The open sea is an endless source of inspiration, energy, mystery and wonder. It conjures fear and curiosity, longing and serenity. It is equally relentless and soothing, unforgiving and welcoming — a character that has touched, and taken, endless lives.

For Matthew Raynor, it was nearly the latter.

Even after a swim gone wrong left the former commercial fisherman paralyzed from his chest down in 2019, his love for the water — and capturing it through his camera lens — persists, though it has taken on a new shape and approach.

Using a drone, Raynor has completely shifted to aerial photography, which will be on view alongside his older work starting Saturday, October 10, as part of a show featuring 13 fellow artists hosted by the Ecological Culture Initiative (ECI) at St. Joseph Villa in Hampton Bays, which is home to the Good Ground Heritage Garden.

A portion of the proceeds will support the garden’s expansion, including a new glass greenhouse and wheelchair-accessible garden beds, inspired by Raynor’s recent journey, paved with inscribable bricks that will be available for purchase, according to Karen Loew, director of communications and outreach for ECI.

“It’s really a little Eden, this garden. It’s just a very sweet spot. The garden is beautiful, it’s still blooming; we also have flowers there,” she said. “It just feels like a place of heart.”

Fritz Cass at work.

Art in this particular garden — which primarily grows organic vegetables that are donated to local food pantries  — is not a new concept. When sculptor and welder Fritz Cass decided to sell his home in Hampton Bays this past summer, he relocated some of his larger pieces to Good Ground Heritage Garden, where they have lived ever since.

But Cass won’t be away for too long, he said from his new home in Florida. Maintaining studios in Speonk and Riverhead, the avid fisherman will always have a place to work on his steel sculptures, many reflecting the ocean that called to him as a young boy.

“I saw pictures of Alaska when I was 4 years old and fell in love with it. I had already fallen in love with the idea of fishing, being drawn to nature,” he said. “My grandfather showed me how to tie my first fishing knot. He said, ‘Learn how to tie this knot, son, and I’ll take you fishing.’

“So he had me fetch him a piece of clothesline, tossed it to me, said, ‘Learn it,’ I did that day, came back and he said, ‘Get your gear together, son, we’re going fishing in the morning,’” he continued. “That was the beginning and it hasn’t stopped yet.”

Matt Raynor working a fishing boat prior to the diving accident that left him paralyzed.

Growing up in Hampton Bays, Raynor was never far from the water himself, between the weekend boat trips that he and his brother would take to Warner Island in Shinnecock Bay aboard their father’s boat, to clamming and scalloping, to surfing wherever they could find some action.

To venture into commercial fishing was not a leap. It was his dream, despite the 18-hour work days, where he was catching anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 pounds of squid a week aboard The Perception, a 90-foot commercial fishing vessel out of Montauk, just a month before his accident.

It was a stormy day, cloudy and windy, on April 18, 2019. Raynor had one week left before heading back out on The Perception for a month at sea, and he decided to go swimming in the channel at Towd Point. The cold water soothed his tendonitis and, with enthusiasm, he dove in, again and again, off the bed of his pickup truck before going to pick up his friend, Jerome Lucani, to join in on the fun.

On his last dive, it all went wrong.

Instead of executing the shallow dive he had done countless times before, his head hit the channel floor and the strong moon tide started to drag a lucid, but unable to move, Raynor out to sea.

“I don’t remember hitting my head, you know?” he recalled. “I remember coming up and being like, ‘Oh f—, I can’t move. I can’t move. I’m definitely f—ing paralyzed, there’s no question about that.’”

The impact broke his C3 vertebrae, which affected his ability to breathe, and Raynor passed out in the water. Sensing trouble, Lucani jumped and pulled his unconscious friend to the shore, immediately administering CPR.

“I had a pretty spiritual experience. I think when you break your neck, your body just prepares you for death. So I had a near-death experience,” Raynor said. “I just remember being kind of happy with the life that I lived. I don’t know, I kind of had a crazy life. I was surprised I even got to 29, to be honest with you. But I was happy. I got to fish, which I loved, and I got to travel. I thought I felt fulfilled, definitely.

“And then the lights went out, and next thing I know I’m staring up at Jerome on the beach,” he continued. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m not dead. Shit.’”

Matthew Raynor at the Shepherd Center.

Airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, Raynor underwent spinal fusion surgery on his C3 to C7 vertebrae, starting just below his skull. At the beginning of this year, he spent nearly two months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation. He received physical, occupational and recreational therapy, including gardening, fishing and, of course, photography — which became more than just a hobby about two years ago.

“I always liked photography,” he said. “When I was out fishing, it was nice to capture what I was doing. Not too many people really get to experience offshore life — living offshore, working offshore. To be able to continue to do it, it’s nice. It gives me something to focus on, you know?”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Raynor immersed himself in nature when he could, frequenting areas like Dune Road with his drone, which allows him to explore further than most ever can.

“I obviously have to go with somebody and they have to calibrate it and deploy it, and then I can control it,” he said, “which is pretty cool to still be able to do photography.”

While Raynor is typically, and remarkably, upbeat given the unexpected turn his life has taken, he does not sugarcoat his day-to-day — or the bad days that come with the good. On this particular Friday, he was having a rough time grappling with mounting medical costs and the position he is now in.

Matt Raynor’s “Beautiful Birch.” In banner photo, “Alisha J.”

After all, it can be hard for him to constantly remind himself of the progress he’s made. Last summer, he couldn’t raise his hands above his head. Today, he can manage basic grooming, put on a shirt and take it off, and eat on his own — with the help of a grip aid. He can use his cell phone and the television remote. He can take a cap off a bottle and drink from it. He can use his laptop with a special mouse that hooks up to his motorized wheelchair. He can even lift light weights for exercise.

“It’s tough to come back from something like this,” he said. “I can see why people get, I mean, I probably have it, PTSD. It’s hard to go from being like, ‘Oh, I’m totally cool with death right now,’ to, ‘Oh, now I’m alive again, but severely disabled.’ It’s a transition. I’m trying to figure out a way to kind of be my own person again.”

As published in the Sag Harbor Express and the Southampton Press

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