I love the barren open summits of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, Maine. On Memorial Day, we set out from the Jordan Pond House and completed the 6-mile-ish out-and-back hike to Penobscot and Sargent Mountains.
We started hiking beneath gray skies, just after a shower, but by the time we climbed out of the trees onto the ridge of Penobscot Mountain, the clouds were clearing and the view expanding with each upward step. When we reached the 1,373-foot summit of Sargent Mountain, we breathed in 360-views of a vast panorama: Frenchman’s Bay, the Cranberry Islands, Cadillac Mountain, Eagle Lake, Somes Sound. Black files buzzed around our heads, but couldn’t detract from the awesome experience of these natural vistas. (Below, the view of Jordan Pond on our ascent down Penobscot).
However, when explorer Samuel de Champlain “discovered” Mount Desert Island in 1604, he both saw and didn’t see what we see today.
The mountains he described still dominate the view from the bay, but de Champlain was exploring a dark wilderness, full of hidden rock ledges, unknown beasts, and potentially dangerous people. His ship ran aground on a rock that ripped a hole in the keel. Where we see beautiful open summits, de Champlain saw lots of rock, a barren inhospitable desert.
In his description of the island, he wrote, “It is very high, and notched in places, so that there is the appearance to one at sea, as of seven or eight mountains extending along near each other. The summit of the most of them is destitute of trees, as there are only rocks on them. The woods consist of pines, firs, and birches only. I named it Isle des Monts Déserts.”
For the first 18th century European settlers, Mount Desert Island was a desert, an isolated place where hardy families eked out a living from fishing and small farms. But at some point, perspectives changed. The rocky desert became an Arcadia, a version of the ancient Greek district whose name contains layers of meaning, including “idyllic place” and “refuge.”
Mount Desert Island did not change. But our ideas about nature did, largely due to the work of artists who transformed the island from a rocky outpost to a place of inspiration and wonder in which mind, body, and soul could be rejuvenated.
The first to arrive was artist Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, who came to Mount Desert Island in 1844, and created several paintings that were widely exhibited in the years to follow. Cole’s pupil Frederic Church followed in his footsteps, making his first trip to the island in 1850, where he sketched and made notes for future paintings. Other artists followed.
Collectively, at Mount Desert and in other places in the northeastern United States, the Hudson River School of artists invented a new and more romantic concept of nature as a place of beauty, a source of mental sustenance and renewal in the industrial age.
The skies might darken with clouds or twilight, but no longer was the dark a source of uncertainty and fear Instead, the interplay of darkness and light offered another way to view the world’s grandeur. Dangerous surf and forbidding rocks became a source of “the sublime” — that combination of beauty and terror generated by the sight, sound, and feel of a massive wall of water crashing against a cliff.
Although marketing was not their intention, in reinventing “Nature,” the Hudson River painters who visited Mount Desert created a place that many wanted to visit. In the mid-19th century, newly middle-class “rusticators” began to come to the island. They boarded in locals’ homes, took long walks and hikes, and breathed in the smell of the Atlantic.
Then, during the Gilded Age, the super-wealthy discovered the island, built massive summer homes, and transformed the rocky desert to a high society destination. Eventually, some of those people, led by George Dorr and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated large chunks of land so that this natural wonderland could be enjoyed by all Americans and not just a wealthy few. The Park was established in 1919, thanks in large part to Dorr, Rockefeller, and others. But the idea of nature as being worthy of preservation was the creation of 19th century artistic visionaries–the painters, but also writers like Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and photographers like Yellowstone’s William Henry Jackson—who transformed the way we think about nature.
Today students who study the arts (in all of its forms) often have to endure questions about the value of what they are doing. How they will support themselves? When will they stop dreaming and get a real job? After all, the arts are “decoration,” nice if you have the time to dabble, but not essential.
These questions about the value of art are not a new phenomenon. And of course, it is difficult to make a living an artist. But artists and writers, as much or more so than scientists and engineers, are inventing the future as they shape and create ideas.
What ideas are artists, writers, and musicians transforming today?
Note: Take a peek below for examples of how artists continue to follow in the footsteps of Cole, Church, Lane and others today. For more information on another great hike in Acadia, see my paragraph about Mount Dorr via the Homans Path in Five Great Family Hikes in Maine.
For more on the Estes exhibit, see the Portland Museum of Art website.
To learn more about Philip Koch, see his blog.
For more on artist Ernest McMullen, see The Gallery at Somes Sound.
Additional sources and resources:
Entire de Champlain map of northeastern coast of America, from his 1604 voyage. Champlain quote from Memoir of Samuel de Champlain, Volume II, 1604-1610, Chapter 5.
For more on Frederic Turner’s paintings in Maine (including many in the Millinocket region), see John Wilmerding’s Maine Sublime: Frederic Edwin Church’s Landscapes of Mount Desert and Mount Katahdin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.
“Mount Desert Island and Isle au Haut (Modern Acadia National Park, ME)”. National Park Service Archeology Programs.
Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature. Maine Memory Network.