By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
WHEATLAND — Two bumblebees zipped through a group of purple bee balm flowers and avoided near-collision before each descended on a preferred petal on a hot summer afternoon. A few feet away, a yellow swallowtail butterfly flitted from the bee balm to the black-eyed Susan. Birds chattered, holding court on a power line high above the pollinator strip on the grounds of Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat near Wheatland.
The pollinator strip, on either side of the long entrance road to the retreat house, is one of the newer environmental practices the Prairie has implemented at this 200-acre retreat featuring tall native grasses, timber and rolling hills. Another new measure, to make gentler use of the earth, is a solar array, a group of solar panels wired together to capture the sun’s rays to produce electricity for the Prairie. The panels are located near the entrance lane so people can see them and ask questions about how solar energy works. You’ll have that opportunity at Spirit of the Prairie, a fundraising event to be held Aug. 21 from 3-6 p.m. at the Prairie.
“Hopefully, solar energy will augment or take care of much of our electrical needs here at the Prairie,” said its director, Sister Kathleen Storms, SSND. She noted that Sister Johanna Rickl, president of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM) led the solar initiative at the Prairie, a ministry of the CHMs.
This latest initiative meshes with the Sisters of Humility’s ongoing commitment to the care of creation. “With increasing awareness of the seriousness of climate change for planet Earth, I felt the congregation needed to do something more significant as a contribution to address this effort,” Sr. Johanna said. “We explored the possibilities for solar energy here at the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport, but found it would be less feasible for a variety of reasons. When we addressed the possibility at the Prairie, we found it was something doable.”
Other conservation measures at the Prairie include prairie grass plantings, erosion control, vegetable and flower gardens, tree harvesting and planting and pond management. Fire lanes, two miles of mowed grass that follow the undulating lines of the Prairie, serve a dual purpose as walking paths. Walkers get a sense of walking through a natural maze. Stop for a moment, and they might hear a woodpecker’s soft knocking in the timber.
And they might see sweet, glistening blackberries that appear in patches, amidst the prairie grasses and wild flowers, including Queen Anne’s Lace. Sister Marcia Eckerman, CHM, who assists Sr. Kathleen at the Prairie, said birds are likely responsible for the random patches of wild berries. “Marcia is our best berry picker,” Sr. Kathleen added.
Care of the earth is part of the Prairie’s heritage. Its founder, the late Father Vincent Fabula, OCSO, “planted prairie grasses on all tillable land on the west side of the road to preserve it and make this place even more accessible for retreats and for the silence and the beauty,” Sr. Kathleen reflected. He put the land into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a federal program that provides income to property owners for keeping acres out of crop production. It improves the soil’s health, as does the annual controlled burn of alternating acreage over a three-year rotation.
The Prairie models environmental awareness in other ways, too: recycling, composting and serving local foods to guests at the retreat house. “We raise all of our own vegetables and purchase from local producers to cut down on our carbon footprint (the miles the food travels),” Sr. Kathleen said. Eggs, pork, beef and chicken are purchased from local farmers, as well as fruit from trees. And a beekeeper set up a hive this year near the pollinator strips, for which Sr. Kathleen is grateful.
“Peter, our handy man, knew someone he used to work with who doesn’t live far from here. He (the beekeeper) was looking for a place to put another hive, so he brought a hive over here, just west of the pollinator strip. He extracts honey for the farmers’ market and he shares with us. … This is part of building a local community of support.”
This interdependence extends to all aspects of the Prairie. Volunteers created a serpentine design in a hill and a rock garden swale, taking an artistic approach to erosion control. A Boy Scout created a “Cosmic Trail” of stone markers along the fire lanes that denote milestones in Earth’s history. Seeds for the pollinator strips came from Pheasants Forever and a neighbor prepared the soil and planted the grass and flower seeds. When the breeze blows, milkweed, bee balm, black-eyed susan and cone flowers sway in rhythmic fashion. “They’re things that will attract bees and butterflies and birds,” Sr. Kathleen observed.
These are the things that attract visitors to the Prairie as well. “I have always found nature and the outdoors as restorative for body, mind and spirit,” said Sr. Johanna. “So, personally, it’s wonderful to be able to spend some time at the Prairie on occasion. And also, I think it is a wonderful gift to be able to share with others.”
“Part of our mission is to provide hospitality,” Sr. Kathleen said. Whether visitors to the Prairie are participating in one of the scheduled retreats or a self-guided one, “all listen to where the Spirit is calling.”
Fundraiser for the Prairie
What: “The Spirit of the Prairie”
When: Aug. 21, 3-6 p.m.
Where: Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat, 2664 145th Ave., Wheatland, Iowa.
Event details: Enjoy locally raised food, locally made wines and beers, live musical entertainment, silent auction of local art with chance to visit with artists.
Cost: $50 per person. Make a reservation online at www.chmiowa.org or call (563) 323-9466 to receive the official invitation by mail.
About the Prairie: A ministry of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary located in rural east central Iowa on a 200-acre native prairie grass woodland along the Wapsipinicon River. The Prairie offers people of all faiths an environment conducive to personal prayer and reflection, inner growth and nurturing the soul, group team building, creative thinking and decision making.
Director: Sister Kathleen Storms, SSND; Assistant: Sister Marcia Eckerman, CHM; Program Assistant: Sister Rae Elwood,CHM.