50th anniversary of Earth Day: April 22

Earth Day, April 2020  – Reflections by Dr. Chris Johnson, Prairie Oaks Institute co-founder and president, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day & POI’s mission.

Everyone loves a good story.  In fact, we ARE good stories; we are the stories of our lives.  Stories shape the way we view ourselves and how we understand the world.  We are also creatures of place.  “We are by virtue of where we are,” writes ethicist Daniel Deffenbaugh.  Story and place weave our lives together.

But we are coming apart these days, in more ways than one.  As I write, we are in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.  Before all this, it seemed that our culture’s dominant Story was telling us that we are somehow separate from “nature” rather than integral to it, and that place doesn’t matter.  The dominant story told us that we are threatened by others rather than fundamentally interdependent with each other.  That story told us that food is fuel wrapped in plastic rather than a miracle of soil, sun, and rain.  But is that really the whole story, the only story?

As wrenching as they surely are, these times may also mark a necessary shift from what Joanna Macy and others have called “business as usual” through a “great unraveling” and into “the Great Turning.”  The conventional story is being tugged apart and rewritten, and “place” is taking on new or renewed significance.

Prairie Oaks Institute offers an alternative to the unraveling (formerly) dominant story: one of awe and gratitude, attention and mindfulness, of immersion in the world rather than diversion from it.  POI helps us see ourselves as inhabitants of fragile and breathtakingly beautiful ecosystems, nested in realities that are greater than ourselves.  Spring at POI, especially, beckons, “Go outside!” and remember what it’s like to stop and to pay attention, to revel in abundance, to play and to rest.  “Go outside!” and remember what it’s like to be enthralled by what’s right in front you, beneath your feet, above your head, inside your heart.

This kind of story, this kind of remembering, can be rich soil for ways of living well in the face of the pressing challenges of our time.  As a place of peaceful, wild beauty, POI invites us to be quiet and keep still, to breathe deeply, to imagine possibilities other than flight, fright, or freeze.  While the pandemic consumes the news, the coming of spring in this part of the world invites us to breathe more deeply, to turn the soil, to relish the resilience of life.  And the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week urges us to celebrate the emergence of a new kind of story, one that we can compose together.

For the time being, for the safety of our guests and in line with public health guidelines, POI is closed for retreats and in-person group programs.  But we’re hard at work caring for the space and facilities, and discerning ways to offer programs and resources online; watch for more announcements soon.  We will, however, continue to work on our Prairie Restoration Project adjacent to W. South St. in Belle Plaine, and hope that our planned Second Annual Monarch Walk will go on as scheduled in late summer or early fall.

You’re also welcome to visit POI and walk the land, provided that you practice physical distancing.  And as you’re able, please consider helping to sustain POI through these hard times with your financial gifts.  We need your support, and the world needs POI!  Thank you so much for being with us.  

Earth Day 1970: Early days of ecological awareness

“The questions are with us every day:  In the service of what kind of story will you choose to live your life?  What are the places that shape who you are and what your life stands for?  What wants to emerge in and through you, in these challenging times and beyond?” — Chris Johnson, POI co-founder and current president

Moving forward — Reflections by Dana Melius, Executive Director, Prairie Oaks Institute

When Chris Johnson sat down with me at River Rock Coffee in St. Peter, I had wanted to visit with him for some time about possibly joining the board at Prairie Oaks. I had earlier decided to finally step aside as managing editor of the St. Peter Herald. I was also going to Waseca daily to handle similar duties at the Waseca County News, and our company had recently merged the Le Sueur and Le Center newspapers. Life in small community newspapers was rapidly changing. As a former colleague told me, “Dana, why do you keep doing this? It’s a job for the youngsters.”

Well, those youngsters keep talking to me. Climate change was haunting several of my new, younger friends. In my younger days, I participated in the first Earth Day event in 1970. That dates me a bit. Back then, a wonderful high school instructor at old Winthrop High School, the late Wayne Schrupp, taught an ecology class. Then a 7th-grader, we were allowed to help clean up and paint the town. Simple stuff then.      

Today, it’s a much bigger and complex issue, more critical than ever. And while so much of the discussion seems out of our control on the local level, there remains a real need for honest and open discussion. That’s what I thought Prairie Oaks could offer. 

So, instead of a board role, Chris asked me to be POI’s first-ever Executive Director. And while my first months at POI were pretty much consumed with far less exciting issues — like a sanitary sewer system to replace aging septics — the hope remains that this amazing, magical, under-the-radar sanctuary will rise up again after the COVID-19 pandemic concerns and provide solitude for those looking for quiet reflection.

The sewer work along W. South Street in Belle Plaine, in front of POI’s two houses (the turn-of-the-century Farm House and the brick rambler Harvest House) did present an opportunity for us. Work will continue through this year on a Prairie Restoration Project on about an acre strip of land along the roadway. Change can be hard on some of us, but with every move comes opportunity. And this is a way to both regenerate the barren land from the sewer excavation and provide a visible sign of Prairie Oak’s presence, legacy and vision.

Join us. Whenever life opens back up, whether it ever truly gets back to normal, there will still be need for safe and open reflection. At Prairie Oaks, that world resurfaces in simple, yet magical ways.

“Community is a place where the connections felt in our hearts make themselves known in the bonds between people, and where the tuggings and pullings of those bonds keep opening our hearts.”

 — Parker Palmer                                           

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” — Wendell Berry

Prairie Restoration: Our 2020-21 project takes shape

Planting a seed: Reflections by Steven Johnson, POI Site Committee Chair

A ¾-acre Prairie Restoration Project is in progress on Prairie Oak Institute’s campus in Belle Plaine. The area is about as long as two football fields and about as wide as a basketball court.

Site preparations began last fall, in part as a result of a city of Belle Plaine plan which extended a sewer line along W. South St. While needs for that excavation work also included the removal of some trees and shrubs, the impact and move inward of POI’s pasture fence has presented the opportunity to develop new space and environmental programming.

There is hope that this renewed prairie space will grow POI’s ecological and educational programming in a number of ways. For example, there could be monitoring pollinators, like monarch butterflies, as well as the study of native plants.

This spring, the plan is to plant a seed mix that consists of nine grasses/sdeges and 19 forbs/legumes, as prescribed through work with the Scott County Soil & Water Conservation (SWCD). We’ll provide updates as the Prairie Restoration Project proceeds.

Earth Day 2020: More is needed

Prairie Oaks Institute is planning the year ahead, despite the limitations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Retreats which have typically dotted the POI calendar have been postponed or cancelled. We will continue to monitor the state’s decision-making and do our best to keep you informed.

In the meantime, check out our POI website for ways to contribute: https://prairieoaksinstitute.org/

As the weeks and months move on, we’d love to hear from you in some form or another. Use our POI email: info@prairieoaksinstitue.org to let us know how you’re coping and also spending some time out in nature.

We can get through this together. We can reflect. We can move forward in exciting, new ways. — Dana Melius

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