By William Horner
As we celebrate the centennials of Acadia National Park and the National Park Service, we would do well to remember the hopes and intent of those 19th-century voices that advocated for the conservation of wildness and landscapes. They include, among many others, the artist George Catlin, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and, notable to us on Mount Desert Island, Charles W. Eliot.
In the 1830s, Catlin said of the sweeping Western vistas he saw, “What a splendid contemplation when one imagines them … by some great protecting policy of the government, preserved … in a magnificent park … a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of nature’s beauty.”
Some 70 years later, on the Arizona morning of May 6, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt stood for the first time at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and beheld what John Muir had termed a “grand geological library,” a 6,000-foot cleft into the deep time of our planet. In his remarks are found these words: “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon.
“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”
We can surmise that they hoped a forward-thinking United States of America with a staggering abundance of natural resources and visual wonders would, through stewardship, preserve these places in trust for the people – for all the people. And so our country was the first to give the world what the author and conservationist Wallace Stegner said was her “Best Idea” – Yellowstone National Park and ultimately a National Park system.
In this centennial year, which celebrates another National Park that is dear to our hearts, we will look to these founders and assess what the intervening century has brought to their legacy, remembering that our descendants 100 years from now will assess ours. What have we learned from them? What have we done to conserve our natural history and heritage?
And from the historian’s perspective, what will we do to conserve our human historical heritage? Can we who are passionate about history emulate the past accomplishments of the land conservation community in passing that history, improved, to future generations? As present day historians, what can we bring to this borderland of past and future, and to the borders that exist in our own historical community?
On Monday, Jan. 25, at 6 p.m., the Mount Desert Island Historical Society will host its sixth Annual Baked Bean Supper at MDI High School. This is no ordinary event. We have been given the honor of officially kicking off our yearlong celebration of the centennials of the National Park Service and Acadia National Park.
Because our shared history tells us that our forebears conserved the land, it is proper that a historical society would be given this privilege, for it is in history and its preservation that we better understand our past, learn about our present and anticipate our future. Some 40 bakers will contribute a variety of delicious bean-based dishes, ranging from traditional to exotic.
Add live music, brown bread, cole slaw, hot dogs and a surprise dessert, and you have the makings of a memorable and fortifying evening.
But wait – there’s more!
In a collaboration among the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, the Friends of Island History and the Friends of Acadia Centennial Task Force, we will premier a film commissioned from our island’s own Peter Logue called “Acadia Centennial 2016: Celebrate our Past, Inspire our Future.” Underwritten by Darling’s Auto, the film will preview upcoming 2016 events with informative interviews and inspiring scenic footage. It also will serve as a historic document of our times, to be sealed in a time capsule for our bicentennial descendants in 2116.
And if weather holds, we also may introduce a guest of honor, Kevin Schneider, on his first day as superintendent of Acadia National Park.
So, come with a hearty appetite and a thirst for history. You will not be disappointed.
William Horner is president of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. He resides in Bar Harbor.