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Rockefellers roads { August 12 2003 }

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Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Rockefeller's road to nature's cleansing spirit


BAR HARBOR, Maine -- "And at 4 o'clock, we'll go on a carriage ride," my friends from Buffalo, Jim and Eileen Reidy, had mentioned early that magical summer afternoon. And so began our adventure.

My first thought was simply, "How nice -- but, of course, a carriage ride!" Doesn't everyone? Perhaps it was the languid beauty of the air or the rugged coves and bays of Maine, dotted with their famous rocky gray islands, that made me so blissfully unaware of what we were doing. Perhaps it was the result of the lotus-eater breezes off the waters.

But I, who, like almost all of us today, live in a cranky automotive world, began our odd journey by assuming it was all perfectly natural. How wrong I was!

We started out shortly after 4 in a surrey with the fringe on top and an old Maine gentleman/driver who knew every dip and turn in the roads, which alternately cling to the mountainsides and then dash down through the valleys, all the time providing the most extraordinary views of water and deep, abiding forest.

It wasn't until the driver said offhandedly, "There are 57 miles of Mr. Rockefeller's roads, although we won't be covering all of them," that I began to wonder. Where the devil were we? What was all of this? For these roads had no calculated reason to be there; they weren't going anywhere at all, at least that I could see.

Then, in the next few hours, and days, some truths began to be set firm in my mind -- truths relevant to our times -- about "Mr. Rockefeller and his roads."

It seems that John D. Rockefeller Jr., like other wealthy people of that age, had the good moral sense to have excellent aesthetic taste. This heir to the Standard Oil fortune loved things of beauty, yet as a Bible-reading Baptist who had grown up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (he was born in 1874 in Cleveland), he saw firsthand the agricultural model of early America pass to the moral ambivalence of the industrial revolution, and he became acutely aware that Americans were becoming ever more removed from nature's cleansing spirit.

It was the age when "the wilderness" was no longer a given fact of life but was starting to disappear -- and "Mr. Junior," as he would later be called by his road-builders in Maine, was determined to leave a legacy for others to enjoy.

It was when the Rockefellers purchased land on beautiful Mount Desert Island here in Maine, which has the only mountain range on the Eastern seaboard, that John D. Jr. determined to build his now-famous 57 miles of lovely carriage roads based upon his deep philosophical conviction that the "Great Nature" of America must be made available to all Americans -- but not too available to them.

Underlying his objectives, his granddaughter Ann Rockefeller Roberts would write in later years, were "his own very deep beliefs about the Earth and our relationship to it." As John D. Jr. had himself written, "To see a tree coming out in the spring was enough to impress me with the fact that God existed."

Not everyone agreed with his philosophy -- and soon he found himself caught between the purists who wanted Acadia National Park, formed with land assembled by Rockefeller and other summer residents, to remain untouched by change, and his own idea that proper intervention would, in fact, preserve preservation.

As his son Laurance Rockefeller wrote later of his determined, but always courteous, father: "He wished the land to be preserved but not hidden. He wanted it to be revealed to the people."

So it was that he overcame all objections and, largely between 1915 and 1930, built his famous carriage roads on the property, which he later turned over to the National Park Service. Today the roads are there for all to use to experience the special beauties of this wilderness.

There is, even today, a balance here: There are no cars allowed and no noisy vehicles, but one sees many walkers and bicyclists.

This is where the thinking of the generous, kind and balanced "Mr. Junior" comes directly into our lives today -- and especially into our thinking about wilderness (there's less and less of it), about national parks (so popular they're being overrun), and about commercialization around many places of special beauty (perhaps the greatest threat to the solace offered by wilderness).

Today we see millions of acres of public lands jeopardized by an administration that, even though it calls itself "conservative," does not seem to have the faintest interest in conservation of the sort that the truly conservative Rockefellers believed in. Now there are tremendous pressures to commercialize our parks and proposals for oil exploration in the Arctic refuge.

New roads are threatened in wilderness areas, but now not like "Mr. Rockefeller's Roads" (the name of Ann Roberts' book on the subject), but instead, roads to cut into the wilderness, not for understanding or for succor, but for exploitation.

Perhaps what we need most today -- and what many of us yearn for -- is the kind of illuminating and elevating discussion that went on "back then," when Mr. Rockefeller was so madly in love with nature that he saw it as God's own divine message to his people -- and when others responded to the same impulse that nature be revealed and not despoiled.

Georgie Anne Geyer's column is distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

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