The Gifts of Acadia

Recollections from Eileen Rockefeller and what her family found in Maine


Eileen Rockefeller, the youngest child of David and Peggy Rockefeller and the author of the book Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself, did not make me feel a fool for referencing The Land Before Time when recalling a recent, unforgettable visit to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. She gets it, she assured me with a hint of laughter, she believes in the magic. As it turns out, love of this land is one of her many inheritances.

It poured on my last visit to Mount Desert Island. All morning and all afternoon. A torrential, white-water-rushing-down-the-gullies, duck-into-a-cafe-for-your-third-cup-of-coffee kind of rain. I had to rely on my memory from past visits to envision those majestic mountains swelling beyond the walls of rain, that dark, curving vertebrae of tiny islands, the sails hovering over Frenchman’s Bay like so many enormous butterflies. Then, before it was time to go, the storm retreated; the air sweetened, and my friend and I made a rush to Acadia with the windows down. Before we reached the top of Cadillac Mountain, we stopped and pulled over. The sun was beginning its descent, pouring through the clouds in tunnels of light. Unlike the tiptop of the mountain, this pullout was void of people. It was so quiet, the view so mythical; I practically expected to see a dinosaur turn the corner.

What I didn’t quite understand then, and what I’ve since come to appreciate, is that my memorable moment—and all of our memorable moments at Acadia National Park—were made possible in large part by a proactive group of philanthropists and conservationists. Rockefeller family history and the recent history of Mount Desert Island—Eden, as it was aptly named in another era—are inextricably linked. John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller first visited the island in the early 1900s. By then Bar Harbor was a popular summer resort, but the Rockefellers preferred the peace and quiet of Seal Harbor on the southwest side of the island; it was there that they settled into their 99-room (or so the rumor goes) home, The Eyrie, perched high overlooking the water. Over the first half of the twentieth century, the family accumulated more and more land surrounding the estate, which they donated to what would become the first national park east of the Mississippi in 1919.

Eleven thousand acres of land once owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr., Eileen’s grandfather, are now a part of Acadia National Park, including the famous carriage trails he laid out through the balsam woods. To me, these trails are emblematic of the light and elegant human touch the Rockefellers and so many others crucial to the park’s formation brought to its entire 49,000 acres. Acadia will always be epic, but it is too well loved to be wild, exactly. In this way it is unlike any place on Earth. It has scope, but also softness. The granite is called pink, after all, and the grounds are coated in soft, sweet-smelling pine needles. “Acadia” means “refuge” or “quiet place.” An Eden, indeed, and everyone is invited.

In the case of the Rockefellers, a family tradition of beautification and conservation helped to ensure that this downeast island will be around for generations to come. It’s a classic Maine story, isn’t it? Children watch their parents love a place, they grow into themselves on that grass, in those woods, and waters, and hills, and as adults they do all they can to keep it intact for their children and their children’s children. It’s the family camp, half a century later in all its rustic glory, only in this case it’s a mammoth estate turned national park. It’s a public garden and protected islands.

I love a love story about place and, in part, Eileen Rockefeller’s memoir Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself, is one of those. Each summer, Eileen and her five siblings and her parents escaped the rest of the world for another summer in Seal Harbor. It’s no coincidence that although they spent limited time in Maine, so many of Eileen’s formative childhood memories took place here. In Maine she tapped into her parents’ love of nature, escaped the stresses of school and social expectation, and was inspired to discover her emotional wealth, her natural way of being in the world, and her calling to make it a better place.

Eileen now spends most of the year on an organic farm in Vermont with her husband and partner in philanthropy, Paul Growald. Through the Institute for the Advancement of Health, which she founded, Eileen became a pioneer of mind-body practices and she later co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning to promote personal growth and conflict resolution in classrooms across America. She is the proud mother of two grown sons, and has been a strong proponent of environmental sustainability over the past decades. Her memoir thoughtfully traces this life path, and is alive with rich memories—of hikes with her five elder siblings, winter nights on bare Buckle Island, glistening images of her mother in her element on the water. While her father and mother and siblings have made innumerable contributions to Maine, it is in large part through Eileen’s and her father’s memoirs that we get a sense of the people, experiences, and motivations behind their good works.

As a child, what did it feel like to return to Mount Desert Island in the summer?

First of all, we smelled the mud flats. We would roll our windows down—because in those days you couldn’t press a button—and we would sniff the mud flats and sweet balsam while listening to seagulls flying above. Those were my early impressions as we drove on to Mount Desert Island. As we approached Seal Harbor, all of my siblings and I would have a contest as to who could utter the phrase “I see grandfather’s house” first. The Eyrie—“eagle’s nest”—was perched on the hillside near the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden. The house we lived in was not up on the hill. It was on the ocean, and it is the house my sister Neva lives in today.

These kinds of sensory, emotional memories stand out to me as a strength of your book. How did you recall your childhood and early adult life so richly?

People have commented on the amount of detail and have been amazed that I can remember so much. I didn’t remember much when I began the story, but the process of writing is like a meditation. Our brains actually have the capacity to recall everything, it’s just that some memories get overridden by others. It took sitting very quietly for many hours a day for five days a week for six years to have those memories drop back into place. The task of remembering is a process of allowing the colors, shapes, and smells to come back.

You faced some unique circumstances and challenges growing up. Was it difficult to sort through these memories?

It was a useful exercise to put together the pieces of the puzzle of my loneliness and my sense of isolation. Letting certain stories emerge and going so deeply into them that I had to feel the emotion again wasn’t fun. I actually had to move through it, which is something anyone has to do if they want to heal a wound from the past. I was further blessed by the fact that my siblings were willing to discuss these events, and they too were eager to move beyond the memories of what they held themselves responsible for. The act of creating the book became an act of healing, both for me and with my siblings, and that continues today.

How did you see your parents’ love of the natural world—and Maine in particular—influence what causes they devoted their time, money, and energy to?

Their love of sailing on the Maine coast brought them to appreciate tucking themselves into harbors at night with the wild appearance of islands around them. But as the years wore on, they noticed that islands were being bought and built upon, they became concerned. My mother got the idea to start the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), which is still going strong today. In fact, my brother helped raise $100 million dollars for MCHT over the course of ten years. My mother before him had helped to raise money to protect the Bold Coast and many of the islands surrounding Acadia, and of course my father remains a strong supporter. I think that my parents’ idea to help protect the Maine coast was hatched by virtue of their sailing and cruising together.

Until only ten years ago—when he was nearly 89—my father loved clearing trails on Buckle Island. He was an avid hiker and blueberry picker and loved to work in the woods. His father [John D. Rockefeller Jr.] created the carriage trails through Acadia National Park; my father has been a really great steward of the land since, and has put into place systems for his children to eventually take this stewardship on. He and my mother created what’s now called the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve. I think they conceived of the preserve together, and over the course of the years he’s worked to ensure the proper maintenance and care for the three major gardens on the island—the Asticou Azalea Garden, the Thuya Garden, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden. The latter will remain a private garden until my father’s death, and then it will go on to be completely managed by the auspices of the Land and Garden Preserve. I think the fact that he’s preserved these beautiful places and ensured their future protection is a huge gift to the community.

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