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A conversation between God and St. Francis

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.

Prairiewoods is a Franciscan organization, meaning that they follow the Earth-loving teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. He was known for preaching to all the creatures, to the birds and even to us squirrels. So when I found the following story online — a conversation between God and St. Francis — I thought the people associated with Prairiewoods might enjoy it …

GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord: the Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it — sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

grass 1_smallGOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord … when the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It’s a natural cycle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It’s a story about …

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

—Anonymous, found on multiple websites

Otis’ ancestors on “the farm”

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’s friend is someone who has known my family for longer than I have been alive! Sister Marcia Baumert is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA), the order of Catholic sisters that founded Prairiewoods 20 years ago. She remembers the land as it was before Prairiewoods was even an idea in its foundresses’ minds …

I have known Otis’ family for a long, long time. When I lived in Cedar Rapids in the mid ’90s, before Prairiewoods was born, I walked what FSPA referred to as “the farm.” My soul hungered for the wide open spaces. Otis’s great great-great-grandmother and grandfather and extended family provided me with companionship as I strolled those wild acres. Mother Nature frolicked and played in every form of growing thing, meandering stream, wild life families and winged friends singing joyfully as they flew about in their paradise amidst city surroundings. Yes, it was a paradise held sacred.

I had at that time just graduated from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Being a small town girl in the whirl of grad school in Chicago certainly drew me out of my comfort zone in every direction. Following graduation, the opportunity to serve in rural parish ministry while living in Cedar Rapids gave me the chance to find respite on the farm. I delighted in the beauty of winter when I could put on my coveralls and snow boots and go walking through the glistening snow drifts amidst silent but wise trees to find stillness and peace in my soul. Although walking as one, I never felt alone as I enjoyed Otis’ family, deer, and other four-footed friends scampering about the grounds. I’ve always loved birds and found great joy in sighting the flash of color and the sound of a crisp clear call. My mom taught me about many birds and their calls, so each encounter was sharing a kinship with our winged friends.

Marcia Baumert FSPA

I always knew then that there was something very special about the farm. When Prairiewoods began taking shape 20 years ago, it was as though all of nature burst forth with new joy. The birthing of structures to provide human lodging and learning, protection from nature-limiting development, and tender care of experts in land management reassured Mother Nature that she was highly regarded and loved. Of course, Otis’ family and friends continued to thrive and find joy in their two-legged friends.
Walking the land these many years later still finds me delighting in the peace and healing energies of Prairiewoods. I even had the pleasure of swinging outside the kitchen with a friend last June and having Otis and family playing in the limbs of the mothering oak above us. May we listen to the gentle sounds, contemplate and find peace on the holy ground we know as Prairiewoods.

—Marcia Baumert, FSPA, Board member


An encounter with deer (continued)

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.

Don’t you just love art? Did you know that Prairiewoods has its very own Artist in Residence, Joni Reed Cooley? I often pose for her, hoping to get picked up in one of her beautiful photographs or painted works of art. Last week, she reflected on an encounter with some of the deer who spend much of their time on the 70 acres that make up Prairiewoods. Here’s the rest of her story …

Last week I shared with you my experience of watching the deer from my Guest House room at Prairiewoods, when a large doe came flying out of the woods and frantically ran around a group of deer who had gathered to feed under the pines. She buzzed around them in a circle twice and then galloped back into the woods, leaving the deer in a very agitated state. I wondered what in the world was going on and stood there puzzled.

A few minutes later, I was given a spectacular experience. Up walked three bucks, a large elder buck, an adult male and a little one. They immediately became Grandfather, Father and Grandson in my mind. The young one with his tiny antlers melted my heart! They walked into the clearing by the window slowly, glanced in the window and stopped there right in front of me.

My jaw dropped as I saw what they were about to do: the Grandfather was play sparring with the little one! The little guy was going antler-to-antler with Grandfather, with the elder training him on how it is done. My heart swelled at the precious scene, as I watched the little guy push so hard with his little antlers against the great antlers of his elder, so much bigger than him! The little one was so intent and serious about it, and the Grandfather was stoic and gave in just the right amount. The Father deer stood close by at the ready, alert to stop the little guy if he became too rambunctious. I was spellbound. They continued locking antlers in their sparring training session for about ten minutes, until Grandfather seemed to tire of the game, and the Father moved in to signal the end. They stood and rested for a short while and then slowly moved on without a backward glance as if it were nothing.

Deer at Prairiewoods by Joni Reed CooleyIt was such an incredibly heartwarming scene. I felt so honored to be able to witness it. They were clearly aware that I was there at the window, and I swear that they decided, “Hey, let’s show her what we can do!” I was totally awestruck. Ironically, I did not have my camera at the window like I normally do, and I didn’t want to break the spell and spook them by moving away to get it. But as is typically the case, it was for the best, because I was able to fully savor the tender spectacle unfolding in front of me, instead of focusing on getting a good photo.

So what happened to the rest of the deer? I was so engrossed in watching the display in front of me that I didn’t see where they went. But they had moved on, alerted by the one brave doe scout who apparently signaled the bucks’ arrival.

I felt very blessed that night, as I reflected on that rare, poignant scene played out in front of me. I thanked God for allowing me to witness that intimate and moving experience with three generations of his walking miracles. I also thought about how we are like the three generations of deer in our best moments. That night, I felt very blessed to be so close to nature and God’s creations, and deeply thankful for this incredible place called Prairiewoods.

—by Joni Reed Cooley, Artist in Residence

An encounter with deer

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 dear friend is the deer-loving Joni Reed Cooley. As Prairiewoods’ Artist in Residence, she often spends a week at a time in the Prairiewoods Guest House. She photographs many of us natural creatures, and then we peer through the window to see her transforming the photographs into realistic paintings. We marvel at her talent and like that she tells our story through her art. Here she talks about an encounter with the deer herd that calls Prairiewoods home …

Prairiewoods offers so many opportunities for wonders to be discovered. One of my favorite treasures is the abundant wildlife. Whenever I am walking in the woods and stopping to reflect in the stillness, I am also hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the animals. I keep my eyes open for my special favorites: the deer, turkeys and groundhogs, and of course Otis and his adorable squirrel chums. It is humbling to remember that they are always aware of me moving in the woods, but I don’t often know where they are.

Watching the deer is a special highlight for me at Prairiewoods. Their silent beauty and somewhat awkward grace brings me a sense of peace and knowing that all is right in the world. Their spirit is quiet and calm. Whenever I see a deer, I think, There goes another one of God’s miracles. The deer are my personal favorites, and I never tire of watching them. I have taken many deer photos and have painted them too, hoping to reflect some of their wonderful spirit.

One amazing experience with the deer stands out in my mind. During a late fall stay at Prairiewoods, I was thrilled to see the deer stroll past my Guest House room window before dusk. On this calm night, there were perhaps 15 does and young ones, each sauntering slowly past and sometimes looking in the window at me. I was enjoying observing their individual personalities as they casually gathered to graze under the pines around the corner. Some would walk by slowly and confidently, some would be skittish and move quickly past me, and some would stop to peer at me through the window as if wondering what I was doing. It was a peaceful scene as I watched their slow, silent progression one by one.

Deer at Prairiewoods by Joni Reed CooleySuddenly there was a great commotion, and a large doe came flying out of the woods, running at full speed toward the group of deer. She frantically galloped around them twice in full circles, as if “buzzing” them or rounding them up. The group became very agitated and started closing into a circle formation. They were all clearly on alert, jittery and moving erratically. I stood watching in astonishment. After the doe’s second frantic run around them, she shot past my window again and back into the woods, where I could see her continuing to run in her panic, until she was out of my view.

The group of deer continued to be jumpy and alert, and they remained in that circular grouping. I could see them from the hall window, and wondered what in the world was going on. I wished I could understand what the doe had communicated to them. I moved back into my room a few minutes later, and was soon about to find out.

Read part two in next week’s blog to learn what happened next!

—by Joni Reed Cooley, Artist in Residence


How Prairiewoods became a larger part of my life than I could’ve imagined

Otis & Friends 2

I’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.

Last month, I introduced you to Katie Gerhart, a student at Coe College and an AmeriCorps intern at Prairiewoods. I told Katie about how I came to be associated with Prairiewoods. (I begged for food at the kitchen door, the cooks fed me their delicious food and I became quite recognizable by my ever-growing belly.) Then Katie told me about how she got connected with this place of peace and transformation …

I became associated with Prairiewoods because I was interested in getting connected with the community while going to school in Cedar Rapids. After inquiring about becoming a part of the Iowa College AmeriCorps (ICAP) program at Coe College, a college counselor suggested that I meet with Jenifer Hanson, Director of Prairiewoods, to determine if Prairiewoods was the right place for me. Since the ICAP program requires a student to work a minimum of 300 service hours over the course of an academic year, it was important for me to find a place where I felt my skills and interests would be highlighted. After viewing the grounds and meeting with Jenifer, I decided on the spot that Prairiewoods would be an ideal place to volunteer long-term.

Katie GerhartMy ultimate decision was based on two outstanding principles of Prairiewoods that I experienced directly: a welcoming atmosphere and an unprecedented commitment to environmental sustainability.

Upon first entering the center, I immediately felt welcomed by the physicality of the space. The wide, open layout and ample sunlight made me feel warm, while the quiet work of others lent the space to an air of calm commitment. Prairiewoods showed itself to be contrary of the hectic hustle and bustle of a regular office setting; it seemed to me that this place of business really wasn’t a business at all, but a somewhat sacred place created with the primary intention of providing relaxation, reflection, and peace.

My initial feelings were affirmed as Jenifer began to tell me about the mission of Prairiewoods as it relates to fostering a close-knit, ecumenical community with sustainable programs and practices at the core.

I was quite impressed by Prairiewoods’ apparent commitment to environmental sustainability, as evidenced by its proud LEED Gold Standard plaque and frequent use of suntubes. However, in my meeting with Jenifer I came to understand that it’s the behind-the-scenes work of Prairiewoods that makes its environmental commitment so meaningful. I learned about the composting system, the use of reusable towels and napkins, the I-Renew Education Center, and the solar panels. The attention to detail—from using eco-friendly cleaning products to repurposing recyclables—was astounding. As an Environmental Studies student at college, I was awed and inspired to be better about not only the way I act in response to environmental issues, but to be more wholesome in the way I think about issues as well.

Prairiewoods made an amazing first impression on me and as I continue to work with the wonderful people involved in making Prairiewoods great, I am excited to continue to grow as an environmentally-conscious, thoughtful, and reflective individual.

—Katie Gerhart, Prairiewoods’ 2015–2016 Intern

LEED certification & the environmental commitment of 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.

During this school year, I have become friends with a local college student, Katie Gerhart. She is a student at Coe College double majoring in Environmental Studies and English. (And although squirrels aren’t great at English, we’re proficient in Environmental Studies!) During this school year, Katie is working at Prairiewoods as an AmeriCorps intern. Here are her thoughts on Prairiewoods’ LEED Gold certification …

Part of my internship at Prairiewoods involves doing research on current environmental practices, both at Prairiewoods and in the surrounding community. This fall I was handed a massive binder titled “LEED Application with Documentation: 2012” and was asked to read through it to my heart’s content. My supervisor knew that, realistically, I could not get through the 10-pound behemoth, so she recommended that I skim the technical jargon and spend more time on what interests me. As I began reading it, I encountered an undeniable problem: the binder is full of information that is both extremely interesting to me and pertinent to my studies.

Upon receiving the binder, I was excited to discover how Prairiewoods received its prestigious LEED Gold Certification. As an Environmental Studies student, I had heard of LEED and equated it to environmental excellence in an institution. However, I was clueless about how to become certified, which rankings were offered, and even about what LEED stood for. Luckily, The Binder was full of handy information.

LEEDLEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification offered to institutions who apply through the U.S. Green Building Council. The application is quite lengthy and very detailed. It requires documentation on everything from the size of the buildings to the cleaning products used. Often, an engineer is hired prior to submitting the application to help assess the current environmental standard and to offer suggestions to earn points on the LEED application. The points earned on a LEED application are out of 100 and relate to specific environmental techniques reflected in the building, design, and operation of an institution. The final score given to the application is assigned to a certain level of certification: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum (with Platinum being the highest level possible).

The fact that Prairiewoods was granted LEED Gold certification in 2012 is a pretty big deal. Prairiewoods is the only nonprofit organization in Iowa to earn this certification based off of their preexisting building structure. Many institutions are keeping LEED certification in mind as they build new structures because LEED certification showcases environmental values and it can lead to government-issued incentives. However, Prairiewoods was set on becoming as environmentally conscious as possible before it was hip to be green.

LEED Team 2

Sister Helen Elsbernd, Bruce Hamous and Jean Barbaglia Wenisch, the team that secured LEED Gold certification for Prairiewoods in 2012

The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who founded Prairiewoods felt a deep connection to the land and committed themselves to “develop right relationships with all creation and promote sustainability of Mother Earth” (according to their Long Range Land Management Plan). The Sisters worked for a year to develop a common vision for Prairiewoods that revolved around human-Earth relations, and these ideas have been at the center of the organization ever since.

The opportunity to submit a LEED application doubles as an opportunity to physically show the relationship between Prairiewoods and the environment. As I leaf through The Binder, it is clear that years of hard work, dedication, and reflective thought are ever-present at Prairiewoods.

—Katie Gerhart, Prairiewoods’ 2015–2016 Intern

Otis & Friends: Introduction

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.

First, let me introduce myself … As I said, I’m Otis, a resident of Prairiewoods and a member of the menagerie of animals. I will make a few comments and observations about life here through the intervention of St. Francis, who has enabled me to dictate my comments to you. (They were recorded and now are being made available in print.)

I love living on the 70 acres of land at Prairiewoods. The humans here treat all animals and each other with extreme kindness. While many people who come here only get a glimpse of us, we are always watching. The deer, for example, come out to meet some of the humans whom they have come to trust and love, while the red fox stays deep in her den.

When I watch the humans from my perch as they drive their vehicles, I see a very different side of these fellow creatures—much unlike the residents of my small forest. They appear to drive past our enclave and not even notice what a special place it is! I have learned from other squirrels that some humans are rapidly converting land and trees into structures that are barren and lifeless. I am saddened to see our habitat slowly disappear!

Our cousins, the prairie dogs, identify two groups of people: those we should flee from and those we can ignore since they mean no harm. They communicate this information to us, and we follow their lead. Some of the prairie dogs, it is rumored, have been poisoned or shot because they somehow make exploiting their homeland more difficult for humans. This makes all of us feel deep sadness.

Otis close up

a close-up taken by my friend and favorite photographer, Joni Reed Cooley

Our great-great-grandparents passed down to us stories of another type of human who once inhabited a very large part of the land in which our homes now reside. They understood the importance of treating Earth as a sacred place and learned how to use the many plants and herbs for beneficial purposes.

Some of the new humans see Earth as something to exploit for their own benefit. They don’t understand that Earth is alive and must be treated with respect for all of us to survive. They don’t realize that there is much to learn from this menagerie of animals. Even you, perhaps, could learn something from us. I hope you will check back each Friday to hear from me and my friends. (Did you know that I even have some human friends?) Let’s use this year to learn from each other!

—Otis (as dictated to Bill Cooley, friend of Prairiewoods)