What I had hoped to find by this point in my life is what I originally saw in the community of 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 cultural 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. When I arrived, I knew the 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 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 an economy based in outdoor recreation. In the marshes, bays, and woods I found a comforting biodiversity, an 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.
We stand at a crossroads in every human community as we enter the twenty-first century, perhaps a tipping point.
We have two options: follow the trajectory of public investment in municipal infrastructure to grow economic development along traditional economic lines, a process that has led us to what atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen has described as the Anthropocene, or choose a path that makes use of our newfound understanding of ecology to enter what cultural historian Thomas Berry describes as the Ecozoic Era. The notion of an Anthropocene presupposes that the work of human civilization has led to a new geologic epoch that can be defined by the effects of human activity on the lithosphere (the earth’s surface); the concept of an Ecozoic Era posits that the present understanding of ecology (that every organism is connected to every other and to non-living elements of the environment) has ushered in an age where we can and must integrate and collaborate with other organisms when creating our cultural and physical environment rather than impose an outmoded set of beliefs and practices.
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 and healthy shellfish. There were many large undeveloped lots of pine-barrens north of Montauk Highway with houses scattered sparsely throughout. The forest came right up to the business district, and occasionally you would see someone riding a horse down a main road to or from the forest. The preferred form of transportation was a beat-up pick up truck, surf-van, or an old station wagon.
As a youth I had the good fortune of spending countless hours exploring a large abandoned estate behind my childhood home. I would investigate each crevice in every tree, look under every rock, search every inch of every stream, saying hello to each amphibian, crustacean, insect, mammal, or reptile I found and follow birds on the wing with my eyes. Eventually my curiosity would be sated and I would fall on my back in a state of bliss looking up at the treetops, clouds, or stars, depending on the time of day, and feel the connectedness I had with all things around me. I did not notice myself in this frame of mind, I felt deeply connected to an ecosphere that contained me.
I awaken to the bright light of a coastal spring morning, a saltwater breeze wafting over my head from a narrowly opened double hung window. Outside I can hear the slow rise of a neighborhood. The occasional bird song, a door opening and swinging shut, a car starting, a neighbor singing his regular laments, the questioning call and response barks of dogs, then landscaping equipment and carpenters sound off and form the aural composition of life in exurban America. Suburban sprawl, the hallmark of post war progress has reached out into once rural countryside here in split-level and rows of ranch, there in cul-de-sac clusters or shingle style mini-mansions. The ideal of prosperity transmogrified into the manicured residential lot and large single family home has even reached back into urban areas in the wake of slum clearance as “pocket neighborhoods”. Lying on a comfortable bed in a sunny bedroom I ponder, why do so many seek the ideal of a single family home? Why has this way of developing communities become the real and envisioned norm in the United States and why is it being replicated throughout the world?
Some years ago, before your birth, I dedicated an essay to your sister entitled William Morris: Art and Life. After hearing a radio dramatization of Morris’ Utopian Romance Novel: News From Nowhere, I became enamoured of Morris’ work, studied it for several years and composed the Art & Life paper in an attempt to grapple with the structural flaws of society at the turn of the twentieth century. I think much of what Morris described of nineteenth and prescribed for twentieth century western civilization was cogent and prescient for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In my previous essay I strove to put his clarity of vision to paper in a concise and modern format. I hope that essay helps your sister and you understand my view of a better society. You will form your own conviction, I hope mine will aid you in forming your beliefs.
As a student I studied Art and Environmental Design, as an Adult I came to envision a life infused with art and a world structured to achieve this infusion through studying the work of William Morris. Morris died on October 3rd, 1896 leaving us a window into a more beautiful world. Throughout his life he labored through his creative endeavors to beautify the earth and the lives of those who dwell upon it. Through his lectures and writings he tried to convince others to do the same. Has the world become a more beautiful place in the century since his death?