HIAWATHA — Outside the main visitor’s building at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, there was a giant bur oak tree.
Like the rest of the area, the center and its trees weren’t spared the hurricane-force wrath of the Aug. 10 derecho. The bur oak and hundreds of other trees on the 70-acre property were taken out by the storm.
Laura Weber, associate director and retreats coordinator at Prairiewoods, estimates that tree was maybe 200 years old. A loss of something like that, with its centuries of life, needs some recognition, Prairiewoods staff believe. So do us, the humans who lived with and cherished those trees and are feeling their loss.
So the center will host “Treasuring Our Trees,” a memorial service for the lost trees, at noon on Oct. 25. The event will be held over Zoom, with people encouraged to join from the spot of their favorite tree. Prairiewoods will broadcast from the stump of that bur oak. Along with Prairiewoods, other organizations including Indian Creek Nature Center, Trees Forever, Winding Pathways, Cornell College Chaplain and Spiritual Life Office, Coe College, Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist will participate.
People can join the Zoom with meeting ID 829 4883 0080 and password 056503, or find a link at prairiewoods.org.
“Trees mean everything. They’re the life blood of the whole planet. They help the planet breathe,” Weber said. “After this happened, we realize how embedded in nature we are and how connected.”
She said this will be the first of three services. Another will be held this winter, focused on dormancy and going deeper, and a third in the spring will celebrate hope and replanting.
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“It feels like a long process, but people need it,” Weber said. “People are still coming out here, because they need creation to heal. We’re just trying to help people come to grips with their own grief ... People keep coming and telling us how important their trees were.”
Prairiewoods has extensive walking trails through its 30 acres of prairie and 4 acres of woods. The wooded trails are mostly closed, for now. Even as a dedicated team of volunteers and staff have cleared the paths of debris, dangerous dangling branches still hang over the trails. The center will need to hire a tree service to come out and remove them before they can let walkers through again.
Still, people have been visiting the center and leaving tokens of their feelings. At a labyrinth where people come to contemplatively walk, someone left a carved wooden cross on a tree stump. Others built small cairns of stones, small memorials to what was lost.
“When we started seeing stuff like this after the derecho, we knew we had to do something,” Weber said. “The power of ritual is integral in all spiritual traditions, because it helps us bodily feel the grief and start the process of healing.”
Sister Mary Hoffman is one of the founding sisters of the center. She said she sees hope and light in the storm’s aftermath.
“I have a mixture of feeling. Like everybody else I was devastated about what happened, but also grateful we didn’t lose structures,” she said. “Nature does what it has to do, and apparently this was what was supposed to be happening at this time.”
She said with these older, mature trees gone from the canopy, new trees and growth will have a chance to break through.
“As time went on, I really did not feel sadness here,” she said. “I think just knowing the plan of nature, this is also going to be an opportunity for regrowth. New things will be regenerating. The roots of all these trees are connected.”
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She said she hopes people will no longer take their trees and the natural world for granted. That can be part of the regrowth, too.
“I think there’s great hope for the future and what people are going to do now. I think it has brought awareness to so many people of what these trees have meant to them,” she said. “This is a part of the growing consciousness of the world.”
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