Pictured Above: Dave Bennett painting a decoy in his shop in The Springs. |. Joanne Friedland Roberts photo

This October, the Peter Matthiessen Center, formed to build on the legacy of the celebrated author and naturalist who for many years called Sagaponack home, is embarking on several ambitious projects to tell the stories of the interactions, both locally and globally, between people and the natural world.

The two-part program “Celebrating Bonac” brings together writers, filmmakers, tribal members and members of families who have long lived off the land and waters surrounding Accabonac Harbor in Springs.

The opening event, at the Duck Creek Arts Center at 127 Squaw Road in Springs on Sunday, Oct. 1 from 3 to 5 p.m., will be a free afternoon of stories, songs and sharing of traditions from Bonacker families and Indigenous leaders, along with readings by poet Scott Chaskey from Peter Matthiessen’s 1986 book “Men’s Lives,” about the families who made their home in Bonac.

A photograph demonstrating the haul seining process from the “Men’s Lives” project (©Adelaide de Menil/Rock Foundation)

The day will begin with a blessing by Shinnecock tribal member Shane Weeks, and will include displays of Bonacker techniques for decoy carving and fishing traps and nets, and the Indigenous origins of these art forms and techniques, including wampum jewelry and beads.

Duck Creek Arts Center Executive Director Jess Frost quickly jumped at getting involved with the project, which tells the story of the culture surrounding the arts center, the former studio of artist John Little, which was preserved by East Hampton Town in 2004 and became a non-profit and began programming in 2018.

Participating artists and baymen include Dave Bennett, Albie Lester, Brent Bennett, Shane Weeks, Michael Butler, Scott Chaskey, David Cataletto and Peter Van Scoyoc, and others. 

The idea for the series came about after filmmaker Joanne Friedland Roberts, who lives in the Barnes Hole section of Springs, approached Mattheissen Center Program Director Daniela Kronemeyer this past spring with information about a documentary she’s working on called “The Bonackers,” which shares the stories of many longtime residents.

“She started by interviewing Dave Bennett, who is an incredible decoy carver, and he started giving her names of other people to talk to,” said Ms. Kronemeyer. “Then through Prudence Talmage Carabine at the East Hampton Historical Farm Museum and [town historian] Hugh King and other folks in the East Hampton circle, they kept giving her names. These guys have incredible stories, and she wants to record them and keep the histories preserved.”

“I’ve been going out to the East End since I was a little kid, and when I moved to Louse Point in the early 80s, there was still a thriving fishing industry with boats going in and out of Accabonac Harbor all day long,” said Ms. Roberts. “The Lesters are still fishing all the time. They have a little shop off of Abrahams Path, and on the back roads of Springs you still see sings for scallops for sale or clams for sale. There are still so many boats in peoples backyards. I want to tell the story of why they’re hanging in there, who their families are, and how they survive.”

“Dave Bennett, my next door neighbor, is the 14th or 15th generation of his family here. Dave is a decoy carver and phenomenal artist. His basement is filled with decoys he’s collected from up and down the coast,”said Ms. Roberts. “His son Todd, next door, raises chickens, and is a bayman, grows vegetables and mows lawns. I’ve been so impressed by their down-to-earth wisdom, and the way they continue to live within the Hamptons, where everyone else is driving a Mercedes Benz and living in a house that’s too big.”

Ms. Roberts, a longtime television producer who had also been a teacher, began making iPhone movies of interviews with Mr. Bennett and other baymen in the neighborhood, and realized their stories deserved a wider audience. 

“I have so many friends who live out in the Hamptons and have never heard of the Bonackers,” she said. “The rest of us wouldn’t be able to live here without them out there fishing and farming and doing what needs to be done.”

Among the presenters at Duck Creek will be Brent Bennett, an octogenarian fisherman who is an expert at building pound traps — the mazes of nets on poles that you might see extending perpendicularly out from the shore.

Dave Cataletto, a teacher who grew up in Springs and told Ms. Roberts he is only able to still live here because he bought his house years ago, and Town Supervisor Peter van Scoyoc, will be playing music at the Duck Creek event.

“A lot of Bonackers could have sold their homes for quite a lot of money, especially the farmers with land. But they don’t want to. The love the land and the bays,” said Ms. Roberts. “A lot of the younger generation, unless they’re lucky enough to have their family’s homer have bought a place years ago, are finding it very hard to live here.”

“The alignment was natural, with Men’s Lives,” said Ms. Kronemeyer of The Peter Matthiessen Center’s involvement. “Peter was concerned about the environment out here, and about the working man. He was also an indigenous rights activist, and much of what the Bonacker community knows originally came from indigenous people.”

Celebrating Bonac continues at the East Hampton Historical Farm Museum at 131 North Main Street on Sunday, Oct. 15 from 3 to 5 p.m., where there will be a free screening of the short concept trailer for “The Bonackers,” followed by a conversation and Q&A about the Bonacker community, the Montaukett people and the Freetown community, where formerly enslaved African-Americans formed a small but important community.

 The conversation, led by Ms. Carabine, will include Deanna Tikkanen, Bruce Collins, Audrey Gaines, Peter Van Scoyoc and others. 

“I think people have just started to really respect and understand that the history of Long Island goes back thousands of years, not just 400 years,” said Ms. Roberts. “The Bonackers have been building pound traps for 375 years, but indigenous people taught them about pound traps, about what would and wouldn’t grow.”

“There are so many stories about what happened when the Arthur Benson pushed the Montauketts off their land so his cattle could graze, and the Black families who had been descendents of slaves on Gardiners Island, who all lived together with the Montauketts and Bonackers in Freetown,” said Ms. Roberts, who is just beginning to learn the larger history of this place.

In between the two weekends celebrating Bonac, The Peter Matthiessen Center is teaming up with The Church in Sag Harbor on Sunday, Oct. 8 for a presentation on “Adapting Far Tortuga” with the director and actors working to bring to life Matthiessen’s 1975 novel about the last turtle hunters of the Grand Cayman Islands. 

The novel came about after the New Yorker magazine sent Matthiessen on a reporting trip to the Cayman Islands in the mid-1960s to document this brutal industry in its decline.

“Their meat was sent as a delicacy to Europe and around the world, and when the industry ended, Peter spent six weeks on a schooner with these turtlers,” said Ms. Kronemeyer. “He saw the inner turmoil of these men who were doing these incredibly brutal acts, but also needed to survive. He told the New Yorker he would write them a pithy article, but he was saving the meaty stuff for a novel.” 

It would later turn out to be his favorite of his books.

That novel, which took Matthiessen 10 years to write, was written entirely in a creole dialect almost in the form of a script, and the filmmaker, 28-year-old Jack Evans, devoured as a teenager living in Knocksville, Tenn., who understood the language from the way people spoke in his neighborhood. 

Mr. Evans has already shot a 22-minute prequel to “Far Tortuga” called Eden River, and he’s planning to return to Belize this winter to continue shooting the feature film. (The Cayman Islands, now an international banking hub, look nothing like they did when Matthiessen was there, but Belize is devoted to preserving its wild spaces).

The event at The Church begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for non-members of The Church and free for members, and are available at thechurchsagharbor.org.

The Peter Matthiessen Center was originally founded in an attempt to preserve Matthiessen’s Sagaponack home and the Ocean Zendo, which the author had kept open to the public for meditation until his death in 2014. But after a preservation deal for the property fell through, The Center turned its energy to supporting activities that are in line with the author’s legacy, said Ms. Kronemeyer.

“We’re pivoting away from the idea of a physical retreat,” she said. “We’re in the process of launching a literary prize in his name, and are working on virtual and in-person programming.”— BHY

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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