“Whose Garden Was This,” an evocative song by Tom Paxton, who lived in East Hampton for many years, came into my head this week after I drove through the railroad underpass on Narrow Lane in Bridgehampton and was suddenly startled, not by an approaching vehicle (although that is a real concern), but by a stand of some two dozen wild lupines. I had forgotten how stunning their blue-purple flag-like flowers are.
Like Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” Tom’s song was an anthem for the fight against environmental degradation. At the time, though, the lyrics spoke to places far away, at least as far as I was concerned; I never thought the day would come when they struck home here on eastern Long Island.
Lupine, which used to follow the bird’s-foot violet in flowering along local roadsides, are just about gone now. They had held on for quite a while despite inappropriate public mowing in the name of road safety. Some years ago an effort was made — in East Hampton, at least — to convince the Town Highway Department to schedule its mowing in keeping with botanical seasons, but it didn’t take. Changes in accepted government procedures require public insistence, and the voices for the protection of roadside flowers were too muted.
Lupine wasn’t the only flower that used to grace the roads. Later in the summer, grass was punctuated by orange butterfly weed. Like the lupine, butterfly weed was pretty much taken for granted until it was too late.
Of course, there are still flowering plants and bushes in out-of-the-way places here. A hidden forest of mountain laurel is breathtaking in June. Rosa rugosa, from which you can make rose-hip jelly, continues to thrive near the beaches, and goldenrod and asters pop up in August. Beach plum bushes put on a pretty show in good years.
There also are members of the orchid family on Napeague’s wild lands. If you know when and where to look, you can see lady’s slippers and orchis, although they are much rarer than they used to be. These Napeague plants have been subject to neither mowing nor overdevelopment, but some of them are pollinated by bees, and bees are in serious decline.
The disappearance of native flora is to some extent an aesthetic matter, I suppose. (That is, if you don’t consider the protection of biodiversity to be important as a general principle.) But such is not the case where shellfish are concerned. I remember the 1960s and ’70s, when people from away, unfamiliar with the South Fork, would ask whether it was safe to eat local clams. Of course! we told them, with exclamation marks in our voices. It never occurred to me in those days that in 30 or 40 years our waterways would write a different story.
Today, shellfishing is banned either temporarily or after rainstorms in some of our harbors, and a few prohibitions may turn out to be permanent. If roadside mowing was death for many wildflowers, an overabundance of nitrogen and of chemical pollutants is the obvious cause of contaminated shellfish.
The good news is that if you love lupine and butterfly weed you can buy seeds and plant them in your garden. Meanwhile, scientists seem to agree that it is not too late to reverse the downward trend in our harbors and bays. We will just have to make our public outcry louder and more persistent this time.