Hard Telling Not Knowing each week tries to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and history, both long ago and recent, large and small, important and silly. Send your questions to email@example.com.
This week’s question comes to us from staff at the Camden International Film Festival, which opened in person last weekend and continues virtually through Sept. 25. The festival screened a short film about a famous designer and inventor who spent much of his life in Maine.
Why are there geodesic buildings on a tiny island in Penobscot Bay?
There are many islands in Penobscot Bay, from big ones like Vinalhaven to nearly 200 mostly uninhabited tiny islands. Of those little islands, only one is the site of a piece of American architectural history that was the lifelong summer home of one of the most forward-thinking architects and inventors the country has ever produced.
The island is Bear Island, in the middle of the bay between Islesboro, North Haven and Deer Isle. The man was Buckminster Fuller, who built two of his famous geodesic domes on the island in the mid-1960s — a uniquely shaped building constructed from thin material and incredibly durable thanks to its design using interconnected straight bars.
Fuller was many things including an architect, designer, inventor, philosophy and futurist. Over the course of his more than six decade career, he invented not just the geodesic dome but also the three-wheeled Dymaxion car and the manufactured Dymaxion house. He published more than 30 books, and was an in-demand speaker at colleges and academic summits worldwide — including in Maine, where he regularly spoke.
Fuller believed that the earth was full of finite resources and that maximizing efficiency was key. He also believed that a future technological utopia was possible. Some called him a crackpot, but few could deny the brilliance of many of his ideas.
Fuller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983, the year he died. Fullerenes, a type of carbon molecule, was named for him — also known as “Bucky balls.” Fuller also popularized the concept of “Spaceship Earth,” the idea that the world is like a ship, with humanity its crew.
But much of Fuller’s intellectual and creative inspiration can be traced back to his childhood summers on Bear Island, which his family purchased in 1904 and is now owned by the Buckminster Fuller Institute.
“My teleological stimulation first grew out of boyhood experiences on a small island 11 miles off the mainland, in Penobscot Bay of the state of Maine,” Fuller said, in a 1965 New Yorker profile.
In his lifelong quest to unravel “nature’s geometry,” Fuller returned again and again to Bear Island not just for summer visits, but in his mind, as he traveled all over the world. As he told the New Yorker, an island is a kind of self-contained universe, in which climate and nature rule all, and its resident humans must complete every chore needed in order to survive. That idea informed much of his philosophy — from his childhood building experimental structures out of items found in the woods on the island to later observations of the wind, the water and the stars along Penobscot Bay.
On Bear Island, Fuller built two geodesic domes in the late 1960s, the inner structures of which remain. The island, still privately held, is maintained by caretakers throughout the year, and is regularly visited by artists for warm-weather residencies.
An animated documentary short inspired by Fuller and his life on Bear Island, “Unsinkable Ships,” directed by Portland-based filmmakers Lamia Lazrak and Josie Colt, is part of this year’s Dirigo Shorts program at the Camden International Film Festival. Dirigo Shorts is available to watch via pointsnorthinstitute.org. The cost is $15.
Other films that are part of Dirigo Shorts this year include “Weckuwapok: The Approaching Dawn,” filmed at Schoodic Point in Acadia National Park last summer and featuring Wabanaki Confederacy senior partner Chris Newell, U.S. secretary of the interior Deb Haaland and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; “Weckuwapasihtit: Those Yet To Come,” about Passamaquoddy artist Geo Neptune bringing the practice of tattooing back to their people; “Somebody’s Hero,” about an Otis man who saved a neighbor’s baby from a house fire; “Belongings,” about Penobscot author Morgan Talty’s story of growing up in a haunted house; and “The Artists,” about two Down East artists.