By Edgar Allen Beem
Photos by John McKee
Maine’s natural beauty is so extensive that you might forget it was not so long ago that much of the landscape was smelly, dirty, and even dangerous. Several Bowdoin faculty and graduates helped turn the rotten tide—but it was photographer John McKee who opened our eyes.
In the spring of 1966, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of photographs of the Maine coast by faculty member John McKee. McKee had come to the College in 1962 to teach French literature, but his skill as a photographer had attracted the attention of museum director Marvin Sadik. The exhibition the two men staged has long been regarded as a landmark in the environmental movement in Maine, a greening of consciousness that took place in the 1960s and 1970s in which Bowdoin and Brunswick played a prominent role.
Titled As Maine Goes, the exhibition combined elegant color photographs of Maine’s natural beauty with stark black-and-white photographs of an uglier reality, the fact that mid-twentieth-century Maine had become a polluted paradise. The forty-five photographs on view at the museum from March 25 to June 12, 1966, depicted a blight of roadside signs, litter, junk cars, industrial waste flowing down rivers, sewage pipes discharging into the ocean, real estate signs, and “no trespassing” and “keep out” signs everywhere.
“John’s approach to the subject of the landscape was a little different for its time,” says Professor of Chemistry Emeritus Samuel Butcher, who served on the advisory committee for a symposium that followed the exhibition. “We were accustomed to Ansel Adams’ visions of pristine nature. John’s work was quite a counterpoint.”
McKee, at Sadik’s suggestion, had spent the summer of 1965 photographing the length of the Maine coast. As Maine Goes received national attention in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Hartford Times, and Duluth News Tribune, as well as in many Maine newspapers. The New York Times story, “Coastline Decay Shown in Photos,” predicted “the public reaction will be one of shock.”
“Ed Muskie came to the exhibition,” recalls John McKee, emeritus professor of art. “When he saw the aerial photograph of the Androscoggin [covered in chemical scum] he said, ‘This is the effluent society, not the affluent society.’”
How bad was the problem? In the 1950s and 1960s, the dissolved oxygen content in the Androscoggin River, which ran a gauntlet of paper and textile mills from Berlin, New Hampshire, through Rumford, Jay, Livermore Falls, Lewiston, and Brunswick, dropped to zero in the summer. This resulted in fish kills and a nauseating odor from dead fish, raw sewage, and toxic discharges. Paint peeled off riverside houses. Local folks could tell what color the factories in Lewiston were dying fabric and tanning hides because the river would run red, blue, and green with their wastewater. Dams to power the mills interrupted the natural flow of Maine’s rivers, preventing fish from spawning in many waters once teeming with aquatic life.
Thomas Settlemire, now professor ofbiology emeritus, assigned a dozen Bowdoin students in 1970 to sample the water of the foul Andro-scoggin River from the New Hampshire border to Merrymeeting Bay. The students measured the amount of dissolved oxygen and fecal coliform in the river. The results were sent to Senator Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) and helped inform his federal Clean Water Act of 1972.
“On slow turns in the river,” recalls Settlemire, “we had to have gas masks to take samples.”
While Settlemire’s students analyzed water pollution, Samuel Butcher’s students tackled the atmospheric chemistry of air pollution.
“People were burning a lot of wood, and people were worried about air quality,”says Butcher, “so we had Bowdoin students measu-ring the emissions from residential woodstoves.”
Wood was a cheap, renewable resource in Maine at the time. Whole townships in the unorganized section of northern Maine were clear-cut for pulp and paper. Photographed from orbiting satellites, northern Maine appeared as a checkerboard as townshipswere clear-cut at different times, new cuts showing white with snow, new growth showing gray, uncut quadrants black with trees. The Kenne-bec, Penobscot, Allagash, and St. John Rivers were choked with logs when loggers conducted massive river drives, floating logs downstream from the woodlands to the mills.
Residential and industrial waste was flushed untreated into the rivers and into the sea. Only thirty of 400-some towns in Maine treated their sewage. Less than thirty miles of Maine’s 3,000-mile-long coast were in the public domain. The roadsides were littered with trash, bottles, and billboards.
John McKee simply shined a photographic light on all these problems. Fortunately, As Maine Goes came at a time when Mainers were beginning to wake up to environmental issues they faced.
“The exhibition was not so much instrumental as it was part of a vast tidal wave of environmental awareness,” says John McKee modestly. “It struck a chord.”
The greening of Maine’s public consciousness was a gradual process. The quantum leap took place in the late 1960s, but there were isolated voices decades earlier, largely unheard at the time, warning that all was not well in Vacationland.
One of the loudest voices crying in the wilderness of commercialism was that of novelist Kenneth Roberts, a Kennebunkport summer colonist and an arch-conservative who inveighedagainst litter, road-side clutter, and billboards as early as the 1920s.
In The Saturday Evening Post of December 7, 1929, Roberts published a jeremiad against the despoilment of US Route One in Maine.
“Today,” wrote Roberts, “it is a road of big signs and little signs and medium-sized signs; of cardboard signs tacked to pine trees and wooden fences and dilapidated barns; of homemade signs tilting drunkenly in ragged fields and peering insolently from the yards and walls of furtive-looking houses…It is a road rich in the effluvia of clams in batter, frying doughnuts, sizzling lard; in tawdriness, cheapness, and bad taste, but little else.”
In 1958, Waterville attorney Jerome Daviau published Maine’s Life Blood, a small book that carefully laid out the case that the paper industry and power companies were dominating both the political and natural life of Maine and that, as a result, Maine’s rivers and streams were fouled and dammed.
Daviau’s warning about Maine’s water quality was largely ignored and is now all but forgotten, but another book written by a Maine author at just about the same time is widely credited with being the opening shot in the environmental revolution in America. In Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson, a biologist and bestselling author who summered in Southport near Boothbay Harbor, warned of an even more insidious and invisible threat to the environment—pesticide poisoning.
Silent Spring made the case that toxic pesticides such as DDT were not only killing the targeted pests, but were also killing birds and becoming pervasive in all natural systems. In Silent Spring, Carson warned about fish kills in Maine in the wake of spraying for sprucbudworm and observed that herbicides were turning once verdant roadsides into desolate brown wastes. A classic of environmental literature, Silent Spring sounded the alarm that would be answered by citizens, scientists, educators, environmental activists, and state and federal legislators.
LURC, CRAC, AND CWIC
One of the first organized attempts to address the threats to the Maine environment was a symposium inspired by John McKee’s As Maine Goes exhibition. The Maine Coast: Prospects and Perspectives convened at Bowdoin College on October 20–22, 1966, and consisted of five panel discussions in Daggett Lounge, each with four or five experts in various fields of land use planning and conservation.
Horace A. “Hoddy” Hildreth Jr. ’54 attended the symposium as a Republican candidate for the Maine Senate from Falmouth. He was shopping for ways to protect Maine’s natural environment.
“John McKee’s exhibition and the conference were seminal events,” says Hildreth. “The exhibition was a very powerful and effective demonstration of what was happening in the state of Maine. It was the thing that really set me off. The conference was part of the momentum that McKee generated.”
Hildreth was destined to become Maine’s first environmental lobbyist. The law of the land that he was about to lay down would create Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission and the system of regulation for the vast tracts of paper company woodlands in northern Maine. In 1966, some 10 million acres of Maine land, close to half the state’s land mass, was not under any form of municipal control.
When the Maine Senate took up Hildreth’s bill on June 13, 1967, he echoed what he had heard at The Maine Coast symposium in urging its passage.
“You must realize,” he urged his state senate colleagues, “that within four hours’ drive from here live nearly forty million people, who each year have more and more spare time, who each year are earning more and more money, and who each year are looking for places to go. Now, where are they going to go? If they are interested in the outdoors, they are going to be interested in coming to Maine… Don’t you think it would make some sense for the State of Maine for once to look ahead to what our problem is going to be and to try and do something about it?”
Hildreth’s bill failed in 1967, but, revived by his law partner Rep. Harrison Richardson (R-Cumberland), then House Majority Leader, it passed in 1969.
In order to make the case for a Land Use Regulation Commission, Richardson appointed a blue ribbon committee to compile a “Report on Wildlands Use.”
Hoddy Hildreth, an ex-officio member, remembered the graphic power of John McKee’s As Maine Goes and arranged for McKee to document the problems in the North Woods.
“Hoddy Hildreth got in touch with me,” McKee remembers. “He said, ‘I’m trying to build a strategy for protecting the wildlands, so I’d like to get some documentation likethe Maine coast but in the wildlands.’ He got some money from the legislature for me to take photographs and he told me to be sure to get the pictures before the leaves came out in the spring.”
McKee’s photographs of “For Sale” and subdivision signs, camps and cabins, outhouses, and construction projects in the woods became Appendix F of the Wildlands Report.
When the first seven members of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission were confirmed in December of 1969, John McKee, then vice president of the Natural Resources Council, was appointed to represent conservation interests.
The velocity of environmental activism picked up in the late 1960s, with Maine Times, a progressive alternative weekly, being founded just across the Androscoggin in Topsham in October of 1968 and the first Maine Environmental Congress taking place in Augusta in March of 1969.
In the same issue of Maine Times that reported on the environmental congress, there was a full-page ad for a new environmental advocacy organization calling itself the Coastal Resources Action Committee (CRAC).
“Time is running out for Maine—time that we need to prevent the irreversible; to do the things we need to do to protect the coast,the rivers, the ponds, the countryside from stupidity,” warned the CRAC ad. “Pollutionis stupidity. So is the lack of planning or the thoughtless destruction of natural resources,or the failure to preserve or protect for thefuture.”
“It just seemed to me,” says CRAC founder Hildreth, “having been a lobbyist and having seen how powerful lobbyists were in Augusta, that the environmental groups needed a lobbyist.”
Hildreth himself became that lobbyist when he left the legislature in 1968. He would subsequently engage Portland attorney Harold Pachios and then Brunswick attorneys E. Christopher Livesay, who would become chair of Maine’s Board on Environmental Protection, and Angus King, who would become a US Senator, to lobby on CRAC’s behalf. Among the issues CRAC lobbied successfully for were passage of a Site Location of Development Act and an Oil Conveyance Act, the defeat of several major oil refinery proposals along the Maine coast and the approval of both Maine’s returnable bottle bill in 1976 and Maine’s billboard ban in 1977.
If few remember the central role CRAC played in defending the Maine environment, even fewer recall CWIC (pronounced “quick”), the Clean Water Initiative Committee that was a brainchild of Myrick Freeman III, now professor of economics emeritus.
We were accustomed to Ansel Adams’ visions of pristine nature. John’s work was quite a counterpoint.
Rick Freeman wrote his 1965 doctoral dissertation on water resource economics on a fellowship from Resources for the Future, a group headed by Joseph Fisher ’35. Freeman helped organize the 1966 Maine coast symposium and, on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, spoke in Pittsburgh on methods of estimating the economic benefits of environmental improvement.
“The Clean Water Initiative Committee,” explains Freeman, “was an attempt to use the citizen initiative process to enact a charge on water pollution discharges.”
CWIC’s pay-to-pollute plan went nowhere in the state legislature. But by 1970, environmentalism had caught on at Bowdoin.
An authority on methods of estimating the benefits of environmental improvements, Freeman taught one of Bowdoin’s earliest environmental courses in the spring of 1969, a class called Resources, Conservation, and the Quality of the Environment. The following year, the College appointed an Environmental Studies Committee and Professor Charles Huntington taught Bowdoin’s first official environmental studies course, The Androscoggin River: A Case Study.
In 1972, environmental studies became an official interdisciplinary major at Bowdoin.
“From the very beginning,” says John McKee, “environmental studies was a mix of departments. We were very clear that we were not talking about environmental science, we were talking about environmental studies. That meant not just sciences, but art, economics, government, philosophy, and religion.”
Today, the popular environmental studies major, LEED-certified dorms, the Bowdoin Organic Garden, the award-winning dining service, the Schiller Coastal Studies Center, and the Roux Center for the Environment now under construction, all testify to Bowdoin’s embrace of environmental responsibility.
Just so, the Town of Brunswick manifests its commitment to natural resources and sustainability through the many town parks and the conservation lands managed by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust (BTLT), including Crystal Springs Farm and the Tom Settlemire Community Garden.
As many as 5,000 people have visited the farmer’s market at Crystal Springs Farm in a single day. That’s how Tom Settlemire, a long-time BTLT boardmember, knows environmental conscious-ness has entered the mainstream.
“What kind of food we want leads to what kind of society we want,” observes Settlemire from the cozy confines of his office in the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. “The saving grace for me is all the young people who have made the farmer’s market so popular, both as customers and producers. When older people got on board, it just took off.”
Indeed, the seed of environmental awareness that John McKee planted in 1966 with his seminal As Maine Goes exhibition has grown over the past half century into a green consciousness that now permeates not only the Bowdoin campus but also the Brunswick community and the State of Maine.
Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer and author who has been a contributor to Bowdoin magazine since 1987. He lives in Brunswick.
John McKee is an emeritus associate professor of art at Bowdoin. He has published and exhibited his photographs widely.
This piece first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Bowdoin magazine.