The Pondering Ecologist: Foster House by Dr. Marc Fasanella
More than fifty years of life has taught me not to believe in gods, demigods or spirits but I do consider myself a spiritual person. I have seen how all living things are animated by a life force and that all else that is around us (animal, vegetable, mineral...) is animated in a similar, yet unique, way. I have come to know that our perception of what animates us, and all else in the ecosphere that contains us, is densely clouded by a myopic consumptive culture. For the past three years my wife Anne, daughter Mia, son Michael and I conducted a cultural experiment in a wonderful old house that is layered with history. The house was originally built as part of a farmstead by a man with the last name Foster, and what has for a time served as our home literally fostered our experiment of creating and nourishing the Ecological Culture Initiative.
Like all else around us, our lives as founders of the Ecological Culture Initiative have evolved and our relationship to the beautiful structure that served as our home and office has changed also in ways that make it necessary for us to move away and hand off the leadership of ECI to others (Mia will continue in her role as Secretary and Director of Cultural Affairs). Given the birth of ECI in 2016 and Foster House in1858 (as well as successive alterations since that time) I have often pondered how much memory has been retained in the materials that comprise Foster House and what our time here has contributed to it’s history. When we moved in I put all of my savings into restoring the interior structural and aesthetic beauty of the house, setting up the rooms so they could function as a home and non-profit office. Countless hours of restoration carpentry, scraping, spackling, sanding, and painting with founding Advisory Board member and the owner of Foster House Richard Casabianca righted years of deferred maintenance and created a warm and welcoming atmosphere in which the Ecological Culture Initiative could thrive in a communal setting. Throughout the house we installed insulating window treatments as well as upgraded the airflow, heating, and lighting. We also created efficient storage space for the needs of a family and foundling non-profit. The kitchen was outfitted with both historically referenced elements of utility, basic tools of a modern teaching kitchen and a conference room. A small kitchen garden for experimentation with compost methods was constructed off the south-facing kitchen porch. The living room was arranged as a multi-purpose meeting space and we were able to teach our first yoga classes by quickly re-arranging the lightweight furniture. A hallway and parlor were outfitted as office space for interns and staff adjacent to the meeting room and teaching kitchen. Upstairs the rooms were outfitted with farmhouse furniture and folk art in a way that made them clean, comfortable, historically referenced retreats from consumer culture.
Throughout 2016 we had a fantastic evolving group of young staff members join ECI (Jhoan Castro, Seneca Cornelius, Olivia Dimijian, Michael Fasanella, Scott Howe, Sarah Matero, Gloriana Mejias, Jeff Schultz, Rachel Stephens and RJ Theofield,) who put in long hours at Foster House and shared in the preparation of delicious Friday vegan meals. They worked to craft the mission of ECI, prepared presentations for community leaders, and generated documentation to make clear both the need for and promise of the work we were undertaking. The historic setting of Foster House and its adjacent preserved land served as a visceral example of the cultural shift we knew was necessary to restore the health of the community of Hampton Bays. In 2017 another fantastic group of new people volunteered their time living and working at and around foster house as well as Gordon’s backyard permaculture project (Michael Fasanella, Sean Deery, Deb Johnson, Jane Karetny, Angela Lapeer, Jerome Lucani, and Shannon Stimpson). They prepared lunches at Foster house, discussed new ideas and built on the work of their predecessors, deepening the cultural and horticultural depth and value of what we grew, how we connected with the community, and the events we held. Foster house served as the home base for all of this work and the wealth of the conversation, debate, delicious meals, and meaningful work that happened within its walls enriched my life and the life of the house in ways that have changed my sense of community, collective consciousness, and home forever.
Something changed in 2018 and we were unable as an organization to create the same dynamic with young people that we had in those first two years. The collective consciousness maintained at Foster House through communal meals ended, the house began to feel empty and Anne and I had to rethink our ability to support the expense of renting an infrastructure without any path to ownership for us or the non-profit or being able to produce income from spaces we had invested in that went largely unused.
As ECI moves forward with its work I think it is imperative that it come to own and operate out of an historic building with a backyard garden. I have made alterations to, reconstructed, and renovated five buildings in Hampton Bays and lived in all of them. All of those buildings were contemporary structures and none of them spoke to me in the way that Foster House has, or nurtured the sense of community that occurred during the foundling years of ECI. The contemporary buildings I have worked in and on did not have the history contained within the fabric of their building materials and the memory of years of life spent in a less consumerist context. There are important lessons to be learned from the construction and evolution of an historic structure, how the rooms are laid out, the windows and doors. The work of researching former occupants, the context of their lives and uses to which the land has been put over the years are educational opportunities, most often overlooked, that are at the core of what restoring good ground and sowing seeds of change means. Contemporary structures are largely purpose-built for a single use and do not easily lend themselves to the adaptations in use that many historic structures have seen.
Soon Anne and I will put our time at Foster House behind us, downsize our lives and regroup for the next chapter of our careers. ECI will retain a PO box but have no physical address or phone number unless an angel within the ECI community steps up to provide a home for it. My hope is that a new home for ECI will contain as much history, memory and animated spirit as its’ original home at Foster House.