Sitting on a grassy sand dune one evening last summer, I was gazing over Lake Michigan at a sunset that brought to mind a 19th century religious painting: fat pink-and-gray rays shooting out from a small, tight, fiery hot-pink, ball of sun. The kind of sun that absorbs someone’s soul up to, or carries their particles down from, heaven.
I wondered what this beach was like a century ago or longer before then and how humans still value whatever is authentic and natural. I thought about where this sunset stood in my personal parcel of moments in time that can only be purchased with patience and longing. Who knows what you’ll remember and what you’ll forget.
And so I found myself thinking about a young woman who turned her back on the material world and came over to Northwest Indiana to live in the woods, swim in the Lake and run along the beach. In 1915, that was about as modern as you could get.
She was 34 years old and would later become known as Diana of the Dunes when she said: “I wanted to live my own life, a free life. The life of a salary-earner in the cities is slavery, a constant fight for the means of leaving. Here it is so different.”
Somewhere between what is now Arcelor Mittal and the Ogden Dunes the woman, Alice Gray, lived for about 10 years before she died a painful and perhaps violent death. That’s why some say her ghost haunts the Lake Michigan shore. There have been reports of her swimming brown and naked way off the beach. Others have seen her crashing through the woods, scaring them half to death. There are folks who say they have caught her dozing on the beach. She comes back, so the story goes, for the same reasons woodland fairies or Arcadian goddesses she studied in school come back, because they cannot exist apart from the place they were spiritually born.
As the afternoon faded into evening, the maron grass sighed and languidly exhaled fog , whispering it away, sending it slipping between the cottonwood trees and the sagging wild grapevines. The sun turned a brilliant coral and sank toward the horizon. A cool, clear breeze beat back on the heat of a late summer day. The massive full moon rose authoritatively as it does in autumn, a goddess moon claiming dominion. Mars flickered in the south. The near night was yellow and still. Moon-bright silver water slipped under the afternoon water and gently washed it backwards and away, while tomrorow water snuck in to claim the sand.
And then I saw her, misted in mist, rising like a Venus from no halfshell from the surf, brown as a bunny and naked as the proverbial jay bird.
I guess I didn’t have any doubt who it was. Long dark hair, swimmer’s muscles, woodland scratches, and bright smart eyes, like you see on paintings of 19th Century women writers. Eyes that take you in and instantly process you on about 16 levels before you can even say “Hi.”
I gasped, looking around, mumbling something about could she be who I thought she was?
“Hi,” I said. “How’s the water”
“Wunderbar” she said. “What are you doing out here?”
“Better than church,” I said. “No issues”. “No pretend.”
Then the apparition, a Midwest feminist icon for sure, a legendary naturist and celebrated wraith, sat down beside me on a patch of grass and pulling a long stem began picking her teeth.
DIANA: “Yeah, I prayed for faith a long time and I thought I’d wasted my time. Then finally I got the faith--not in there--out here.
DD: I have so many--is it okay if I ask you some questions. I mean, I might not see you again. You look good. Some of the old newspaper stories about you say you’re a nubile nymph. In others you’re described as a dumpy, middle-aged frau, but you seem to be in excellent shape.
DIANA: I swim a couple of times a day, walk most of the rest of it. I I like to see the creatures scuttle and hide and soften-up their nests. You know, like WHERE do the little birdies go in the winter.? Where to the bunnies and the raccoons hide? I know where. ..and what catipllars turn into what kind of butterfli--takes a few seasons to figure that one out.
I look good, huh? I’ve been eating a lot of nuts and berries for ten years. Does that explain it? Did you see my picture in the Chicago Daily News? That was a bad hair day.
DD: I did. I found it under “Alice Gray,” and it said, “1917 sand dunes.” I figured it had to be you.
DIANA: Alice Mable Gray.
DD: Some articles say, “Alice Marble Gray,”…
DIANA: Have you ever heard of anyone named “Marble”? How about “Chert” or “Shale”? Alice “Granite” Gray. Does that work?
DD: …aka, the legendary “Diana of the Dunes”
DIANA: (shrugs) They called me a bronze goddess, a water nymph and probably a nut-case. But I liked the Diana part, the Roman Moon Goddess. In Greek, she’s Artemis, the huntress. I read all the myths about her in Greek.
DD: You read Greek?
DIANA: Of course, at the U. of C. Honorable Mention for excellence in Greek, Latin, astronomy and math. I graduated in math, Phi Beta Kappa, 1902.
DD: You must have been pretty smart.
DIANA: I still am.
DD: Sorry, where did you go to high school?
DIANA: South Division in Chicago. My father was a doctor. Not much money, but I was quick enough and my friend Sarah Adler helped me to get a scholarship to U of C. I started there when I was 16.
DD: That was kind of unusual for a woman back then, wasn’t it?
DIANA: The University was kind of an unusual place. There were women and Jewish people and non-white people, the school had only been recently started when I went there. The head of the school, the president, was William Rainey Harper was always after Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller to finance whatever new idea he had. Rainey was always trying to get faculty members from the Ivy League schools and every time Rockefeller thought he had given his last cent to the school, Rainey would come up with a new genius professor that he wanted to bring on board. He even hired some women to teach there.
DD: What about after graduation?
DIANA: I was a “computer.” That was my job title. I worked at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. It was an awful job. Add, add, subtract, multiply. Rreally just making yourself into a machine all day. I wore my hair cut short and pants to work. Women’s clothes were very uncomfortable back then, just like everything else in our lives.
DD: Did you get to use your education?
DIANA: Sort of. But my big interest was the Greek myths and the way the sky at night and the stars told their stories and about their gods and goddesses. And I learned about tides and the heavens and feminine rhythms.
DD: And then what happened?
DIANA: I got totally sick of that work like a cipher and I went back to school at the Gottingen University in Germany. It was 1906.
DD: Why did you go there to study?
DIANA: Because I was interested in mathematics mainly. I wanted to study with the best person. Besides Archimedes (and I read him in the original Greek) and Newton (in Latin)….
DIANA: ….the best mathematician and astronomy teacher who ever lived was Carl Fredrich Gauss. He was at Gottingen. The library there was amazing.
DD: But you didn’t end up going into math.
DIANA: Women didn’t go into anything but marriage. Plus I got involved in the Wander Vogel movement in Germany. The name means, “Bird of Passing.” We were free, young and constantly on the move---a walking commune. Our philosophy was to give up material possessions and live off the land. Later Wader Vogel turned out to be mainly gay guys who became part of Hitler Youth, but I still liked the idea of the magic of nature and the challenges of living in the wild.
DD: So that’s how you ended up back at the U of C working as an editorial secretary for the Astrophysical Journal?
DIANA: I was broke then--the kind of no money broke, not in little pieces. And it had taken some time just to work up the courage to leave the city. By 1915, the world was in a mess and I was tired of civilization, if that’s what you wanted to call it. Archduke Ferdinand; Kaiser Wilhelm; Germany invades Luxembourg; Russia invades Prussia, Zeppelins, Gallipoli. Did you read about the Eastland just rolling over in the Chicago River and killing 800 people? Enough is enough for me.
DD: Some of the articles about you said that you had a fight with your parents or a bad love affair or you were frustrated by not being able to get a job that used your intelligence and education.
DIANA: All of the above. I just didn’t want to live that life anymore. I’d spent time in the Dunes as a kid and then with Professor Henry Cowles when I was at the University. Cowles invented ecology. I didn’t care for the way the industrial world was going so I thought I might do better in the natural world.
DD: You were 34 years old?
DIANA: Just about.
DD: When did they start calling you Diana of the Dunes?
DIANA: Oh, those newspaper guys started that about a year later. The first one came out from the Chicago Examiner in 1916.
DD: How did he hear about you?
DIANA: If you want to know the truth, I am kind of an ‘old wives tale.’ Probably some fishermen saw me swimming and got all excited. One of their wives probably turned me in for swimming naked. To be honest in the beginning, I kind of fed the myth. I was a promoter of ‘living of the land.’ I told the reporter that I had come out the year before with only a jelly glass, a knife, a spoon, a blanket and two guns. Then I found an abandoned hut and started housekeeping in the woods. I furnished the place with driftwood. I told him everything in there, including me, was driftwood.
DD: The winters must have been pretty hard.
DIANA: Well you have to dress warm out here, like a lumberjack. I wore heavy socks, a hat and a wool blanket. People throw a lot of stuff away.
DD: What did you eat?
DIANA: Ducks. I was kidding about the nuts and berries. I got to be a real good shot. And I’d go into Porter every week to buy bread and salt. I lived for quite a while on my last paycheck and I went to the Miller Beach library a lot.
DD: You were a writer too, right?
DIANA: I wrote --- you can’t pick nuts and berries all the time.
DD: And an activist?
DIANA: A bunch of us at the U. of C. tried to save the Dunes and stop U. S. Steel for building here. We didn’t win that one, but that was when I started to love hiking here. And Professor Cowles, who had learned Danish so he could read Eugenius Warming---the first ecological theorist---in the original. Cowles fascination with the Dunes gave this place a lot of scientific cachet. We all knew the Dunes were natural and beautiful, but Cowles proved to an international audience that the Dunes were scientifically important. Another scientist from that era Elliott Downing said that science was a “revealer” of the worth and beauty of the Dunes. Downing posited a third dimension to the landscape---depth. Depth goes below the surface to the foundation, to show the perspective of time. How about it?
DD: There is timelessness here, especially where there has never been development.
DIANA: We had a lot of big plans then. Once Gary was lost to steel, we got excited about the idea of a national park like Half Dome in Yosemite and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The Prairie Club came close to getting a national park in the Dunes back then. We got a state park, but had to wait until Kennedy was elected to get national status.
DD: Who was in your club?
DIANA: Everybody. Cowles, Jens Jensen, the great landscape architect (who realized that wild flowers would come up every year in the city parks, the same as they did in the prairie. Frank Dudley (the artist) and Loredo Taft. Margaret Curry asked me to Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute to talk at a meeting where they were planning the Great Dunes Pageant. The idea was to get so many people in Chicago excited about the Dunes and that would lead to funding for the national park. I was on the panel with Loredo Taft.
DD: What did you talk about?
DIANA: The title of the speech was “Chicago Kinland.” I talked about how we formed our myths about the beginning of time from our knowledge of geography, the way the Greeks formed theirs from their guesses. How when the big glacier retreated it left the Chicago plain level enough for a city and scooped out Lake Michigan. I still remember the whole speech:
“The Northwest Wind, having shared with Chicago its vigor and joy and renewed delight as it passed over the Lake, has molded the Dunes. So the Indiana Dune country, like Chicago herself, is a child of Lake Michigan and the Northwest Wind….Besides its nearness to Chicago, its beauty, its spiritual power, there is between the Dune country and the city a more than sentimental bond---a family tie.” I said, “to see the Dunes destroyed would be for Chicago the sacrilegious sin which is not forgiven.”
DD: Kind of like the Game of Thrones?
DIANA: Well, my speech was heartfelt about the stakes being very high. We were all on a spiritual quest. The Prairie Club became very evangelical and we wanted to convert people. We believed that saving the Dunes was like saving souls, saving the world. That’s what the pageant was all about.
DD: Did a lot of people come?
DIANA: Dead ones or alive ones? The native Americans are always here. They burried their own in these hills, and they’re still here. They’re a bit shy, but if you get on their wave-length they sing you little songs.
But the live ones. Yeah. Tons of ‘em came. The South Shore ran a bunch of special, 14-car trains from Chicago to Port Chester. More than 5000 cars were parked in a makeshift lot. There were more than 40,000 people here.
DD: What was the pageant like?
DIANA: Everybody brought picnic lunches, sat down on blankets and had a party over by Waverly Beach. The show itself was extravagant and pretty much over-the-top. There was a Prophet who kept making speeches to the High Manitou, Nanabozho, the mystical keeper of the Dunes. Hundreds of people came dressed as characters: nymphs, satyrs, Indians, fur traders, revolutionary war soldiers, birds and even mosquitoes. I was in it.
DD: You’re kidding.
DIANA: I danced around with some other gals in long white dresses. We were wood nymphs and it was funny. But the conservation message got through.
DD: It’s amazing you were about to reach so many people without Facebook.
DIANA: Yes, but you know there are always problems with publicizing natural resources. Even though that huge crowd was reminded to not pick wildflowers or trample the delicate dune grass, there were still 40,000 people barging around.out here. We wanted to save the land for the people, but when the people started coming, they ruined everything. People. Live ones. Big problem.
DD: Speaking of live people, who was Paul Wilson? That’s your tombstone over in Gary’s Oak Lawn Cemetery, right? The one that says, “Diana Wilson”?
DIANA: Never married him. He kept coming around and coming around. We lived together for a while. For awhile we were drinking buddies. Then he turned into a bad drunk.
DD: Is that when you were living at “The Wren’s Nest”?
DIANA: That was just another shack down in Ogden Dunes. I should never have gotten involved with him. I was doing fine taking care of myself. I was getting sick of the reporters, the way they kept coming out to try and find me. But I was fine until I met Paul, I guess I was lonely. And that sex thing was kinda new to me too. I don’t like to miss you know, the major moments.
DD: The newspaper said you got in a fight with Eugene Frank who hit you in the head and shot Paul in the foot. The article said Wilson was jealous of Frank who’d been leading people into the woods to peak at your shack.
DIANA: Well, I don’t remember much about that, but by then people were making up all kinds of silly things. I can tell you this though, by the mid-twenties, life in the Dunes was really going to hell. U.S. Steel had moved in, Highway 12 was getting finished. They were starting to turn Ogden Dunes into a neighborhood. All kinds of people were coming here to camp out. Couples were fighting. Kids were screaming. It was horrible.
DD: I read that Paul Wilson beat you up regularly.
DIANA: He did?
DD: Did he? One story said you died of uremic poisoning after he hit you hard in the stomach.
DIANA: He was an SOB all right. Soft as a puppy when he first woke up, but after a day of drinking, hungry wolf, just lookin’ for trouble.I guess fightin’ was his substitute for sex, ‘cause that turned out to be a real once in ahwile thing. He’d hit me and hit me, but I’d never run off or give in. I got the best of him a couple times. He had done time in prison. And he never got over that “I’m the designated bad guy around here. I’m the nuts guy. “ I’ll tell you something, my funeral was the worst. He pulled a gun in the middle of the funeral and started swinging it around aiming the gun and threatening people.
DD: They said that you wanted your ashes scattered but they buried you instead.
DIANA: Well, you know it doesn’t really matter. I always lived “out of the box.” I’m a child of the Northwest Wind too. My rhythms were right. I just kind of merged.
DD: Thanks for talking with me. I really admire your courage and the way you lived your life. I’m sorry nobody ever found your writing. They said you wrote about the geology and geography and the botany and the secrets of the stars and the stories hidden in flowers. You said God was really this whole place, he wasn’t in it, he was the dunes and the seasons and the winds---He wasn’t among these things. He was them all. He was the ecology.
DIANA: SHE IS. She is ecology. I finallly got it toghether, astronomy, physics, the Lake, the sand, the fir trees and the tender grasslets. birds, bees, bunnies. Think about it: Who needs Father, Son, Holy Ghost, when you have Spring Summer Fall and Winter. You don’t need a liturgy, you just live like the other living things, with them, watching, listening, they tell you what to do. Less less of less is a lot lot more.
People said all your papers burned up in a fire.
DIANA: No. Not so. No, no, no. I buried those papers. You know where the big coffee cans are?
DD: Where? Tell me. I’ll dig them up. I’ll post them on tumblr. Pinterest, nwi.com. We could make you a Facebook page.
DIana: I think of it more like a treasure hunt.
DD; I know! We’ll get little girls to go look for your secret papers when they come walking in the woods.
Diana: But there wouldn’t be a million dollar prize.
DD. But you’d feel really cool if you had the the secrets of the universe in your backpack.
And then Diana of the Dunes was walking away through the high grass, down the jumbled path, through the cottonwoods. Her voice grew faint as she got further and further away.
DD: Where, where? Where should we look? Tell me, please.
DIANA: I don’t know…in the woods….under a tree…somewhere. A big tree. . .
As the mist wrapped around her, she was kind of absorbed into into the dunes. I heard her skittering down toward the beach and then when the moonlight caught her, she seemed almost golden, striding across the sand like a marathon runner, then leaping into a long strong headlong splashless entry into our Gitchie Gumie. I watched her moving rhythmically purposely through the water, as if she was well, no other way to put it--one with God.
Denise DeClue is a playwright and screenwriter, whose credits include "About Last Night," and "City on the Make," a musical. She lives in Beverly Shores and frequents the Indiana Dunes.