By Harold Henderson

Where do you go to get back to nature these days? It’s not enough to get out of town. Sure, green farm fields cover the ground like a rug from Chicago to Springfield. But those closely planted rows of identical corn and soybean plants are sustained only by infusions of oil, anhydrous ammonia, pesticides, and butterfly-killing genetic modifications. They may be a change, but they’re no more natural than the corner of Wacker and Wabash. Then comes something that seems different. Just south of Springfield a brown-and-white sign announces, “Abraham Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center.”

Last month I followed the sign’s directions into an affluent suburban neighborhood and past the diligently mowed West Cotton Hill Park. I finally parked on a gravel strip under some trees, where a simple sign identified the garden. There was no gate, no admission fee, just an opening in the split-rail fence. Serpentine wood-chip paths led me through a forest to a clearing with a long view. I sank happily onto a rough-sawed oak bench, leaned back against the Lincoln quote inscribed on it–something about peace with all nations–and took it all in.

Oak trees arched overhead and deep purple wildflowers nodded next to the path. In a meadow to my left stood a low-growing tree covered with white blossoms. I could hear blue jays warning each other, and a tree frog courting with a soft trill. Ahead lay a circular “council ring” built of limestone; beyond and below was a lake where the breeze was raising whitecaps.

What more could you ask? As Lincoln Memorial Garden president Gretchen Bonfert says, “You don’t have to know anything to enjoy it.”

But I already knew too much. I’d been to this garden before. I knew it wasn’t pristine nature. Not even close. Everything I could see and touch, with the possible exception of the breeze, was here because of the same human effort and determination that had created the farm fields and city streets I’d left behind. The lake had been created when Springfield’s publicly owned electric utility dammed Sugar Creek and flooded the farms along it. The oak trees had grown from acorns Boy and Girl Scouts planted on a bare hillside on November 14, 1936. The trees, wildflowers, and paths had all been placed according to a design drawn up by landscape architect Jens Jensen. Jensen had even ordered that the ground be leveled where the limestone council ring was to go, but in such a way that the grade to the lake below would still seem natural.

Lincoln Memorial Garden has been designed, created, and maintained to resemble a nature preserve. You can’t pick flowers here, or have a picnic, or walk your dog, or swing on swings. You can walk, you can meditate. If you’re so inclined–as I was that day–you can wonder about all the trouble people have taken to make it seem untouched. What is this “nature” we keep trying to get back to, anyway? If nature is good, then do human beings automatically contaminate it by changing it? Are we somehow cheating by making the garden look so natural? Or can we enhance a landscape as well as degrade it? How can we know the difference?

It’s been at least 130 centuries since Lincoln Memorial Garden was a wilderness untouched by human hands. Native Americans arrived some 13,000 years ago and began making their presence felt. Very likely, they hunted some large mammals to extinction. They regularly set wildfires, which controlled brush and encouraged deep-rooted grasses and oak saplings. In downstate Illinois the Kickapoo practiced slash-and-burn-and-move-on agriculture. And they refined the practice that eventually gave Sugar Creek its English name–collecting sap from maples in late winter and cooking it down to rich brown sugar–hauling their equipment back and forth every spring on a well-used trail that ran north and south along the east side of the creek. They maintained the sugar groves by clearing brush and killing old trees. Whatever European-Americans may have thought when they began showing up in downstate Illinois, they didn’t encounter untouched nature here.

European-Americans altered the landscape far more in the next two centuries than the Native Americans had during their 128. In the fall of 1817 Robert Pulliam began the process when he built a log shelter along Sugar Creek a few miles south of where Lincoln Memorial Garden would be created, earning himself the title of first white settler in Sangamon County. Soon large numbers of his compatriots were moving up from southern Illinois, building year-round houses along the creeks, then girdling and killing 15-foot-thick sycamores and other trees so that they could plant patches of corn.

The Kickapoo yielded the land only after more than a decade of unrelenting guerrilla resistance. Their final defeat–plus John Deere’s invention of a plow that would break up the prairie–allowed downstate Illinois to change from a frontier into a breadbasket for Chicago and the east coast. Commercial farming took over the state, leaving only tiny pockets that looked anything like they had under the Native American regime. Abraham Lincoln settled in Sangamon County in the 1830s and escaped a life of farming drudgery by becoming a lawyer in Springfield and later president.

In Lincoln’s lifetime, nature was seen as an adversary to be subdued, and as early as the fall of 1859 the history of that subjugation in Illinois was being turned into myth. At the first meeting of the Sangamon County Old Settlers’ Society, according to John Mack Faragher’s extraordinary local history Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie, these original settlers romanticized Pulliam’s arrival 42 years earlier as a solitary venture outside of time and society, in which “the stillness of the unbroken forest was startled by the clangor of an axe.” Of course Pulliam had found the sugar grove by following the Kickapoo trail that crossed the prairie north of Wood River and proceeded up the east bank of Sugar Creek. He then appropriated the Kickapoo grove for his own use. Even in 1817 the environs of the future Lincoln Memorial Garden were neither a howling wilderness nor a still one–something the Old Settlers were already trying to forget. In truth it was a place, Faragher writes, “rich in human experience, rich in human history.”

A few miles north of that grove, generations of the Newcomer family farmed the once-wooded slopes above Sugar Creek until the early 1930s, when the city of Springfield decided to build a reservoir and bought out the Newcomers and many other landowners. Their immediate neighbor to the west, Leander Shoup, refused to sell. Even after his home and 123-acre farm were condemned–having been valued at $9,775 by the court–he held off deputies with a shotgun. But no shots were fired, and Shoup eventually accepted the money. He died a recluse in Springfield in 1935.

A reservoir bordered by eroding farm fields would soon fill in, so the city bought much of the watershed around the area that was to be flooded. As water covered the fields behind the new dam, an idea germinated in the mind of Harriet Quigley Knudson, a take-charge person in the recently formed Springfield Civic Garden Club. She proposed that the city set aside some of its newly purchased land around the new Lake Springfield for a garden to honor the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Once she got the Garden Clubs of Illinois to sign on, the city agreed.

Knudson wrote to Chicago landscape designer Jens Jensen. Jensen, an elderly Dane with a romantic streak a mile wide, had become famous for using native plants and naturalistic designs in city parks and on the private estates of clients such as Julius Rosenwald and Henry Ford. He wrote back, “To be asked to design a garden that will be a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln, I consider the greatest honor of them all. I will give my best and there will be no fee.”

Jensen saw nature not as an adversary but as an inspiration and a palette for the artist. He and Knudson had their pick of four tracts around the new lake. They chose 61 west-facing acres of the old Newcomer farm because the land was bare. Ravines ran through it, low hedgerows divided its sloping fields, fewer than a dozen trees grew in them and only one or two of any size. “Here,” said Jensen approvingly, “we can paint our own pictures.” He scraped the old canvas clean–all but one of the existing trees were cut down, the hedgerows were rooted out, the ground was fertilized, and 1,000 feet of drainage tile were laid underground to speed the runoff of water from swampy pockets.

The Garden Clubs of Illinois aimed to plant a garden in memory of Abraham Lincoln, not to reestablish “nature” on the shores of the new lake. If Knudson had happened to engage a different designer, the result might well have been a formal arrangement of showy exotic plants. Jensen preferred to work with native plants, and he envisioned a naturelike garden containing trees and shrubs that grew in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois–the states in which Lincoln lived. His final design included free-form plantings featuring masses of the low-growing border trees he loved (crab apple, hawthorn, redbud), five miles of sinuous paths leading to dramatic clearings and council rings, and views of the lake with its edge bordered by water plants.

The Garden Clubs’ visionary commission gave Jensen remarkable latitude in time. He had no wealthy, impatient client demanding an instant landscape; instead he had a legion of volunteers. He could plan for the ages, a privilege few landscape architects enjoy. For instance, his design called for an oak grove near the Lincoln Council Ring, but oak trees are slow growing and rarely available from nurseries in any size. So the Garden Clubs made a nationwide appeal, and in November 1936 the young scouts planted acorns donated from 28 states. Some of these oak species may not have been prevalent in Illinois, Indiana, or Kentucky in Lincoln’s day, but in this case public involvement took precedence.

Jensen modified nature’s pattern when it suited him. For visual effect, he grouped plants that would probably have been scattered in an unplanned forest. (Garden director Jim Matheis says that when the staff conducts controlled burns to maintain the clearings today, they have to take care to protect Jensen’s favorite flowering trees.) The six granite boulders he chose to mark the garden’s entranceways came not from the Lincoln states but from a Missouri quarry. Jensen excluded evergreens from the garden–to the consternation of some garden-clubbers and Springfield commissioner of public works Willis Spaulding–even though eastern red cedar is a ubiquitous native pioneer tree in old fields and disturbed areas. Jensen’s “prairie meadows” weren’t assemblages of prairie grasses and plants as we now know them, because little was known about prairie restoration in the 1930s.

A tastefully arranged landscape was the medium in which Jensen worked; memorializing Lincoln was the goal. Jensen compared his Lincoln memorial favorably to all others: “If [the oaks] are permitted to scatter their acorns and so perpetuate themselves, and the glaciers or other disturbances are not to change the climate of the land, there will be white oaks on this hillock thousands of years hence when every artificial monument erected in his honor has long gone to dust.” No small boast in a town where Lincoln’s memory has sustained both a cottage industry and a civic religion: not many years ago visitors to Springfield were greeted by signs announcing the area’s “Lincoln shrines.”

Garden clubs from around the state vied to plant individual patches of the garden–the Oak Park and River Forest Garden Club had the southern “Witch Hazel Trail”; the Wheaton Garden Club had a stand of oak, hickory, and maple; the Winnetka Weeders the south bank of the lily pond. At the garden’s 1938 dedication, Jensen took his turn splitting white oak rails for the fence. The rails came from trees grown near Old Sangamon Town, where Lincoln had once built an oak flatboat.

One account of the ceremonies speculated hopefully, “It may well be that these trees…were seedlings of trees Lincoln used for his boat.” Nature was sanctified by its association with Lincoln, not the other way around.

Jensen said that the garden should “sing the song of America,” and therefore “only plants, the most fitting and enduring as proven by nature through untold centuries of elimination, must be used.” This could be taken to mean that once his native plants were well established they could perpetuate themselves with little or no skilled maintenance, unlike plants in a formal garden. The Springfield City Council was certainly under this impression, avowing in a 1939 dedicatory resolution that “the natural development of the Garden will increase its beauty and usefulness and a minimum of maintenance will be required.”

Such hopes couldn’t survive a visit to the garden ten years later. By the time Jensen died in 1951, locust, Osage orange, and other “weedy” trees were invading the hillsides. The lily-pond plantings had died out–victims of fluctuating lake levels, sediment-laden runoff from upstream farms, and inappropriate soil (the garden had, after all, been constructed on upland soils overlooking Sugar Creek, not bottomland). Jensen’s design was in danger, and “a minimum of maintenance” wouldn’t save it. The paradox now familiar to all natural-area managers was being discovered: even a re-created version of nature won’t sustain itself naturally; only constant skilled human labor can keep it in a “natural” state.

Knudson proved equal to this unexpected challenge. She began to entertain an idea that went beyond anything Jensen had had in mind. After attending a National Audubon Society meeting about what was then called “outdoor education,” she decided that a stronger emphasis on nature might encourage the younger generation to visit and appreciate the garden in years to come. In 1952 she set up the not-for-profit Abraham Lincoln Memorial Garden Foundation, Inc., with an initial endowment of $13.62 (it’s now around $750,000). The foundation spent between $2,000 and $7,000 a year during the 1950s and early 1960s (today’s annual budgets are in the $300,000 range; now as then, private donations and memberships are the main source of income). First the money went to a local tree company to remove unwanted trees and shrubs. Then in July 1963 the foundation hired the first in a succession of naturalist-educators.

It soon became obvious–indeed it was part of Knudson’s plan–that the naturalists could educate better in a workplace that consisted of more than one covered shelter and a primitive comfort station. In 1965 the foundation opened a 4,400-square-foot nature center in the garden, low slung and faced with rough brick and stone from the Smoky Mountains. It still houses garden offices, space for environmental education, and the craft shop that had been run out of Knudson’s car trunk.

One improvement bred another. Over the years 16 more acres were added to the garden. Increased foot traffic turned the path to the nature center muddy, so in 1971 the foundation built a five-foot-wide concrete sidewalk from the parking area to the front door and dedicated it to the memory of Knudson, who’d died in 1969. It curved like a Jensen path and had gravel embedded in its surface, but it was a sidewalk nevertheless.

Jensen’s vision was being altered in other ways too. Milton Thompson of the Illinois State Museum had worked with Knudson for years, but he took her new emphasis on nature further. He favored allowing what he saw as natural succession to overwhelm Jensen’s plan. In a 1972 oral-history interview, Thompson objected to the practice of maintaining the garden by cutting down young maples that threatened to take over the place. “It’s the nature of hard maple to grow in the shade, and some of the other trees they’re replacing cannot live in their own shade. And I believe that these laws of natural history should be allowed to develop.” Yet this law of natural history applies only in the absence of fire, which would kill maples more often than oaks.

In time Thompson’s approach would have changed the garden utterly. Sugar maples would eventually have replaced the oak grove at the Lincoln Council Ring, since maple saplings can grow in oak shade but oak saplings cannot survive in maple shade. These days the garden staff burns certain areas regularly to keep this from happening. Is that more natural than not burning them? The Native Americans usually burned, the European-Americans usually didn’t–and often even went out of their way to suppress wildfires. Take your pick. Jensen certainly didn’t envision regular burns of his garden any more than he envisioned a nature center. But without both, his garden might well have been turned into either impenetrable brush or a version of the well-mowed West Cotton Hill Park down the road.

Sometimes the necessary “weeding” of the garden to maintain Jensen’s design looks pretty drastic. Jim Matheis recalls a time 15 or 20 years ago when shingle oaks and sassafras threatened to take over Jensen’s sun openings. “We brought in a bulldozer and popped the root balls out of the ground.” Since then, an occasional controlled burn has been enough to keep them in check.

Lincoln Memorial Garden was never about Lincoln in any overt educational sense. Such a role would have been superfluous, given Springfield’s flourishing Lincoln industry. If you went there to reflect on his example, as its founders expected, you had to bring knowledge of him with you, except for his quotes on the 30-odd benches. As Knudson planned, the focus today is on nature and on the unique artistic rendering of nature that Jensen outlined and that the Garden Clubs and later workers have filled in. But the tension between the “Abraham Lincoln Memorial Garden” and the “Nature Center” hasn’t disappeared. If anything it has intensified. “Last year we had 6,000 people here over two days for one of our big festivals–that’s a huge impact in one part of the garden,” says landscape architect Kent Massie, who’s been involved with the garden for 20 years, first as a board member and later as a consultant. “One of the worst things that happened here was building the nature center in the middle of the garden.”

At the same time that nature is drawing unnatural crowds–an estimated 50,000 a year, including 6,000 fourth- through eighth-graders–Jensen’s design is drawing new honors. In 1992 the garden was put on the National Register of Historic Places; this year it was one of the sites chosen by the American Society of Landscape Architects for its nationwide centennial program “100 Parks, 100 Years.”

Massie was instrumental in putting together a 1993 master plan for the garden that would lessen the tension by separating the two functions. Under the plan, the foundation will buy 100 acres of buffer space around the current 77-acre garden and use that space for environmental education, including a new three-building nature center. (Proposals to enlarge the existing nature center make Massie’s eyes roll.) The extra space would protect the historic garden from suburban encroachment–since the 1930s Springfield has sprawled to the garden’s edge–as well as from its own success. “The original areas could be more sacred, for passive use,” while kids dig and learn and play on the new grounds. In the original garden, no more plaques will acknowledge contributors; in the new areas there can be plenty. “We could have the Franklin Life Insurance Prairie,” says Massie. (The garden’s capital fund-raising campaign is about one-third of the way to its ambitious $5 million goal.)

In 1996 the foundation took the first step toward realizing the master plan, purchasing 30 acres immediately to its south and west, including Leander Shoup’s old farmhouse and outbuildings. Reborn as the Ostermeier Prairie Center, it has the beginnings of a restored prairie, a freshly dredged pond, a small berm made from the dredgings to give visitors an overview of the prairie, and a trail connecting to the original garden’s trail network. Nonnative evergreens that were said not to fit the new theme of the farmyard were removed and four new apple trees put in, grafted from one planted by Johnny Appleseed. “I’m so glad we acquired the farm,” says volunteer Thelma Sibley, one of the handful of Knudson’s associates still active in the garden. “It shows that we’re still young and growing.”

In 1937 the garden’s founders laid drain tile to speed water off the land. In 1997-’98, the garden used a state EPA grant to slow the water down and prevent nonpoint pollution of Lake Springfield: “woodland webs” of crisscrossed cut brush were added to the normal leaves and branches on the sloping forest floor, and check dams and tree revetments were put along the banks of the ravines. Massie says, “I’m happy whenever I can see scum on the water” in the ravines. Three low points in the garden’s paths have been excavated and filled with gravel wrapped in a porous “geotextile” fabric (a plastic material that lets water through but not sediment). When once again covered with wood chips, this “rock burrito” will let rainwater percolate through without muddying the path or eroding the hillside downstream.

Massie also hopes to revive the least successful portion of Jensen’s original plan, the lakeside wetland plantings. Near the south end of the garden he’s stabilized the water level in one inlet with a 500-foot-long dike consisting of rigid PVC plastic, surrounded and bolstered by soil and gravel and, eventually, plants. (Nature upset the scheme a bit last summer when ducks “ate a great deal of the aquatic vegetation,” reports Matheis.) The sheltered two-and-a-half-acre inlet should be a much more promising habitat for the marsh marigolds, sagittaria, lotus, and other aquatic plants that will reflect Jensen’s vision.

Passing the Lincoln Council Ring, I head downhill and then north along the lakeshore to a grove of water-loving cypress trees. Uphill from them, in a remote corner of the garden, stands an elegant beech tree–with smooth bark ideal for carving initials. So many visitors have carved theirs into this tree that they seem close to girdling and killing it–mirroring the way European-American farmers used to clear their fields.

In his book Nature’s Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management, Stephen Budiansky argues, “From beginning to end the goals we must seek in nature are human goals, goals that reflect an imperfect mix of morality and commerce, aesthetics and need, stewardship and politics. We might as well admit it and get on with the job.”

That’s good as far as it goes, but how are we to choose between goals? After all, even the vandals who carve up a beech tree are seeking a goal in nature. So are the keepers of West Cotton Hill Park, with its acres of mowed grass and mercury-vapor light attached to the branches of a venerable oak. So are the 150 volunteers and four full-time employees of Lincoln Memorial Garden. Watching the lake eddy back and forth around the funny little “knees” of the cypress trees, I prefer the garden’s goals to those of West Cotton Hill Park. But why?

I’d like to say the garden’s goals are better because the garden is more natural, but I’m no longer sure what that means. Is it more natural because it’s not mowed much? Yet people weed it all the time, sometimes with bulldozers. Is it more natural because it has more native plants and presumably more wildlife than West Cotton Hill Park? Yet not all natives–the ducks, the eastern red cedars–are welcome.

Maybe the garden’s goals are better, more natural, not because it reproduces presettlement conditions but because it tries to solve landscape problems by mimicking natural processes. And so a rock burrito absorbs and releases water gradually while allowing people to walk across a low spot without getting their feet wet–just as a less disturbed forest might. Of course nature doesn’t produce wood chips in the quantities used on the garden’s paths, and it certainly doesn’t produce impervious PVC or porous geotextile fabric. Jensen might have argued that drainage tiles mimic what natural creeks do in better-drained locations. If some people today look askance at his installing drainage tiles in 1937 because nature doesn’t do that, will a future generation look askance at our use of PVC? I don’t think so, but they might. “Natural” doesn’t seem to provide an absolute standard for judging, since the meaning of “mimic natural processes” seems to change with the times.

Well then, can’t we just say that Lincoln Memorial Garden is preferable, more natural, because it slows runoff and captures eroded sediment more efficiently and provides more varied habitat? That sounds good. A forest floor augmented with “woodland webs” certainly does these things better than mowed turf. Yet what could I say to somebody who prefers having a well-policed park lawn to having a wide variety of species and cleaner water?

Come to think of it, what could I say to somebody who prefers a Marvel comic book to Monet’s The Thames and the Houses of Parliament? Quite a bit, actually. Jensen was an artist. Maybe learning to prefer Lincoln Memorial Garden over West Cotton Hill Park is similar to learning to think that high art is better than low art–to valuing Shakespeare over the Three Stooges, the Jackson-Jordan Bulls over the World Wrestling Federation, the Beatles over the Monkees, Plato over M. Scott Peck. Maybe “nature” is a form of educated taste.

Carved initials and simple landscapes of mowed grass and trees are easy to appreciate–so easy people might get tired of them after a while. The variety in Lincoln Memorial Garden is far more complex. To take in all it has to offer, you have to understand more. As Robert Grese writes in Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens, “The types of landscapes advocated by Jensen require an understanding of plant growth and change instead of mindless mowing and clipping.”

The garden’s subtle charm becomes more apparent once you know how to tell a shooting star from a Solomon’s seal, a dogwood from a cherry tree. Of course you have to be open to learning about such things, but these days that’s what Lincoln Memorial Garden is all about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armando Villa.