From Those Who Knew Her …
Several weeks ago, on the rainy side porch of Ashawagh Hall, I met with Patrice Dalton and Chris Ganitsch, Edwina Von Gal, Nick Bryan and Jeri Wellman to discuss Cile and how we might pay adequate homage to her memory. Visits to East Hampton are increasingly rare now that I live in the Berkshires, so I was delighted to be among beloved friends and to meet, for the first time, Patrice who is now head of APC as I had been for several years once Cile was not. Actually, back then, we had no official designation of officers. This was by design from the beginning of APC, which was constructed along the lines of women’s movement groups that resisted hierarchy. In theory all steering committee members were equal, but whoever volunteered the most or anyway talked the most got to be in charge, I guess.
While Patrice had never met Cile, she had the wonderful thought to have the next newsletter be focused on her. So as I had known her since I joined APC in 1988, just like old times, I volunteered to write up something for the newsletter. And like old times, I have been putting this off ever since. While I relish the opportunity to write about someone who ranks high in my personal pantheon of women whom I consider goddesses, I have been finding it really hard to do this. For one thing, I have lost track of so much in terms of what happened when and which idea was whose. At one point, some years ago, as we were engaged in the laborious and seemingly endless task of creating a website, I had attempted to produce an outline of APC’s history based on the newsletters that started in the late 1980’s. I think I got up to about ‘96...It occurred to me for this task, that apart from being impossible, an historical approach is not really desirable.
Because what I would really like people to know, or remember, about Cile has little to do with dates and years, except that she was nearly always years ahead of her time in terms of her ideas, while decidedly “old school” in terms of how things got done. She was not at all old fashioned, but she was classic. She believed deeply in many tried and true ways of doing things: keeping hard copies, everything hand written, never being wasteful or indulging in excess of any kind, which was an anomaly in the Hamptons (a term she eschewed, preferring East End), but she was a revolutionary, who admired other revolutionaries, such as the abstract expressionists, the leaders of the feminist movement, and environmentalists (and she was one of all of those).
It took her so long to finally give in to having a computer, to writing on it, using it for communication, but she did and to great effect. It made possible the marvelous series of “Green Living” articles, which were published in the Star and became the basis for several of her “Long Live Accabonac” videos produced at LTV. These can all be accessed on the (New! Improved!) APC website. Have a look, they still hold up.
Cile was stubborn, to be sure. It was really tough to change something once she had put it in place and was committed to it. The APC logo is a good example. But thanks to that tenacity, the seventeen acres next to her property, once slated for development into numerous homesites, eventually became the Barbara Hale Refuge. It took fifteen years to accomplish, but even after many had given up or thought reducing the density might be enough, Cile led the APC to keep after the Town until it was acquired, thanks to the new Community Preservation Fund and the partnership of the County. Then began the long uphill slog to get the property returned to its long time condition as a meadow, which would normally require an annual rough mowing. But 15 years of uncut growth had resulted in a different, shrubby habitat, and no amount of lobbying, pleading, or other strategies succeeded so she —and we —were compelled to watch the beloved sight of Accabonac and the plants and animals of the grassland which had been available for centuries disappear...
There were some other failures. We were never able to get recreational driving prohibited on Gerard Point, or all but the very end of Louse Point, so that she was also required to watch as more and more vehicles appeared on that delicate spit of beach, so easily accessed by foot.
The “seasonal access” path that was originally preserved for baymen to use for haul-outs in the winter has become a sandy year round highway from the road end to the inner harbor.
But so many of the battles she led us into were successful. Engaging in water quality testing with Cornell Cooperative Extension to track down the “culprit” of increasing coliform that caused shell-fishing closures. Fighting the use of methoprene (and prior, worse insecticides) applied from helicopter against mosquitoes. Promoting Open March Water Management as a better alternative.
In particular— though again it took many years—the attention to problems caused by nitrogen loading in surface waters from runoff and especially septics via ground water was a cause Cile championed long ago. She led APC to help get the first HPOD (Harbor Protection Overlay District) created, and then, years later, to get that improved to include the actual watershed. The current efforts to reduce existing nitrogen in the system, as well as preventing more by upgrading septics, were in part long overdue responses to the constant tolling of the warning bell that Cile kept us ringing year after year.
Other items on the list: getting Louse Point and Gerard Point designated as Town Nature Preserves, doing repeated plantings of native plants to stave off erosion, adopting both Gerard Drive and Landing Lane to do clean-ups four times a year, were some of a long list of activities that APC sponsored and produced which were, as always, group endeavors. Cile, however, was central to getting them done. But the one thing I think of as most “Cile inspired” was the “quiz game” we came up with to make our booth at the Fisherman’s Fair more lively and engaging, and also educational. We hoped to attract children in to “Play a game, win a prize” where the game was a multiple choice quiz about pictures posted of plants and animals and good and bad behavior related to Accabonac Harbor. Meanwhile, we could also engage their parents in discussion of the issues and activities APC was involved in.
There are of course many more examples, but listing Cile’s accomplishments doesn't really get to my purpose here. Because as much as I enjoy sharing the rich past of APC— familiar to some of you, unknown to others—Cile was not one to dwell in the past, she was always more interested in the future, tirelessly seeking to bring about change. Even change for restoration or preservation always requires moving forward.
I recently heard an excellent podcast of a TED talk given by Tom Rivett-Carnac (I had never heard of him either) who is committed to getting the climate crisis dealt with. He used two phrases which jumped out to me as being in line with Cile’s persona and philosophy
and which I believe we could all adopt to become effective in the enormous tasks that lie in front of us. He speaks about the need to exert “stubborn optimism” (now that was Cile!)... The other phrase comes at the end of this slightly excerpted statement:
“Far from cowering in the monumental nature of this moment, we should be riding out to meet it, full of the sense of purpose and intent that comes from living at the crossroads of one of the great transitions in human history. Living right now is a huge privilege, and we should have the confidence to embrace that...We cannot afford to feel powerless”.
I knew Cile through the Accabonac Protection Committee (APC) and remember attending meetings around her wooden table...half listening to what was being discussed while looking at the spectacular scenery and wildlife that surrounded her home. I was always impressed by Cile's passion, tenacity, knowledge and generosity that guided all she did to preserve and protect the Accabonac for now and the future. I know I am richer for having met her and our East Hampton community is forever blessed.
Cile Downs was deeply moved by her surroundings on Accabonac Harbor where nature imbued in her a keen desire to protect that which she had come to cherish.
As a painter she used vibrant colors in her works that reflect the joy of existence and optimism about what the future can hold. Her parting gift, her property conveyed to the town as parkland, will ensure that future generations will be able to see Accabonac Harbor as she did, in perpetuity.
Peter Van Scoyoc
So sorry to hear ... Cile was a treasure.
1) Starting the Committee in her living room.
2) Lobbying for and contributing to the OMWM treatment of Accabonac Harbor's vector control ditches.
3) Pushing us all to get land in safekeeping, especially that last big piece to the east of her house.
4) Lobbying for the Gerard Drive pass-through …
5) And so much more!
Cile was a stalwart and tireless advocate for conservation as well as a model citizen activist. In my many years of working with Cile, I found her to be a person of deep personal conviction driven by both her artist’s eye for the value of natural beauty and her infectious curiosity about how natural systems worked, how we could educate others, and how we could inspire change to create a more sustainable future. I remember Cile as always having a hundred questions and wanting to make sure she got the answers to each one, so she could be an effective and informed advocate for change. She stands among a class of local elders I am blessed to have known, who years ago, understood the challenges that development would bring to our region and the hard work that would be required to protect and preserve the local landscape for future generations. Most importantly, she acted on those concerns and played a leading role in the conservation ethic that lives on in so many of East Hampton’s people, leaders and accomplishments to this day. "
Cile was a wonderful woman who I met just months after I started working for the Town of East Hampton. She basically interviewed me in my office to see where I stood with respect to environmental initiatives and of course mowing of the Barbara Hale property. I will always admire her advocacy for the protection of Accabonac Harbor and her years of dedication to environmental initiates. Her legacy will continue thanks to the dedicated members of APC.
Memories of Cile as an activist pre-APC
Our first summer here, 1973, we (JSW) rented a house in Montauk to work in the marine lab that existed at that time. I saw a notice about a women’s group meeting in a place called “Springs” (which I hadn’t heard of) and since I was involved in feminism in New Jersey, I decided to go to this meeting and be involved here as well. Following the map, I picked up a friend in Amagansettand we found our way to Cile’s house on Fireplace Road. We met a group of women who were to become my circle of friends for decades, and one of the reasons we chose Springs as a place to buy a house. The group, that eventually became the “East End Women’s Alliance,” was started by women who had come from New York City, including Cile, Patsy Southgate, Marta Vivas Zogbaum, and Astrid Myers, who set up consciousness-raising groups in the late 1960s in East Hampton. Their first public actions were tabling for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970 and a march down Main Street and rally at Hook Mill for the ERA in 1971. We met throughout the summer with themain goal each year of participating in a celebration of National Women’s Day on August 26, theanniversary of Women’s Suffrage (which turned 100 years old this August). Cile was a very centralperson in the group though as with APC, elections and Robert’s rules etc. were eschewed in favorof a collective decision-making process. We produced many varied events over 40 years – marches down Main Street, rallies, conferences, panel discussions with speakers including BettyFriedan and Bella Abzug. Our highlight came in the summer of 1984, when vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro came and spoke at the Amagansett School. Many of our eventsincluded singing of feminist songs by the Alliance Singers led by Sandy Rapp. Cile, the artist, also designed many of the posters that were created to advertise our events. I remember many of us silk-screening posters one summer out on her lawn. Cile was a committed, generous, and welcoming person with a vision of a better world.
Sandy Rapp remembers “Cile as a fine and enthusiastic feminist leader. How many times the East End Women's Alliance met at her lovely waterside home. How often she marched for and spoke of women's rights and reproductive freedom. We'll all miss Cile Downs.”
Lilia Melani remembers; ”The quality that stands out most when I think of Cile is her passionate commitment to feminism, to the environment, to her art, and even to her garden. She had a strong sense of justice and could become highly indignant at obvious inequities. So, it is not surprising that she came to feminism early and joined New York Radical Feminists. She brought her activism to East Hampton when she moved here permanently. She wasn’t content to enjoy her view of Accabonac Harbor from her back porch; she wanted to preserve it for future generations and helped to found the Accabonac Protection Committee.
Judy Weis and Astrid Myers-Rosset
Green Living is series of articles written by Cile Downs, Co- Founding Member of APC and passionate defender of our natural environment. The informative stories, which originally appeared in the East Hampton Star, offer a wide variety of ecologically friendly ways to lighten your footprint on the planet and on our beautiful Creek.
Green Living - Alien-Invaders (pdf)Download
Green Living - Composting-for-Beginners (pdf)Download
Green Living - Global-Warning (pdf)Download
Green Living - Mulch (pdf)Download
Green Living - Organic Gardening (pdf)Download
Green Living - Organic Lawn-Care (pdf)Download
Green Living - Recycling (pdf)Download
Green Living - The-Treated-Wood-Problem (pdf)Download
Green Living - The-Windmill (pdf)Download
Green Living - Unintended-Consequences (pdf)Download
Green Living - Whats Biodegradable (pdf)Download
Green Living - Why Organic (pdf)Download