Accabonac, Nature’s Art

Good for art, good for the environment, good for nature
In the view from the Pollock-Kranser House there is much to please the eye. The glasswort, or samphire, is turning bright scarlet, little salt-marsh gerardia a half-foot tall are displaying their tiny magenta flowers tucked between grass stems. Antonia Prosciotta

I know a lot about nature, but very little about art, especially fine art. A lot of artists, as well as a poet or two, live in Springs. Some of them are not only respected artists but also environmentalists, thus “artist-activists” in my way of thinking. Good for art, good for the environment, good for nature. They feed on each other.

Two of the first artists to move to Springs all the way from New York City, were Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. They ended up on the edge of Accabonac as much by chance as by preference. It wasn’t so much the bucolic setting, and in particular, Accabonac Harbor, that Pollock was drawn to, but, as he told an admirer who asked why he picked the house in Springs, “I just wanted to get out of the city.” In 1956, only a year after the move, the setting became paramount, a barn that stood directly between the house and the harbor was moved to the wooded north edge, the view of the salt marsh and the tidal waters beyond was forever linked to the house, its east-facing windows, and Pollock and Krasner’s art.

At that time a few horses and cows still roamed the salt marsh feeding on salt marsh hay, an early staple for settlers’ livestock. Salt marshes served as grazing lands and a source of winter hay. Springs was mostly woods, there were very few residents, and, as one middle-aged male Bonacker told me recently, when the Little League started and Springs wanted to play in it, it was hard to find nine boys to field a team. Springs has changed considerably since then, but it has resisted the gentrification dominating most of the Hamptons. Accabonac Harbor has held out through thick and thin, and its salt marshes are thriving as well as any on the South Fork. No more cattle, maybe an occasional horse or two, but new ruminants have moved in — white-tailed deer — and they are just as pretty.

The ugly head of Eurasian phragmites has cropped up here and there in the last 30 years. There is not a salt marsh on eastern Long Island that has been spared. In fact right around the corner to the north, a thick patch of phragmites stands tall in march formation, ready to move on to the Pollock-Krasner wetland as soon as conditions are favorable and no one is watching.

On Monday I visited the Pollock-Krasner site for the fourth time this year so that I could keep track of the comings and goings in the wetland flora and that just upland of it, much of it ornamentals, having been planted early on by the new occupants. What was particularly striking, not just Monday, but in all the previous visits is the zonation of the vegetation leading to the salt marsh from the back of the house.

The backyard grades down gradually and evenly 200 yards or so before you come to an arm of the harbor reaching inland via a “mosquito” ditch, one of the 17 miles of vector control ditches along both sides of the harbor that were dug by hand during the Great Depression.

The upland is conventional grass, grading into dry meadow dominated by broomsedge, a taller version of little bluestem that is slowly replacing the latter grass in many parts of the South Fork. Next comes the high marsh zone, characterized by salt marsh hay, spike grass, and glasswort, after which saltwater cord grass makes up the low marsh running 100 feet or so to the mosquito ditch with its tidal water. Because each side of the ditch is a littler higher than the grade of the marsh, a result of leaving the dirt removed during the ditch’s construction more than 75 years ago, high tide bush, or marsh elder, a hearty, salt-tolerant shrub, lines each side, ready to take on the phragmites should it try to advance.

Groundsel bush, a woody member of the sunflower family, forms a hedge between the upland junipers and the high marsh on either side of the meadowlands. It is thick with flower buds, which are just about ready to pop out into grayish-white tiny flowers, the last wave of flowering to occur in the harbor’s watershed before Halloween comes along and the trees and most of the shrubs lose their leaves.

There is a wrack line of phragmites stems and bits of jetsam well landward of the high marsh zone, a remnant of Sandy’s visit. It is in the Pollock-Krasner House’s history that Hurricane Carol in the summer of 1954 pushed water all the way up to the foundation. Inasmuch as the grade between house and harbor waters is so slight in pitch, by 2050 the salt marsh edge will have advanced toward the house another 100 feet or so, as sea level is expected to rise by 11/2 feet by then. Fortunately, at the Pollock-Krasner site, as for a sizeable chunk of similarly sloped land around Accabonac Harbor, the wetland’s move landward will not be impeded by trees and other obstructions.

On Monday, in the company of the photographer-artist Antonia Pisciotta, I examined the marsh zones closely, as there was much more to please the eye than wetland grasses. The glasswort, or samphire, was turning bright scarlet, little salt-marsh gerardia a half-foot tall were displaying their tiny magenta flowers tucked between grass stems. This little plant, a close relative of the endangered sandplain gerardia of Montauk, does very well in the harbor’s high marsh areas. Scattered among them are two species of salt-marsh asters, one with very short white petals (or rays), which is an annual, the other with white daisy-like flowers and fleshy leaves, a perennial. The former is on the state’s threatened list, the latter is on the endangered list.

Most of the marshland in front of the Pollock-Krasner House is in the hands of the Nature Conservancy, which began acquiring valuable wetland and upland habitats, including treed hummocks, around Accabonac Harbor more than 40 years ago. Long before East Hampton Town had a preservation fund to buy land, it had a program to buy small building lots. Randall Parsons headed that committee while he was a councilman in the early and mid-’80s when East Hampton began to buy parcels around the harbor. The Peconic Land Trust has also been in on the act and they own outright or have conservation easements on several parcels, including the one on Old Stone Highway that served as the residence of the late Ward Bennett up until the late 1990s.

Acquiring the land for public use in perpetuity is one way to protect the harbor, which is not only an aesthetic knockout, but a valuable repository of fish, shellfish, and wildlife. However, letting the phragmites take over much of the wetland species and even allowing some native trees to take over the dry part of the meadow is a problem. Flood tides help to beat back the phragmites’ and other upland vegetation’s push seaward, but are not frequent enough to do the job completely. Livestock used to keep the dry meadow cropped and treeless, but the deer are not as good as the livestock. They don’t eat phragmites and bamboo, nor do they eat mile-a-minute vine, Japanese knotweed, Asian bittersweet, or mugwort.

A very large silver maple — a kind of natural monument to Pollock and Krasner — stands on the north edge of the meadow not far from the studio. It was a sapling when the couple purchased the house. Now it is 16 feet in diameter. Jackson passed away in 1956, while Lee, an equally adept artist, held out till 1984. Before she passed on, she deeded the l.56 acres with the house, studio, shed, glacial erratics, and other accoutrements to the Stony Brook Foundation, which owns it and oversees it to this day. In 1994, largely as a result of the work of the present day museum director, Helen Harrison, the Pollock-Krasner House received National Historic Landmark status, one of a handful of such sites in East Hampton Town, including the Montauk Lighthouse, which was given landmark status last year.

When you visit the museum, take in the marvelous view, as well. In Pollock’s and Krasner’s absence, the community of Springs artists continues to grow and prosper, if not monetarily, at least in spirit. Accabonac Harbor and its surroundings are partly responsible for the wonderful art they produce.