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Find your church in one of these three local nature preserves designed for ecospiritualists


Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, Hiawatha — courtesy of Thomas Dean

In our pandemic lives, many of us have deepened, discovered or rediscovered our relationship with nature as a way to cope with the new restrictions on our lives. The benefits likely have been multiple: enhancing our own health, learning more about the land we live on, perhaps even sparking a stronger environmental ethic. Many of us who love the land seek connections to nature that run even more deeply, on a spiritual level. We are fortunate that there are three remarkable places in our home region whose mission is to do just that — spark, nurture and cultivate what one might call our spiritual connection with nature. They all are worthy of your support through volunteerism, financial donations and participation.

Spirituality, of course, can take many forms, and I speak of it here in the broadest sense. Perhaps writer, educator and activist Parker Palmer puts it best: In his article “Teaching with Heart and Soul: Reflections on Spirituality in Teacher Education” on the website for the Center for Courage and Renewal (which he founded), Palmer says, “The definition I have found most helpful is simply this: Spirituality is the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than our own egos.”

So when I’m talking about our interrelationships with nature from a spiritual perspective, I mean from realms that transcend our physical experience and understanding, as well as our own egos or sense of self. That could be through art (our own or that of others), it might be through myth and storytelling, it might be through religion — wherever you find your own rising of the spirit.

Among the special places in our area where we can nurture nature and spirit, the “mother of us all,” so to speak, is Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, a self-described “ecospirituality retreat and conference center.” I have been entranced and inspired by Prairiewoods since I attended my first retreat there in 2014. Prairiewoods was founded and is led by the Catholic Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, but as their mission statement says the center “is a sacred space where people of all faiths and cultures are invited to explore and nurture their relationships with the Source of all Being, Earth, Self and Others, with an increasing awareness of the story of the Universe.”

Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, Hiawatha — courtesy of Thomas Dean

The land Prairiewoods sits on is just as crucial as its lovely retreat and conference center, guest house and hermitages: 70 acres of beautifully restored prairie and woodlands (sadly, the woods suffered major damage from the August derecho), including a labyrinth, an edible landscape garden and a sweat lodge for its monthly Inipi ceremonies. Much of the food served at the center is grown in its own organic garden.

I have enjoyed and learned much from individual programs and retreats at Prairiewoods across a range of topics: regenerative leadership, “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku), contemplative nature writing, nature photography and “the soul’s ripening,” The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (with writer Belden Lane) and Courting the World Soul, a retreat (which ended up being online this past spring) with mythologist Sharon Blackie and musician Sara Thomsen. I’ve even been privileged to do a reading of my own book Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, co-authored with Cindy Crosby, at Prairiewoods (many of my photographs in the book were from there), lead a workshop on Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and organize an upcoming series of creative workshops focused on “nature conversations.”

No matter if you’re exploring the grounds on your own, conducting your own private retreat or attending a program, conference or group retreat, you’re sure to find the relationship between your spirit and the natural world enriched at Prairiewoods. I have.

Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, Hiawatha — courtesy of Thomas Dean

A bit closer to home for me in Iowa City — literally within a mile of my house — is the unique Harvest Preserve, 100 acres of rolling Iowa landscape (woods and prairie, as well as a pond) along North Scott Boulevard, north of Rochester Avenue. Spirit and nature are central to their mission: “to restore, protect and preserve its land holdings as a spiritual sanctuary.” The preserve is “holy ground where invited guests may quietly commune with whatever aspect or manifestation of the Divine they find personally appealing. The Preserve is a place to feel welcome, embraced and open-hearted, and to indulge in the awe and wonder of nature.”

Harvest Preserve is not a retreat center, though it sponsors programs throughout the year, such as solstice celebrations, nature walks and musical events. Art plays a central role in Harvest Preserve’s character and mission, with several sculptures integrating with the landscape throughout its acreage. (Be sure to take a woodland rest in Whitman’s Glade, joining the three women of They Are Waiting, a sculpture by Nigerian-born artist Nnamdi Okonkwo.) The most familiar sculpture to Iowa Citians would be the 20-foot-tall Indiana limestone Sitting Man (previously called Man on a Bench) overlooking Scott Boulevard. Most locals call it “the Buddha,” though that was not the intention of the piece. This past summer, Sitting Man moved across the street from its original location (due to a land swap between Harvest Preserve and ACT) and now sits facing east, inviting us to sit and be contemplative as well.

Perhaps the artistic and spiritual (and in many ways natural) centerpiece of Harvest Preserve that most defines this special ground is the Sacred Stone Circle, 12 4,000-plus-year-old basalt stones from 16 to 30 feet high, brought to Iowa from Indonesia by preserve founder Doug Paul (a fascinating story in and of itself). Meditators (individual and organized groups alike) and those seeking the alignment of nature and spirit inevitably find their way to the hilltop where the Sacred Stone Circle rests.

The new kid on the ecospiritualism block is Terramuse, a retreat center on 47 acres of rolling hills and woodlands near Mechanicsville, opened in 2019. Founded by Iowa returnee, psychologist and experienced community adult education program designer David O’Donaghue, Terramuse describes itself as “a combination of an educational center, a retreat away from the noise and tensions of the city and a place of ecological experimentation and appreciation.”

Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, Hiawatha — courtesy of Thomas Dean

Like Prairiewoods and Harvest Preserve, Terramuse can be enjoyed and experienced individually for a time of contemplation and solitude, or as part of a group day event or retreat. Guest accommodations, including food, are available, as well as an airy, restful main retreat center building. The grounds feature a Zen garden, fire ring and sweat lodge, and I’ve been enjoying the Facebook updates on construction of the pyramid, the temple of Demeter and the Shinto shrine. Of course, the coronavirus has put a crimp in Terramuse’s first-year programming, but this fall did see a women’s renewal retreat, a three-day Cosmic Rebirth Retreat with Light Language and a special Halloween event to experience the thinning of the “veil between this lifetime and beyond” on the evening of Oct. 30. I look forward to engaging with Terramuse much more when COVID-19 is more behind us!

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Mythologist Sharon Blackie says in If Women Rose Rooted: A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging, “We are not separate from this Earth; we are a part of it, whether we fully feel it in our bodies yet or not.” We are fortunate to have in our local region three remarkable places that can help us heal this separation, feel the earth in our bodies and nurture our souls.

Thomas Dean does not go far away to tap into the spirit of the natural world. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.


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