Column: Thanks and God speed, Paul and Barbara

I enjoyed many magic moments over the holidays, but the one that stands above the rest was the hour I spent interviewing Barbara and Paul Stoutenburgh in their Cutchogue home for an article that appeared in Thursday’s paper. (In case you have not seen it yet, it announces their decision to stop writing their “Focus on Nature” column after 50 years.)

They sat in front of the fireplace hearth, touching hands and completing each other’s thoughts as they answered my questions about their 61 years of marriage and five decades of collaboration on the column.

I had been a little concerned about the interview, mostly because Paul is about to turn 90 next month and I thought he might have trouble reaching so far back in time. But those concerns were quickly dispelled as he returned to the ’50s, ’40s and beyond with sharp recollections of life on the North Fork. And, as always, there was Barbara sitting right next to him, filling in details and doing one of the things she does best: editing.

Paul Stoutenburgh — educator, environmentalist, journalist, photographer, public servant — certainly has the higher name recognition locally, but he is the first to admit that theirs has been a partnership in the truest sense. Whether it was fashioning their little piece of paradise off Skunk Lane, working in tandem as naturalists at the Fire Island National Seashore or fine-tuning the thousands of columns they’ve collaborating on since 1960 (!), they have always worked as a team. Not to mention the collaboration that produced their three children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

I was once a teammate of Barbara’s — when she worked as a copy editor and proofreader at The Suffolk Times after we first acquired the business in the late 1970s — so I have a sense of how much she has contributed to her husband’s life work. And it hit home again when I sent them a copy of the interview transcript, only to have her catch numerous typos, errors of omission and examples of garbled syntax. Apparently, once an editor/proofreader, always an editor/proofreader.

I’m not sure I’m the one to say this since I have not had editorial responsibilities at the paper for quite a few years now, but I’d like to take this occasion to thank Paul and Barbara for the heart and soul “Focus on Nature” has brought to these pages since the middle of the last century, and to wish them well and Godspeed in the next chapter of their life partnership.

Am I the only one who spent the holiday season cuddled up next to the wood stove, catching up on all those paperbacks, hardcover books and ebooks that have been backlogged for months? No, I didn’t think so.

So, without further adieu, here are my highly opinionated holiday season reading recommendations and warnings.

Don’t miss “Steve Jobs,” Walter Isaacson’s biography of the recently departed Apple Computer founder; “The Angel Esmeralda,” short stories by Don DeLillo; “The Sense of an Ending,” the Booker Prize winner by Julian Barnes; and “Just Kids,” poet/rock singer Patti Smith’s reflection on her relationship with artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Well worth the time and effort are Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights,” the sad tale of her daughter Quintana Roo’s untimely death; and “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game” by New York Times columnist Dan Barry. (If you don’t know his work, I urge you to visit the Times website and run a search for his “This Land” columns. They are uniformly brilliant.)
My to-be-avoided-at-all-costs list includes three books that, for reasons I am unable to fathom, have made numerous “best books of the year” lists. They are “The Art of Fielding: A Novel” by Chad Harbach; “Lost Memory of Skin” by one of my previously favorite writers, Russell Banks; and “Swamplandia” by Karen Russell. You may beg to differ, but proceed at your own risk through these flabby, overhyped offerings.

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