Transcription of Philip Conkling for the show Economies of Scale, #108

Dr. Lisa                      Our next guest is someone that I first met on a Maine island, in fact at a lobster festival just off the coast of Mount Desert Island. This is Philip Conkling. He is the president of Philip Conkling and Associates, formerly of the Island Institute, in fact the founder of the Island Institute and also a contributing editor now for Maine Magazine.

I didn’t know him as the man with all of this really impressive background when I first met him on this island. What I was impressed by then, Philip, was the fact that you and Peter Ralston cared so much about this little tiny fishing village off the coast of Maine to yourself show up personally and see what was going on.

Philip:                        Yes. Frenchboro was … I remember the first time that I saw it, it was before the Island Institute and it literally seemed to be just slipping into the sea. The houses around the harbor had not been renovated in a very long time, and the school population was down to a single student. Really, the year that Peter and I started the Island Institute, David Lunt for whom the Lunts have been on Frenchboro since, as he says, forever, called me up. He said, “I don’t know what you guys do at the Island Institute, but we are afraid our community is going to turn into just a summer colony unless we can attract new families here with kids to put in the school.”

That really was … it marked the beginning with David Lunt’s vision of getting … He thought he could get a piece of land, donate it to the town and build six or seven new houses to attract what became known as the “homesteaders” or the homesteading project. Of course, islanders, being very practical, they called them “breeders.” That’s what we need here. We need young families with kids to keep the school going. It took a long time, but it was successful. All the houses were built and they’re all occupied, and the school is … it’s actually a two-room schoolhouse now with upper and lower grades, and a pretty full house.

Dr. Lisa:                    Why do the islands matter enough to actually create an entire institute around them?

Philip:                        Right before the beginning of the 20th century there were 300 year-round island communities. They really defined the character of the coast of Maine, because all of the transportation patterns were in the water. The deep water channels connected the islands and the entire coast of Maine with ports all over the world, and we shipped our products to Europe and to the Caribbean, and ultimately to the seven seas of the world.

By the time I came along beginning in the mid ‘70s when I started to visit islands, eventually I discovered that of those 300 island communities there were only 14 left. If that kind of decline had occurred to a species of wildlife, of course there’d be an endangered species program. Because it was humans and because we’re so mobile, until you stop to think about it, it’s just people’s shrug: “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

Those 14 communities that remained were pockets of some of the most passionate people about what it takes to keep a community going, and they weren’t … they hadn’t given up, and it seemed like that was an admirable thing in that friends from far and wide might get inspired by their example of community.

Dr. Lisa:                    Some of your interest came about through work that you did in forestry. In addition to having a degree from Harvard, you also went to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and you have a master of forest science and natural resource management. You went from the woods to the waters, but the ecology of it, it sounds like, had some fascination for you.

Philip:                        Yeah. Basically, what happened to me is that I graduated from college in a time of … there was great unrest and upheaval, 1970. The expression was then, “If you turn the country up on its side, everything loose rolls into California.” I went to California, I taught school for two years up in a little gold mining town in the Sierras. I loved the wide open spaces of the West, but the first question that everybody asked you in California back then was, “Where are you from?” because nobody seemed to be from there and everybody was headed somewhere else.

I missed the rootedness of the East, particularly of New England where I’d gone to college, and so Maine was the place that had both space of the West but the rootedness of New England. I came here kind of on a wish and a prayer. I had one friend who hired me to help he and his wife winterize their family’s summer house in Cherryfield, Maine in Washington County.

They were ultimately defeated in that, but I had made so many noises about, “I’m going to Maine, and I’m going to spend the winter there,” and so on and so forth, I felt like I couldn’t leave. I stayed after they left. I got a little cabin to care take and did what everybody in Washington County did, which is I went into the woods in the winter to cut pulpwood for International Paper. I dug clams in the spring and the fall, and raked blueberries up on the Barrens in the summer.

I did that long enough to realize that I loved the people and the culture, and decided, “I need to figure out how to work with my head as much as with my body,” and so I went back to forestry school. That was how it happened.

Just parenthetically, I wanted to go into the North Woods because I thought, “That’s really where…” I had read Thoreau and all of that, and it seemed like just the most romantic part of Maine. Between my two years at forestry school was a housing recession, so none of the companies were hiring interns. I saw a little notice on the forestry school bulletin board, “Collect baseline ecological data on 12 Maine Islands,” for this volunteer organization back then, it was the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy. They had no staff, now the largest environmental organization in Maine and in the country, the national organization.

Yeah, I just started visiting their islands that they had not been to and collecting information for them. It was just completely mind-boggling what … I thought they were all going to be the same. They were just all different. They all had some kind of human … all variety of human uses. Those uses had deflected their ecological trajectory into different complexes of plants and animals. It was like the uses of the past were indexed in the landscape.

Dr. Lisa:                    Give me an example of that when you’re talking about what the trajectory looks like and when you’re talking about a human on an island and what that means.

Philip:                        There are probably 20 islands called Sheep Island off the coast of Maine. Those were islands that were pastures for sheep. You didn’t need to build any fences, so basically you would cut down the trees and burn them, and that would bring grass back. You’d put sheep out, and unlike cows and other livestock they get all of the water they need out of the vegetation that they’re eating. Then in the wintertime, if they stay there in the winter they forage off of seaweed in the inner tidal.

So many of the islands just became like pastures. Of course there’s Cow Island and Hog Island and all of those kinds of things, but there are also 33 major island quarries scattered along the islands. They weren’t on the mainland because there was no easy way to transport granite from the mainland. It was where the shipping lanes came, right past these places like Dick’s Island and High Island and Crotch Island off of Stonington, and islands off of Mount Desert, Black Island and Hurricane Island is probably the most famous.

One of the things that I was supposed to do in those early … in that very first island project for the Nature Conservancy was to visit Hurricane Island, which was the headquarters of the Outward Bound School. They had permission to use the Nature Conservancy islands for their programs, but the trustees of the Nature Conservancy wanted to know, “They put students out there without anything to eat, and with just a tarp and a jug of water. What kind of ecological impact are they having? Are they grazing our islands down?”

I met the Outward Bound people, and they then hired me to survey the 200 islands that they had … privately owned islands they had permission to use. That was a three-year-long project. At the end of it, I had been to more islands than anybody else. That’s sort of what then springboarded me into starting the Island Institute


Dr. Lisa:                    The October issue of Maine Magazine features an article that you wrote about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in Maine. It’s interesting to think about entrepreneurs in Maine, because as you point out in the article, they’re not a new thing. We’ve always had people who have had to figure out what the resources are around them, and extract something for them in order to get fulfillment in their lives or get paid, pay their mortgage, pay their rent. There seems to be a generation now that’s harnessing technologies that have not been in existence the way that we’ve had pulp and paper in existence.

Philip:                        Right.

Dr. Lisa:                    What was it like to be exploring this business-like ecology?

Philip:                        What I loved about this assignment was meeting people who had an idea and were really willing to risk a lot to test their idea in the marketplace. When you start something yourself, you know how … you don’t know at the time how risky it is. You look back and you think, “Thank God I didn’t know what I know now, because I never would have started.”

It’s really hard, and yet what I loved about these stories was discovering not only example after example after example of people starting their own businesses, but how … There is now an ecosystem around them that just didn’t exist, I don’t think even five to 10 years ago, or at least I wasn’t aware of it. The ecosystem of angel investors, small business advisors, people who have come to Maine or have been successful in Maine that are willing to serve on the boards of directors of these new companies, and mentor them, and give advice. It’s not quite as, “You’re just on your own, you’re going to succeed or fail, and God bless you.”

There is a fabulous network of both public and private organizations: The Maine Technology Institute, the Small Enterprise Growth Fund, the Maine Angels, groups like that that are all highly networked with each other. The Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development. Peter and I used to say to each other in the early years of the Island Institute, “There are only 11 people in Maine, and everybody just trades places all the time so it looks like there are more of them.”

The value of being small is that a lot of people know each other. That means that, “You know who you should talk to about your idea? You should see this person. They’re likely to be interested.” In a sense, it’s easier to leverage a good idea in Maine. That’s the value of smallness. Whereas if you’re in Silicon Valley, or LA, or some of the bigger centers of entrepreneurial development, Route 128 in Boston, it’s a lot harder to get people’s attention. Good ideas rise to the top quickly, and have a support network. That’s what’s different.

Dr. Lisa:                    This past summer I spent time working as a physician temporarily in Greenville and also Sangerville, and spent time in the towns of Newport and … It was very interesting for me to see what the impact of the local economy had on health. Specifically what the impact of the loss of, for example, mill jobs had on the local townspeople.

It seems like this is a good time. I mean we have corporate structures that have crumbled, things that we thought were always going to be there; banking institutions, other financial institutions, they’ve gone away just the way that the mills did in Maine. It seems like this is a good time for growth, for creativity. Maine seems well positioned to embrace this.

Philip:                        Yeah. If I could generalize a little bit from the lessons we learned in Island Communities, I think it applies to all Maine communities. That is that when we first came to the islands, we’re from “away.” I was not born on an island. I grew up in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Peter grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

The distinctions of being from here and from away were very … it was just a real black and white kind of thing. One of the things that we kept saying to say seasonal residents, “There is a way to help. You shouldn’t get all focused on people saying you’re from away.” That can feel insulting to people and sometimes people who feel like, “I’m not going to participate because clearly, people in my community don’t want people from away to be too involved.”

Our job was to help translate between those two cultures if you will, or those two populations, those who are from here and those who are from away. Every small community has lots of people from away that they come here for the quality of life, for the small town, the values of persistence and frugality and thrift and honesty and hard work. Those are really compelling values.

We would say to islanders, “There are people that admire your community and want to help. That’s not a bad thing.” Getting that dialogue going between people who are from here and from away, who really want the same thing. Everybody wants schools to work, to remain open. If you’re thinking of moving here or if you move here, just because you may have made that decision, you want your kids to have whatever opportunities may exist for them in the whole world. Everybody wants good schools, whether you’re from here or away. Everybody wants small businesses that work and provide services. Everybody wants an environment that’s not degraded.

There’s plenty of common ground, plenty of things to rally around. That’s what I think is easy to miss when you get stuck on cultural signals that may seem like initially, “Well, either they don’t want me or I don’t want to be a part of this.”

Dr. Lisa:                    I think I hear you saying as that there is room for creativity and there is room for people who have a different backgrounds and have been in Maine longer, and there are ways that if people are willing to start working together that we can actually rebuild what we may have lost.

Philip:                        Yes. It’s really the idea of the commons. We have town commons, town greens. They are the literal heart and soul of most communities, and it means that you come there to find common ground. At town meeting you’re looking for common ground. These are wonderful, just very powerful traditions in our history and culture.

There’s a lot to draw on. As long as you don’t get all hung up on just who … The phrase that I remember my neighbor telling me after our four boys were born here, I said, “I may not be a Mainer, but my boys will.” He said, “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make em muffins.” He was being funny, and it was funny. You can’t take that seriously. You can’t feel excluded by that. It’s just part of the culture that you have to embrace.

Dr. Lisa:                    I hope that you and your wife and your muffins or non-muffins, your four boys, I hope that you continue to enjoy this next stage in your life. It sounds like you’re doing some very exciting and interesting things with Philip Conkling and Associates.

I encourage those who are listening to go to the October issue of Maine Magazine and read the article about entrepreneurship, because it’s a fascinating read. Thank you for being with us. We’ve been talking with Philip Conkling, contributing editor of Maine Magazine and now of Philip Conkling and Associates.

Philip:                        It’s been my pleasure. Thanks so much, Lisa.