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The Mast-Head: Changes in the Woods

Wed, 08/10/2022 - 12:21

Walking near the periphery of the property one morning this week, I noticed the difference between one side of the dog fence and the other. Inside the fence, there is a riot of low, green shrubs and vines; outside, there are none. It’s bare, except for the trunks of trees.

It seems proof positive that the deer have radically altered the microhabitat behind the dunes where I live — and that the low fence and the scent of the dogs have maintained a tiny portion of the land in the way we knew it growing up there.

Certainly, the landscape has changed since my parents had a cottage moved there from near Three Mile Harbor in about 1961 to what baymen called Cedar Bush. Photographs from about that time show only low bushes and beach grass, few of the trees that now dominate. The house appears as a gray speck in a 1969 aerial from a set in the Star attic.

Ours was the easternmost house along this southern reach of Gardiner’s Bay. Not that there were not suitable sites nearby; rather, the stink from the Smith Meal fish factory at Promised Land scared off prospective homeowners. Maybe because my father had grown up among his uncles and grand-uncles, some of the “fishy” Edwardses, as they used to say, he did not care about the smell. More likely, he knew that the wind rarely came from the direction that would have otherwise brought the eau de bunker close.

The fish plant closed in about 1968; I can remember, if ever so slightly now, the scent of it. Among my office-window treasures is a full bottle of Sealife Fish Emulsion Plant Food, which had been produced there and was given to me as a memento by an Amagansett acquaintance. Like many of us, he, too, was intrigued by the defunct factory and had many times crept through the vast buildings in search of souvenirs.

What houses do over time to their surroundings is difficult to measure, but I believe I can see it there. From the bay, the tree line on one side of the house is the highest along the entire beach, perhaps the effect of its blocking the wind, allowing the oaks to assume their full, upright form in the lee.

Most of the tall oaks stand outside the dog fence. Their trunks rise from an open forest floor. This is unlike the protected space, where the tangle of bull briar and low shrubs I knew as a child remain nearly impenetrable.

Deer have eliminated the understory along Montauk Highway in Hither Hills, if you want to have a look yourself. Passing there, one can see hills and dips, all manner of contours that were obscured by undergrowth before. Songbirds that once lived in the low thickets are gone, and that makes me sad.

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