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The Wall of Privet on Parsonage

We’ve all seen the change. It has no political affiliation. And it has no Super PAC to fund. It does have a small constituency of loyal fans who do their best to protect a way of life. It is the remaining farmland in the Hamptons. What was once vast wide-open land is now a place where the crop land meets the vision of a developer, head-on—and the crop land
is losing.

You see, nature is my religion. It’s the place where I go to find harmony. It restores me. I make it a habit to take the long windy roads back to my modest rental in Hampton Bays. It is here along the dusty back roads that I witness the most.

As an observer of her subtle changes, crop rotations to newly developed projects, I’m seeing the Malthusian conclusion up ahead. It’s coming, and coming soon. The unabashed beauty of the seasons on the diminishing farm lands here are becoming fewer and far between. Farm stands sit out front of smaller acres of local crops, selling their wares from rustic wagon-wheel tables and on inverted wine barrels where the Lexus, Range Rovers & Mercedes Benz “clean out” the cash boxes with freshly minted $100 bills for a $10 purchase. I’m usually the one behind them with a small daily purchase of the freshest, most wonderful tasting local crop. The look by the local farmer is not lost on me as they pry open the cash box, lift the coin tray and dig into their pockets to make change. Sales are good, brisk. So it all works out in the end as the eager parade stops ever so briefly and then zips away.

I often wonder if they see what I see. If they even take the time to see all the beauty that surrounds them. They should. It would restore them as well, and make them protective of the diminishing farm land and the crops, which fill their lengthy tables with the bounty of her harvest.

Don’t get me wrong. I may sound like a local, but I am seasonal. I come here to work in the Hamptons. I don’t own nor do I rent a lavish place. I am an unofficial chronicler of the changes, though, and not much has been lost with two small cameras, one a digital and the other for movie files.

Some day all the material will be organized in a professional way. But if it hasn’t been done by then, I know someone will land on a treasure trove of archival footage of the Hamptons 1990 – 2012.

I have come to familiar stops along the way to film the beauty of the land. The red barn off Scuttle Hole Road called Breeze Hill has been one of my favorites over the years. They have planted wheat fields only twice in 20 years, this year is the second time. And the beauty of the setting sun as it hits the red barn with the contrast of the golden brown wheat, framed by a row of arching 100-year-old trees, makes me warm inside.

It is one of many stops out here.

I love to mark the summers by the crops that are planted, tended and harvested from the time I come out here until the very last moment I leave for the canyon of concrete and glass of Manhattan: sweet corn, four-feet-high by the Fourth of July; wheat turns golden brown by the middle of July, awaiting the scythe and the bailer to bundle; and the potato fields which start so lush and green, then flower, dusting the field in snow-like white, only to shrivel into yellow brown gnarled stalk before harvest.

Wesnofske. Corwith. Kwasniewski. The staples are still here in the areas I travel the most. Their machinery and equipment pop out at harvest time and combines, harvesters, bailers, haulers all wait their turn to be loaded and sent off to the big market.

I stopped by the farm next to the Wölffer Estate to take a picture of their old tractors out front. Someone came out and asked me what I was doing on the property. I apologized. Showed him my camera and said,
“documenting history.”

My unofficial history of the Hamptons farmland chronicles the bounty of its crops, and the slow but sure dissolution of a way of life. We all read, in horror, the Vanity Fair article (which chronicled the deal between the White family and an oil executive) about the last strip of undeveloped farmland leading to the ocean water. It harkens to a time when men used to shake hands to honor a deal.

That was then. The tract of land may soon be billowing with large houses partitioned by rustic fences or, one of the favorites out here, privet. My guess is soon the stark view of newly constructed houses on open land will be filled in with lush landscaping replacing the wide open spaces—which used to be neatly planted symmetrical crops—into thickets of privet which in years will block all view, except from the second story.

We all know farming, nationwide, is a dying way of life. And the next generation of farmer is becoming extinct. We’ve read about it. But here, in the Hamptons, we actually see the acres devoted to crops decline. The new crop rising from the ground is the big multi-tiered houses. No pesticides needed for these behemoths to sprout out of the dirt: attitude is the fertilizer. These supersized houses are oddly proportioned to the rural landscape; they outline quaint, scant, remaining acres that are tended modestly for the farm stand on the corner, not for the market: the yield is too small.

The biggest change, to me, is the expansion of tree farms, specialty plants, exotic shrubs, which supply the out-of-proportion houses. And now, these tree farms are expanding, large sections devoted to privet, or the privacy hedge, which proliferates out here.

What used to be this vast land of bounty to harvest is now the minority acreage out here which has been supplanted by privet-lined property designed by ____________ (you fill in the blank) with gardens designed and maintained by __________ (yep, your turn again) who have decided to cordon off these odd larger-than-life houses and hide the view, what was once “our” view.

Our view, the view that we all love of wide open spaces, which may or may not give us an unobscured glimpse of the ocean. Surely there’s no view left outside of the public beaches or the areas of beach accessible with seasonal permits. Certainly going from Southampton to East Hampton—south of the Sunrise Highway—there isn’t any unobscured view two streets, no, three streets away from the ocean where one can see straight to the water.

Then, I stumbled upon a little miracle.

I got an early start one Sunday morning where I was driving east on the Montauk Highway when the traffic forced me to peel off on the southern route, through Bridgehampton, Sagaponack towards Wainscott and back out towards East Hampton.

At the stop sign at Sagg Main next to the tiny Sagaponack Common School you have a choice to go further south, weaving back through Hedges or Daniels to Townline to Wainscott Main Street, or you can go a little north and take Parsonage to make your way to Wainscott.

This day I took the road less travelled to Parsonage. When I turned down Parsonage from Sagg Main Street, I passed the flower beds, the houses lined left and right, where in the midst of the flowering of the potato plants, looking south, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

I quickly pulled over to the side of the road, parked, pulled out my camera and shot what remains the last view of the ocean from Parsonage to Hedges past Daniel to the ocean.

What a view! A little slice of heaven from the white bloom of the potato tops, row after row pointing south, there formed a perfect runway path to the water. The crop lines moved my eye straight through these streets, past a golden brown field of wheat to the blue waters of the ocean.

It made me wonder only one thing as I lined the shot up: when will the privet on Parsonage fill in this last slice of heaven?

This morning, I stood there in the silence, and smiled as I whispered, “Not today.”

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