Skip to Content

Everything I Need to Know I Learn from Otis

Otis & Friends 4I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

One such friend is Marianne Abel-Lipschutz. She and I spend a lot of time together at Prairiewoods, and I learn from her as she learns from me. Here are some of our best lessons …

An atmosphere of acceptance at Prairiewoods allows things to have their meaning, to exist as they are. Otis gets this better than I do. I love watching him —or whoever it is among his sisters or brothers or cousins, not sure of their identities but I know they’re related. They scamper through the woods, up and down trees, across the patio, into the flower beds, wherever the urge takes them. It looks like fun being a squirrel.

Marianne Abel-Lipschutz

They embody the confident community at Prairiewoods who delight in its marvelous abundance. I think of all the squirrels who have been born here, lived their busy lives, and died somewhere on the property. All that time they spent being who they were made to be. Sounds obvious, but I need a refresher on this lesson.

Otis teaches a powerful point: believing in abundance and acting in confidence. Everything a squirrel needs is right there somewhere, available. Eating, drinking, harvesting, storing. Places to rest, hide, sleep, visit. Paths to walk, trails to run, things to leave behind. Trust that everything you need is provided. Come as you are. Be as you are made to be.

—Marianne Abel-Lipschutz, program participant


Some Favorite Prairiewoods Critters

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Whenever I see Prairiewoods Artist in Residence Joni Reed Cooley, she has a camera in her hands. She snaps, snaps, snaps pictures of me, of the trees, of the other critters that call this land home. Here are some of her favorite pictures from this holy space …

One of the many joys at Prairiewoods for me is the opportunity to take some special nature photos. I love to watch for the critters around Prairiewoods and capture their personalities in photos. From many hours with my trusty point-and-shoot camera in the woods and through the Guest House window, these are some of my favorite photos of Prairiewoods animals.

Deer in Winter_Joni Reed Cooley

While I was sitting on the swing by the labyrinth on a late winter afternoon, this group of deer ambled by. I just love how you can clearly see each deer’s personality. The ringleader, the watchful scout, the shy one—can’t you just imagine what they are thinking? And just what do you imagine the ringleader is saying?

Praying Groundhog_Joni Reed Cooley

During a summer retreat in the Guest House, every day was “Groundhog Day” as I rushed to the window each morning to look for the groundhogs. They were frequently very busy grazing outside my window and keeping a watchful eye out. I enjoyed watching them suddenly rear up and stand motionless to check for danger, and then quickly go back down again. I later learned that their eyesight is not so good, hence the need for frequent upright checks. I always imagine this groundhog as the greeter, proclaiming “Welcome to Prairiewoods.”

Turkey_Joni Reed Cooley

Walking to the bench overlooking Dry Creek one summer day, I saw a lone turkey heading down the path behind me.  As I came to the bench, I wondered if he would continue coming toward me. We looked at each other and he apparently decided I was no threat to him. As I grabbed this photo, he continued down the path with his jerky turkey gait and walked past me into the grasses. Later while sitting on the bench, I was amused to think about the implications of the turkey and I on the same path.

Rabbit_Joni Reed Cooley

This special rabbit rested next to my Guest House window one spring afternoon. I felt sad about her ear and I wondered if she had been in a fight or maybe had it caught in something. But it had healed well and she seemed fine. I marveled at all of the colors in her fur, something I had never noticed before. I was inspired to paint her portrait before I left my retreat that week.

Nursing Deer_Joni Reed Cooley

If you attended Prairiewoods’ wonderful Spirituality in the 21st Century event, you have seen this photo. But did you know that it was taken from a Prairiewoods Guest House window? I spied this majestic doe standing across from my window one dusky evening, and I hurriedly focused on trying to get a good close-up photo of her. Then I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, and fortunately I drew back to see the fawn with her! I was so amazed by what I was seeing that my hands were shaking as I tried to capture this incredible scene. Wow, did I ever feel privileged to have witnessed this beautiful, intimate tableau. And to think that I almost missed it!

Deer - spotted_Joni Reed Cooley

The last photo is that same fawn making its getaway after acknowledging me in the Guest House window. I love how she is so stretched out, so you can see all of her spots. To me, she looks like she is smiling and saying, “Gotta run—see ya later!”


—Joni Reed Cooley, Artist in Residence


New Sacred Spaces at Prairiewoods

Otis & Friends 2I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Sister Marj English came to Prairiewoods almost a decade ago. In her role as Coordinator of Spiritual Services at Prairiewoods, she tends to the spiritual needs of humans and critters alike. Here are her thoughts on some of the new features at Prairiewoods …

Erlacher Fountain 2_Joe Young_small
Otis, have you noticed the increased traffic and population boom in a couple of your treasured hangouts? I have seen a number of people sitting reflectively, even peacefully, by the fountain just outside the Center’s north door. I’ve also seen some serious journaling being done there.


2016 Sacred Earth 1

What used to be the herb garden was expanded recently into a healing garden. This seems to be a very popular place as well for retreatants and visitors. (Recently you may have noticed the staff having its picture taken in the midst of this new healing garden in support of Sacred Earth.)

Since you seem to be fed quite often in these areas, I take for granted you have noticed. Don’t worry, Otis, I trust you will continue to be fed and to make some new friends. Thanks for looking out for our guests and sharing your space with them!

—Marj English, OSF, Coordinator of Spiritual Services

The Stunning Seasons at Prairiewoods

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Joni Reed Cooley is a human who helped me understand just how kind and gentle humans can be. Armed with her camera, paint brush and charcoals, she truly sees all of us who call Prairiewoods home, not just the two-legged ones. Here are some of her best photos that capture the changing seasons on these 70 acres of woods and prairie …

Each of the four seasons at Prairiewoods is spectacular! Capturing the changes of the seasons with my camera is one of my favorite pastimes. Each season shines with its own colors and textures. Can you recognize the spots at Prairiewoods where these eight photos were taken? (By the way, I once took a number of photos in the woods at Prairiewoods after a major snowstorm and showed them to Sister Nancy Hoffman. She easily identified the exact location of each snow-laden tree!)

Dew on Grass_Joni Reed Cooley



The dew on the blades of grass was an exquisite sight during my early morning walk on this day. The photo was taken near the bench overlooking Dry Creek.

Swing by Pond



Such a restful place! This scene by the pond always makes me wish I was sitting there—I can hear the frogs now!




Fall Trees_Joni Reed Cooley



I love the different colors of the fall leaves against the dark tree limbs in this photo. This beautiful tableau was near the path coming down the small hill from the Center, looking up to the side.

Milkweed_Joni Reed Cooley



The milkweed pods were opened when I walked by them, making me want to take a big breath and blow the puffs away! This beauty was growing near the parking lot in front of the Guest House.


Winter Trees 1_Joni Reed Cooley



Walking the trails at Prairiewoods in the winter is a special treat! The woods are especially beautiful after a heavy snow. I headed out to the woods on an exquisite blue-sky morning after it had snowed all night. Everywhere I turned, the sights were simply awe-inspiring. These branches were along the trail heading down to the creek from the labyrinth.


Winter Trees 2_Joni Reed Cooley

Another beautiful morning after a major snowfall! I loved the patterns of these clouds, and to me, there are few things lovelier than fresh snow on the pines. These glorious trees greet you along the entryway to Prairiewoods.


Butterfly 24_Joni Reed Cooley



The gardens of Prairiewoods are always so lovely! And the efforts to provide a habitat for butterflies have been wonderful. This monarch posed prettily in the flowers in front of the Guest House.


Swing by Kitchen_Joni Reed Cooley


This swing scene looks so peaceful! Perhaps you have enjoyed sitting here outside the kitchen (our friend Otis’ favorite territory). I had a wonderful time creating a painting of this scene during an art retreat.


So perhaps these photos have inspired you to take your own tour of the seasons at Prairiewoods. Treasures await you!


—Joni Reed Cooley, Artist in Residence


Sounds of Silence

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday. 

You may remember Prairiewoods Spiritual Director Marj English, OSF, who I introduced you to a few weeks ago. As a retreat facilitator, she helps create a peaceful, calming atmosphere for our guests. Sometimes this peace is accompanied by total silence here at Prairiewoods (other than my chatter, of course!). Here are Sister Marj’s thoughts on the popular Silent Directed Retreats …

walker 1

Otis, did you notice the palpable silence here the week of June 5–11? It was so quiet, I bet our guests heard your scurrying here and there. I know some heard the bull frogs chatting in the pond between the Guest House and Center and the chirping birds serenading. These sounds and the silence of voices seem to call people to listen more deeply. They were a soothing respite for many from the workday noises. The silence and the rhythms of natural sounds seem to assist retreatants in going inward and listening to the often buried sounds of the soul. I truly believe peace and transformation were gifts received by participating retreatants.

Starting this Sunday (July 24), we have another one of these opportunities when we host our second Silent Directed Retreat of this season. The peace will be palpable throughout the grounds! If you are in need of some soul nurturing, come join us, and let the “sounds of silence” stimulate your soul.

—Marj English, OSF, Coordinator of Spiritual Services

Prairiewoods and Iowa’s Creative Corridor

Otis & Friends 4I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

The vice chair of the Prairiewoods board, Chuck Peters, is one busy guy, but he’s never too busy to stop by Prairiewoods, engage a new friend or identify an exciting new growth area here! As president of The Gazette Company, he’s been instrumental in fostering Iowa’s Creative Corridor. Here are his thoughts on how Prairiewoods is an essential part of this transforming region …

Prairiewoods has had a huge influence on my life.

As I was struggling personally with the aftermath of the flood of 2008, and our company was reimagining our future in a drastically changing market, Prairiewoods hosted some of the most respected community builders in the world in 2013, inviting Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight to guide us in substantive and authentic conversations. I was deeply moved by 540 people spending 24 hours fully engaged in developing our community.

And one of Walter’s messages has really stuck with me—that all of human history is the resolution of conflicting narratives, yet in the United States we are so locked into one narrative that we have difficulty imagining that others can exist.

I now believe that Prairiewoods is a critical connecting point for Iowa’s Creative Corridor. Not only is it a peaceful, generous and encouraging place, it plays a critical role in the development of our region.

After the conference, we were challenged to re-imagine our community for the emerging future, a world in which authentic networks locally, connected globally, enable the creation and development of sustainable and inclusive communities.

A generous and creative mindset, grounded in the most accurate representation of our place in the Universe Story, is helpful as we do that work.

Prairiewoods is the entry point in our community for some of the world’s best thinkers on helpful frameworks for this work.

I am very excited that one of my favorite authors, Ilia Delio, is coming to Prairiewoods next May 5–6. I look forward to seeing many of my friends there, and having another opportunity for growth and development with Prairiewoods.

—Chuck Peters, Board Vice Chair

2013-04-04 Spir in 21st Cent 1

Adult Self Renewal Summer Camp

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

One friend I have introduced you to several times here is Marianne Abel-Lipschutz, a program participant and planner here at Prairiewoods. She’s been working with several other volunteers and staff members to bring a whole new experience to the Prairiewoods community: summer camp for adults! Here’s a look at what you can expect at Adult Self Renewal Summer Camp …

New friends. Outdoor cooking. Adventures in groups. Campfires at night. Stories and songs. Shared devotions. Honest conversations. Freedom to wander in the prairie and woods, play a game, write a letter home, float in the sky chair for quiet time. Prairiewoods’ first-ever Adult Self Renewal Summer Camp, July 18–21, has these classic camp plans but adds an eco-spirituality boost. Essential oils and healing touch. Interactive arts and peaceful patterns of color and light. Songs of joy and laughter, cosmic rhythms and circular sound waves, deep silence in the presence of our Creator.

Adult Summer Camp_squareMany people trace some of their most significant spiritual growth to a camp experience as a child. For many of us, Bible camp, Girl or Boy Scout Camp, or Vacation Bible School provided communal encounters with our deepest selves that put our feet on the path of a lifelong learning process. Retreats—or adult camps—relight that spark inside by reconnecting us to the sense of awe and wonder that energizes the spiritual journey. Keeping that vital connection to the Source alive in our hearts, minds and bodies empowers us to live more fully in the world.

Join with the Prairiewoods community to celebrate life at Adult Summer Camp, which is just over a week away. Each day offers activities to learn and grow together with others in a festive atmosphere. (Monday focuses on holistic health, Tuesday on nature, Wednesday on music and Thursday on art. Come all four days or choose the days that speak to your soul!) We won’t blast Reveille from a loudspeaker at sunrise or listen to Taps played with a bugle at sunset. We will sing our hearts out into the Prairiewoods neighborhood and create memories that will last. Sign up on the Prairiewoods website. Give a gift of a day at camp to a friend or loved one. Spread the news and share the fun. Hope to see you at camp!

—Marianne Abel-Lipschut, program participant

 2016 Adult Summer Camp Schedule

20 Milkweeds for 20 Years

Otis & Friends 2I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Allow me to introduce you to Andi Lewis, who has served as Prairiewoods Marketing Coordinator for the last 5 years. She and her pup, Phineas, often walk the grounds at Prairiewoods and enjoy the presence of beautiful monarch butterflies. She wants to tell you about a new challenge she has for YOU …

Prairiewoods, which was founded in 1996, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. We are honoring this occasion by promoting the life and health of the planet, and we hope you will help us! Over the last two decades, we have been blessed to partner with a number of generous organizations, worship communities, civic entities, businesses and individuals. And we’re hoping you all will help us once again …

In honor of our 20th anniversary, Prairiewoods is planting milkweed, a plant that is necessary for the continued survival of monarch butterflies, which are necessary for the continued survival of all life! Will you help us celebrate by promoting the life and health of our Earth? Here’s the challenge:

20 Milkweeds•     We just planted milkweed in our new Healing Garden. (Check out the short video here or by clicking on the screenshot at right!)

•     Now we are inviting you—our friends and valued community partners—to also plant milkweed somewhere in the community in July. (If you don’t have land on which to plant the milkweed, feel free to plant it at Prairiewoods!)

•     Please take a photo or video of the planting and upload it to social media. (Include #20Milkweeds and #PrairiewoodsFSC so that we can track our progress!)

Will you help us plant 20 Milkweeds for 20 Years?

—Andi Lewis, Marketing Coordinator

A Dog’s Life

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

You might think that squirrels and dogs can’t be friends. However, I’ve learned that some dogs are gentle and kind. Kaysen, a great big Yellow Lab, is a dog I’m happy to call my friend …

Hi, I’m Kaysen, and I LOVE Prairiewoods! I am Paula’s service dog, and we go to Prairiewoods every Tuesday for Visio Divina and Lectionary-Based Faith Study. Paula loves it. She loves the people who go to the groups, and she says Rodney is a great teacher. I think he gives great ear scratches.

We also have lunch there. Or, I should say Paula has lunch there. I get nothin’. She thinks their food is fabulous and so are the kitchen ladies. It sure smells good.

Paula Tomy and KaysenMy very favoritest thing about Prairiewoods is Sister Nancy. She is the nicest lady in the whole world! While Paula is eating lunch and talking, talking, talking, we go on adventures. She takes me places Paula can’t go because Paula is in a wheelchair. (That’s why she has me!) We go into the woods! I see really great trees and hear birds and I can sometimes smell the deer. I have seen something she called a Hermitage. Looked like a little house to me. I have seen a creek, too. Sister Nancy talks to me and I listen and walk and smell fresh air.

Prairiewoods is the best place in the whole world!

—Kaysen (with help from his human, Paula Tomy)

Making Room for Godzilla

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

My buddy Marianne Abel-Lipschutz wanted to feel at home in my home, the woods, so she stayed overnight in one of the Prairiewoods Hermitages, rustic cabins nestled into the warm embrace of the woodlands. Here is the story of her first experience there …

Last spring I chose one of the hermitages for my first overnight at Prairiewoods. The buildings intrigued me—furnished bunkers set literally between prairie and woods. I explored the simple space while unpacking my things and making a cup of tea. A corner cabinet offered books, blank journal pages I could add to and drawers full of handy supplies—flashlights, bandages, notepaper, batteries, a transistor radio, playing cards, a phone book. A welcome binder under a daily devotional profiled the myriad possibilities of a stay at Prairiewoods.

I leafed through the binder just long enough to discover the page headlined “Nuclear Emergency Action Plan.” I scanned the two-sided sheet, imagining the “You Are Here” spot on my chair and the dotted line six miles northwest to the Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) at the bullseye on the danger zone map. I felt like the stunned character in a 1970s cult cartoon, “Bambi meets Godzilla,” which showed the catastrophic meeting in the forest. Bambi, a lightly drawn image of meekness, munches twigs for 60 seconds. Then Godzilla’s right paw stomps downward through the center of the screen, squashing the fawn flat. Like Bambi, I had never considered my nuclear emergency action plan, a subject so far outside my typical circle of contemplation I could only reach for the jasmine tea.

This consciousness-raising whopper and the weekend’s sessions expanded my preconceived image of an idyllic spiritual retreat. Staying at Prairiewoods put the nuclear plant in my backyard in a way I couldn’t ignore. I’d driven past the clouds of fission-generated steam rising off the cooling towers while driving on the interstate many times, vaguely aware of their source. I casually disregarded them the way I ignored the rank smell of metric tons of oats roasting in downtown Cedar Rapids. Even though I lived 62 miles away, I couldn’t pretend my life existed outside of a nuclear energy zone. I had to make room for the specter of nuclear disaster as part of my community.

Hermitage 12_squareRight away I felt grateful that someone valued my presence enough to inform me about the emergency plan. I thought of all the placards on the back doors of hotel rooms I’d read; none of them cautioned specifically about tornado, flood or nuclear disaster. Later I learned about the reactor facility, built in the 1970s, and how years of extensive cooperation for disaster preparedness in the greater metro area helped prevent loss of life in the 2008 floods. The DAEC pamphlets used familiar words: resource use, environment, safety, protection, power, household needs. Yet their assurance of safe operations fell short of my truer needs.

At sessions during the Beauty is the Path to God’s Life Retreat, presenter Father John Quigley, OFM, helped us explore mind-shifting reversals about our images of God’s creative power that infiltrated my awareness. John cast a vision of God as “an eternal furnace freely breathing ecstatic joy,” a compelling contrast to Godzilla’s destructive atomic breath colored by radioactive heat waves flaming red and blue out of the monster’s mouth. God’s almighty breath will always overwhelm any real threat. “To just share a breath together is eternal,” John said. Love is a simple and effective emergency plan.

The generating capacity of God’s protection cannot be measured. Kindness, goodness, simplicity and love can empower our lives when we open our hearts and minds to the Source of all being. Like the concentration of spiritual energy at the center of the labyrinth, God welcomes us at whatever ground zero we face. We can walk the circular path without fear, returning to the Source again and again to restore the breath of life within us. Prairiewoods acts as a counterbalancing force in the danger zone, marked by a radiant footprint rather than a radioactive one.

—Marianne Abel-Lipschut, program participant