Monday, May 22, 2017


by Frank Dudley

The Indiana Dunes came to my consciousness when I was hired for one seminary summer to be the research assistant of J. Ronald Engel.  Mainly the job was going back and forth to Regenstein Library to check out books about the dunes, read them, submit a detailed report to Engel, and then return the books.  They were wonderful and the work was a joy.  Engel was writing “Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes.” (1983) The dunes are his personal axis mundi.  He and his wife are now retired to Beverly Shores.

In my time he complained constantly of writer’s block, finding that he had too much material and, as the Kirkus reviewer noted, finally the book was more of an aggregate than a coherence.  He knew he was engaged in a “struggle to bring together within a comprehensive intellectual framework a commitment to social justice and ecological integrity.”  In 1978 it was early in the development of some of his ideas, like ecology (which isn’t very democratic among the actual natural niches, in fact, much action is based on dominance) and process theology which tried to force quantum mechanics into Christian categories, which works a lot better with Buddhism.  

Process theology was popular among theologians who didn’t really want to leave the comfortable Christian context.  But once past the idea of life being processes instead of objects (which Whorf explained better in grammatical terms) process theology became merely diagrams that mysteriously eliminated the Christ.  In the end I thought it was a dead end.  At that point I moved to Eliade’s idea of felt meaning, but Engel was always a “good boy.”  Eliade was not.  My shift was not welcome or even understood, particularly by myself.

The ideas of ecology hold up much better, esp. since Cowles, one of the pioneers of the concept, developed them largely on these dunes.  He emphasized the aspect of “succession”, how the success of one set of plants supports a new and different set of growths.

If Engel had applied this idea of vegetable succession to the context of, say, maybe social communities such as the Unitarians, the results would have been pretty interesting.  But religious communities like to pretend they are eternal, unchanging because they are the peak.  They don’t want to think about what will come next.  (I have to say that in the 39 years since I was there, I hear there have been major changes in Hyde Park and the U of Chicago.  I won’t try to describe them since I haven’t been back.)

The Dunes were the recreation grounds for the U of C nuclear scientists working on the Atomic Bomb, which contributes to dune “sacredness.”  Or at least their connection to dreaded mystery.  A sleeper ferry with bunks and staterooms left Hyde Park on Friday nights and returned late Sunday.  It’s remembered with warm nostalgia.

As well, the Dunes were gathering points for many artists, something like the same thing as “Bohemian colonies” on the dunes of the California coast.  Most of the painting was what we would call today “plein aire,” that is, landscapes painted on the location. 
by Frank Dudley

At the turn of the Century the Dunes were a pilgrimage goal for people staging performances and celebrations, almost alarming in their Bacchanalian style, but meant to help save the dunes from development.  Photos of the audience show their Edwardian 3-piece suits, the women in big hats, trailing skirts, and parasols  Some of it was kind of dumb in its false anthropology, hypnotized by Hiawatha, and sentimentalizing of the genocide of the American indigenous people.  

The landscape of Tim Barrus’ “Genocide” — about HIV sufferers as the new stigmatized people marked for death by governments — is much influenced by his experience of the Indiana dunes as a young man.  Final sanctuary is depicted as finding a small group of indigenous people who give two brothers shelter.

 A stretch of Sand Hills between Calgary and Saskatoon is the Blackfeet metaphor for where people go in death, probably a kind of group memory of crossing those dunes when migrating from the north.

The American military imposed their own version of death: missile sites.
“In June 1954, the Army Corps of Engineers purchased a vacant site, east of Ogden Dunes. By the end of the year, a contract was awarded to construct a $1,000,000 guided missile base. Two tracts of land, totaling 40-acre (160,000 m2) tract was developed for a component of the 9th AAA Guided Missile Battalion. As the most easterly facility in the 15-unit Chicago-Milwaukee Defense system, it was designed for the protection of the Gary industrial district from attack from enemy bombers. The facility included three underground storage structures for missiles located on the eastern site. . . .The facility was shut down in April 1974 and transferred to the National Park Service. It was rehabilitated in 1977 as the administrative offices of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Resource industrialization of the early 20th century — intensified by WWI — did not neglect the Dunes.  “In 1916, the region was booming with industry in the form of steel mills and power plants. Hoosier Slide, for example, 200 feet (61 m) in height, was the largest sand dune on Indiana's lakeshore. During the first twenty years of the battle to Save the Dunes, the Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana, manufacturers of glass fruit jars, and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company of Kokomo carried Hoosier Slide away in railroad boxcars.”

Steel mills demanded berths for ocean-going ships to carry the product out through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean so docks were dredged out of the Dunes shores and added to the Northwestern University campus.  The "scenery shed" which in my time as a student there was on the beach, is now far inland.

Carl Sandburg said, "The Indiana Dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite is to California.”  He lived there. But after WWII he moved his goats and family to North Carolina.  

Edwin Way Teale wrote “Dune Boy, the Early Years of a Naturalist,” becoming an odd parallel to Gene Stratton-Porter’s “Girl of the Limberlost” which is set in an alternative ecology — one of swamp and timber — not very far away in Indiana.  Stratton-Porter was a bird photographer of great accomplishment, but wrote as a novelist.  Teale became a noted naturalist, esp. because of his four book sequence traveling the continent with the seasons.  If you own the right edition of “Dune Boy”, it might be worth hundreds of dollars.

Sacred meaning and felt importance accumulate around unique places the same way that a pearl creates itself in layers around a central anomaly.  In the end “Sacred Sands” is vitally useful as an early directory to those layers.  There are hundreds of them, many noted in "Sacred Sands."

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