Among all the fantastical tales spun by Danish author Karen Blixen, the most intriguing was assuredly her own life story. While her biography, Out of Africa, brought her notoriety, it was in her latter years that she established a different kind of legacy by ensuring the preservation of Rungstedlund, her family estate, as a bird sanctuary.
On July 6, 1958, Karen Blixen addressed the Danish public in a radio broadcast from the fire-lit sitting room of her estate, Rungstedlund, on the Øresund coast just north of Copenhagen. One can imagine the gravelly timbre of her voice—what her friend Cecil Beaton called a “sepulchral voice… strong and deep”—and conjure up the lyrical way in which her monologue echoed through living rooms around the country like a bedtime story, her listeners enraptured in a child-like stupor. Blixen—who put pen to paper in her 40s out of financial necessity and went on to achieve fame with such fantastical fictional stories as those found in Winter’s Tales—was first and foremost a raconteur. “I come from a long line of storytellers,” she liked to say before ad-libbing a tale for any willing public.
The subject matter of this particular address was no fairytale. Blixen, then aged 73 and battling decades of ill health, had just emerged from a yearlong stint in the hospital, where she’d undergone multiple operations. With characteristic mirth, she said, “By chance, I heard later that one of the physicians had said, ‘If she survives this operation, it will be the greatest coup of her life,’ so I can’t imagine there was much confidence in the undertaking from the medical point of view.” By all accounts, at this period in her life, she was physically fading. She’d lost all appetite for food—but not champagne or cigarettes, in which she still indulged—but remained an elegantly attired (she loved a turban), frail figure with a wizened face and lively eyes that sparkled like black onyx.
In possession of a certain spirituality, Blixen wasn’t one to dance around the issue of death. In an interview with The Paris Review just two years earlier, she had spoken about how she’d considered doing a radio broadcast on the subject after a near-encounter with death. “I planned a talk on how easy it was to die ... Not a morbid message, I don’t mean that, but a message of, well, cheer ... that it was a great and lovely experience to die. But I was too ill … to get it done. Now, after being so long in the nursing home and so ill, I don’t feel I do really belong to this life. I am hovering like a seagull. I feel that the world is happy and splendid and goes on but that I’m not part of it.”
It was with this mindset that she set out to secure her legacy and the future of her historic home and its estate. Rungsted Inn was a 17th-century building surrounded by parklands that had been acquired by her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, before she was born. It had always been her family home, but more important to her was that it was also home to centuries-old woodlands and a significant migratory bird population. These grounds were kept open for all to enjoy, and Blixen spoke of the pleasure she felt while walking through the fields one Sunday afternoon and encountering a card table “set up under an old oak tree, with four happy card players in shirtsleeves slapping their cards down on the table.”
With understandable trepidation, she foresaw a time when that might change. The surrounding coast had already been altered, she said, “from being a stretch of windblown sand covered with willow trees and heath, with the shore road a sandy, uncertain path along the beach and the thatched houses of the fishing hamlets with their net-drying grounds, it has become an almost unbroken series of neat houses and gardens for people who have their businesses in Copenhagen.” And while she acknowledged that the parcel of land, which covers 16.6 hectares, could accommodate rows of uniform housing, she was willing to be considered “undemocratic” in her f ight against urban sprawl. She wanted the greenery to flourish where some would put concrete. “It has been as if a great sorrow, a great loss, and a blank space lay before me when I thought everything would be changed completely, indeed, disappear and be gone,” she said. “Every summer when I heard the cuckoo in the woods, I thought, ‘How can I preserve a large tree in the garden for it to sit and coo in’?”
With no heirs to safeguard the estate for future generations, Blixen used her own money to set up a private foundation, the Rungstedlund Fund, and named an ornithological society to run it as a bird sanctuary. To secure funding for its future, however, Blixen turned to her fans, and on this summer night asked her listeners to each donate one Danish krone. The appeal might well be one of the earliest examples of crowdfunding and was a huge success: 85,000 people responded to her call. Today, as she wished, Rungstedlund remains intact: her house is now a museum, and visitors are free to roam the grounds. The 300-year-old beech trees, under which the Danish poet Johannes Ewald walked when he was a lodger at the inn, still stand tall. Their broad, pale trunks soar toward a mantle of brilliant green stirring in the breeze. The ground is thick with wild violets and primroses.
Following the installation of 200 bird boxes, these woodlands are now a well-established breeding ground for more than 40 different species, including kites, storks and nightingales. It was the nightingale that Blixen loved best. Each May, she eagerly awaited their arrival and the sound of their mating song. She once traced the migratory path of a single nightingale from Rungstedlund all the way to Amanzimtoti in South Africa. Perhaps she recognized a kindred spirit in the bird, having herself traveled a similar path, only to return home again to live out the second half of her life.
For those who haven’t read her book or seen the film, it should be noted that Blixen’s adventurous life was not, as it might sound, a windswept romance. On the contrary, she was entirely unlucky in love. She settled for her cousin Bror Blixen when she actually wanted his brother. To make matters worse, Bror turned out to be a philanderer and gave her syphilis. The early-20th-century cure of mercury pills caused the chronic metal poisoning that eventually contributed to her debilitating illness. She divorced Bror in 1925 and found happiness for a short period in the company of Denys Finch Hatton, a British big-game hunter who was enchanted by her storytelling and is credited for encouraging her to take up writing. Sadly, Denys died in an aircraft crash in 1931—another heart-breaking blow. His portraits sit today on the windowsill of her study in Rungstedlund, just where she left them.
Despite such setbacks, Blixen’s life was full of purpose and spirit, and she gave back: her foresight in creating a sanctuary for bird life and nature lovers speaks of an innate understanding of both the short-sightedness of man and the fragility of the world we inhabit. Some legendary figures want a monument erected in their honor, but Blixen secured a patch of paradise just a short train trip from Copenhagen, where “children will, for a hundred years, be able to play tag in the grass, young couples may kiss, and old people rest in the shadows.”