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Reading 3: Beauty of the Wild

In the early 1900s, many natural areas were being destroyed due to the rapid growth of cities and towns. Jens Jensen worried that people were losing touch with nature. He feared that living in an entirely artificial environment would leave humanity spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually empty. Through a variety of ways, Jensen promoted an appreciation for the outdoors to emotionally and spiritually uplift city dwellers. Many of these efforts were geared toward children, such as the addition of children's gardens to several parks. Through these gardens, he believed children would grow up to respect, preserve, and love nature.

Because he appreciated the native environment of the Midwest and was willing to act on his convictions, Jens Jensen emerged as a leader of the conservation movement. During his service on the Chicago City Council's Special Park Commission he identified important natural areas. His efforts ultimately led the city to establish the Forest Preserve of Cook County in 1915. At the time, there were few laws or policies to protect natural scenic areas.

To make Chicagoans aware of the beautiful countryside outside of the city and generate public support for conservation, Jens Jensen and some influential friends sponsored "Saturday Afternoon Walking Trips" beginning in 1908. They took turns leading groups to natural areas outside of the city. Often, more than 200 people participated in these excursions. Because of the popularity of the "Saturday Afternoon" walks, Jensen formed the Prairie Club. Members took walking trips to natural sites threatened by development. Jensen had studied the Indiana dunes and led 300 members to see the site. Five years later, in 1913, the Prairie Club built a beach house on the dunes in Tremont, Indiana and produced and performed a small masque, an outdoor drama, called "The Spirit of the Dunes." The club's efforts accelerated, and a 1917 pageant drew more than 50,000 people to two performances. In 1926, the state responded by creating the Indiana Dunes State Park to protect some 2,250 acres of the dunes.

In 1913, Jensen formed "Friends of Our Native Landscape," an organization devoted to saving natural areas. The first meeting was scheduled to take place in June at a threatened white pine forest near Oregon, Illinois. Jensen thought that outdoor drama would be a compelling way to interest people in conservation. He asked his friend, dramatist Kenneth Sawyer Goodman to write a masque to be performed at the meeting. Goodman wrote Beauty of the Wild, which tells of the plight of nature when the Pioneer and the Builder invaded lands once occupied by Native Americans. Five players and one musician could perform the masque. Each year, the Friends of Our Native Landscape met in a different threatened natural area and members of the organization performed Beauty of the Wild, or other masques that were written in later years. Thousands of people attended these performances.

Jensen was so pleased with the masques that he began including "player's greens," outdoor theater spaces for drama and music, in his designs for private residences and public parks. In his Columbus Park design, Jensen made certain that visitors to dusk performances got to see the sun set over the park's trees and the players illuminated by the rising moon. He envisioned the Columbus Park lagoon as the site of water pageants and designed it with audiences in mind, as well.

In his later years, Jensen retired to his summer property in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. He helped establish many of Door County, Wisconsin's parks and the Ridges Sanctuary. Above all, he dedicated himself to creating a "school of the soil" where pupils could draw enduring values from rock, sun, water, and wilderness. In 1935, inspired by the folk schools of his native Denmark, Jensen founded "The Clearing," a hands-on school to promote natural landscape design and an ethic of conservation. Jensen directed the school until his death 15 years later, just after his 91st birthday. The Danish immigrant left his adopted nation both a rich legacy of beautiful landscapes and a challenge, to set aside sections of the wilderness so that future generations might study and love it.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why do you think Jensen took people for walks in the countryside?

2. What is a player's green? Why do you think Jensen included them in his designs? Why do you think Jensen used outdoor theater to try to save natural landscapes?

3. Compare and contrast Jensen's efforts at promoting conservation with modern environmentalists' techniques for involving the public.

4. Why do you think Jensen's organization was called Friends of Our Native Landscape? Why was such a group needed?

5. Considering that Jensen had the opportunity to design landscapes, why do you think he cared about conservation?

Reading 3 was compiled from Robert E. Gres, Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Jens Jensen, Siftings (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990); Jens Jensen and Ragna B. Eskil, "Natural Parks and Gardens," Saturday Evening Post, 202, no. 36 (8 March 1930); and Sid Telfer, Sr., The Jens Jensen I Knew (Ellison Bay, Wis.: Driftwood Farms Press, 1982).

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