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East End Thoughts: Self and Spirit in 2009, It’s Only Natural

Posted on 22 May 2009

By Richard Gambino


I recently celebrated a landmark birthday. As a character in the musical, Chicago, says, “I’m much older than I ever intended to be.” So it’s no surprise, I guess, that I’m seeking to understand who I am now that I am a long-term “senior citizen” in 2009. I don’t mean self-obsession or even self-absorption, which I don’t need, and of which there is already too much in the world. Instead I’ve turned out from myself. For me, experience of nature pulls me out of myself even as it connects me with my own deepest internal nature. So I’ve turned to it. It’s a long-time practice of mine.

Luckily, in my lifetime there’s been a spirit at work on the East End preserving nature against the relentless push for overdevelopment. I first saw the coast of Montauk in 1953, and since 1970 have lived in two places on the South Fork and one on the North, and I’ve seen much change. Some of it not good. (As I write this, a deer is about twenty feet from me, outside my window, a stubborn holdout against encroaching suburbia.)

I remember the fight in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, led by people like Carol Morrison, today a vibrant 89 year-old,  to preserve land from Napeague to Montauk against the developers and some politicians  who wanted to turn it into yet another mass of McMansions, plus condominiums.  (Today, multi-story condo complexes hang by threads like so many Swords of Damocles about to drop on Sag Harbor.) Thus sixty-five percent of the land between Napeague and Montauk Point is now preserved, mostly as town, county, state and federal preserves and parks. I treasure the time I spend in these natural areas.

In the past weeks, I’ve spent the start of  a new age of my life taking walks along the jagged cliffs above the ocean just west of Montauk Point, at Camp Hero State Park, a state preserve since 2002,  and Shadmoor State Park, a state preserve since 2000. My mind goes back to the G.I.s of World War II who looked out to the sea when these were military installations. Dull duty manning massive coastal guns never fired at the enemy. But all that is left as nature has reclaimed the land are some squat buildings and circular slabs of concrete on which the heavy artillery rested. Still, I can almost hear the soldiers whistling, “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree,” “The G.I. Jive,” and other tunes popular then.

I imagine too that I see the generations of Montaukett Indians who gazed at the sea from these cliffs in the more distant past. The ocean was a great bounty to them, providing them with much food, and no doubt instilling in them the same awe I feel in looking at it. I wish I knew their songs, and could contemplate their minds. What would they make of us? How would their elders appraise the lives we lead? And I imagine someday my grandchildren when they are adults standing on the cliffs and wondering what I thought about while there.

It is in this  mind that I look out, awestruck, on a day with a strong south wind. The white water surges in from the blue sea against the weathered bluffs and beaten beaches. The waves follow each other so closely that at low tide they send an almost constant hiss to my ears. Strength and energy without measure. Yet they are not conscious. It’s human consciousness, my consciousness, that illuminates them, and in so doing lights my soul. I hope I don’t sound like a pedant when I relate that in reflection on these walks high above the ever-moving sea, I’m reminded of a favorite quotation I’ve used in the classroom. Some fifteen centuries ago, Boethius, a statesman and thinker who lived very much engaged with  the extremely turbulent late ancient Roman world,  said, “In other creatures ignorance of self is natural; in humans, it is vice.” These Montauk moments help keep me at least sometimes from this vice. These times illuminate the harmony of nature out there and nature within me as I engage a world very different from the one in which I was young.

Recently I stood on one of the cliffs, leaning into a strong wind flapping my clothes like uncontrolled sails, holding my tripod and camera hard against it. If anyone had seen me, they would have seen a lunatic. But thank God for such lunacy. The photos I took of the cliffs and the white water: Life’s cycles — and it is a wonder-full adventure to live mine. Back in 1950, a great psychologist, Erik Erikson, said the good life is to be had in a full-souled embrace of the truth that the meaning of life for  a person depends on the integrity he establishes for himself in the context of his time.  In the end, the best integrity I come to starts with the harmony of nature within and without, and then engagement with the world.

Another great psychologist, William James, in 1902 characterized a “healthy soul,” as one  insofar as  he relates to reality with enthusiastic connection and freedom. On the other hand one is a “sick soul” insofar as he relates to the world solely from his self-centeredness, and its mates, fear and all the other self-centered emotions. James tells a story of a person walking on a narrow ledge on a completely dark night. He slips, and for a long time hangs onto a tree branch in terror. Finally, exhausted, he falls. Six inches. James cites the moral of the story as the urging of, “giving your private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there.”

I come home from my immersions in nature more able to love those I love with all  my being, which is at the same time so ephemerally fragile, yet  powerful. And better to recognize the pettiness of “chasing the dog tail of my little self.” Also more committed to the justice of fighting against those whose love of themselves, power or money would have the rest of us chase theirs.

We lose too much of ourselves when we become alienated from nature, and so suffer a great handicap in living in an ever-challenging world.  Fortunately, the preserved lands nearby also can help preserve us from the vice of ignorance about who we really are. But being only human, it’s good to keep a sense of humor about ourselves. We should remember that even if there’s a 50-50 chance of getting something right, being human there’s a 60% probability  we’ll get it wrong. The good life comes from caring and trying. So my spirit encourages me on, with Walt Whitman’s injunction:


      Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me,

      and still urge you, without the least idea of what is our destination,

      Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated.


RICHARD GAMBINO loves the “fish’s tail” (a.k.a. the East End), and the waters in which it swims.    


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