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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

The song of Jens Jensen

He believed nature is art, and left Lincoln Memorial Garden as his legacy

Photo by Tom Handy

I arrived at the Lincoln Memorial Garden with the intention of finding music in the trees. In the past I have spent the Illinois winters tucked resolutely indoors, delving into literature and jazz in the hope that such elevated pursuits, like an electric blanket set on high, would keep my spirits from freezing. However, I have now come to believe that contact with nature is as important to my progress in life as Proust and Coltrane. Moreover, I seek to find a connection between the arts and nature that goes beyond the obvious of bird song and music. The creator of the garden, landscape architect Jens Jensen, believed there is, indeed, not only a connection between nature and the arts but that nature is art -- a poem, a symphony -- even in winter. Since spending the entire frigid season indoors was no longer an option for me, I pulled my hat down to my eyebrows and ventured toward the garden's entrance.

"Its rhythm and its tonal qualities are as a folk song or a sonata. In its greatness it might be a symphony," Jens Jensen said of the art of landscaping in his book Siftings published in 1939. I had initially become interested in reading Jensen's thoughts after learning of his work as an early conservationist. Born in Denmark and based in Chicago, he was involved in groups such as the Prairie Club and the Friends of Our Native Landscape who fought for legislation to protect areas of historic and scenic value in Illinois. In fact, seven of the areas recommended by the "Friends" were added as state parks in the 1920s and early '30s. And then there is this garden of his in Springfield. The Lincoln Memorial Garden was completed in 1937 and is considered by far the greatest remaining example of his gardens and parks. Because of its connection to Jensen, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

Despite having lived in the Springfield area my entire lifetime, this would be my first viewing of Jensen's creation. As expected, the plant life was drooping and the colors had all but vanished. I resented feeling left behind in my Midwest misery when much of nature had departed. Yet even as I huddled deeper into my windproof jacket, I realized that the beauty of the park was not entirely spent. I thought about my books and music again. I had, after all, managed to outgrow (well, almost) catchy pop songs and insipid novels. Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for the winter landscape was nothing more than a stunted appreciation of nature dependent upon showy flowers and extravagant foliage. "At this season of the year the landscape assumes a dreary look to many who do not see and cannot understand." Jensen's words taunted me. There is no greater motivating force than the suggestion that I lack sophistication. I would look beyond the scarcity of leaves and colors to search for the melody he had planted here along with the native species.

Jensen's talent for design was immediately visible as seen in the seductiveness of the trails. "Come this way. No, this way." The paths seemed to vie for my attention, their intriguing curves leading me to believe that I would be the first to discover whatever it was, surely something spectacular, that lay just beyond my field of view. But a glimpse of water lured me toward the point where the garden meets Lake Springfield. Trees bordered the path I selected like stately columns, directing me to the Lake Trail with its view of the serene, speedboat-free water.

As I followed the path along the perimeter of the lake, there was at first only a smattering of trees hugging the shoreline, but then the view of the water began to recede and the strip of land separating the trail from the lake widened. The trees became denser on both sides, and suddenly I was surrounded. Continual movement amongst the branches caught my eye, but the patchy sunshine flickering through the limbs softened edges and obscured forms, making its source hard to discern. Birds? A squirrel? I then realized that in my effort to see what was in the trees I was neglecting the life that Jensen loved dearly -- the trees themselves.

Jensen believed his art to be more closely associated to music that any other art, but I knew it wasn't the conversation of birds or the chatter of a distant squirrel that he had relied upon to create the link. The music of this garden was to be found in the landscaping itself, especially the trees. Jensen had been capable of envisioning the future, seeing trees such as the white oaks as they would appear when they finally completed his composition one hundred years in the future. He had considered the white oak to be the "noblest" tree in Illinois and an unrivaled monument to Springfield's most famous former resident, Abraham Lincoln, to whom this garden is dedicated. If left alone, he thought, these trees would live to be a thousand years old and if allowed to perpetuate themselves, they would outlast "Gutzon Borglum's stone faces" on Mount Rushmore.

I haven't contemplated trees much during my lifetime. They are just there for me like a loved one taken for granted. I strained to see the beauty in the forms and the textures, again trying to attain the sophistication of Jensen. While studying the curves of the limbs, I tried to think in terms of music and began considering my recent focus on John Coltrane's jazz innovations. His saxophone maneuvers had seemed unmusical at first, dissonance in place of pleasure. But his music has since been revealing its elegance slowly while popular tunes continue to rise and fall from my listening favor. Curves. Perhaps they were the spirit of the association I sought to find. To Jensen curves not only represented the basis for landscaping itself but also "the unchained mind full of mystery and beauty." Did Coltrane compose with curves?

My eyes next traveled downward to the growth between the trees. Jensen liked to group plants together as they would be found in nature. He felt nothing was as elegant as that which belonged. When placed in their proper surroundings they could grow to their full beauty, a beauty even greater than that of imported flowers that he felt were grown only for show and pretense. The connections I had been seeking between nature and the arts were forming rapidly as I now brought in my reading of Marcel Proust who said of music ". . . it is the least valuable parts that one at first perceives." The catchy tune, the least valuable part, these were the showy flowers Jensen disliked so much, the species that appease easily with little concentration or thought. The native plants, on the other hand, were attuned to each other and enhanced by their association. A single note has no meaning in itself. Notes build into phrases. And phrases into melody. Perhaps it was a stretch, but these ideas were starting to make sense.

But I can only imagine what an uphill battle it must have been for Jensen to promote his vision to others as was the case when he tried to introduce his designs into Henry Ford's 1,210-acre Fair Lane estate in Detroit. Jensen worked on the project for six years, resigning several times following disputes until in 1920, after a particularly heated argument with Mrs. Ford, he left for good. Mrs. Ford promptly set about having several formal European-style gardens installed. Ironically, today these gardens are considered subordinate to Jensen's remaining naturalistic landscaping.

Even today in a world that should be more in tune with the science of nature, the connectedness of it all, a native landscape is often tantamount to treason. A homeowner in the arid west who recently tried to landscape naturally rather than squandering natural resources on an absurd lawn was taken to court by his neighbors. Jensen could have been commenting upon this episode when he wrote, "To produce mechanical and scientific effects in plant life is foreign to the true purpose of the landscaper and to the finer feelings of mankind." Not surprisingly, few of Jensen's public gardens still exist unaltered today.

I moved along the path again wrapped in a feeling of natural discovery. Before a Springfield woman named Harriet Knudson had the idea for this garden and Jensen the vision, this area had been 63 acres of farmland. But what had existed here before the plow? I could image it having looked just as it did now with the squirrel busily digging beneath a hawthorn tree alongside the leaf littered path that could have been created through repeated use by early Illinois natives. I came to the end of the Lake Trail and took a seat on an inviting bench to catch my thoughts.

Had I accomplished my goal? Had I found music in the trees? A 19th-century English essayist had proposed that, "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." This obviously was Jensen's aspiration. So what had he done in an attempt to reach this condition? Words ran through my head: complexity, composition, harmony. Further distilled these words consolidated into one -- soul. Indeed, Jensen believed each type of landscape has a soul of its own and was called a "Nordic nature mystic" and the "Mid-western Thoreau." And all around me was a place filled with it, the native species an indigenous, organic expression rising from the soil as music arises from the musician's soul. Maybe I was onto something.

Jensen would have the good fortune to live long enough to be able to return to one of his creations many years later, to witness in reality that of which he had only dreamt. With great pleasure he noted, "Man's hand had disappeared. Only his soul remained and, as it should be, in harmony with the hand of nature."

And so it was here.


Jeanne Townsend Handy of Springfield has written for Animal Fair magazine and Passionfruit: A Women's Travel Journal. Her most recent article for Illinois Times was "A kiss for the New Year," published in December 1999.

Lincoln Memorial Gardens is located at 2301 East Lake Shore Dr. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Mon.-Sat. For more information, call 217-529-1111. Information about Jensen can be found at the Web site of the Jens Jensen Legacy Project at www.jensjensen.org

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