Happy 150th, Jens Jensen!

by woodykw Email


Today is Jens Jensen’s 150th birthday. No, this renowned landscape architect, maker of parks, conservationist and great grandfather of mine is not still alive, but this fall at least three celebrations are being held in his honor: one in Ellison Bay,Wisconsin (last weekend); a second in Chicago, Illinois; and a third at his birthplace, Dybbol, Denmark. I attended the Ellison Bay 150th birthday and 75th anniversary of the Clearing – a wonderful event that drew 200+ people – at the school that he established. Here is a piece that I wrote about him last year:

A tribute to my Great Grandfather, Jens Jensen

By Woody Wheeler

May, 2009

Sometimes I wish I had been born five years earlier. Then I could have walked with my great grandfather, Jens Jensen. Dad wrote about such walks: “As a boy he was fun to be with…in walks thru the woods he would point out lady slippers, Indian Pipes and other plants that I would never have noticed. He said that Kinnickinnick, a ground cover, was used by the Indians for tobacco. It was fascinating to go with him. “

Jens Jensen was at least 60 years ahead of his time. He was totally green long before the current meaning of this word had been conceived.

He was green at a time when the fashionable way of thinking was gray, as in pavement, as in industry, as in rapid progress and development. Nature was to be conquered and dominated, not cherished. As John Graf said in his book Images of Chicago’s Parks “His (Jens Jensen’s) belief that the city and park designs be harmonious with nature became a major theme in American landscape design…long before environmental activists spoke out...”

During these times, Jens Jensen designed landscapes with native plants. Many of his clients resisted doing this; they wanted exotic plants. Native plants were considered pedestrian and unremarkable. Jensen persisted, and showed through his parks, estates, rock walls, waterfalls, and other landscapes, just how gorgeous a native prairie could be. He convinced people that prairies were worthy of preservation. This was far from conventional wisdom in his time and required great force of character, which based on all accounts, Jens Jensen had in abundance.

You get a taste of Jens Jensen’s determination and persuasive powers in his book Siftings, where he wrote: “It is often remarked native plants are coarse. How humiliating to hear an American speak so of plants with which the Great Master has decorated his land! “

Finally, more than 60 years later, his ideas have gained traction. His unconventional wisdom has become conventional. His ideas are now taught in college landscape architecture classes, they are practiced by conservation organizations, by state and federal agencies; they are featured in museum exhibits, at interpretive displays and chronicled in books. They are applied to the stewardship of parks and natural areas, including at some he helped establish like Indiana Dunes State Park and the Chicago Forest Preserve system, now called the Chicago Wilderness.

Thanks in part to Jens Jensen’s leadership there are now native plant societies and nurseries; people are planting native plants in yards, parks, state and national parks – and attempting to control exotic, invasive plants. As a society, we are finally beginning to grasp the importance of native plants to our ecology. In today’s lexicon, native plants are considered to be sustainable components of our natural heritage and its biological diversity.

Although Jens Jensen was well known for his city park projects and privately landscaped estates, he also helped preserve an extensive network of native prairie, wetland and forest lands; the Forest Preserve system in Cook County, Illinois. This inter-connected landscape, now referred to as the Chicago Wilderness, extends for more than 50 miles along Chicago’s western fringe. It has become a national model for preserve design and is one of Illinois’ largest natural areas.

In addition to the Chicago Wilderness, Jens Jensen, the Prairie Club and Friends of Our Native Landscape saved other native landscape gems such as the Indiana Dunes, White Pines and Starved Rock. At the behest of Jensen, a moving outdoor Masque entitled Beauty in the Wild was written by Kenneth Sawyer Goodman and performed at proposed nature reserves in the Midwest in the early 1900s. This helped inspire people to protect these and other places that are now state parks. My sister, Jensen Wheeler, directed the revival performances of Beauty in the Wild in Chicago’s Columbus Park and at the Clearing in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin in 1992. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the Clearing masque.

Jens Jensen believed that people need to tend gardens, to get in touch with the soil, and to be taught to respect and admire the natural world. That is why he founded the Clearing in 1935, a school in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin dedicated to the environment, humanities and the arts that still operates today.

I never met Great Grandfather Jensen -- he died one month before I was born --but he has profoundly influenced my life. My work for the past 30 years for the Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Seattle Parks Foundation, and now as a nature tour guide was inspired by him.

Last year, my wife and I replaced the grass in our back yard with more than 100 native plants. Maybe Jens Jensen made us do this. If so, we are glad that we did; so are the neighbors and birds.

I wish that I had met him, and I’m sure that many others feel this way too. In the meantime, we can all do things to make him proud. As Robert Grese said in his wonderful book: Jens Jensen, Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens, “Today the potential exists to carry Jensen’s vision much further.” In Jens Jensen’s own words “Everyone is entitled to a home where the sun, the stars, open fields, giant trees, and smiling flowers are free to teach an undisturbed lesson of life. Herein lies my task.” Let us all commit to carrying on this noble task in his honor. – WW, May 2009

Note: For those interested in learning more about Jens Jensen, there will be PBS documentary in early 2011: Jens Jensen, Harmonious World http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Jens-Jensen-Harmonious-World/162307496153. There will also be a series of events to honor him in Chicago this fall: http://www.jensjensen.org/drupal/?q=events Two books referenced above are especially worthy of mention: Jens Jensen, Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens, by Robert Grese; and Siftings, by Jens Jensen