Trees serve as lasting gifts and friends to Prairiewoods' retreatants

By Betty Daugherty, FSPA

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. 
The second best time is now.  

                -Chinese proverb

Twenty-four years ago was also a good time to plant trees. That’s when Sister Karen Flottmeier, with the help of friends, planted close to 30 small long-needled pine trees along the northern fence line of Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, Iowa. These trees already had a history.

As leader of what was then FSPA’s Central Region, Sister Karen had distributed these trees as seedlings a year earlier to sisters attending a region gathering. She requested that they care for these saplings for a year and bring them back at the next gathering. So, at a region day in 1994, these still small and fragile pine trees were returned and used as part of a ritual honoring deceased FSPA. Since they needed a permanent home, Sister Karen chose to plant them close together on a small ridge overlooking a large patch of prairie.

Today, some 23 of those trees still flourish, clustered in two small groves along one of the trails that circles through woods and prairie on the 70 acres of land that comprises Prairiewoods. Hikers can stop for a rest in their shade on a hot summer day or admire the beauty of their snow covered branches as they reach up to a clear blue sky. Birds take shelter in their sturdy limbs and other small life forms find a perfect home. These tall pines, tended carefully over 24 years, add significant environmental value to the land.
Trees have historically had symbolic significance in many cultures; they inspire us with their beauty, strength and majesty and serve as a common archetype of both physical and spiritual nourishment. 

For ancient Celtic peoples, trees were considered sacred sites, places for spiritual ritual and ceremony. In this same tradition, all fir trees, which tend to outlive other trees, signify longevity and remembrance, so are appropriate reminders of loved ones who have gone before us.  Evergreens are natural symbols of hope, promise and renewal as they preserve their green needles throughout the year. 

In his book, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate,” Peter Wohlleben writes about the behavior of trees. Peter, who worked for 20 years as a German forester, found that trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings. They work together in networks and share resources.

Regarding conifer trees, he writes that “They vow to grow straight or not at all. And off they go, always opposing gravity, directly up in a vertical direction so that the trunk is perfectly formed and stable.”

Other scientific work has been done recently around the ways in which trees communicate with one another through a network system that allows for the exchange of nutrients and water needed for photosynthesis. This network is composed of below-ground fungi which send mycelium or threads through the soil delivering water and sugar. This allows trees to help one another.

The planting of trees is part of an ongoing land development plan for Prairiewoods. Sister Nancy Hoffman, director of outdoor management, estimates that over 350 trees have been planted in the last 20 years, often with the help of volunteers. A large number of them have been planted in memory of deceased family members or to honor those connected to the center.

Trees have a way of becoming our friends. Retreatants often speak of one special tree they found in the woods that gives them a sense of the sacredness of all things. Many find their way to an ancient Grandmother Oak where they might spend hours in simple rest, welcoming the sense of strength and endurance they find in her presence.

Those who know the stories of the 23 trees planted 24 years ago are reminded that the community members who no longer walk with us are the ones who make a place like Prairiewoods possible. It is their lives, their work and prayer that provide the spiritual and financial soil into which we sink our roots.

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