Bear Island Design Assembly

text by Philip Conkling for The Working Waterfront

Although most of us have trouble trying to define in the abstract what the term “sustainably” means, we also instinctively understand that islands are great places to experience what our lives become when we disconnect from elaborate, invisible and often incomprehensible systems that keep life humming along on the mainland. Island living confronts us with an immediate and visceral sense of what things we absolutely need in order to live and how fast we are using up those items—whether that is water from the well or hardwood for the fire.

The Bear Island Design Assembly (BIDA) is an experiment in what sustainability looks like from an island perspective. A group of a dozen or so Middlebury College architectural studies students and a pair of their instructors along with several Bear island residents are spending this week amid the island’s mown fields, fruit trees, kitchen gardens and shingle dwellings, first imagining and then drawing up their ideas of a more sustainable future. Islands are good for this—they let you think big and small at the same time.

Given the author’s own dictum, “never say no to an island,” it was a no-brainer to accept an invitation from BIDA to offer some reflections on the question of how Maine islands sustain themselves. From a historical perspective, we understand that the apogee of Maine island life occurred during the latter half of the 19th century when island populations peaked. Salt cod, pine and spruce lumber, ice packed in sawdust, granite paving stones and building blocks, casks of lime, and loads of potatoes and popplestones are just a few of the products the three, four, five and six-masted schooners carried from the Maine islands during the burgeoning merchant economy that rapidly expanded after the Civil War. Historians call it the Age of Merchant Sail. By harnessing the energy of wind, islanders were not confined in isolated backwaters; rather their independent communities lay at the edge of blue water highways that connected them to an interdependent world.

That era ended abruptly when steam powered transportation began to dominate maritime trade beginning in the 1880s and 90s and islanders left their homes for better opportunities ashore. The experience of the first six decades of the 20thcentury from a Maine islander’s perspective was dispiriting and depressing: your most valuable export became your children.

So sustainability in the 21st century Maine island context is like looking through a telescope backwards, when compared to what we think of as sustainability in a global sense. Ever since the Apollo moon missions, we have seen the earth as a blue green island in the black void of space. For island earth, sustainability concerns focus on whether there are too many people to keep the planet alive; for Maine islands sustainability concerns focus on whether there are enough people to keep a community alive.

It turns out one of the world’s most influential thinkers about the concept of sustainability came to the subject naturally after his family purchased Bear Island in 1904. R. Buckminster Fuller, or “Bucky,” as he preferred to be called, spent his childhood summers on Bear Island, after the age of 10, immersed in the wondrous natural world of the island and the surrounding waters. Fuller was one of the earliest and most influential environmentalists of the 20th century and became one of America’s most famous futurists. He always credited his summers of work and play on Bear Island for helping him develop the concepts that enabled him to view problems in unique and different ways.

One of Bucky’s jobs during his childhood summers on Bear was to row across to Eagle Island to pick up mail for the family. Fuller thought that rowing a skiff backwards was, well… backwards. He wanted to see where he was going and began thinking about the way moon jellies propelled themselves through the water. So he developed an umbrella like device mounted on the bow of his skiff that he pushed forward in the closed position and pulled back open to propel the vessel easily back and forth between Bear and Eagle. That’s island thinking.

As Bucky wandered around Bear Island, his thoughts on the interconnectedness of natural systems led him instinctively toward thinking of problems as part of a larger system. From Fuller’s fascination with the forms he found in nature, in particular the icosahedron, he patented the geodesic dome as a simple, inexpensive building, consisting of interlocking icosahedrons. The geodesic domes, several of which he built on Bear Island, are useful because, as Fuller pointed out, a sphere encloses the greatest volume for the least surface area. Fuller’s domes were adopted not only by futurists at world’s fairs, zoos and museums, but also by the U.S military since it allowed them to break records for inexpensively covering surfaces and enclosing volumes, as well as speed of construction. That’s island earth thinking.

Island living, whether on Bear Island or anywhere else, confronts you with the realization that anything you do not produce on the island, you must lug there yourself. And much of what you don’t use or is left over after using, you must then lug back off the island, unless you can think of some other use for it. Islanders are instinctive recyclers; it is just easier to reuse something than to haul it away.

Buckminster Fuller was one of the earliest and most articulate promoters of recycling. He understood the inherent finite limits of resources on “spaceship earth,” (a term he coined) and introduced the principle of doing more with less—using waste materials from crude products to create more valuable products and improving the efficiency of the entire process.

As a result of the tremendous influence that Bear Island played in the life of on one of the world’s most farsighted environmentalists, the island may someday be considered the place where the future was first imagined. We may also one day celebrate the insights that small groups of students, who came to this small island to be inspired by Bucky’s example, will also go out and also change how we view the world.

Philip Conkling is president and founder of the Island Institute based in Rockland, Maine.