Prairie Oaks Institute

cultivating the earth, rejuvenating the spirit

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POI: Let’s meet the challenge

Dr. Chris Johnson, POI co-founder

Unexpected wonders happen, not on schedule, or when you expect or want them to happen, but if you keep hanging around, they do happen.

~ Wendell Berry

Oh, what a year. This is a time when there is so much at stake – and so much to inspire awe and gratitude. Prairie Oaks Institute, like so many people you love and organizations you support, is in such a time as well. We wish we could provide a regular slate of in-person programs, and open our retreat facilities to mixed groups. But with COVID, for now we just can’t. Knowing that we really are all in this together, we’re asking for your help to stay true to who we are and why we’re here while imagining our way forward with courage and trust. What can we envision together, and how can we embrace new possibilities?

In connection with this year’s Give to the Max Day, we invite your support for these key ways of keeping POI alive and able to meet the challenges of this time, with an eye toward a vibrant future:

  • Online programs to sustain the human spirit and energize capacity to make a positive difference in the world: for example, Courage and Renewal® retreat series that welcome people from all across the country and around the world to deepen their capacities to live, work, and lead with greater authenticity and resilience (“The Winding Way: Courage for the Weary Soul” this fall, and “Healing the Heart of Democracy” coming this winter and spring), and the Lexicon of Sustainability art exhibit.
  • Significantly expanding public access to our beautiful and life-giving outdoor spaces, including ongoing prairie restoration and work to establish a new trail system with an outdoor labyrinth – spaces where people can safely enjoy the solace and healing power of POI’s distinctive oak-savannah landscapes.
  • Crucial facilities work, urgently including the replacement of the Farmhouse roof, so that when the day comes when in-person programming can resume we’ll be ready.

We also want to emphasize that outdoor (socially distanced) access to POI trails and grounds is still available, and our retreat & meeting facilities (the Farmhouse and the upper level of Harvest House) are open for individuals, couples, and for groups from the same organization or family who feel safe being together in the same space. We commit to deep cleaning and sanitizing before and after each stay, and to keeping the space unoccupied for several days between stays.

Even in these times of physical distancing and so many other forms of separation, it really is all about relationships. On that count, and so many others, there is so much to celebrate! It’s simply the truth that POI is needed, perhaps now more than ever, and we couldn’t have done any of it without the relationships that are at the heart of who we are. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts. Thank you for all the ways you’ve helped us to live into our mission over the years “to be catalyst of rejuvenation for people and planet,” and for your support now. Please give what you can! We are truly grateful.…/Prairie-Oaks-Institute-At-Robert-Creek

POI Give to the Max

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President’s June message

Everything is connected

by Chris Johnson, Prairie Oaks president and co-founder

June 2020

It’s becoming increasingly accepted these days that “everything is connected.” It’s now known that the roots of trees, for example, allow them to “talk” to one another, and to send nutrients to members of their community that have been attacked by pests or weakened by disease.

This comes to mind not only in this time of global pandemic, but now all the more in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. His killing – and those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others – both defies and demands words. Horrifying. Gruesome. Sickening. Evil. None of them suffice, yet so much needs to be said. As we’ve all been reminded, silence becomes acquiescence becomes complicity. And of course, beyond the call for words is the demand for action. Meaningful, substantive, lasting change. Hard, sustained, crucial work, work that needs to be rooted in the deepest core of our lives.

The roots of George Floyd’s murder are deep, widespread, and intertwined. Racial justice, economic justice, food justice, climate justice: it’s all connected. We’re all connected, interdependent. Deep down, the roots of our shared humanity cry out for us to care for those among us who are threatened and who suffer. The global reach of the response to what was done to George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis underlines how intertwined we are. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously and rightly said that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Not coincidentally, the name of Prairie Oaks Institute points simultaneously to the deep roots of the native prairie and the broad reach of the burr oak, both of which inhabit the land where POI is located. Our name conveys the importance and necessity of attention both to the deep interior roots and the broad outward reach of our individual and collective work in the world. The prairie restoration work happening here this summer likewise invites each of us to nourish our capacities and strengthen our commitments to live, work, and lead “from within” for the sake of the common good.

Go deep. Reach out. Work for change. Live into the connections that make us truly human, truly alive.

Peace and Justice,


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Prairie Restoration Project: Prep, planting, progressing

Diann Korbel of the Scott County SWCD assisted with the prairie project

Work restoring native prairie grasses and plantings continues at Prairie Oaks Institute in Belle Plaine. The work has been done in collaboration with the Scott County Soil & Water Conservation District and the City of Belle Plaine.

The work is consistent with the Prairie Oaks mission of conservation and sustainability, but it’s also in line with our vision: “To be a catalyst of rejuvenation for people and the planet.” The prairie restoration project has brought renewed life to the space along W. South St. in Belle Plaine’s southwestern corner. And with the number of increasing walkers along the roadway due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s an ideal time to promote our space, community and your place as a part of it.

The Scott County Soil & Water Conservation District’s “Plotmaster”

We’re hoping that this project will provide a space and native grasses and flowers that will give bees and migrating monarchs nourishment, helping them, and us, flourish. The project is also expected to include educational spots throughout, explaining the migration of monarchs and the need to better take care of our bees and planet.

We’ll keep you update during these unprecedented times. In time, we’re hoping to provide a short trail system within Prairie Oaks property for your ongoing walking/hiking adventures, as well as the potential for a native park place in conjunction with city officials and the Belle Plaine system.

If you’re interested in the project, let us know, be it as a volunteer, financial contributor or even as a board member.

Scott County SWCD staff member Diann Korbel consults with Steve Johnson, Prairie Oaks Site Committee chair and landscape specialist.

Today, the birds are still singing freely

“Time for the Singing of Birds” by Dr. Chris Johnson, Prairie Oaks Institute co-founder and President (May 6, 2020)

I saw on the news the other night a piece about how the natural world seems to be enjoying some respite, as if the planet has asked us humans to sit quietly for a time.  The air and water are cleaner, and it seems that bird song has changed:  at least among some species in some locations, birds are singing more loudly and with an expanded vocal range.  Without the usual noise and speed and crush of people to inhibit them, birds are finding and lifting their voices.  They’re exulting in the space that our forced hiatus is offering.  They’re singing, piping, warbling, cawing, chirping, whistling, or trilling with greater gusto and, if you will, with deeper authenticity.

Dr. Chris Johnson

In his baccalaureate address at Spelman College in May 1980 the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman said, “There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again – you are the only one….You are the only you that has ever lived…and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls…. The sound of the genuine is flowing through you.  Don’t be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams [and] your ambitions that you don’t hear the sound of the genuine in you…. Cultivate the discipline of listening to the sound of the genuine in yourself.”

And what of your own “voice” in these times?  To be sure, for many people the change, grief, and anxiety wrought by the pandemic has meant a loss of voice and agency, a laryngitis of soul, a time of lament, a cry for help.  All of that is real, and deserves to be heeded.  This may be a time to listen for your true voice – whether it expresses raw suffering, deep questions, or simple joys.  This may be a time to listen for your most authentic self, to listen for your deepest sense of meaning and purpose to (re-)emerge with greater clarity and “high fidelity.”

In these strange and changing times, where even the birds can sing more freely:  What does “the genuine” sound like, to you?  How do you know it when you hear it in yourself, and in others?  What seems to prevent you from voicing or hearing the sound of the genuine in yourself, and in others?  What is the song that needs to come into the world in and through you?

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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:

As the weeks and months move on, we’d love to hear from you in some form or another. Use our POI email: 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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Miles for Monarchs at Prairie Oaks October 6th!

Prairie Oaks is excited to partner with the Monarch Joint Venture to host a Miles for Monarchs family fun walk event. We hope that you’ll join us for a fun Sunday afternoon (October 6th) from 2-4. Following the amazing migration journey monarchs make from Minnesota to Mexico, you’ll learn all about monarchs and get to visit the great building and nature spaces at Prairie Oaks. There will also be other fun educational stations and time for exploring the Prairie Oaks property!

Registration FREE, but we request a donation of $15/individual, or $35 per family to help support our prairie restoration project at POI. Find us on Facebook and RSVP to our event if you are planning to come!

You can donate here:

The funds raised for this event will be put towards monarch butterfly conservation at Prairie Oaks and on a national scale. With a new sewer project causing the front lawn and pasture to become a construction zone, we are planning to restore this space back to a native prairie habitat that is beneficial to butterflies and other pollinators, and it will have a path that better connects our property! Join our Miles for Monarchs event Oct. 6th to help support the project, or if you can’t make it, please consider a donation!

Please contact Wendy or Dana with questions:,

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Our friends write…

Here at Prairie Oaks we are all about creating spaces for community, connection and reflection. We often stand in awe of the creative and life-affirming work of those who share their gifts with POI and the world. In these fractured and challenging times, we need that more than ever. 

Nature’s Depth is a blog written by dear friend to Prairie Oaks, John Palka. He describes himself as a neuroscientist who loves plants and ponders big questions. 

His monthly blog is always of interest and we thought you would enjoy his Rumination on Autumn. Linger a bit and dive into the the rest of his Ruminations and Explorations while you are there. John sees the world with a nature lover’s heart and a scientist’s mind and we’re thankful he is a member of the POI family.

Leslie Pilgrim, founder and director of Neighborhood Greening believes that your own backyard is fine place to start thinking about environmental stewardship. Her organization is dedicated to community environmental education and stewardship – one neighbor and one neighborhood at a time.

Leslie is also the editor of The Butterfly Effect, a quarterly journal dedicated to highlighting and celebrating neighbors stepping up together to be better stewards of our natural world. You can subscribe on the site so you never miss an issue and also read featured articles, including this July post on “42 to Ways to Green Your Neighborhood!”

Thank you John and Leslie for sharing your love of the natural world in so many beautiful images, words and actions. 

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Leading with Heart:  Courage & Resilience for Challenging Times, A Courage to Lead® / Daring Way Retreat

We live in challenging times, bewildering times of great change, uncertainty – and promise. The more frustrated, confused, or passionate we are about our lives and our work in the world, the more vital it is that we find time to renew our spirits.

As the abundance of summer turns to the casting of autumn seeds, join with others of like mind and heart to cultivate a deeper sense of wholeness and authenticity.

Weaving together the work of best-selling authors Parker J. Palmer (Let Your Life Speak, A Hidden Wholeness) and Brené Brown (Daring Greatly, Rising Strong) this retreat offers a rare opportunity to:

— enhance your sense of calling, direction, and confidence to navigate change.

— develop daily practices and skills to rise strong when you fall.

— reconnect what you do with who you are.

— replenish inner reservoirs of courage and resilience so you can live, work, and lead wherever you are, for the common good.

Please know that we’re committed to making this opportunity as financially accessible as possible, and do not want the cost to be a barrier.  Some scholarship support is available; please inquire to Chris by email at  And if your situation allows you to contribute something beyond the cost of your own registration to help someone else to attend, please do so below.

We look forward to having you with us!

Thursday October 4, 6 p.m. — Saturday, October 6, 2 p.m. @ Prairie Oaks Institute, Belle Plaine, Minnesota   



Complete Package ($335.00)

  • includes everything for the weekend: program, materials, overnight lodging (shared occupancy), and all meals and refreshments

Commuter Option ($250.00)

  • includes program, materials, lunch, dinner, & refreshments (but not overnight lodging and breakfast)


Chris Johnson, PhD, Courage and Renewal® facilitator






Rev. Sarah Ciavarri, Daring WayTM facilitator  (

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Among The Trees: Lessons for Life from A Bur Oak

POI Tree Prairie pic

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

~ Mary Oliver, When I am Among Trees

Come and celebrate Arbor Day with the magnificent bur oaks of Prairie Oaks Institute.  Dwell for a day in the quiet beauty of bur oak trees, and discover some of the lessons they can teach us about living more fully, more intentionally.  Learn about the biology, ecology, even mythology of the bur oaks in their native savanna ecosystem.  Listen to their wisdom for reconnecting with the natural world, and with yourself.  Come away refreshed and renewed, more deeply rooted in the rich soil of your life.  Space is limited, so register now!

WHEN:    9 A.M. – 4:30 p.m., Saturday, April 28, 2018

WHERE:   Prairie Oaks Institute, Belle plaine, MN

COST:  $50 (includes lunch); optional overnight lodging is available ($40)

To REGISTER, go to


Cindy Johnson, Professor of Biology & Environmental Studies, Gustavus Adolphus College. Cindy is interested in the lessons the natural world can teach us, particularly trees. She has spent a lifetime admiring and studying trees, teaching tree ecology/identification and was the Director of the Linnaeus Arboretum. Reconnecting with the natural world and cultivating this connection is vital to our wellbeing. Lessons from the bur oaks will enrich your personal journey. To live deeply among the trees is to savor the breath within each of us that cycles among all living beings, rocks and clouds.  Cindy will co-facilitate this workshop with the bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) of POI.



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Finishing Strong: What’s Next

Fern Picture.jpg

A retreat for mature individuals interested in intentionally directing the next stage of their life.

May 18-20, 2018

Prairie Oaks Institute

To register:

What’s next? Would you like to be intentional about your next steps? Whether it is leaving a lifetime career for retirement / re’fire’ment or transitioning to new ventures this workshop will guide you in thoughtfully creating a plan for directing this transition. Throughout the weekend we will use meditation, writing, sharing, movement and music to create a setting for mindfully crafting what’s next. Are there unrealized dreams that need voice or do you simply need an open canvas on which to paint next steps?  We will use life maps, visioning and time outdoors to examine who we were, who we are and what really matters as we move forward. Join Michele and Cindy to explore what is next in your life, ‘finishing strong’.

Cost: Participants pay for meals and lodging ($175 for the full weekend) and are asked to make a tax-deductible tuition contribution at the end of the weekend based on the value they received from the workshop, ability to pay, and interest in supporting Prairie Oaks Institute.  (Bring a checkbook or credit card.)

Times:  We will start at 7:00 pm Friday evening and finish by 1:00 pm on Sunday.


Michele Rusinko

Michele is a Professor of Dance at Gustavus Adolphus College.  She is also a breast cancer survivor, yoga teacher, writer and resiliency coach.  Michele has spent her entire career integrating the life of the mind with the wisdom of the body.  Navigating her cancer diagnosis gave her new skills which allowed her to feel empowered and joyful as she adapted to the changing landscape.  It is these skills, and this dance, she enjoys sharing with students of all ages and backgrounds.

 Michelle Rusinko pic

Cindy Johnson

Cindy is Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College. She is interested in the lessons the natural world can teach us about transitions.  Reconnecting with the natural world and cultivating connections with nature in the “next stage” of life is vital to a successful transition.  Lessons from the natural world will enrich our emerging understanding of our personal journey.  To live deeply within the natural world is to savor the breath within each of us that cycles among all living beings, rocks and clouds.