Acadia Country

Anchored by the spectacular national park, the rugged, island-dotted coastal region of Maine distills the down east experience

Mount Desert Island, where hikers trek and ponds beckon has long attracted visitors. “From our elevation,” wrote painter Frederic Church in 1850, “we had the whole of the seaward part of the island at our feet.” (Brad DeCecco)
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Some of the catch ends up at Lunt's Deli, where day-trippers, headed for Eastern Point Beach, about a mile away, stop to purchase freshly made lobster rolls. We set off in the opposite direction, along a winding dirt path through berry patches and apple trees to Gooseberry Point, a mile distant on the western side of the island. Here, pine and spruce trees face open sea. "In summer, there are porpoises, seals, whales—and sometimes deer swimming over from other islands," says Lunt. "My wife, Michelle, and I got engaged here."

For the remainder of my visit, we stroll the single paved road, a mile or so stretch looping past Frenchboro's landmarks. The white-clapboard Congregational Church dates from 1890. Dean was baptized here; a minister from the Sea Coast Mission leads services one Sunday a month. A museum is devoted to artifacts of traditional village life—antique dolls, rocking horses, family photographs, crockery, lobsterfishing implements, carpentry tools. "Even more than an island or hometown, Long Island is a family and heritage," Dean wrote in his memoir. "I am unapologetically proud to say my family built the island community and has helped sustain it for more than 180 years." But for all the love of tradition, he insists, no one misses the low-tech days of yore, when lobstermen lost their buoys and their bearings in the fog and spent winters repairing wooden traps, now made of wire. "Fiberglass boats," he adds, "require a lot less maintenance—no more scraping hulls and repainting wood boats. A lobster fisherman's life is never easy, but it has gotten better."

The next day, back on the mainland, I drive to Cape Rosier along the western coast of Blue Hill Peninsula and to Four Season Farm. Renowned internationally as a center for innovative organic agriculture, it's celebrated locally for its vegetables. On this sunny morning, several young men and women—paid apprentices studying organic farming, I later learn—are hoeing and raking rectangular beds after a recent harvest of cabbage and lettuce. At a nearby plot, Eliot Coleman, Four Season's 69-year-old founder and famed organic-farming guru, is on his knees, preparing a pea and broccoli patch for fall spinach.

Despite Maine's short growing season—no more than four or five months—Coleman and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, the farm-and-gardening columnist for the Washington Post, coax two, sometimes three, harvests from their land. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are applied. Yet these one-and-a-half acres—including a quarter-acre greenhouse used during winter—produce 35 organically grown vegetables that grossed $120,000 in sales last year. "I doubt there is a chemical farm for vegetables that comes close to our yields," says Coleman. "So anybody who tells you that organic farming can't feed the world is just plain ignorant."

Coleman, by his own admission, stumbled across his true calling. After a suburban childhood in Rumson, New Jersey, he became a self-described "ski bum." After winter in the United States and Europe, he would head to Chile, where the Andes are covered in snow from June to September. "At some point in my mid-20s," Coleman says, "I thought there ought to be something more socially redeeming than racing down the next mountain." In 1967, he read Living the Good Life, originally published in 1954, by Helen and Scott Nearing, early leaders of the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s. "Just weeks later, I traveled to Maine to meet Scott Nearing," says Coleman. Nearing sold Coleman, then 28, a 40-acre piece of land for $33 an acre—what the Nearings had paid for it in 1952. "Nearing didn't believe in making profit from unearned income," says Coleman.

The quality of Coleman's vegetables gained him customers—and eventually the same kind of following that the Nearings had once inspired—throughout the Acadia region. Each year, Four Season hires and boards five or six aspiring farmers. "Coleman teaches us to view vegetables as a litmus test of how good a soil we have created," says Jeremy Oldfield, 25, from Washington, D.C., as he readies a spinach plot.

Damrosch, for her part, cites Beatrix Farrand as one of her greatest influences. In the 1920s, Farrand designed a garden for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and her husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., at Seal Harbor (pop. 309) on Mount Desert Island. Damrosch recalls sneaking into the private garden during the early 1960s, when she worked at a nearby inn during a summer break from college. "The garden was beautifully maintained," recalls Damrosch, sounding somewhat chagrined about trespassing. "I had never seen a garden so grand," she continues, "the Chinese-style wall, the statues, the blending of flowers with native plants and ground covers. Yet Farrand achieved a sense of intimacy by designing the garden into small spaces, each with its own character."

Today, the Rockefeller Garden can be visited only by appointment, though the Rockefeller family has announced plans to open it to the public eventually, connecting it by woodland trail to two nearby public gardens associated with Farrand—the Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden. Charles Savage, a local innkeeper and self-taught landscape designer, created both gardens in the 1950s, using relocated plants that Farrand had tended at Reef Point, once her garden and home in Bar Harbor.

Asticou, with its azaleas and rhododendrons, had peaked in spring, so I stopped instead at Thuya, in full summer bloom, climbing a trail under the white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) that give it its name. The garden is riotous with color—day lilies, delphiniums, snapdragons, a dozen other flowers. In the distance, sailboats scud across Northeast Harbor on a breezy, sunlit day.

Why Farrand's Reef Point garden no longer exists remains a subject of conjecture. Nearing retirement in the 1950s, Farrand, then in her 80s, expressed the hope that the town of Bar Harbor would help maintain it as a public attraction and horticultural research center. Though the 1947 fire had sharply depleted Bar Harbor's treasury, Farrand was well-connected both by birth—her aunt was the novelist Edith Wharton—and by wealthy clients, including the Rockefellers and the Morgans. She likely could have found a patron to fund Reef Point.


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