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A Letter Home from a Well-Traveled Spider

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 not think of squirrels and spiders as being particularly good friends, but all the critters at Prairiewoods have grown close over the last 20 years of living together. When the dust cleared after the awesome Sweetgrass Flute & Nature Festival here a few weeks ago, I couldn’t find my friend Brown Spider. I was starting to get worried, until I received a letter from her …

My Dearest Otis & Friends,

I wanted to take a minute out of your busy day gathering nuts preparing for the winter months coming up to let you know I have moved. It was a quick and unexpected decision for me. Remember just a little while ago we had some “Sweet” music floating through the “grass.” It was during that time that I was noticing there were more of our human friends visiting our home at Prairiewoods. With all the extra foot traffic through my grassy home, I thought it would be a good idea to find a more protected place to wait out the crowds.

I noticed that the side vertical opening of the large permanent structure was opening and closing more often than usual. I attached myself to one of the human visitors and rode safely through the opening and immediately dropped off. Still unsecure with all the foot traffic I ducked under the first vertical opening possible and found a quiet cave. There was one inviting canvas cloth that seemed like a great place to stay while all the extra humans were among us. I snuggled down in and took a long nap.

spiderLittle did I know that at the end of the day the canvas started moving, and I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up. Several times I heard slamming of medal doors and then I felt less movement and more vibrations for about 15 minutes. Then all the vibrating stopped and the canvas cloth started moving again. By this time I was really scared, not knowing what was happening to me. Then the world stopped moving and just seemed to go extremely dark and quiet for about nine hours. I was starting to settle in and then the world got brighter. I almost shot out all my web when the canvas cloth opened and I saw a very surprised human face. I was hoping I wouldn’t get squished. I have found that most of our human visitors at Prairiewoods are kind, and this human got over her shock and gently carried the canvas outside and introduced me to my new exotic home in Marion. I hope the winters are shorter and warmer here!

So don’t worry about me … I know I will be happy in my new home. Goodbye and blessings!

—Brown Spider (as dictated to Lois Ocenosak, volunteer and program participant)

Sweet Memories of Sweetgrass

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.

Today I want to tell you about a lively party that recently took place right here in my home, the 70 acres that make up Prairiewoods …

The second annual Sweetgrass Flute & Nature Festival (and the flute school that preceded it) recently rocked the Prairiewoods grounds with the sounds of the Native American style flute and experiences that connected us to nature. Even though the Cedar River was cresting, about 1,000 guests came to Prairiewoods Sept. 23–25 to hear — and BE — the voice of the land!

Here are a few pictorial highlights of the festivities, as shared by our friends on social media. If you have others you’d like to share, feel free to use the comments section below. (If you don’t see “Add a Comment,” click on the green “Sweet Memories of Sweetgrass” above and then scroll to the bottom.)

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Great Blue Heron

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.

One friend I want to introduce you to is Jenifer Hanson, the director at Prairiewoods. Jenifer is often taken with the majestic beauty of the many creatures who call Prairiewoods home. Here is her story of meeting one such resident …

On a humid July afternoon, I decided to walk out on the trails here at Prairiewoods. I am still trying to learn the lay of the land on our 70 acres and when my schedule permits some outdoor time, I try to seize the opportunity!

As I walked, I was contemplating the deep sorrow I was feeling in response to the series of recent national events: the Orlando shootings, the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, the attacks on police in Dallas and elsewhere. Also weighing on my heart was fear for our environment (as Earth experienced another year of record heat) and fear for our society in the midst of an alarming political season in the U.S. I felt powerless to do anything useful in the face of so many issues and concerns.

Suddenly, as I approached a shaded bench near the creek, I was startled by the sudden flight of a very large bird. Unbeknownst to me, a great blue heron had been standing in a shaded pool of water; I must have startled it first! The bird’s wings easily spanned more than five feet across, and I stood in awe of their powerful beating as they lifted the heron into the air. Almost as swiftly as it had appeared, the lovely creature had flown from view.

Jenifer HansonI sat down on the bench I had been moving toward when the heron’s flight stopped me in my tracks. As I caught my breath, and my heart rate returned to normal after spiking when I was startled, I was filled with very different emotions than the sad and fearful ones I carried into the woods with me. These lines of poetry came into my mind:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul …
—Emily Dickinson

I couldn’t help but compare Dickinson’s metaphorical bird with my direct experience of the great blue heron. In mere minutes, I felt hope had been reignited in me.

And that is one of the everyday miracles of Prairiewoods. When they chose to hold this land as sacred space, our foundresses and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration held space for active hope. In such moments at this, that hope can be experienced as a living, breathing thing embodied in the profusion of life inhabiting both woods and prairies.

When I returned to the Center, I shared my sighting of the great heron with Sr. Nancy Hoffman. She smiled and nodded knowingly. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “We’re occasionally blessed with these beautiful visitors.” I nodded, thinking how my brush with this particularly lovely visitor had gifted me with renewed hope. Yes, indeed, we are blessed.

—Jenifer Hanson, Prairiewoods Director

Thomas Berry, Mary Oliver and Squirrels

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.

From my perch on the topmost branch of the great oak near the kitchen door, I see and hear all that is happening here. The view is great! By day I can watch immense white clouds drifting in from the West on a bed of blue and disappearing across the horizon. And at night, I live in a world of moon and stars. My tree is the perfect place for meditation. How could I not be prayerful living in such beauty?

Sometimes I hear a poem being read and that too leads me naturally into a meditative mood. There are so many great poems, but I often find something from Mary Oliver to be perfect. For instance, when I heard someone read her poem Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way, I loved how she talked about holiness being visible, even though God may not be. Holiness—it is visible. I see it all around me. It’s here in those clouds that the wind hurries across the sky. It’s here it is in the simple fact that this tree is here and that there is an earth, that there is day and a night, sunshine and rain mountains and rivers—and acorns. Holiness is here in the fact that our world exits, that through the long journey to our present existence, a journey of some 13-plus billion years, something kept evolution moving forward.

A friend of mine, Thomas Berry, inspires me the most as he tells this story, the Universe Story. In telling this story of all that exists and how all of us got here, Thomas sometimes refers to some special moments that were more dangerous than others as Moments of Grace. This is because, at each time of crisis, a major challenge was overcome and life was able to continue. The story could go on. One example of such a transformational moment was when our mother star scattered itself into the vastness of space. It was only out of this that our sun and entire planetary system was born. Another was when the first multicellular organic forms of life appeared. All future life forms are possible because of this one moment.

Tree - Grandmother 2_smallJust think, from those first small life forms comes what I see from my tree and, of course, even beyond. But I can see the fields of prairie, those big patches of waving grasses and flowers being enjoyed by bees and butterflies. Then there are cute rabbits, wandering geese, graceful deer and my fellow squirrels—all interesting to watch. Frogs sing in the pond and hundreds of birds swoop through the air. Humans too, some caring for the land, some resting in the sun, some creating those inviting aromas that drift through the kitchen window.

Thomas tells us that now we are the ones living in another Moment of Grace. The present, he says, is a time of great transformation in which the future will be determined. He tells us, though, that since we have been guided so far through many turbulent centuries, we should have confidence in the future. I think that is the mission of Prairiewoods, to offer what we can so that the transformation of each of us will help to bring about the great transformation that the future depends on. I want to be a part of that magnificent transformation that will surely happen when we take time to meditate wherever we are, in all the sanctuaries that are offered to us. Mine happens to be in a tree.

There are probably not many people who know that Thomas Berry has been a major inspiration for the creation of Prairiewoods. His vision seemed to simply grab at our hearts. In a way he opened new doors, although as we looked through them we recognized that we too felt that holiness is everywhere, that all is sacred. He verified for us that our spirituality is intrinsically linked to understanding our connections with our universe. I like to quote him as saying that “what happens in the outer world, happens in the inner world.”

Thomas and Mary Oliver make a great team as they both uncover the holy and the mythic meaning behind each new scientific discovery.

In the poem I mentioned earlier, Mary Oliver says that “all important ideas must include the trees, the mountains and the rivers.” And, as for me, I naturally see the need to include the trees in this idea of what is important. One of them is my home. And I can see that I am not the only one to seek out a tree as a refuge. Almost every day I see people here at Prairiewoods who find it a natural part of a retreat to sit under a tree; and I can see that they are having a great conversation together.

The trees, the mountains and the rivers are all mystical places. Our connection with them is spiritual. They feed our souls and make holiness visible. And the last line of the poem tells me that I, Otis, am a part of it all. It reads, “The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

—Otis (as dictated to Betty Daugherty, FSPA, Prairiewoods foundress)


20 Voices for 20 Years

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.

Today I’d like to introduce you to a whole scurry of them!

In honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary, we asked 20 friends, “Why are you grateful for Prairiewoods?” and “How have you been transformed?” As you can see in the quick YouTube video below, they are grateful for everything from the quiet serenity they find here to the natural playground created by our 70 acres. What has been your favorite thing about Prairiewoods over the last 20 years? What are you most looking forward to? #20Voices20Years


20 Voices for 20 Years

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


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


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

Surrounded by Nature

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.

Over the years, I have become good friends with Kathy Petsche, who volunteers in the office and helps plan and facilitate some programs at Prairiewoods. Here are Kathy’s thoughts on being surrounded by nature …

The sun crawls down and over at the top of the hill, gently bringing a slowly setting sun tonight on Bramblewood, what we call the 10 acres we have been blessed to live on for many years.

Creeping down, the darkness celebrates the day of sun … The mix in the bare trees, the shadows on the new grass. A new season is unfolding.

Being blessed and surrounded by nature, I have come to a complete stop from what I am doing and taking that precious time to bring into my heart and soul Mother Nature and God’s full glory. I watch the birds and the deer settle down, and I am soaking in the colors and mixtures of the sky above me. It humbles me almost to my knees.

The trees speak out as if to say and to remind me that they will remain tall through the night and reassure me that they will be right where I saw them last as the darkness settles in.

The birds go quiet for the night. And I know that with spring here, I will wake up to their beautiful music.

And then I am reminded of the bird feeder that the squirrel won’t leave alone as I gaze across the field. He has defied the “guaranteed” squirrel proofing and I have just decided that I can live with his defiance as he has once again arrived at the top of the pole, and has lifted the lid to help himself. I am sure he is a distant country “relative” of Otis. And I know that I will fill that bird feeder again at least one more time before summer fully blossoms and he will empty it out again.

frog_smallThe frogs are back on the pond and even though right now this very evening, I am thrilled beyond measure they are assembling their chorus of “ribbits” of many into the night. I will lie awake on a warm summer’s night when we open up the windows and they will be even louder, and I might lose some sleep, but an afternoon nap on the back deck will catch me up if needed.

Nature, the universe, the energy that supplies all of this beauty, the oneness we can experience, this sacred place of which we live and share together. I pray that we all take a moment or two, or three, and stop whatever we are doing and soak it all in.

—Kathy Petsche, volunteer and facilitator


Dance of the Aspen

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.

In the summer of 2013, a Notre Dame sister from Nebraska participated in her fourth Silent Directed Retreat at Prairiewoods. During that time, she wrote a beautiful poem called Dance of the Aspen. She read it to the squirrels and birds, the beavers and rabbits and all other animals who find comfort in the bark of the aspen. May you find comfort in the aspen and in its story, as told by Sister Joan …

As I sat in chapel with my God today
I noticed the aspen outside the window begin to sway
A performance my God was giving to me
aspenIn the dancing leaves of the aspen tree.
To and fro the leaves danced, they twirled, spinned, then rested.
The wind is the music, the conductor is God.
Violins are playing the waltz while trumpets proclaim a dance more mod.
Now I hear the beat of the drums and an Indian from the shadows comes
A flute begins to play gently and at the sound,
Dancers are gracefully pirouetting round and round.
Now in my heart, I too am dancing
With a clang of cymbals, a bow to my God.
I thank Him.
What a performance God has given to me
In the dancing leaves of the aspen tree.

—Joan Polak, ND, retreatant