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Shelter Island profile: Tim Purtell, going green all the way

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Tim Purtell in the pollinator garden that surrounds his home in the Heights.
Tim Purtell in the pollinator garden that surrounds his home in the Heights.

The garden around Tim Purtell’s Shelter Island home is a hopping place. And that’s just the way he likes it.

During the course of a couple of hours spent talking with him about his life, his work on the Green Options Committee and childhood memories of Shelter Island in the 1950s and 1960s, we were interrupted constantly.

First by a juvenile squirrel who repeatedly popped up from behind a nearby dish of water to peer at us, and then lay across the dish with its front legs spread out like a sunbather at poolside.

“We are probably the only people on Shelter Island who feed the squirrels,” Tim said.

The plants Tim chose for this setting made this a “pollinator garden,” a fact impossible to ignore when a hummingbird got intimate with salvia and wasps and bees, too busy to notice us, flew close. A swarm of butterflies, an American goldfinch hanging upside down on a branch and a spunky chipmunk completed the scene.

“That’s the funny thing about this house,” Tim said. “We’re like St. Francis. All the animals know that nothing bad will happen to them here.”

Born in New York City, Tim first came to the Heights when he was four months old, in the summer of 1948 with his parents, brother and sister.

The family rented at first, and then bought the property next door where his parents later lived full-time from 1974 through the late 1980s. In 2001 Tim and his partner, Robin Drake, built their own home on part of that same property.

Tim and Robin have been together since 1977. As for marriage, Tim said, “Robin likes to joke, we don’t want to rush into it.”

They met in an elevator, when both worked in the same New York office building. “Robin is a lively person, very warm,” said Tim. “It turned out I worked with a woman who had gone to recorder camp with Rob, and she said, ‘Oh Robin Drake, he’s wonderful.’”

Tim confirmed that Robin is wonderful — both as a flute player and as a person.

Tim developed an early passion for movies and seems to have skipped Bambi in favor of edgier stuff. He said, “Hitchcock’s ‘The Lady Vanishes’ is the first movie I remember, because I was really puzzled by why the nun was wearing high heels.” (Spoiler alert — she isn’t a nun.)

“My mom was such a good sport about it. She’d take me to some of the worst movies,” he recalled. “We had to stand in line to see a Japanese monster movie, ‘Rodan,’ about flying reptiles.” Tim and his mom went to Greenport twice a week on the “movie boat,” a special movie-plus-ferry price that got you there and back in time for the feature films that were shown all summer.

“Being a child here was terrific,” Tim said.

In the days before backyard swimming pools were common, the Heights Beach Club was the place to be. He rode a bike all over the Island without fear. He learned to sail in a kind of catboat called a Woodpussy, with a centerboard and one sail. “A lot of kids had them,” Tim said. “There was a fleet.”

During a circumnavigation of the Island, Tim found himself surrounded by a school of porpoises off Ram Island. “It was idyllic,” he said, “one of the reasons I’m interested in environmental things now.”

There was abundant animal life in the water when Tim grew up, life that is largely gone today. “If I went swimming in June, the blowfish would nibble my toes, there were crabs, skate, horseshoe crabs, sand sharks,” he said. “In the fall the scallops would scratch my legs and wash up on the shore, there would be so many.”

Tim graduated from Bard College in 1971 and then worked in the city at the Time Inc. editorial research library (aka “the morgue”) and as a videographer with dance studios, where he met Heidi Fokine, a dancer in a small group, who later moved to Shelter Island herself.

In 1990 he went to Entertainment Weekly, where he worked for 21 years as a fact-checker, moving up to become head of the department, a writer of DVD reviews, and later editor of a section of the magazine.

He enjoyed the excitement, fast pace and working with “a lot of fun, smart people.” A weekly, EW’s deadline was Tuesdays and Tim would often work until four or five in the morning. “Your adrenaline would kick in,” he said.

He stayed at EW through many changes of management, but eventually “it was no longer fun so I decided to leave.”

In the early 1990s, the Greenport theater was being renovated, when Rob and Tim, moments before boarding a bus for New York discovered the original marquee letters from the 1930s in a dumpster. It would be many years before dumpster diving became a trend “but this was a must-dive,” Tim said.

The letters, which spell, “Vertigo with James Stewart,” are now mounted over the fireplace in their home. “I saw ‘Vertigo’ when I was 10 in 1958,” said Tim. “I’d actually seen it at the Greenport theater.”

In 2011, Tim and Robin left the city and began to live full time in the house in the Heights that Robin had designed for them. A few weeks after leaving the city, Tim was still settling into the pace of Island life. “Rob was teaching a lot in the city and one day I was at the post office hanging out for what I realized was way too long,” he said. “I was desperate to meet people.”

He met Chris Fokine and Herb Stelljes and they suggested he join the town’s Green Options Committee.

Since then, Tim has worked so diligently promoting a green and sustainable Shelter Island that the bees in his garden would be hard-pressed to match his work ethic.

He became the organizer of the Green Expo, a project conceived by Town Attorney Laury Dowd that has become an annual event to educate and inform Islanders about local environmental issues including the control of invasives, the use of pesticides for tick management, the benefits of reusable shopping bags and the development of open public spaces.

Tim has spearheaded a number of the Green Options Committee’s initiatives, including the reusable bag campaign, advocating for a reduction in the use of plastic one-use shopping bags in favor of reusable bags that don’t get tangled in tree limbs or caught in roadside foliage. He has also worked closely with fellow committee members informing the public of walkable open spaces and produced a map of these places.

Vinebusters, an initiative to target overgrown areas of town land and organize volunteers to clear them of invasive vines, is another project that Tim and Dan Fokine organize and execute.

Tim is also active with Friends of Tres, a local organization that gathers information on old Island trees, and supports the planting of new ones.

Encouraged by the success of his own pollinator garden, Tim’s working to establish more of these gardens on the Island. “You don’t have to be extreme,” he said. “It’s a matter of planting things that suppress weeds and attract butterflies, hummingbirds and wasps.”

Informing all his work on behalf of the environment of the Island is Tim’s view of this place as unique and exceptional. “We are not the mainland,” he said. “We have our own rules.”

Recently, he put the disc back in disc jockey, taking his prodigious collection of 45 rpm records to the Shelter Island Historical Society, to DJ the dance party.

“I do like to dance,” he said. “Some people had no idea.”