Next time you walk the trails at Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center, stop and close your eyes. Try to imagine, if you will, the place ever looking different than it does now.
Can't do it?
It can be tough, because in the mind's eye, dogwoods, redbuds, crabapples and hawthorns always have flowered along the paths each spring.
Oaks always have towered overhead, and maple trees have forever blazed with color each fall.
Now here's a job that's even more difficult.
Go back to the beginning and try to imagine forward.
Put aside everything you know about Lincoln Garden and place yourself in an almost-empty field along the newly created Lake Springfield in 1936. Look out over the gently rolling terrain toward the lake that now inundates the valley of Sugar Creek.
Here's what the Garden's designer Jens Jensen wrote in "Siftings," a memoir published in 1939:
"The contours of the land suggest lanes or open glades," he writes. "So there are lanes of redbud and native plum, which are in bloom at the same time; lanes of crabapple, the most refined small tree gracing the Illinois landscape."
Much of Jensen's vision came to fruition many years after he wrote this memoir. Still, he was able to imagine how the garden might appear.
Lincoln Memorial Garden will celebrate Jensen's vision and his birthday this month with an event Sept. 12 to commemorate his 150th birthday.
Jensen was born Sept. 13, 1860, in Denmark and died at age 91 in 1951.
Next year, the Garden will celebrate its 75th anniversary.
It will have been three-quarters of a century since the first acorns and wildflowers were planted.
"Some good soul in the city of Springfield, Illinois, dreamed of the possibility of a Memorial Garden in honor of Abraham Lincoln, and the dream has come true," Jensen wrote. He was referring to Harriet Knudson, who in 1936 got the city of Springfield to devote 63 acres of land at Lake Springfield to become a memorial to the 16th president.
"He definitely was thrilled by the idea of Lincoln Memorial Garden being a living memorial to Lincoln," says Bob Grese, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan. Grese studied Jensen's design of the garden for his master's thesis at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1980s.
"I came down (to study the Garden) and fell in love with the place."
Grese says creating the Garden was an innovative idea. Because of Jensen's design, the site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
"Up until that time, most memorials were out of stone. They were non-living," Grese says.
"Jensen felt that our landscape heritage was one of our greatest treasures.
"So a memorial that really highlighted the plants and kinds of places Abraham Lincoln experienced would be a great way to celebrate his life."
Jensen wrote eloquently about his goals.
"The garden is simple," he writes. "It has to be to fit the character of Lincoln. There are large masses of plantings to express the greatness of this man and the greatness of the country he served."
At the time he was invited by Knudson to design the Garden, Jensen was winding down a distinguished career in Chicago where he designed a number of city parks. He worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and was a leading figure in the Prairie School of landscape architecture.
Grese says one serious drawback became a saving grace. The project did not have a lot of money available, so Jensen had to rely on volunteers and a network of garden clubs.
Volunteers salvaged plants from road and building projects and moved them to the Garden.
"Nurseries were not growing oaks or other native trees," he says. "So he had to get creative."
Jensen engaged gardeners, scouts, schoolkids and others to help, instilling a sense of ownership that continued throughout their lives, Grese says.
"That sense of attachment to the place couldn't have happened otherwise."
Vern LaGesse, president of Friends of the Sangamon Valley, a land trust and stewardship organization based in Springfield, has been studying Jensen, trying to understand how he was able to so effectively communicate his ideas and his passion.
"Do any of us standing on bulldozed ground with a bucket of acorns have the ability to see the forest?" he asks. "He could see what was 100 to 200 years ahead. He seemed to be able to see it in his life and everything he did."
LaGesse shakes his head in amazement at the thought of Jensen arranging a parade of hundreds of people who walked from Springfield out to the lake to begin planting.
"Hundreds of people started in a procession from Springfield with buckets and bushel baskets of acorns," he says. "He was the pied piper. We get 12 people at one of our (Friends of the Sangamon Valley) workdays, and he got all those people to plant acorns."
Grese says Jensen was able to clearly share his goal of representing the "primitive Illinois" that Lincoln knew.
"It really came together as a magical place without a lot of oversight," he says. "It gives us a lot of hope that work done by volunteers can be meaningful and lasting."
While Jensen visited the site several times, he managed the project from his home in Wisconsin.
"He had the unique skills to get the design down on paper so this group of people led by Mrs. Knudson could implement," Grese says.
On paper were ideas that went far beyond arranging trees, plants and trails in an attractive fashion.
He selected trees like hawthorns with wide branching structure that fit into the Prairie School of thinking.
He left open areas with long views, and he developed a series of stone council rings.
"Council rings were always in his designs," says Jim Matheis, executive director of the Garden.
"Usually, they would have a nice view or he would tuck them away in the trees like a little room."
The circular design had a meaning of its own.
"It's very democratic in nature," Matheis says of the design. "Because no one has a seat of more importance."
Peggy Boyer Long, a member of the Garden's board of directors says Jensen's ideas don't go out of date.
"He's very current," she says. "His thinking plays right into our current interest in natural places."
"He knew that people needed to be outside," Matheis says. "Kids need to be outside - it's part of early childhood development. Kids that get outdoors do better in school.
"I don't know if Jensen knew that, but he knew people needed to be outside (for their own well-being)."
LaGesse says Jensen tapped into that need. At the time of the Garden's planting, people had fewer ways to get information.
"There was a hunger to learn and a hunger to connect to the land," LaGesse says.
Grese says landscape architects are trained to imagine how their designs will one day look. Still, no one knows if Jensen really knew what Lincoln Memorial Garden would turn out to be.
As Jensen grew older, Matheis says the architect grew to trust natural processes.
"He learned the landscape was changing and dynamic and that nature would steer its course," Matheis says.
Grese says Jensen was willing to let time and nature work their magic together.
"It didn't have to happen overnight," he says. "He knew it was going to be a lasting monument."
Jens Jensen quotes
Lincoln Memorial Garden in pictures and the words of Jens Jensen, 1860-1951.
- Jens Jensen writing from "The Clearing," his home in Wisconsin.
- From "Siftings," by Jens Jensen.
Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )