The Pondering Ecologist: Ruminations on the Environment • Mid-Life

by Dr. Marc Fasanella

I moved to the East End of Long Island nearly twenty-five years ago after accepting a position as a professor of graphic design at what was then the Southampton Campus of Long Island University, known as Southampton College. Before being hired, I arrived early for a spring interview, took the time to look around Hampton Bays (where a college friend had been raised), strolled the shopping district of Southampton Village, and spent half an hour at the ocean (Southampton’s Coopers Beach) staring into the waves and thinking about my future. I had been married for a few years and the East End seemed like a great place to relocate to. My doctoral dissertation had been an interdisciplinary study of the creation of Jones Beach State park. I spent countless weekends running, walking, and basking on the shores as well as exploring the bay of that section of the barrier Island. What could be better than accepting a position at a college close to the ocean and less than two hours from my parents’ home in Westchester county? When my wife and I moved to Long Island that August we wanted to settle in Southampton Village because many of the older faculty lived there. Despite an early 1990’s slump in the real estate market, the prices in Southampton were too high for a young professor and his private school teacher wife. Even the rentals in Southampton Village were beyond our reach. We moved into an apartment in Hampton Bays, and shortly thereafter my favorite uncle passed away. He had made me co-executor of his will leaving me about $10,000. For a first time homebuyer that was enough for adown payment on a house. We purchased a relatively new contemporary that was poorly built and sited on a bare lot fronting a busy road down the street from a shabby motel. However, it was also next to an old farmhouse with a horse stable and within either a long walk or a short bike to the beach. I was skilled in both landscaping and carpentry so the creative challenge was exciting. My wife was invigorated by the thrill of building a life together, so the two of us threw our backs into the work. In a few years we had a beautifully furnished home set in a landscape with a small, wooded backyard, a vegetable garden, and a broad front lawn graced with ornamental trees and flowering perennials. Our parents shared fully in our lives, and my wife and I first had a beautiful daughter and a few years later a handsome son. Fish trucks rumbled past our front door, and through our back door we could hear the potato trucks heading down Sunrise Highway. We were in our salad days; spent countless hours on the beach, traveled to Europe, went hiking and camping, and had wonderful dinner parties.

Hampton Bays was a humble place with fresh local seafood, carpenters, plumbers, pool guys, surfers, a funky local grocery store, and a few cool shops where you could buy beach going clothing and gifts. It had a down-to-earth seaside feeling. Then, Shinnecock and Peconic bays had clear water and were full of fish. The undeveloped lots were pine-barrens north of Montauk Highway with houses scattered throughout. The forest came right up to the business district, and occasionally you would see someone riding a horse down a street to the forest. The preferred form of transportation was a beat-up pick up truck, surf-van, or an old station wagon. Only the areas between Main Street and Shinnecock Bay were built up with modest Cape Cod style homes set on subdivided farms with a traditional North / South – East / West street grid, creating a charming collection of ramshackle cottages on dirt roads, traditional farmhouses with wide lawns, a few Long Island ranches, and an occasional contemporary home. In the summer the population soared, young people with jobs in Manhattan and big end-of- the-year bonus checks rented out any place they could find. A noisy, alcohol-soaked, hormone-driven bar and club scene sustained an economy of local restaurants, sandwich shops, fishing boats, and the other mainstays of a thriving coastal community.

I’ve now spent nearly half my life as an “East Ender.” In the years since I first considered becoming a “native” of the East End, the earth and this community have tilted on their axes. The gas stations and funky stores in Southampton Village are things of the past. Big bonuses go only to CEO’s while the local economy of partygoers has nearly vanished. Despite the effort to retain open space by buying up small parcels, almost every buildable lot has been utilized for housing. The bays have grown thick with toxic algae caused by an over abundance of septic systems. The edge of the pine-barrens are increasingly encroached upon by new postmodern housing replete with big garages filled with enormous pick-up trucks, SUV’s, hybrid vehicles, small engine landscaping equipment, and all terrain vehicles. Homes are fitted-out with feel-good Energy Star appliances, smart home technology, and other energy saving electronic gadgets imported from China (a country now polluted by their production and disposal). PVC has replaced wood as the standard fencing, vinyl or composite siding stands in for cedar, and synthetic decking and cultured stone take the place of the biodegradable materials they strive to imitate. Perpetual renovation makes a mockery of the recycled (effectively downcycled) content of these materials as the dumpsters of plastics-based landfill multiply each year. On the home front, the college that I came out here to teach at closed due to financial exigency. I’m a Baby Boomer (born in ‘64 – the last year), and like so many other Boomers my wife and I were pressed between caring for parents afflicted with dementia and other ailments, the dissolution of the educational institutions we were employed by, and the demands of raising two young children in a declining economy. As the culture we thrived in unraveled, so did our marriage. The end of the last and the advent of the new millennium ushered in an entirely altered landscape for me on every level.

These events have caused me to think deeply, to reflect, to try to be an incisive witness to what is “sold” to us as progress. As I’ve learned about myself, I’ve learned even more about how the personal and social are connected in profound ways; How we as individuals fit into a largely unexamined, misunderstood paradigm. I have come to understand the depth of meaning encompassed by the term ecology. It is a term that is cosmological and microscopic and reveals the evolutionary processes of all that is around us. It is political and scientific and demands the application of empathy and reason. I have learned evolution and progress are not the same. In the essays that follow this one I offer the ponderings of an ecologist that range in topic from personal economy through the built environment to the evolution of culture. I welcome dialogue that will aid each of us in understanding our relationship to the ecosphere and support the evolution of a society that embraces and seeks to integrate with the web of biodiversity and dynamic processes that ensure the survival and essential health of our species.