Coastal Culture: Lessons Through the Lens of Time

by Mia Fasanella

This summer as I sat on the edge of the conservation easement surrounding the 1858 Foster Farmhouse on Wakeman Road in Hampton Bays, I asked preservationist Richard Casabianca what lesson he has learned from living in the farmhouse. “It is humbling to know that it will carry on longer than you,” was his response. Casabianca shared with me a story of uncovering the signature of Nathan Foster behind a piece of window trim on a wall while doing repairs to his house. This reminded him of the importance of keeping the integrity of the building and following the lead of its original owner and builder who conceived it originally. Casabianca decided to put conservation and facade easements on his home in part because he recognized that he will only be the owner for a relatively short time. There were owners before him and there will be owners after him. When a group of young girls were riding their bikes past the farmhouse, one stopped to tell Casabianca that his house was her favorite in the neighborhood, she hoped to own it someday. Casabianca, this young girl, and many residents of Hampton Bays, all have something in common: they admire the character of the 1858 Foster Farmhouse. This is because the house still retains much of its original integrity. By putting conservation and facade easements on his property, Casabianca has protected the Foster Farmhouse from being drastically altered and the land around it from subdivision. He has created a place for the protection of some of our local history, the opportunity for pieces of the past to continue into the future, and, in the surrounding conservation easement, the protection of local flora and fauna, a recharge area for our aquifer, as well as the ability to learn from the interactions that occur among wildlife in the easement. His statements and actions demonstrate the necessity for preserving our local historical and environmental knowledge. 

Through the lens of the 1858 Foster Farmhouse I have been able to gain a deeper understanding of how our past is connected to our future. The Foster Farmhouse has allowed me to trace back through time and learn how the woodlands and waterways, which surround and define Hampton Bays, served many generations before us. It also reminded me that Hampton Bays will continue to support future generations if we take pride in and conserve our coastal resources. Shinnecock Indians lived off the bounty of the surrounding ecosystem. Farmers and fishermen settled the coastal community as Good Ground. The cultures and families that make up the history of Hampton Bays are still reflected in the names of our roadways and the homes, buildings, and businesses that line these streets today. 

It is important for the younger generations of Hampton Bays to learn the history of the land on which they live. This will allow them to better connect with it and have a consciousness of their local culture and ecosystems. If we seek to have a vibrant coastal culture in Hampton Bays, we have to teach our children how to grow their own food, about the native plants and animals that live in the woodlands, the sea life whose homes are our waterways, and the history of the inhabitants of Good Ground from Paleo-Indian times up to the present day. A culture does not move forward without at least some cultural knowledge and influence from its past. History teaches us lessons that can become solutions to future problems. Each coming generation in Hampton Bays deserves to be educated in the rich historical culture of their hometown. Deep knowledge of their local environment will enable them to better handle the ecological issues threatening their future.

As individuals with social responsibility we should strive to advance our society toward an ecologically sound community that values the health of the land and waterways on which we depend and live. A vital part of our culture is our food supply, its history, and its effect in shaping our society. Culture is the set of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors and artifacts that members of a society use to understand their world and interact with one another. Cultural knowledge is passed from one generation to the next through learning. As Crowther (xvii) notes:

Food is a constant - whether locally produced or globally sourced, it will always be eaten locally, as a member of society. Food, together with air and water, is the stuff of life, and it is the basic foundation of culture and society. The quest for food has been an essential part of the evolution of humans through the millennia, accounting for the formation of cooperative foraging groups and serving as a source of our sociability by cooking and sharing food. 

Hampton Bays was settled as Good Ground in 1740 by farmers and fishermen. The Shinnecock Indians who first lived off the land for generations before the settlers were also farmers and fishermen. Some of the earliest Native Americans ate a diet rich in shellfish from the tidal bays surrounding their villages, fish and small whales caught from the tidal waters, as well as game animals and wild plants from the woods that encompassed their homes. The food supply available to Native Americans had played a key role in shaping their social structure and cultural traditions. From the Paleo-Indian Period (12,500-8,000 B.C.E) and onward Hampton Bays was shaped by its surrounding ecosystem. It wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution and particularly since the post-war era that we became less dependent on our native landscape. In the 21st century we are beginning to strive to reconnect with the land. We must if we are to develop a resilient society. 

When establishing a more ecologically responsible community we must not overlook the importance of our food in our social structure and the connections between the land we inhabit and our foodways. “Food is the only consumed cultural artifact that quite literally becomes us… it shapes our daily habits and influences our health, defines our personal and group identity, and engages our minds and hands in its acquisition, preparation, and consumption” (Crowther xviii). Most of what we find in grocery stores today and consider “food” is highly refined carbohydrates, sugars, and fats. Fatty diets based heavily on refined carbohydrates that are eaten quickly and conveniently have become the universal food culture of modern societies. The western diet is being exported around the world and passed onto our children. With it often comes disease and shorter life expectancies. Without an adequate supply of healthy food people lack the vital nutrients their bodies need. Improper nutrition can lead to health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and certain cancers. To create a strong foundation on which to establish an ecologically sound culture we have to alter our relationship with what we eat and teach our community what a socially and ethically responsible relationship toward food looks and tastes like. 

As a demonstration project the Foster Farmhouse is currently making use of the regenerative design process of permaculture to build a strong ecosystem that supports the health of the waterways and woods which encompass Hampton Bays. In doing so we also have to look back at the historical context of food cultures of the past--learning from the relationships our great-great grandparents and the many generations before them had with their food supply. To do so we can look at the native plants that sustained the Native American villages that first lived in the area we now call Hampton Bays. Growing right in our backyards are staple food crops of the Shinnecock Indians. Ground Nuts (Apios americana), Chenopodium or Goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri), sunflower (Helianthus annus), maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), and knotweed (Polygonum erectum) were essential parts of the Shinnecock Indian diet; today these nutritious plants are more commonly thought of as weeds. “As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety” (Pollan 1). When we remove these native plants from the surrounding landscape we put strain on our ecosystems, we disregard the uses of the plants, and we deprive ourselves of the ability to easily grow plants adapted to the area that can enhance our diets. It shows that we have lost knowledge of the values of these plants. I met with John Strong, a retired professor from Southampton College, and author of The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island from Earliest Times to 1700 to see what wisdom he could offer me about the Shinnecock Indians and their staple crops that thrive in our backyard. I was surprised to learn that what I had believed were traditional Native American foods were not the foods of the Shinnecock Indians. Algonquians subsisted off the efficiency of their surrounding ecosystem which supported a nutritious wild food supply. The table below gives a sample of staple foods and their natural nutrients available to the Shinnecock Indians. 

Strong (59) describes that the Shinnecock Indians “lived in the middle of a natural ‘shopping mall' complete with bountiful supermarket, pharmacy, clothing, hardware and jewelry outlets.” Although our society and ecosystem has changed greatly since The Early and Middle Woodland Periods (3,000-1,000 BCE) we can still learn valuable lessons from the culture of forest efficiency that Strong mentions. 

Another way to rethink our connection with food is to consider reconnecting with indigenous foodways and farming roots, to encourage and support a community of small farms, backyard kitchen gardens, community gardens, food forests, native plantings, local farmers markets, and native plant sales. During the 19th century a kitchen garden was essential to a family’s wellbeing. Kitchen gardens allow a family to have a supply of nutritious vegetables, herbs, and fruits just outside their door. Laura Phillips Bigelow describes the 19th century farm homes of Hampton Bays:

All of these homes had front yards and most of them had some flowering shrubs. (The garden of Howell Phillips) was well filled with fruit trees— five large quince trees, two fine pear trees, a row of red currant bushes also row of gooseberry bushes, four long rows of rhubarb, some red raspberries, then some yellow raspberries, a bunch of sage to be dried for the seasoning of the sausages and a hop vine to be used after the hops were dried for the yeast for bread as Grandma made her own bread until she was too sick to work (Moeller 22).

What Laura Phillips Bigelow describes is a Hampton Bays I am not familiar with. What happened to the fruiting trees and bushes surrounding our homes? Without these trees and food plants lining our streets it becomes less apparent how much the ecosystem provides to us. When plants directly provide us with food we are able to connect more easily with how “each plant, animal, bird, and micro-organism is placed within the natural system at a point where its needs can be met and its wastes supply someone else’s needs” (Bell 22). 

Today on Long Island we have the ability to live more efficiently and respectfully toward our local culture and environment. Hampton Bays is surrounded by extensive woodlands and waterways that are home to wildlife, native plants, and edible food crops. We have the ability and opportunity to build a culture that supports a resilient ecosystem. Southampton Town’s Community Preservation Fund has been able to buy up small parcels of land and preserve open space. After speaking with John Strong I was curious to know what native plants were thriving naturally in some of these CPF spaces. Strong put me in touch with Larry Penny who was East Hampton Town’s Natural Resource Director for 28 years. Penny and I walked around the conservation easement surrounding the 1858 Foster Farmhouse in Hampton Bays. Inside the conservation easement we identified over 30 different native species that were thriving. Eastern Red Cedar, White Oak, Black Oak, Red Oak, Catbrier, Bayberry, Pitch Pine, Hickory, Sassafras, Black Cherry, Pennsylvania Sedge, Highbush Blueberry, Cedar, Hemlock, Boxberry, Black Locust, Hybrid Oak, Greenbrier, Cherry, Golden Rod, Big-Toothed Aspens, Scarlet Oak, Honeysuckle, Burning Bush, Holly, Crab Apple, Winged Sumac, Witch Hazel, Deer Tongue Grass, Alder/ Arrowwood, Indian Pipe, Horse Chestnut, Multiflora Rose, Black Raspberry, and Pokeberry were the native species we were able to identify during a two hour walk. We also got a visual understanding of the difference in biodiversity between a woods dominated by native species and one threatened by invasives. The photo below and to left is of the south side of the conservation easement which has lush understory growth and is characterized as a pitch pine oak forest, home to some of the largest black cherry trees on the East End. The image on the right is of the north side of the conservation easement where the invasive Norway maple has begun to decimate the surrounding plant growth. Norway Maples secrete a pathogen from their roots that kills competing plants and allows only maples to grow. 

(South)

(South)

(North)

(North)

I have begun to achieve a deeper understanding of what a biodiverse ecosystem really is, and I believe that young children in our community should be able to know the difference between a healthy diverse ecosystem and an unhealthy one. I feel that we have arrived at a point in our culture where if we do not start to better understand the ecosystems in which we live we risk placing ourselves at a great disadvantage in adapting to the challenges future generations will face.

 

Works Cited

Bell, Graham. The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-sustaining World. London: Thorsons, 1992. Print.

Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. S.l.: U of Toronto, 2013. Print.

Moeller, Barbara M. "Historic Profile of Hampton Bays Phase 1." Southampton Town Government Document Center. Hampton Bays, June 2005. Web. 18 Aug. 2016. http://www.southamptontownny.gov/DocumentCenter/View/745.

Pollan, Michael. Four Square Meals: The Omnivore's Dilemma. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Strong, John A. The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island from Earliest times to 1700. Interlaken, NY: Empire State, 1997. Print.