By Alexandra Talty
Local food was at the forefront of the Peter Matthiessen Center fundraiser held on the evening of September 20 in a fitting nod to the late writer, whose books always featured the landscape as a character. Held al fresco in the Cesar Garden of the Southampton Arts Center, the cocktail hour was attended by a mix of farmers, artists, Zen Buddhists, social activists, family members and, of course, writers. Environmental writer Carl Safina was in attendance, as well as Ann Colley, Michael Haggiag and Karen Klopp.
Heeding socially-distance guidelines, the small crowd — less than 50 — were all masked for the intimate affair. A hint of fall was in the air as the sun set on the garden filled with busts of Roman emperors. From a delicious tomato compote and goat cheese crostini to vegan sushi by Suki Zuki, all of the food by caterer Deana Smith was locally-produced and vegetarian, featuring local purveyors like Quail Hill Farm, Marilee’s Farmstand, Carissa’s Bread, Saaz Indian Restaurant and East End Food Institute.
“We are living in deeply troubling and bewildering times,” said Alex Matthiessen, the late writer’s son, who is spearheading the campaign to bring the Peter Matthiessen Center, or PMC, to life. “The PMC is not going to solve all of our problems. But it is what the East End needs now. The center will be a place of tranquility, quiet contemplation and progressive conversations. It will attract up-and-coming writers from around the world inspired by my father’s writing and his devotion to social causes.”
The goal of the Peter Matthiessen Center is to establish a Sagaponack writing residency for up to six artists at a time at 527 Bridge Lane, the former home and studio of the late writer. Alex Matthiessen and his siblings, Rue Matthiessen and Luke Matthiessen, hope that the residency can foster new writers who will champion the natural world as their father did, using prose to advocate for the environment. They also plan to restore the writer’s former Zendo, while offering the 3 acre property to environmental leaders and social activists in non-writing residency periods.
“His life was such a unique combination of spirituality, creativity and a very strong environmental focus. In his life, these things came together organically. He got it all under one umbrella,” Rue Matthiessen said during the cocktail hour. “It would be such a gift to this area if there could be something that would show that integration.”
She added that after 60 years of building a space where writing, conservation and Zen converge in Sagaponack, her father would be so happy to see that legacy live on.
“My father built that property in the 1960s. Back then, one could look out the back door at the potato fields just to the dunes … Sagaponack was still a farming community,” said Lucas Matthiessen, who noted that his father was saddened by what happened to the surrounding farming community in Sagaponack and that he feels strongly that the center work to foster new writers who can similarly advocate for the environment.
Adding to the eclectic Peter Matthiessen mix was the former monk’s Zendo group, including Lillian Ball, Bill Miller, Shirley Ruch and Dennis Snyder, who was one of the original members of the Zendo when it was founded around 1989.
“It has always been a real spiritual place,” said Snyder. “Peter always took care of it as a sanctuary.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman was there in support of the Peter Matthiessen Center, as well as former Sagaponack Deputy Mayor Lee Foster. Hinting at the possibility of using Community Preservation Fund (CPF) money to help acquire the land for the center, Schneiderman said that he was looking to “see the kind of role the town could play” but that ultimately it depended on the PMC application process to the CPF.
“He influenced us,” Foster said of Matthiessen. Reminiscing on the late writer, Foster shared that his nickname amongst Sagaponack locals was “Spider.” “The measure of significance is an encounter with the lasting effect. So small a place, retained, will function as a ripple spreading Peter Matthiessen’s influential pen.”
To date, the group has raised around $90,000 for the center, which mostly helped to fund and underwrite the first phase of the project. To continue their work, Alex Matthiessen estimates an additional $100,000 is needed for operations, the securing of various permissions and funding toward acquisition.
Once the property is acquired, the group then needs to raise money to cover the cost of restoration of the property and barn. The group hopes to eventually create an endowment to underwrite the annual cost of maintaining the property and supporting the programming itself, similar to the Hemingway House in Key West.
Following the cocktail hour, the Peter Matthiessen documentary “No Boundaries” by Jeff Sewald was screened. Crowds bundled up in sweaters, scarves and blankets for the film, which highlighted Matthiessen’s holistic approach to writing. As the late writer said in the movie, “My characters don’t step off the page, they step out of landscapes.”
For more information about the project, visit matthiessencenter.org.