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Susan Rockefeller, 62: Polymath Working Toward a Better World

Driven by gratitude, joy, and a love of nature, polymath Susan Rockefeller is working toward a better world through regenerative agriculture, inclusive filmmaking, and inspiring publishing. She discusses “finding ways to creatively express my love for this world,” living with the Inuit in Alaska, and deepening “the capacity and diversity of storytelling.

Gratitude for being here, and clarity on what we should be spending our time on, are qualities that we all seem to feel amplified with time alive. There is the dichotomy of the urgency of our clocks running down in parallel with the need to slow down and savor where we are. When we add to this a deep curiosity around life itself, it can make for a thriving engagement with the world and with those around us. Not a bad way to go through this brief precious time we have here.

The idea of purpose is often a large and looming puzzlement when, in fact, it can be so much simpler: do what you can with the skills you have to make the most impact for good in the world around you. Boom. As Andy Warhol used to say: “Get to work.” Some of us have very targeted skills and interests, others of us are more of the polymath variety; there is no judgment about how one is internally wired, it is just who we are, and there are pluses and minus however you look at the world.

Susan Rockefeller tends towards polymath — farmer, botanical enthusiast, painter, business woman, film producer, cheerleader for the arts — all of this and more. She goes wide and she goes deep because life is short and she wants as much life as she can take in. How all this is balanced with walks in the country with friends, attention to family and home, day to week to month to year, with an elegant grace is a wonderment. She reminds me of something a friend once told me: “We all have the same 24 hours that Beyoncé has, and look what she does with that time.”

“I do not believe most people with purpose and passion actually retire”

You mentioned that you feel there is a myth to retirement. Could you elaborate on that?
I do not believe most people with purpose and passion actually retire. And if one does retire, much time seems to be taken up with self-care, so I am wary of the notion of retirement in general. What does retirement really mean? And how does one really define it? For me, every day is a blessing and to make the most out of it is key. A friend of mine shared a saying: “Make sure to run your days, not have your days run you.” Essentially, carpe diem (seize the day) because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. 

What do you feel are the biggest myths of old age?
That somehow we will get to an age where we can retire and have more time. But the reality is as you age, it takes more time for self-care, caring for aging parents, spouse and friends, and attending to family and children. I think the antidote to old age is the practice of Gratitude, accepting the aging process with grace, and to be thankful for the precious day we have been given. 

How do you feel about your age?
I’m 62 years old. I’m feeling good with some creaks here and there that need attending, but I walk at least a couple miles a day and feel very lucky that I have a lot of energy to do so many of the things I love. I still feel so young at heart that I am sometimes startled when I see my face in the mirror because, as I have aged, I’ve allowed joy to be a big part of my life and that makes me feel ever more youthful!

“I have an insatiable desire to learn and engage”

What is it that drives you? Why are you so involved in so many projects?
Passion for the mystery of life. I love nature in all its forms, I love finding ways to creatively express my love for this world. I have an insatiable desire to learn and engage. I believe a healthy positivity towards all of life’s journey is vital, even with the inevitable grieving and losses that come from the losses of those we love. 

What is your interest in healthy soils? What exactly is a healthy vs unhealthy soil?
Healthy soils are vital for regenerative agriculture. The goal is to work towards inputs that come from your farm, not importing chemicals or fertilizers that damage the ecosystem which in turn can lead to runoff and potential eutrophication of our rivers and oceans. Healthy soils allows for less water usage, more microbial growth, and a return to a healthier ecosystem of bird, insect and animal life. 

“Healthy soils are vital for regenerative agriculture”

What are you producing at your farm? Why these specific products?
We grow animal feed grains to help farmers in the Hudson Valley have organic grains for their animals. It is a vital component for supply chain transparency. We are an agricultural hub that mixes grains, and provides feed for hundreds of farms in and near the Hudson Valley. 

Painted by Susan

When did your interest in plants and sustainable agriculture begin?
At a young age; my mom loved flowers and fresh produce
 and cooked our family meals. I went to UCSC for a Certificate in Organic Gardening in college, worked on farms during summers when I was in college, and then lived with the Inuit in Alaska teaching community gardening. I believe when you plant a seed, you are engaged in the wonders of nature. It is quite astounding and humbling when you pay attention to a seed and watch it unfold. Gardening is one way to engage into this mystery, abundance and diversity in nature. 

“Living with the Inuit taught me about subsistence”

I understand you spent years living with the Inuit in Alaska. What was that like?
Living with the Inuit taught me about subsistence, about a culture that got 85 percent of its food from hunting and fishing. I learned to live with less and saw a way of life that is instructive on so many levels for understanding our relationship to nature, to the food we eat, to how we live in gratitude to the natural world, and what we really need to live and thrive. Living with the Inuit was transformative and still informs much of my thinking to this day. 

You were in Maine for the holidays. What do you gain from being in nature?
Nature is a place of solace and beauty. I love the shortened days, making fires and cooking, walking 4-6 miles a day on the carriage roads and having quiet time with my husband and our family. It is a place of great beauty, a place where the night sky is ablaze with stars, and the quiet is a gift to make the mind wander and wonder about nature and our place in it.

Musings and Muses

Tell us about Musings and Muses. What are you up to?
Musings is a digital magazine that is all about ideas and inspiration for a better world. We profile entrepreneurs and change makers on responsible innovation. It provides a springboard for ideas, investment opportunities and hope. An outgrowth of musings is a company I started during Covid called Muses, using the best of plant medicine to help with tech-neck and pain, using CBD and anti-inflammatory herbs with luscious scent profiles as well. I wanted to create a “muses moment” for people to stop and appreciate life and be more pain free while doing so. My product is Muses Neck Potion No 9, with more products in development for 2022. 

Muses Neck Potion No 9

You are also in the film business, having produced a number of them. Are there any topics that you are focused on currently?
Louverture Films is a company based on supporting Black filmmakers and filmmakers in the global south with the goal to make art-house narrative films, documentary films and series. We work to deepen the capacity and diversity of storytelling, and use the art of filmmaking to move people towards empathy. Films this past year include Noche De Fuego, President, and Memoria. We have some great films in development based on book adaptations and working with phenomenal filmmakers, all to be revealed in 2022.

“We work to deepen the capacity and diversity of storytelling, and use the art of filmmaking to move people towards empathy”

What takes up your time?
My nonprofit work is focused on healthy soils and healthy seas through Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, our farm in the Hudson Valley and my decade-long involvement with Oceana. I spend a great deal of my time painting and delving deep into my creative process and very happy to be doing so. I have a studio in Maine and in upstate NY. I love encaustic painting and also paint with acrylic and watercolor. I am very interested in the questions that have been part of my life since I was a child, particularly about light and shadow, and the ability to observe and be present to what it means to see what is around you. I am now giving myself the luxury of time to pursue my art

Painted by Susan

What is the one issue you think we should all be paying attention to that we are missing?
The practice of gratitude. If we all understood our relationship to each other and the earth we would be kinder to ourselves, the miracle of this life we have been given, sensitive to the global supply chain of workers, and the earth’s resources that provide for everything we have in this world. 

Gotta ask: you have an attention-getting last name. How does that affect your work?
I am deeply humbled by the philanthropic and cultural impact of the Rockefeller family. It is a legacy of innovation and care. When we travel to Asia there is deep appreciation for the Rockefeller legacy with Peking Union Medical College. The name does open doors, and people do fundraise my husband and I more as a result of our last name, but it is an honor to carry the name, and a responsibility to carry forth its reputation. 

You are involved in a number of high-level cultural institutions…but what would be your favorite streaming guilty pleasures to watch at home?
Yellowstone with Kevin Costner, The Equalizer with Queen Latifah, NCIS Los Angeles with LL Cool J, Walker with Keegan Allen, and Emily in Paris for its insanely fun fashion and silliness all around! Some recent movies I liked: Memoria, Don’t Look Up, and Tragedy of Macbeth. 

What are your three non-negotiables in life?
You will age, you will die, you are the architect of your days, have no regrets, dig in to your passions. 
I gave you five. I couldn’t resist!

1 COMMENT

  1. You captured Sue in all of her energy, passion and generosity. Her celebration of family, art and nature is something I’ve witnessed for nearly three decades and try to practice myself. Thanks for sharing her great story and inspiration with your readers, David. -Toby

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AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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