August 30, 2006

Between The Covers

Wendy Chamberlain, a writer and photographer who lives in Bridge-hampton, doesn't know why the four families she profiles in True East: Farming Ancestral Lands on Long Island's East End — the Halseys, the Fosters, the Corwiths and the Zaluskis — allowed her to follow them around for a year, but she's grateful to them and to friends who lent her cameras and to all those who gave her advice and encouragement.

Her handsome book of text and beautifully composed photos not only shows what it's like to farm today on the East End but quietly advocates for a change in federal inheritance tax law that would make it possible for more East End farming families to keep more of their land.

In a foreward, John v. H. Halsey, a 12th generation Halsey, who is the founder and president of the Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit incorporated in 1983, notes that farming is not just a livelihood but a way of life and a heritage peculiar to the East End, especially in Southampton, Bridge-hampton, Mecox and Water Mill.

Farmers offer fresh produce, contribute to the area's agriculture-based economy and demonstrate a work ethic worth cherishing. As Paul Corwith says, "a farmer who's not stoic and steadfast won't last." True East makes its wider historical and ecological argument effective by making it home grown.

Long Island has the Northeast's longest growing period — 220 days — and in "Bridgehampton Loam" can boast a unique and perfect mix of silt, clay and sand. The families, long native to the East End (three of the four go back to the 17th-century) continue to opt for what their forebears did. Their talents, experience, fortitude and intelligence (several are college-educated men and women) could lead them into other work, but as a group they prize the independence of being in the outdoors, with all its attendant physical hardships and inconstant weather.

To judge from the photos, they also enjoy the challenge of being involved in all aspects of farming, including marketing and business management, working in greenhouses, selling vegetables and flowers at farm stands and tending to equipment. It comes as a surprise to learn that the first mechanical harvester dates only to the late 1950s, and that until the late 1970s, fertilizer came exclusively in 125-lb. bags, loaded onto and down from horse-drawn carriages.

The reputation of East End farmers is such that several have private keys to Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton, where they take an early breakfast. They also, to judge from photos here, live in relatively modest homes and work alongside their helpers in the fields. Marilee Foster, a writer and artist, seems equally energetic running a farm stand specializing in heirloom tomatoes as driving a tractor.

The sons who choose to stay with farming (the daughters are not gifted land, on the expectation that they will marry into farm ownership) seem an indomitable lot, particularly the Zaluskis who emigrated from Russian-dominated Poland in 1896. Within 20 years, Bill ("the Colonel") Zaluski "moved from immigrant laborer to the owner of a splendid [Victorian] home and prosperous farm."

True East proceeds by way of brief essays on each of the four families, interspersed with b & w family photos, then blooms into a spectacular array of color pictures organized by season — maple trees in fall looking like a Sisley impressionistic painting, Corwith rye, photographed in all its rich textured layers of yellows and greens. Photos of men working with equipment show that keeping machines in good working condition is as constant an activity as working the land.

Next time you drive by The Milk Pail in Water Mill — which sells no milk — bear in mind that the Halseys built the store by hand and that its name dates to a time when John Halsey also raised cows. As for the maple syrup and cheddar cheese sold there, these come from a farm stand owned by Evelyn Halsey's parents. For East End farmers, it's about keeping farming all in the family and the family true to the spirit of the East End.

True East: Farming Ancestral Lands on Long Island's East End by Wendy Chamberlain (author and photographer). The Peconic Land Trust. Illus. color & b& w., $50.

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