‘Focus on Nature’ archive lives on after its author

Paul Stoutenburgh once wrote in his 'Focus on Nature' column that standing beneath the Great Arches of Utah made him feel 'humble and proud of this great country of ours.'
Paul Stoutenburgh once wrote in his ‘Focus on Nature’ column that standing beneath the Great Arches of Utah made him feel ‘humble and proud of this great country of ours.’

For those who never visited the East End of Long Island half a century ago, imagine two arms of verdant rolling hills jutting into the Atlantic, embracing islands, inlets and marshes teeming with crabs, clams, fish and birds. At least that’s the East End local wildlife expert Paul Stoutenburgh described when he began writing his weekly newspaper column, “Focus on Nature,” for The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. 

The sugar sand beaches of the Hamptons and striped bass fishing at Montauk. The creeks and bays of the Peconics and the rocky shores of Long Island Sound. Paul wrote about it all, week in and week out. When he retired from writing the column three years back, I got talking to him and his wife, Barbara, about how “Focus on Nature” could live on. I had always been a Focus fan while living on the East Coast but had lost track after 20 years in California. The discussions with the Stoutenburghs upon Paul’s retirement got me reading again, columns from the 1960s and ’70s, as well as those I used to enjoy in the years I lived there. I came to realize just what an amazing resource they are.

For East End locals, “Focus on Nature” was like a weekly visit from a longtime friend, due in large part to Paul’s wonderful use of simple words and short sentences. At the same time, his chummy prose eases the reader into some pretty complex discussions of the East End’s uniquely rich marine and coastal environments. He spoke authoritatively on such subjects, not just because he studied them but because he lived them. He grew up spearing eels through creek ice in the winter and cooking lobsters in coffee cans while camping out on the beaches of Long Island Sound. He crabbed, clammed and fished for everything even remotely edible, chronicling it all along the way. We often wondered, jokingly, if Paul had a recipe for filet of pinecone, such was his immersion in and appreciation of all the wonders of the East End’s environs.

His older columns speak matter-of-factly of species of crabs and fish that have long since disappeared from East End waters, while some more recent columns talk of the reappearance of some of those species: like the fall and rise of the osprey due to the use and subsequent ban of the pesticide DDT. Taken in whole, the “Focus on Nature” archive is a heart-warming walk down memory lane and real-time study of nature’s response, over 50 very dynamic years, to the radically changing landscapes of the East End.

The more I read, the more I realized “Focus on Nature” was much more than a local weekly column. It was also a snapshot of the natural history of some of the East Coast’s most treasured ecosystems.

So I began the process of turning the hundreds of bound volumes of “Focus on Nature” columns that Barbara kept in the family basement into an electronic archive that could be searched online. I undertook construction of the “Focus on Nature” archive in large measure out of appreciation for Paul’s efforts to preserve Long Island’s East End, where I spent my youth.

Now that Paul has died, please take a moment to check out “Focus on Nature.” Read some of the archived articles and see why Paul dedicated his life to protecting the natural resources of the East End.

Maybe in doing so we will all be inspired do a little more to protect those resources, now that Paul is no longer here to do so himself.

See more photos from ‘Focus on Nature’ columns: