canals.
“The cool thing about this place is that it was just a natural place, and this is for real—this stream that drains into Hook Pond and keeps the town from flooding,” he said. “And then everything was made around this little parcel of land.”
The land that is now the nature trail was once owned by the Woodhouse family, dating back to the late 1800s, according to the book’s introduction, which was written by Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. The canals were created by Emma Woodhouse—formally known as Mrs. L.E. Woodhouse—to nurture her magnificent gardens surrounding the Japanese teahouses built for her, Mr. Cullum said. She was known to navigate a red boat through the canals, taking in the natural beauty of the land.
The book includes historic photographs from collections at the East Hampton Library and the Library of Congress that compare Mrs. Woodhouse’s “playground” to the site as it is today.
“Even though [they] have been gone for so long, some of the [features] still remain,” Mr. Cullum said of the structures, pointing to a rotted piece of wood, covered in moss. “These are the posts from the ramp that went over to the garden house and old pictures will show you this tree right here when it was only this high.”
Vistas of the nature trail have stretched far beyond the East End. One angle near the center canal is the same view Childe Hassam saw when he painted “The Water Garden” in 1909, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. A shrine and statue of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment, once sat on the trail, not far from an acting school formerly on the property.
“The kids would perform out here. It was performance art. They’d dance and do shows,” Mr. Cullum said. “There’s a picture that was in Life magazine of an actress and an actor wrestling—right here!”
Mr. Cullum restored a map of the entire property, as it was in the 20th century, to its original color and detail, accurately portraying the geography down to the last stone. “Look at these rocks,” he said. “They’re stretched in a line, like this. On the map, you see these rocks here, but they’re going from that tree from this bridge. So how did they get strayed? There are so many things left to explore and to find here.”
The vast majority of the book is comprised of Mr. Cullum’s photographs capturing “almost every species native to Long Island” that all call the East Hampton Nature Trail home, he said, including giant carp, various species of turtles, birds, rodents, marsupials, frogs and deer.
Due to the local controversy surrounding deer, Mr. Cullum—a vocal opponent against the village’s sterilization program—devoted an entire section of the book to them. But as he put together the chapter, Mr. Cullum said he realized the strong focus on the deer issue was darkening the whole.
“It [put me on hold] a little while,” he said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, now the book’s turning into something I don’t want this book to be. I want this to be a historical record of the history of this place, the importance of this place and right here, today, what can be seen and done in this place.’
“There’s a level of distrust now,” he continued, referencing the deer. “I mean, this was a sanctuary and they used it like an ambush area. They being the village and their decision to do the sterilization. Something’s gotta be done, but this isn’t the place.”
In fact, Mr. Cullum said the nature trail was originally deeded to the village with the stipulation that it would be a wildlife sanctuary, but it was never finalized. While an internet search of the trail produces the title of a preserve, he said it is basically just a piece of village property.
“It has to be saved, otherwise things like what happened will happen. This is the home of wildlife, it should be protected that way. This is the most precious educational tool we can ever have for children and adults, to teach them and give them the opportunity to connect with nature, connect with wildlife, learn, educate, explore and learn new things.”
Already sold out of his first batch of self-published books, Mr. Cullum said he realized he’s spreading awareness throughout the community. He may look for a publishing house in the future, but for now, he is satisfied just seeing his friends and neighbors reveling in the beauty of the trail.
“You can come back here in the summer and you sit on the rock, or the bridge, and fall asleep listening to the frogs,” he said. “I was going to say I’m not a nature freak, but I am a nature freak. I’m not—no, I am. I was going to say I’m not crazy, but I am crazy, freaky, all about nature.
“But I think a normal person could absolutely sit on this bridge and fall asleep to the sounds of the spring peepers, or the bull frogs,” he continued. “[You] could just be blown away sitting on the bench while a family of deer walk right past you.”
For more information about “Eden of East Hampton” by Dell Cullum, visit imaginationnature.com.