We’ve been put in touch with Dell Cullum a photographer, conservationist, activist and animal rescuer whose family has lived for several generations in Amagansett, the next town west of Montauk. Early every morning Dell goes to his local beach and picks up litter for an hour before work. He has been doing this for years and is committed to raising awareness about the fragile and often toxic relationship between nature, discarded man-made detritus and activating a change in behaviour at a personal and community level. He instigated the annual Shoreline Sweep from Montauk to East Hampton, as well as monthly beach clean ups.

We meet him before 7am on a beautiful morning at the main car park to Amagansett beach. At this time of the day, the beach is deserted apart from a few dog walkers and Dell. It is breath-taking. It is easy to see how the daily action in this location can function on multiple levels, both as practical action and as mediation with nature.

At first glance, to our novice eyes, the sands look pretty clean, but Dell’s eyes are hawk-like, spotting plastic, nylon, paper and cardboard across the shore. We walk, litter pick and talk about how action and persistence can affect change.  His mantra is that the public and community can and must help the cause by becoming part of the solution. His approach and actions remind me of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation project and ongoing residency at the New York Sanitation Department. Her commitment over a period of time created a slow, but significant refocusing on attitudes to waste, the community of workers associated with it and the sometimes uncomfortable relationship the public have with it.

We talk about how we hope that public awareness is changing and compare proposed government legislation on both sides of the Atlantic, in New York State, UK and Europe to ban plastic straws and phase out single-use plastic. Dell is frustrated where and how trash cans are sited on the beach. More intelligent design and placing can reduce carefully disposed trash returning to the ground it was supposed to save, by animals, wind, and overuse.

We also discuss the possibility of developing a twinned activity on our respective Suffolk coasts later next year. I revisit some of the cyanotypes Felicity and I made on Orford Ness out of collected maritime rubbish which may be a possible direction for communicating and documenting the detritus in a different way.



The approach to Montauk Point Lighthouse is strikingly different to that of Orfordness Lighthouse. At the Ness the structure punctuates the horizon, seen from miles inland and public access is very limited. Here at Montauk Point, the lighthouse isn’t visible from the highway approach until you are fairly close. Most visitors approach by car, as it is just over 6 miles drive from Montauk town. It is a well-oiled operation in managing tens of thousands of visitors each year to the Lighthouse, Museum, Café and Shop.

The building of Montauk Point Light was authorised by George Washington in 1792, the same year that Orfordness Lighthouse was completed. They share the whitewash and iron-red banding: Orford has two red stripes, Montauk one (lighthouses have different markings to their nearby neighbours so they are easily distinguishable from sea). The first thing that strikes me about the Montauk structure is it is a thinner eight sided   tower. This is borne out as we enter the building climb its compact spiral staircase over 100 ft to the top.

At the top there is a small viewing platform with incredible views to the north east we can see Connecticut and Providence, due east the Atlantic stretches before us.

We talk with several of the Museum staff, one who visited Orfordness Lighthouse when it was still a functional lighthouse and is devastated to hear of its current state, and the Montauk Point Lighthouse historian Henry Osmers who is a mine of information and knowledge. Henry takes us round the museum and tells us about the erosion of the Point and the shift in the edge of the ‘bluff’ or land edge.

Like Orfordness, when the lighthouse was build at the end of the C18th it stood 300 ft inland. The rate of erosion was about a foot a year and, according to Henry’s book On Eagles Beak: A History of Montauk Point Lighthouse

“By 1940 it had become apparent that in less than half a century the bluff would erode and undermine the lighthouse. The tower’s future was in jeopardy and something had to be done to halt the effects of erosion.”

(Osmer, 2017, p109)

It is evident from post Second World War aerial photographs of the Point that despite the US Government’s efforts to put in sea defences by way of massive boulders encircling the Point the raw scar of the eroded land is weakened and vulnerable to further landslide and movement.

Felicity and I are fascinated to hear Henry talk about how fight against erosion at the Point took a new turn by way of a radical champion and pioneer, Georgina Reid, an artist and textile designer. Throughout the early 1960s Reid experimented with a new way of fighting back erosion to save her house on in the north coast of Long Island constructing reed terracing and then planting grass and rye. This new type of construction proved so highly effective and sustainable that she patented her ‘Reed Trench Terracing’ method and published How to Hold up a Bank in 1969.

When Reid heard of the erosion at Montauk Point that was threatening the Lighthouse, she approached the coastguard with a reed terracing plan. Henry points out in his book

“Coast guard personnel were reluctant, however. They wondered how a 4-foot 11-inch 61 year-old woman with no engineering experience or funding could succeed in saving the lighthouse when other efforts had faded”

(Osmer, 2017, p116)

Luckily, they gave Reid a chance and granted her permission to undertake a pilot erosion control project funded by local donations. It was launched on the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. By the end of the first summer, the coast guard engineers recognised the potential for this new scheme to work in conjunction with larger Government funded earth works. Reid worked tirelessly on the project with volunteers for the next sixteen years. Greg Donohue who worked with Reid in the early 1970s continues to champion her work and sustainable approaches. Earlier it was announced that New York State will direct $24 towards long-term revetment coastal engineering from the Storm Resiliency Funding set up in the wake of Storm Sandy in 2012.

Erosion continues to threaten both Montauk Point and Orfordness Lighthouses. However, it is striking how the fate of Montauk Point and the Lighthouse is less bleak thanks to committed individuals and state investment. It is inspiring, here, to see how collaborations and observations from across specialisms can make a real difference. However, I fear that time and land have almost run out for Orfordness Lighthouse and despite the blistering hot sun, leave Montauk Point that day tinged with sadness.





We meet up with three different people who have long-term knowledge of the coastal waters at Montauk Point to ask about change in the area.

First we meet with Professor Arthur (Artie) Kopelman. He teaches sustainability at The Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York and is President of Coastal Research & Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI).

For over twenty years Artie has been conducting regular off-shore trips from Montauk Harbor to map and monitor cetacean (marine mammals such as dolphin, porpoise and whale) numbers. Here is a link to his photographs from the trip that he made the day we met him. He talks of his visual observation of the sea, and in particular visual knowledge of these incredible animals.

Artie’s images of whales resonate with a description in Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan or, The Whale that I’m reading. In it Hoare charts the historical, natural and literary history of the whale as well as his own fascination with this species. He describes seeing a whale for the first time:

“Then someone shouted,


and in the mid-distance, a massive grey-black shape slid up out of the water and back down below. Before I know it, there they are, off our bows, whales blowing noisily from the nostrils, rolling with the waves. Barely yards away a young humpback threw itself out of the water, showing off its white underbelly, ridged like some giant, rubbery shell. It was a jump-cut close-up of something impossible: a whale in flight”

(2009, p22-23)

Hoare peppers the book with quotations from Melville’s classic tale Moby Dick. The Whaling Museum that we visit at Sag Harbor is testament to man’s more violent relationship with the whale, and the reason numbers of this majestic animal dwindled. The C19th world-wide industry of whaling was dirty, dangerous, violent and lucrative for those who took the risk.  This part of the east coast of the USA, like that of the UK sailed whaling vessels worldwide in mainly the C18th and C19th.

Now the threat to these creatures in this area isn’t culling for oil, but rather shipping channels and, of course, marine plastic. CRESLI’s monitoring of cetacean numbers is paired with taking the public out into the waters to see these mammals first hand. We talk about the effectiveness of primary experience, action and image-making to communicate and engage with a wider audience.

After our fascinating discussion with Artie, we go round the Harbor to chat with a few of the local fishermen whose livelihoods depend on these waters. Like in the UK, fishing is closely monitored here with strict quotas for what can be landed and sold.

And, like in the UK, fishermen here have seen a demise in what they can fish legally, and a rise in state and government legislation. The mantra is familiar: their knowledge of these waters and the habit is extensive and intimate; they know on a day-to-day basis which species of fish are thriving and those that are not; the decision-making of those who make the rules and have the power seems remote and out of touch.

Whilst in the UK, disputes about what and who fishes is by country (think of the on-going UK-French scallop row), here, rival quota and landings are by State. From Montauk Point north you can see Connecticut with the naked eye, and Massachusetts is not much further. To the south and west is New Jersey. The New York State registered fishermen, here, have to abide by their State landing rules, different from the others who visit their waters. It is unsurprising that this dangerous and precarious livelihood is deeply territorial.

Our last meeting in Montauk Harbor is with at the coastguard at the station on Star Island. In the UK, H.M. Coastguard is responsible for search and rescue around the coast waters. It is not a military, nor law enforcement unit.  Here, as we enter the station grounds, we are immediately aware that we are entering a military unit. The United States Coast Guard is responsible for law enforcement as well as search and rescue. The unit are well placed here as they cover a wide stretch of water in Long Island Sound (the stretch of water to the north between Long Island and Connecticut) and the South Shore down towards New York City. We realise that discussion of environmental change in the area will be limited, it is inappropriate for us to stray into political waters.  So we are given some new leads with people in the area who have been involved in sea defence work around Montauk Point and the Lighthouse. That will be our next stop.