A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and a Dane



I recall loathing my time in Mrs. Sailor's English (Literature) during high school (late 1960s) in south central Illinois. Boy, was I wrong and what I would give to revisit the opportunity. She regularly subjected the now understanding Mad Botanist and his classmates to her favorite author, Charles Dickens. How shocked would she be, though now long deceased, to learn that I eventually spent time as an English major, learned to love writing (cacoethes scribendi), and that I have been an editor and publisher of natural history (esp. botany) books for over three decades? Moreover, unbeknownst to the yet unformed Mad Botanist, Sailor was an award-winning Dahlia grower. As soon as Walmart gets the time machines in, I will take a trip back.


Allow me to offer a related story -- one dealing with two cities but only the title in common with Dickens' tale. The two cities I will contrast are Chicago and Indianapolis. Both cities are grand in their own way, yet one is woefully deficient for two reasons. Allow me to explain. Indianapolis, my home for the last 35 years, and Chicago are both large midwestern cities and proximate -- separated by a three-hour drive. They are about the same age, although Chicago is about 5-times more populated. The population might lead one to suspect that Chicago has less land in a natural condition. No doubt much of Chicagoland has been ravaged by anthropogenic activities, but the city named after an onion ("shikaakwa" is Algonquin for the native Allium tricoccum) surprisingly has >10X the amount of nature (i.e., undeveloped land) compared to Indianapolis. This fact does not seem to make sense. The Chicago leaders were no less interested in land spoiling 'development' activities. A trip to the area surrounding the south end of Lake Michigan will confirm the extent of the devastation. The difference, the reason Chicago has more nature today, is largely one man. Chicago had the leadership, the foresight of the GREAT Jens Jensen. Indianapolis had no such guidance, Moreover, I am not certain the Indy leaders would have welcomed the advice and the opportune time has long passed. Cook County (IL) alone, despite a high population density, has 110 square miles of forest preserves! The conserved land is known as the emerald necklace since it rings the city proper. Preserved thanks to the wisdom and dedication of a remarkable man (Jensen), although we should give the political leadership credit for their willingness to listen to and abide by his outstanding forethought -- at least some of them and, fortunately, at least some of the time.


Born in 1860 -- curiously, one year after Dickens' classic was published -- Jensen was a Danish immigrant and one of the great American landscape architects. He started out in Chicago working for the Parks Department as a street sweeper (i.e., scooper of road apples, horse manure). Subsequently he was promoted to a city gardener and eventually became Superintendent of the Chicago Park District. This extraordinary Dane, who loved America, especially the expansive plains, also spearheaded the creation of the Illinois state park system. He was a prolific landscape designer. both small and large scale, who focused on native plants, particularly prairie species. What he called "The American Garden" and what has come to be known as the Prairie Style of landscape architecture (aka Prairie School). Jensen (a Mark Twain doppelganger, see pic) has been referred to as the Apostle of the Dunes for his long involvement with the effort to save the Indiana Dunes, which Indiana had designated as wasteland. Jensen was also a social reformer. He felt nature could be an antidote for the dehumanizing effect of city life. "To make the modern city livable is the task of our times." He eventually became fed up with the politics, compelled to depart the Windy City and away (to Door County, Wisconsin) from the oppressed people (the proletariat) whose lives he sought to enrich via his strategically located naturalistic parks. After leaving government work, Jensen was commissioned to design hundreds of private estates, primarily in the Midwest, including a few properties in Indianapolis -- most notably the recently renovated Riverdale at Marian University. A documentary film entitled Jens Jensen The Living Green was released in 2013. The film is fascinating, contains several profound underlying messages, and I highly recommend viewing -- a must for anyone interested in history, nature, conservation, or gardening. You might also want to checkout Robert Grese's book Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens (1992).


The closest Indianapolis counterpart to Jensen was Col. Richard Lieber (father of the Indiana state park system) himself a German immigrant. Lieber was considered one of our most powerful spokesmen for the conservation of natural resources, but he was not a landscape architect and obviously had little impact on land preservation in and around his home city, Indianapolis. I suspect Jensen and Lieber's paths had to cross, but know of no supporting evidence. Which leads to the second Indianapolis shortfall, and the prime reason I almost did not relocate in 1987. Namely, there is no arboretum and the botanic gardens paled, both scope and size, in comparison to other major midwestern cities. By far the best Indianapolis had was the grounds surrounding the former private residence of Eli Lilly (formerly the IMA, now called Newfields). Unfortunately lacking because the city leaders and citizens (then and now*) seem far more interested in sports than nature and green space. This deficiency is no doubt a factor for why there are so few nice gardens (formal or natural) in the Indianapolis area. The residents had nothing to emulate, which is too bad, but there sure are lots of basketball courts. Go team.


* (1) Other than the 3-acre White River Gardens, which opened in 1999, the gardening scene in Indianapolis has gotten worse since my immigration in 1987. Just a few years ago the 40-acre garden at Newfields was gated, a high entrance fee was imposed, the popular greenhouse shop was closed, and the longstanding Indiana Horticulture Society was booted by the elitist and racist administration, all to generate revenue which might have been unnecessary if the inept board had done a better job of checking the previous president and his spendthrift wife. (2) In the late 1980's, I conducted a bio-survey of the (for sale) former St. Maur's Monastery, a 150-acre tract along the White River on the north side of Indy -- adjacent to Newfields and Butler University. I told city officials it would be prefect for a botanical garden/arboretum/park, and they would be crazy not to pursue the opportunity to acquire the land with gravel pit ponds for that purpose. They were not interested -- too busy figuring a way to give tax breaks to the professional sport teams and other 'landscraping' activities. FYI The land was purchased by German-American businesswoman Christel DeHaan who built a massive walled estate with extensive formal landscaping -- the Old World style that screams subjugation of nature. Like it or not, the style is flawed -- extraordinarily expensive and difficult to maintain. I expound further on types of gardens in Chapter 18 and elsewhere in my Rantings book. Know this: THE BEST LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT IS MOTHER NATURE. (Christel, who I knew, recently died and her place is on the market for $14 million)

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