Focus on Nature: Looking back through the years

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | Standing beneath the Great Arches of Utah made me feel humble and proud of this great country of ours.

Looking through some old files we came across notes written in 1996 about the beginning of Focus on Nature. These notes never saw the light of day; they were written and filed away. Interesting to us how, over the years, things seem to fade in our minds, but once on paper they are there forever. It sharpened our memories and we thought you might be interested in going back to the beginnings of Focus with us.

1996: In checking Focus on Nature articles written 35 years ago when Herb Blais was working for The Sunday Review in Riverhead, then run by the Forbes family in the old Studebaker building, he paid me a visit one evening.

He was staying with Barbara’s stepbrother Malcolm in Norwold on Mud Creek, just a ways up Skunk Lane [in Cutchogue] from where we live. He came to ask if I would write a nature column for the paper and if I would, he wondered what we would call it. That night was the beginning of Focus on Nature as you know it today.

Dennis Puleston, the great naturalist/artist from Bellport and a longtime friend of mine, offered to do sketches for each week’s article. I would call him at the beginning of the week and tell him what I was going to write about and he would make a sketch to go with it. In those days his sketches were done in black and white and we still have the originals.

This article [1996] is being typed on a very small laptop computer and sent by a modem to the paper, or email or even a fax (as was done many times when we were out of town), and could be in print soon after it was written. In 1961, when Focus was first born, we used an old Royal portable typewriter that had taken me through college. We would carry it with us and type on beaches, in campgrounds, wherever we happened to be.

One time when we forgot it, Barbara had to go into a hotel lobby on Prince Edward Island and borrow their typewriter in order to get Focus in on time. The articles written from Sable Island, the graveyard of the Atlantic off the coast of Canada, when I was a naturalist on the Lindblad cruise ship, were written in longhand and probably not appreciated very much by those back at the paper.

We sometimes had guest writers back in those days when we went for extended trips with the kids in the summertime. After I went back to college at the age of 35 to become a teacher, it gave us summers to spend traveling. Dennis Puleston wrote, as did his daughter Jen. Judd Bennett, a great friend and naturalist from East Marion, wrote many times. Harold Evans, a farmer, teacher and friend from Riverhead, wrote a particular one I can still recall on “birding from a tractor” and Larry Penny wrote a guest column just after he graduated from Cornell.

In those days, Larry and I often went skin diving and birding together. Today he heads up the natural resource department for the Town of East Hampton and has had his own column in The East Hampton Star for many years.

Celebrating our first 35 years together, Focus traveled around the world to Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Lichtenstein, where we saw many plants similar to ones we have here at home, like the daisy, dandelion and the blue-flowered chicory. Then Focus traveled to Mexico, Iceland, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia to see many of the things we’d always heard about and finally got to see first-hand. We tented through many of these countries, with one backpack holding our clothes and another our camping equipment.

In Australia we watched fairy penguins come up out of the water at night headed for their burrows and young after feeding all day; at Homer, Alaska, we saw great huge halibut caught where bald eagles were as common as ospreys on Long Island. In Australia we enjoyed a lunch with our friends the Finkles, who traveled with us when a kangaroo decided to join the party.

When I had spent 100 days on my back after surgery I thought my traveling days were over. What I decided I really wanted to see once I was up and around again was more of this great country of ours, particularly the great plains of the West. So our next trip took us in a popup camper (on top of our pickup), along with our traveling cat, 14,000 miles around the U.S. visiting family, friends and places we’d only read of before: Big Bend in Texas, Yosemite, the Redwoods, the Great Arches of Utah, the rain forest in the Olympic Peninsula and much, much more.

We finally got to visit with the Bill Christopher family in the state of Washington. He was once a science teacher at Southold High School and his wife, Judy, is my niece. We made stops in Minneapolis and Chicago to see Barbara’s nieces JoAnne and Mary Jane and their families. We also got to see the beautiful campuses in Tempe, Ariz., and Ogden, Utah. where our sons had gone to college.

We’ll continue follow more Focus on Nature through the years in the next few columns. We enjoy having you along.