Thank you for those generous words, Polly, and thanks to all of you for that generous welcome.

There is no place I can imagine being right now more beautiful, more pleasant, or more hospitable than this one, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be here: to be present at the creation of this partnership between College of the Atlantic and the Island Institute.

As an avid lay historian, I found that when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed on this island 410 years ago next month — the 5th of September, 1604 (and for those of you who enjoy bragging rights, sixteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth) — he named it after the bare and rocky mountains he had seen from the sea: The Isles des Monts Desert.

Were he to return tonight, he would see it as anything but austere and uninviting, and I have a hunch he would even propose changing its name… to The Isles des Polly (as in Guth, for those of you whose French is limited.)

For there she would have been, waiting for Champlain on the beach, one hand extended in welcome, the other stretching forth a shovel and package of seeds. I can hear her admonish him: “About time you got here. Get those men off that ship and start digging! We have a future to build.” That’s Polly: who long ago decided that the ancient Hebrew proverb “Where there is no vision, the people perish” didn’t go far enough. Without action, both the vision and the people perish. And Polly’s about action — about getting things done.

We met a decade ago, in New York City. She had grown concerned about the failure of the press to provide Americans the news we need to be informed and active citizens. As a journalist and the president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, that was my concern, too, and I came to see Polly as one in spirit with the journalist and historian Richard Reeves who was once asked, “Mr. Reeves, what’s your definition of ‘real news.’” He answered: “The news we need to keep our freedom.”

Polly rightly thought we needed more real news, and she hosted a meeting of advocates, activists, and foundations to brainstorm what could be done about it. The Schumann Center had nurtured into existence a fledgling organization known as FreePress.org devoted to media, technology and democracy. Polly threw herself into the support of it, providing real muscle to its mission. Check it out when you get home at FreePress.org and you will see what Polly’s partnering hath wrought: Over 600,000 citizens advocating for an open and free internet and a democratic, diverse, and independent press.

I spoke at that meeting hosted by Polly and the very next morning she sent word that she would like to have breakfast. Our rendezvous took place at her choice of restaurants — the Gardenia, on the upper east side of Manhattan Island (what is about islands that attracts this woman?). I figured it would be a fancy environment of power broker breakfasts as the situated it among fashionable clothing stores, shoe and handbag designers, antique shops, and upscale bric-a-brac on Madison Avenue. I had even heard that Joe DiMaggio often ate there…and sometimes Jackie Onassis, too.

But when I got out of the cab there was the modest front of a nondescript diner wedged like a shoebox into a narrow closet between two much more imposing facades. The customers turned out to be everyday people stopping by for coffee and bagels or eggs and bacon on the way to work in the morning. In the evening, I learned, men between wives gathered at the long counter for what was known “The Lonely Guys Club.”

And that’s where Polly Guth wanted to have breakfast.

When I arrived at 8:00 a.m., she was already there, sitting at a small table to the rear. I ordered oatmeal with brown sugar and skim milk and we talked about television, journalism, and what was happening to our country. I had retired my weekly series on PBS and was debating my next move. She urged me to return to the air, and with that quiet urgency she often gets in her voice, she said, emphatically:

“Only make up your mind,” she said, “and get on with it.”

If I did, she added, I could count on her for considerable support. How do you say no to a woman like that?

So back I came on the air, with The Partridge Foundation and John and Polly Guth prominently displayed in the opening and closing credits. As you know, public television is not a commercially-driven system and we have to raise every penny for every production we mount.

Walking through the streets of Florence many years ago, I wondered what it meant to be adopted by a Medici. Now I knew. My Medici was generous and unassuming, principled but never dogmatic, and so morally attuned that she would argue against the interest of her own class if it were necessary to advance the public interest. Our relationship blossomed into a friendship as we discovered between us a deep kinship of spirit.

From our mutual concern over the state of democracy came several hundred hours of programming on the environment, global warming, inequality, poverty, politics and economics. Both of us also believed that the renewal of democracy depends on poetry and the arts and the power of ideas, and our series regularly featured writers, philosophers, historians and many other public thinkers and patriots.

Who could have imagined such a partnership between the son of impoverished Oklahoma tenant farmers and this stately woman of wealth and privilege at home among the grandees of New York City and the Northeast Coast?

I came to know much about her many dimensions. She’s a gardener whose idea of the best gift to give at Christmas is not the latest Grisham novel, or a biography of John Adams, or Doris Kearns Goodwin on Teddy Roosevelt and the muckrakers, but the “Four Season Gardner” by Eliot Coleman.

Her family’s victory garden in World War II was one of the biggest in New Hampshire and there young Polly began driving a tractor when she was hardly knee-high to a grasshopper.

She proved to be a farmer who knew a good irrigation system when she saw one, which crops to rotate, and how to muck out the horse barn, which she did growing up on that farm while her cousins were living it up down in Palm Beach.

She’s a philanthropist, and we would be here all night if I dealt justly with her generosity.

E.M. Forrester once told his readers: “Only Connect!” Polly does just that with her wealth.

Her first grant to College of the Atlantic was for Beech Hill Farm here on the island. Long before Michelle Obama and Let’s Move, she understood intuitively that obesity among children was becoming a huge problem — not just a problem among the third of the country making bad food choices several times a day, but up and down the entire food chain — a system of production that was overwhelming us with an endless array of unhealthy products.

She reasoned that if the college could get local school kids up to the farm to see how healthy food is grown, and to taste it, they might make better decisions later on. As with so many of her grants over these years, she understood the importance of planting the foundation of the future in the mind and habits of a child.

She reasoned that if the college could get local school kids up to the farm to see how healthy food is grown, and to taste it, they might make better decisions later on. As with so many of her grants over these years, she understood the importance of planting the foundation of the future in the mind and habits of a child.

Above all, Polly believes in partnerships — public and private.

When she gives her word, she keeps it. As you could see in the sponsorship credits at the beginning of my broadcasts, she and her beloved husband John were partners, too. When they pledged their partnership “for better or for worse” over 50 years ago, she meant it. As her “Guffy” faded slowly into Alzheimer’s, she tenderly saw to his needs, often at the sacrifice of her own comfort, until he passed earlier this year. Take this woman at her word. She will be there for you.

So it is that with her commitment the College of the Atlantic and the Island Institute are now setting out to prove that as Maine goes, so goes the world.

Take that seriously. These two institutions have a destiny.

The college offers only one major, and it’s human ecology — the reality-based recognition that everything is related. (My good friend, the journalist Amy Goodman, one of your star graduates and the host of that indispensable daily broadcast “Democracy Now,” says it was here, at the college, that she began “to critically think.”) The Institute is committed to the sustainability of these islands as a community … one for all and all for one.

The college offers only one major, and it’s human ecology — the reality-based recognition that everything is related. (My good friend, the journalist Amy Goodman, one of your star graduates and the host of that indispensable daily broadcast “Democracy Now,” says it was here, at the college, that she began “to critically think.”) The Institute is committed to the sustainability of these islands as a community … one for all and all for one.

And one day Darron Collins and Rob Snyder looked at each other and said: “We can never do alone what we can dream and do together.” Now, the Fund for Maine Islands endowed by Polly will empower them together to search for solutions to sustain the ecosystems of these coastal islands — innovations in food, energy, and education — and to share them with the world.

From this seed in this place can come a new paradigm for the future. And it couldn’t happen at a more fortuitous moment.

We are reminded every day now — from Gaza to the Ganges to Ferguson — that civilization is but a thin layer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. If it snaps, all that we hold dear can disappear overnight. Whether this happens from belligerent and malevolent forces outside us (think 9/11) or from within — from the ferocious partisan conflicts that have deadlocked and paralyzed our governance, or from the rising temperatures of the ocean, or the collapse of ecosystems, there will be no place to hide.

Many of you have no doubt read the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond. In his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” he tells how the change people inflict on their environment has always been one of the main factors in the decline of civilizations.

One example: The Mayan natives on the Yucatan peninsula who suffered as their forests disappeared, their soil eroded, and their water supply deteriorated. Chronic warfare made matters worse as they exhausted dwindling resources. Although Mayan kings could see their forests vanishing and their hills diminishing, they were able to insulate themselves from the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they remained well-fed while everyone else was slowly starving. When the food ran out it was too late to reverse their deteriorating environment, and they became casualties of their own privilege.

They had violated the fundamental rule of civilization: We are in this together.

Gilbert McAllister taught the introductory anthropology class at the University of Texas when I was a student there 60 years ago. We called him “Doctor Mac.”

In my mind’s eye I can see him as I speak — striding across the front of the lecture hall, telling us about the years he had spent as a young graduate student among the Apache Indians in West Texas. They had taught him the meaning of reciprocity. He learned that in the Apache tongue the word for grandfather was the same as the word for grandson: Grandfather, grandson — generations linked to one another in an embrace of mutual obligation. On that note Dr. Mac was off and running, explaining that through the ages human beings have advanced more from collaboration than competition. For all the chest-thumping about individuals and self-made men, he said, an ethic of cooperation became the bedrock of our social contract.

There you have the story of these islands. The natives who first lived here looked on nature as if it were their mother’s breast — their sustenance, their life. They hunted, fished and collected shellfish, gathered plants and berries. They were humans, of course, and not immune to the personal greed and cunning that entered the world with our species. But they survived by cooperating among themselves and with nature.

Then the Europeans came. First, Jesuit missionaries from France; (from Wikipedia I learned that Fernald Point on St. Sauveur (“savior”) overlooks the point that still bears the name of the mission). The English came soon thereafter — sailing up from Virginia — bringing with them armed violence — fierce competition. They murdered three of the Jesuit missionaries and took the remainder back to Virginia as prisoners, then returned here to this island to burn the remaining French buildings. It wasn’t until after a century and a half of conflict — including Queen Anne’s War — that your coast was opened for settlement. Families grew. Villages flourished. Commerce took root. And cooperation brought about a way of life that violence and ruthless conflict could not.

Against great odds our own culture of democracy in America grew from shared values, common dreams, and mutual aspirations of people seeking something better. Those ideas are proclaimed in the most disregarded section of the Constitution — the preamble. This pact of partnership declares a moral contract among “We the People of the United States.” Yes, I know: When those words were written, “We the People” didn’t include slaves, or women, or exploited workers, or unwelcome immigrants. But the very idea of it, the vision that inspired it, the power of an idea let loose by the American Revolution was to change the consciousness of the world. As well as our own way of life.

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Where I grew up on the Oklahoma and Texas border, individual initiative succeeded only when it led to a strong system of mutual support. I couldn’t sit in my clearing while you sweated and strained alone to raise your barn; neighbors came together to help. Barn raisings were a social occasion, celebrating solidarity and caring. You helped to deliver one another’s babies. When a family was sick, you took turns sitting at the bedside or helping with the meals. You helped bury the dead.

My father grew up in a family of poor farmers trying to wrestle a living from the black soil along the Red River. Their wagon often stuck in the mud as they tried to cross. They all got out and pushed and pulled until they reached the other side. My father was 14 when his father died during the flu epidemic of 1918. Neighbors washed his father’s body, neighbors dug the grave, and neighbors laid my grandfather in the earth.

Even as late as my high school days, my father and others in the church would take turns through the night sitting in the parlor of the funeral home beside the corpse of a departed friend or congregant. It was their way of saying, “We’ll not leave you alone as you cross this river.”

Dad often drew the midnight shift and would go directly from his vigil through the hours before dawn to his job driving a truck. Shortly before his death I asked him, “You had to be hard at work at sunrise driving that truck, why did you do this?” He looked at me with surprise and answered, “Because it was just the thing we did.”

“Just-the-thing-WE-did.”

That sentiment contains the seed of civilization: the progression from solitary initiative and tribal warfare to social cooperation — the web of collaboration weaving individuals into family, friends, communities, and country, creating in each a sense of reliance on the ecology of which we are all a part, a recognition of the self in the company of others, sharing powerful loyalties even as we retain our individual identities. The late sociologist Robert Bellah spoke of these “habits of the heart as the sinews of society.”

Obligation. Reciprocity. Cooperation. Without them society, becomes a war of all against all, and the free market for wolves turns into a slaughter for the lambs.

Civilization is the bargain we strike with one another. We can’t sustain the bargain if our fundamental philosophy is “Live and let live.” It doesn’t work. To survive and flourish generation after generation, we must “live and help live.”

Civilization is the bargain we strike with one another. We can’t sustain the bargain if our fundamental philosophy is “Live and let live.” It doesn’t work. To survive and flourish generation after generation, we must “live and help live.”

Once upon a time I might have thought a small island off the coast of Maine hardly the place where a partnership could be forged that might show the world this better way — one of obligation, reciprocity, and cooperation. I would have been wrong. The future begins here and now, this evening, in this small but significant place, this Isles de Polly, with each and all of us.

Thank you for allowing me to share this moment of creation with you.


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