Crawling out on a Rocky Point

The Ecological Culture Initiative is in the process of searching for new leadership.  Founding Director, Dr. Marc Fasanella, will reach the end of his three-year term in January of 2019.  Our fledgling organization has launched and completed a diverse array of dynamic initiatives that require re-prioritization and judicious channeling of resources.  Our current work includes: a Seed Library at the Hampton Bays Public Library, year-long Organic Gardening Certification course, the development of teaching gardensfilm screenings and community presentations, yoga instruction, gourmet farm-to-table meals and afternoon teas, as well as running an informational booth at the Hampton Bays Farmers’ Market.

In a recent essay, Dr. Fasanella takes stock of his reasons for loving and now leaving Hampton Bays, echoing his original reflections when founding ECI.

The Pondering Ecologist: Crawling out on a Rocky Point by Dr. Marc Fasanella

Hello, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I was wondering if I could trouble you to help me with a dilemma I’m facing:  I’m lost - trying to find home. The funny thing is I know exactly where I am, and I have never seen my surroundings with greater clarity. I have been here half my life, and though I know I’m a transplant, over more than twenty years I have come to know the landscape like a local. I am keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the climate, culture, economy, and ecosystem around me. I have raised two children here from infancy to adulthood, and strived in my time here to put down roots - yet I can’t call this place home. To be honest, I feel largely forsaken by the community and culture I have found myself in. I am not ungrateful for the incredible range of formative experiences I have had and friendships I have formed over the past twenty-six years here, but I now feel marginalized by my surroundings. I have thought long and hard and find it impossible to see my future in this place. I have also thought long and hard about where else I can go - and I am lost. 

What I had hoped to find by this point in my life is what I originally saw in Hampton Bays: the promise of a small, affordable, home-spun, coastal community with humility, a depth of character in its residents and built environment, as well as a healthy discourse about the Hamlet’s evolution. I felt real enchantment when I arrived in Hampton Bays more than two decades ago, and it gave me hope that I could build a stable future here. When I arrived, I knew this hand-crafted Hamlet of sandy lots filled with native plants that had seeded themselves, and cedar-sided historic farmhouses and cottages with gravel drives (a few new small homes tucked in between here and there), was built on a somewhat stable culture of surf and soil. There was an earthy, leisurely, timeless feel to the community once known as Good Ground. I perceived a collective consciousness tied to a local culture of preserving and enjoying healthy waterways teeming with life, as well as a healthy economy based in recreation. In the marshes, bays, and woods was a comforting biodiversity, a largely undeveloped feeling. I believed I had arrived at a spot on earth where I could spend time in nature, and live an artful life of communal, creative, intellectual, and outdoor pursuit. At the age of twenty eight I set my self toward developing a place to call my own in Hampton Bays and put down roots. 

I knew far less twenty six years ago about how a community holds on to its sense of place than I do now as a Permaculturist and Professor of ecological architecture and design, but as my career at the local college unfolded in unexpected ways, and my family matured, I began to see that the people and place I had devoted much of my life to were changing in ways I found deeply disturbing. The waterways became fouled by overdevelopment along the coastlines, and my ventures along the bays began to reveal far more bulkheads than biodiversity. Although the beach and pine barrens still call me, my time spent running and biking along the beach and on trails in the woods has begun to reveal to me more encounters with construction of ever larger homes and businesses than it has encounters with fauna. It is true that the deer have become suburbanized and now stand steps from the door where I live, and birds of prey have become a far more familiar sight, but the impact of increased traffic on the community’s character as well as a culture of never-ending growth has largely replaced the culture and pace of life that drew me here. The native cedar and oak trees are now cut down at a rapid pace and replaced by arborvitae and Leland cypress, beautiful trees yes, but they shut out the neighbors and do little to sustain the local bird population. Cedar siding is often torn off and replaced by composite and vinyl building products, and wooden fences are replaced by fragile PVC. Small businesses are often replaced by larger ones as we evolve deeper into an online, franchise-based service economy. There are still many local gems and a few new ones being created, but the real story is told when just off Main Street, wooded parkland (ironically purchased through the Community Preservation Fund) has had a large swath of kettle-hole and forest replaced by an urban roadway. The park preserve was also re-landscaped with storm drains and grassy areas maintained by sprinkler systems and petrochemical fertilizers. The structures in the park are fabricated from industrial products rather than natural materials. More demoralizing is that the school system has now deforested its properties and installed toxic hardscape, artificial turf, and lawns throughout the bulk of the school grounds. The dangers such practices pose to a coastal community have long been established, and a school district that had its new middle school achieve Green School status should know better. Some call it progress, but from where I stand, we are evolving in a direction that is destructive to our own species as well as many others. 

I had thought that a community that has evolved so closely with its natural surroundings would be in the vanguard of efforts to maintain the health of the culture and ecosystem that had long sustained it. The threat that overdevelopment, petrochemicals, and plastics present to the marine life around us as well as the children we raise is now common knowledge. I would have expected that the Hamlet’s waterways when clearly threatened would be set aside as marine reserves for the preservation of the ecosystem and the enjoyment of all. I have profoundly misunderstood the local culture, as I expected it to be a force for the re-enchant the Hamlet I moved to when I embarked on my life here. Having always believed that change begins at home, I developed for myself a set of guidelines for living into the landscape. I then worked to bring my concerns to the community and its leaders, pursuing this work full time for the past two years. I can’t really tell if my work and the work of an incredible group of staff and volunteers who labor beside me has had any meaningful effect, but I do know my life here is unsustainable emotionally and financially, and I must move on. 

Despite a remarkably quaint building stock there are only two landmarked residential homes in the Hamlet of Hampton Bays, and affordability has become a fundamental problem. As affordable homes changed hands they were often enlarged and became renovated beyond recognition (predominately with products toxic to our ecosystem). The housing market changed and the prices rose. Despite owning three homes during my life here, I am now priced out of the market and must move this Fall. Now in the process of a restoration / rebuild (to repair faulty construction and extensive termite damage) I’m moving to what we call Friendship Cottage in Rocky Point (it sits between Friendship Drive and Garden Street). Embarking on the next phase of my career and life in an unfamiliar suburban place that may be a way-station – I ask for any insights you may have on how I can find an artful, earthy, ecologically-minded place to call home that will live up to the promise that the community of Hampton Bays once held out to me.