Dennis Puleston did an awful lot of things in the 95 years that he walked this earth. He ate flesh with cannibals in New Guinea. He flirted with virgins in Samoa. He managed a derelict coconut plantation in the Virgin Islands. He adopted a pet boa constrictor. He tattooed his arm with shark teeth. He searched for sunken treasure in Santo Domingo. He was shipwrecked on Cape Hatteras and he gave his pet cockatoo to the emperor of Japan. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom for his work as a civilian technical adviser to the U.S. military in the the Pacific Theater during 1944 and 1945, where he co-designed and trained soldiers on how to use an amphibious vehicle.
But he spent most of his years here, on Long Island, working at Brookhaven National Laboratory, fighting for a ban on the pesticide D.D.T., singing the praises of Long Island’s natural world and painting birds.
I’d never heard of Dennis Puleston until a friend told me recently about the summer exhibit at Riverhead’s Suffolk County Historical Society on the man who started the Environmental Defense Fund and was an environmental hero to a generation of Long Islanders. There’s a lot to tell about his life, and while this exhibit focuses on the highlights, there’s much more depth to his story than can be told in the space available at the museum.
Mr. Puleston was born in the fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea in England in 1905, but he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1931 at the age of 26, and ended up spending six years sailing around the world. His adventures on that trip became fodder for his 1939 book, “Blue Water Vagabond: Six Years’ Adventure at Sea,” published by Doubleday.
When he came to Long Island after the war to work as the director of technical information at BNL, he was fascinated by the ospreys here.
“They were everywhere, repairing their huge stick nests on dead trees, utility poles and platforms erected especially for them. They even nested in the middle of towns and raised chicks right along the highways, oblivious to traffic,” he wrote in 1948.
Mr. Puleston began taking trips to Gardiners Island to study ospreys. In 1948, he found 300 nests on the island, with an average of two osprey chicks fledging each year.
As he kept records throughout the 1950s, he noticed a dramatic decline in the number of active nests. He recorded that the eggs in many nests had been crushed, simply by the weight of the parents sitting on their own eggs. After he read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, he had the eggs tested for D.D.T. at the lab. Sure enough, they were heavily laced with the pesticide, which was sprayed by Suffolk County all over the East End to kill mosquitoes.
“Using D.D.T. to control mosquitoes was like torpedoing the QEII to get rid of the rats on board,” he wrote.
In 1966, with only 50 active nests left on Gardiners Island, Mr. Puleston sued the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission. He brought his watercolor paintings of Long Island wildlife, 150 of which are on display at the museum, to court with him as evidence. Something clicked for the judge in the case when he saw one painting of a blue claw crab dying after eating a mussel laced with D.D.T.
“So that’s why there are no more crabs in the Great South Bay,” said the judge. The Suffolk County Legislature banned D.D.T. later that year, becoming the first government in the country to do so.
It took decades for the population of ospreys to return to its pre-D.D.T. levels, but just in the past several years, the East End’s fish hawks have again become a ubiquitous sight here, perching on telephone poles at busy intersections, along highways and shorelines, screeching their signature sharp call of “keeeer” over the waters of the bays.
In 1992, Mr. Puleston counted 226 osprey nests on Gardiners Island, and their numbers have been increasing ever since.
Mr. Puleston retired from the lab in 1970, but continued his work at the Environmental Defense Fund, which he founded in 1967. He served as their first chairman for five years, helping to ban D.D.T. across the country, then, in his later years made hundreds of trips around the globe, lecturing, acting as a senior naturalist, including 35 trips to Antartica.
But he spent much of his time at home in Brookhaven, taking excursions into the field to sketch birds, then coming home, transferring those sketches onto Bainbridge matboards and meticulously mixing colors to match those found in nature.
The exhibit includes a video of Mr. Puleston in his home office, explaining his work to high school students and carefully painting the plumage of Long Island birds.
“I am an amateur,” he said of his paintings. “I don’t sell my paintings. I’m more of a scientist than a bird artist.”
He had set out to document the 240-plus species of birds of Long Island, and came close to achieving his goal.
In the fall of 2000, anticipating his 95th birthday, he scrawled a hand-written invite to a party on Nov. 11, to be held more than a month in advance of his Dec. 30 birthday in the hope that some of his friends who would be away in winter would be there. The letter is included in the exhibit.
“I need your help celebrating my 95th birthday,” he wrote. “I have survived assaults on my carcass by Brookhaven Hospital, shipwreck, open heart surgery, Jap shellfires, malaria and sundry other attacks. I am living on borrowed time.”
“P.S.,” he added, “Please don’t grieve for me when I’m gone. It has been a wonderful life and further cause for celebration.”
Mr. Puleston died on June 8, 2001, but his work lives on in the sounds of every sea hawk that swoops over the Peconic Bays.
Historical Society Director Kathryn Curren will give a tour of the exhibit this Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 7:15 p.m. The tour is being held in conjunction with the Eastern Suffolk Audubon Society, which Mr. Puleston was a member of when it was the Moriches Bay Audubon Society.
The museum is at 300 West Main Street in Riverhead and is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The exhibit will be up until Sept. 28, along with an exhibit of David Ebner’s furniture.