Q&A: Stoutenburghs reflect on 50 years of writing nature column

01/06/2012 10:59 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh being interviewed by Troy Gustavson in their Cutchogue home.

It is, by all accounts, one of the longest running acts on Long Island’s North Fork.

For 50 years — since 1961, when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House — renowned environmentalist Paul Stoutenburgh and his wife, Barbara, have been writing their weekly column, “Focus on Nature,” first in the Riverhead News-Review and then, beginning in the early 1970s, in its sister publication, The Suffolk Times.

Up until now, that is. With the Dec. 22-29, 2011, edition of The Times, the Stoutenburghs have written their last regular column.

It is their decision, and their decision alone, based on considerations detailed in the interview that follows.

But first, some biographical details to help put the Stoutenburghs’ environmental activism and community service in perspective.

They both attended Southold High School, although not at the same time, and Barbara Stoutenburgh remembers reading a wartime newsletter article about a local sailor’s ship blowing up in the Philippines. The sailor was Paul Stoutenburgh.

They met for the first time in 1949, when they both worked at L.I. Produce in Riverhead. They had their first date (at a cranberry bog in Riverhead) in March 1950 and were married on Thanksgiving Day that same year. Their first child, Peter, was born in 1952. He was followed by a sister, Peggy, in 1954, and a brother, Roger, in 1956. (Today, 89-year-old Paul and 82-year-old Barbara also have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.)


The Stoutenburghs purchased their seven-acre homestead off Skunk Lane in Cutchogue in 1955, and today it still supports two beef cattle and enough free-roaming wildlife to provide ample copy for a weekly nature column.

Mr. Stoutenburgh’s primary vocation was as a shop teacher at Greenport High School, from which he retired in 1978 at the relatively young age of 55. But his avocation was and is nature, which evolved from his childhood days roaming the fields and forests of Depression-era Cutchogue, and fishing, clamming and scalloping in its creeks. Later in life, that same interest in the natural world led to their six-year stint as summertime rangers/naturalists at the Fire Island National Seashore.

Barbara Stoutenburgh first worked in the guidance office at Southold High School and, later was a copy editor and proofreader at The Suffolk Times in Greenport, from which she retired, also in the late ’70s.

Mr. Stoutenburgh’s résumé of environmental activism is extensive. He was president of the Eastern Long Island Wetlands Preservation Association, which later joined several other groups to form the North Fork Environmental Council, which he served as vice president in its formative years. Other environmental affiliations include, but are not limited to, The Nature Conservancy and the Peconic Land Trust, which he served as trustee and director, respectively.

Among the many environmental awards Mr. Stoutenburgh has received over the years is The Nature Conservancy’s highest honor for volunteer service, the National Oak Leaf Award.

Then there was public service. Mr. Stoutenburgh served as president of Cutchogue Free Library and completed three terms as a Southold Town Trustee, including one year as board president, and four years as a Southold Town councilman. (A complete résumé of his public service is too extensive to detail in this limited space.)

Finally, readers of “Focus on Nature” will be reassured to know that even though they will no longer write their weekly column, the Stoutenburghs anticipate accepting The Suffolk Times’ open invitation to submit, when inspiration strikes and circumstances allow, periodic articles and photographs on the natural world.

The Stoutenburghs were interviewed in their Cutchogue home the week before Christmas by Times/Review Newsgroup president Troy Gustavson.


Troy Gustavson: Thanks for inviting me into your home today. I’d like to begin by asking if you have any columns that stand out over the years, anything that you wrote that you’re particularly proud of, or that might have caused a stir. I know when there are literally hundreds and hundreds or, I guess, maybe thousands, it might be hard to single out, but I’m just wondering if there’s anything you wrote that you’re particularly proud of.

Paul Stoutenburgh: Well, I thought the one we did on our horse … I had a little pony which all the kids enjoyed. It was part of the family, really. I can remember there was a big snowy day and we decided to go for a walk in the snow, which is our kind of thing to do. And, by gosh, a couple of kids from school, my kids that I taught, happened to stop in that night and they said, “What are you doing? I said, “We’re going for a walk. Do you want to go?” And they said, “Sure.” So here we went with the horse all through the property — something the kids have never done. And they said, “This is great!” And it’s part of what I try to do — to get people to do things, see things that they never thought were there. And being a teacher, I wanted to do that with the whole community …

TG: Did you ever imagine that you’d be doing the column for as many years as you have?

PS: Oh, no.

Barbara Stoutenburgh: He has written in journals his whole life and we are now binding all that up now. And we’ll spend more time doing it now. But he did say in his early years, when he was in high school, he hoped some day he could write. He wrote a lot then, and even his grandson now, who’s Paul Stoutenburgh, has said to him, “You know, you told me to write and even if I only put my name down, I write every night.” And he’s tried to start all the kids to keep journals … So now we are putting it together. We’ve got three of them started.

TG: The decision to stop writing the column. Tell me how you arrived at that, and how difficult is that for you to do?

BS: I think it’s good to know your limitations. It had been easy for him to write, and for us to do it …

PS: I can’t write with my hands anymore. I have problems with my writing. Physically, I can’t do it. Dictating to Barbara, she’s so good at it with the computer. We can do it that way, but it’s lost something because when you write [by hand], as you well know, you go back over it …

TG: And you wrote it out longhand?


BS: And we kept all that writing for years. He would write and then I would type it and we would go back over it and we’d retype it, and he’d go over it again.

TG: Tell me a little bit more about that collaborative process because I get a sense that Barbara has been a very important partner in this column.

PS: The most important.

TG: Is she your editor?

PS: She’s my everything. I mean that.

TG: Well, having worked with her I know how good she is with that sort of thing. She’s meticulous and she knows local lore as well as anybody I know. Whenever I had a question about a local family or a local place, Barbara was the one to go to. No question about that.

BS: It worked very well. And you could say that he was the writer and I edited it. But he would write it longhand … And we have a hay shack up back or on the boat — wherever we were — sit on the bow of the boat and write or he’d sit up in the hay shack and write, and then I would take that and I would put it on the computer. When computers first came around, I bought [former Suffolk Times cooking columnist] Jules Bond’s first computer … Prior to that we used an old typewriter that he had taken to college, an old portable Royal that we used …

PS: I think we still have it.

BS: But then I would do it and I gave it back to him and he would edit it. And, of course, as long as before it had to get to the deadline, we would keep going over it. And once it went, it went. Truthfully, he would say he’s not one to write and spell and that was my part of it. It’s always been that way. But I think it’s good to realize our limitations. I think what he will find, and people have said it to us in the last week or two, maybe snow will come, and they said, “And then we’ll read about it in ‘Focus.’ ” And since we’ve haven’t told too many people, we’re beginning to get that kind of thing: “And you’ll tell about that when you write.” And he’ll have that feeling, I’m sure. He’ll have something he’ll want to sit and write about, or talk about, or dictate.

TG: Well, I think you know there’ll always be a place for that in the paper … I want to talk a little bit about your osprey project. For a number of years, you had a crew that went around and put up osprey poles. Was that at your instigation? Was that your idea or did somebody sort of rope you into doing it? How many years did you do that? Do you know?

PS: We must have done it for 20 or 30 years. We had records up to about 30 nests.

TG: Did you do that in the time period when they ospreys started to come back? Because there was a time in the ’50s and ’60s when the [osprey] population really dropped.

PS: Dramatically. So much so that when we were on Gardiners Island, they had a multitude of osprey platforms all vacant, no birds around.

TG: It must have been very gratifying to see them come back.

PS: Working with Dennis Puleston and people like that we really did a great job helping them come back.

BS: And before they came back, we were involved and watched when they came down to … the beach and they would take an osprey and then they would ship it off. And we’d go over to the airport and they had these CEOs’ planes that were donated and they would put the ospreys in that and they would fly them to Ohio. And they brought eggs here to put in our nests. And that was interesting, before our ospreys came back.

TG: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about how you got into politics. I like to tell the story to all my friends — something that you told me, which was when you first got involved [in politics] — there was a time when the Traveler-Watchman used to take group photographs and they would put you at the far end of the photograph so they could crop you out. Did you start in politics as a Democrat, or were you a Republican?


PS: I was a Republican. What started me was the wetlands. There were so many crooked deals going on right in our own town. The wetlands were being filled with the cheap idea that there was no other place to put the dredge material. And so, my gosh, I couldn’t stand that so we started an organization called Eastern Long Island Wetlands Preservation Association. And we had probably 200 members. But every time we went to a meeting, we were voted down. We never got anywhere. So I said I’m going to change my political affiliation from Republican to Democrat. And that’s when I started.

BS: And the [Wetlands] Preservation became part of the North Fork Environmental Council eventually when the groups got together. A little bit more about the Traveler. Our son, who won an award with another boy in town. He was cut out, and the other boy wasn’t. In high school.

PS: Troy, I have photographs, slides, of town trucks going to the old dump, being filled up with sand and gravel, being brought up here and dumped on Leslie Road.

TG: Filling a wetland?

PS: Filling the wetlands. And I asked why they were doing it, and they said it was to keep the mosquitoes under control. And there are two houses on that [site] now …

BS: And those are the two houses you see over there.

PS: And I have pictures of all of it. Didn’t mean a thing to them.

TG: So, you were first elected as a town Trustee?

PS: Yes.

TG: Was that in the ’70s or ’80s? Do you remember?


BS: I think we have a picture up in the hay shack and it says, “He also ran.” And I think that’s about ’77. And he ran a couple of times before he got in. And then when he got in they were having a big debate. One of the men got up after he spoke and said, “And, Paul, you’re not the only conservationist. We are all conservationists on this board.”

TG: That must be something that is also gratifying — to know how the thinking changed out here over time. Because when you first started you were a voice in the wilderness and eventually, I think, everybody, both political parties, were all claiming to be preservationists.

PS: Let me tell you about a situation. We had a meeting on dredging. And I invited Robert Cushman Murphy, head of the Museum of Natural History in New York. He came out and told how important [the creeks] were and how these groins that people were putting in were destroying the waterfront. And I tried to explain with a map. I happened to have a red pencil going there. And somebody in the audience said, “Yeah, red, red. And this was the time of the Soviets being very powerful. They laughed this man right out of the … Right here at the East Cutchogue School. Couldn’t believe it.

BS: That was at the time we were trying to stop the dredging of the creeks. And the creeks had all been dredged, and there was one left — Goose Creek. And so they got the right to dredge that because they’d never done a study before. So they were going to use Goose Creek to do a study, and dredge it.

PS: The only ones that weren’t dredged were the ones like West Creek in New Suffolk, where they have bridges that boats can’t get under. That’s what saved it.

TG: Still, over time, there seemed to be a developing environmental awareness and a need to preserve this place. Do you take any satisfaction in knowing that your column was part of that educational process?

PS: Being a teacher I used the idea that teaching the community … The people that read your paper, hopefully they support me … Support not me but the idea of conservation. That does give me some gratification. That’s what it’s all about, I guess.


BS: There’s great satisfaction in that we have files and files of people who have written. There’s been a great following in that kind of thing. I think he says what people feel they can’t say. I have a letter from a woman in New York and she’s a writer and goes and does her birding out of the Museum of Natural History. But she carries copies of his articles around when she wants something to read. She gives the paper credit, and I’ve got a copy of it for you.

TG: That’s nice … Back to the question of deer. Do you see any answer to the problem?

PS: I think what the town is doing is exactly right — expanding the hunting season and keeping the herd down. Where there are no natural predators, man has to step in. And by letting them shoot the deer I think they’re on the right track. It’s about the only way you can do it. This idea of trying to round them up and moving them doesn’t work.

TG: Looking back over the years, do you see anything in particular that has led to the successful effort to preserve this place? I’m thinking now of two-acre zoning, the farmland preservation [program], also the Community Preservation Fund. Are they all part of the process or do you pick out one of those as being the most important?

PS: I think the one with the tax of 2 percent is a very, very important one. It’s just too bad our economy went down because we were reaping quite a harvest from that.

TG: I would have to agree. If I had to point to one single thing, it would be that. Also the evolution of the grape-growing industry has been pretty important, too, I think, helping to keep open space here.

PS: Yes, I think you’re right there.

TG: How do you think the North Fork has changed during your time here, for the better or for the worse? Do you think we’re better off than we were back in the ’70s and ’60s, when you started writing your column, or are we worse off because of population growth and that sort of thing?

PS: I think population growth is our biggest problem. When I was a kid, we could walk down to our creeks, walk anywhere in our creeks, because there was always shallow water. And it wasn’t very pleasant; you couldn’t get your boat out. You had to wait for high tide to get your boat out. Now they dredge the creeks. Soon as they did that, the whole waterfront on our creeks built up. And you build up with pollution and all those problems that development brings with it: congestion. But you can’t blame people. They wanted what we had. Only trouble is … I always said that they dredged with too big equipment … instead of small, little, skimpy dredges. And the county came in and just ruined every one of our creeks.
When we were kids we could walk out and dig soft clams, hard clams, oysters. All these things were available. I remember when I was a kid in high school I sold 25 soft clams for 25 cents apiece. A bushel of scallops for 50 cents. It was just unbelievable, the wealth of things …

TG: To back up to something you just said, you consider population growth basically the greatest threat to this area?

PS: Absolutely. The resources are just so much … If you go to see Duck Pond [in Cutchogue]. Are you familiar where Duck Pond is? Drive down there the next time you have a chance. You go down to the end where it goes to the Sound and you look off to the right and it will blow your mind. There’s some big motel-hotel … We used to go down there and I’d dive for lobsters and we’d bring them in and eat them on the beach. There were sand dunes there, and all that has been wiped out. They’re using every parcel. When you go down, you see these banks that were held with trees and bushes and grasses. And now it’s all cleared off, all the grass. Houses, right on the [dunes] … You have to see it to believe it …

TG: What are your hopes for the future for the North Fork? If you could basically plan the next 25 years for this place, what would your hopes be for this area?


PS: That we have people in our town government that look out for the trees, look out for the water, look out for the wetlands, look out for the things that make this place so great. And if we don’t have the people on the Town Board, the planning department, the building department all working with that in the back of their minds, we’re lost. We can do it if we get good enough people in town government. I don’t know if we can do that. Man has a way of twisting things.

TG: I pose this last question to both of you. And you can answer it in any order. What do you hope your legacy will be from your time here on the North Fork? Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, what do you hope people will say about your contributions?

PS: I’m not sure I can answer that.

TG: Maybe Barbara can.

BS: This is typical. When the ospreys came back, and he had written this big, long article … This is typical of the ends of his articles, where one of his sons said, “Talk about your philosophy when you talk to Troy.” And [Paul] said, “I don’t have any philosophy.” And [daughter] Peggy [Dickerson] said, “There’s always something at the end [of the column] that is to the people, and that’s the little bit he adds.” He tells them a story, but he ends with something like this [quoting directly from an earlier “Focus on Nature” column]: “Years ago we lived in ignorance. Today we’re informed. With knowledge and the will to do what’s right, our world will blossom and keep on returning to us the delicate fragrance of may pinks in the woods, a spring run of flounder for dinner and ospreys to delight our heart and spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Who wrote that? It’s pretty good.”


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