Creating a Spiritual Sanctuary

By Susan Shullaw on July 14, 2022 in Blog

Every parcel of land in our state has a story to tell: How the land was formed eons ago; how it was utilized and revered by indigenous peoples; how it was cleared, cultivated and managed by generations after European settlement.

The story of Iowa City’s Harvest Preserve —a rolling, 100-acre oasis of woods, prairie, ponds, trails and inspirational artwork — is unique. Unlikely as it seems, that story links a prehistoric culture 9,300 miles away with the woodland memories of a young boy growing up in rural Wisconsin.

Listening to the stones

In 2001, Doug Paul was leading a successful publishing company in Iowa City. He and his wife, Linda, were visiting Chicago when she suggested visiting a gallery specializing in art from remote corners of the world. When the gallery owner noticed Doug’s interest in some ancient millstones, he told Doug about a series of Neolithic stones on the Indonesian island of Flores.

“Because the stones were from a ‘pagan’ culture, the local religious leaders wanted to get rid of them by dragging them into the ocean,” Doug explains. Instead, the basalt megaliths — 20 in all, ranging from 16 to 30 feet in height, and each weighing from 2 to 10 tons — were eventually purchased by Doug and Linda and brought to Iowa City, a complicated process that took almost a year. When Doug saw them, he says, “the stones spoke to me, and I mean that literally.” He understood he was meant to play a role in the stones’ story, and that he needed to give them a home.

“The stones were the beginning of Harvest Preserve,” Doug says, “but we didn’t own the property itself until Linda, being the practical one, asked me where we were going to put the stones.” Doug identified two historic farm properties on the northeast edge of Iowa City and approached one of the owners about a purchase.

A natural sanctuary at Heritage Preserve

“When I talked to the family, I told them I thought their land was holy ground and that it should not be turned into housing developments. They agreed, we shook hands on the deal, and everything evolved from there.” The second farm had been in probate for nearly two years. Doug worked with the bank and gradually reached a deal acceptable to the heirs.

The stones were installed on the former farm property in 2002, and in 2004 Doug sold his company so that he could spend more time on the land. In 2009, Harvest Preserve was incorporated as a nonprofit entity whose mission is to restore, protect, and preserve its land holdings as a spiritual sanctuary — a place to feel welcome, embraced and open- hearted, and to indulge in the awe and wonder of nature.

Outdoor art and open spaces

In addition to the Sacred Stone Circle, which incorporates 12 of the Indonesian stones, Harvest Preserve includes several other large sculptures intended to encourage contemplation in harmony with the land. Other highlights of the property include a pond, a pond house and patio, a butterfly house and several miles of trails.

In order to permanently protect the natural features of the land, Harvest Preserve donated a conservation easement on the property to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

“The idea of creating the Preserve came from the stones,” Doug says, “So our main intent has always been to preserve the land. That’s where Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation comes in. There’s a lot of pressure from developers in this part of the city, and the conservation easement will protect the Preserve property from becoming a business commodity. We’re fortunate and grateful that INHF understands our intent and that we have their trust.”

Doug, Erin, and Julie

The Harvest Preserve easement allows for placement of sculptures, creation of trails, educational kiosks and other mission-related uses. It prohibits residential development and alteration of the topography, ensuring the property’s open-space character is preserved. With the easement in place, work will continue on restoring native prairie and removing invasive species, including honeysuckle and garlic mustard.

Harvest Preserve, which is open year-round, relies on modest membership fees and donations to fund its operations. Julie Decker, the Pauls’ daughter, serves as the Preserve’s executive director. She organizes and conducts the programs taking place on the property, including summer camps for kids, which can provide opportunities for local businesses to support the Preserve’s mission.

“For example, during one of the camps this summer a staff member from Scheels will be coming out to teach the kids how to fish,” Julie says. “We’ll cook whatever they catch and, boom, there’s their lunch!”

Fostering future conservationists

Julie has developed several local partnerships that help advance the Harvest Preserve goals of cultivating public awareness, appreciation and participation in nature. Those partner organizations include Backyard Abundance, which holds nature therapy classes and similar workshops at Harvest Preserve, and Taproot Nature Experience, an Iowa City-based nonprofit devoted to getting children outdoors and fostering their love of the natural environment.

“When I see kids climbing trees and exploring our trails, it validates everything we’ve done here,” Doug adds. “Kids come alive when they’re outside.”

He can relate to those wide-eyed explorers, which brings us back to the young boy in rural Wisconsin.

“When I was seven years old, my family moved from a small town in Iowa to a country place in Wisconsin, which included a patch of woods,” Doug recalls. “It was probably only 10 acres, but as a small child, it felt to me like an endless forest that stretched for miles in all directions. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world to get out into the woods and play among the oak trees.

Urban green space

“I believe the stones and the trees are always speaking to us,” he continues. “But our ability to listen depends on how fast we’re living, and how immersed we are in our worldly lives.”

Visitors to Harvest Preserve are grateful that Doug slowed down and listened when the stones spoke. Their message resulted in a very special property that will be protected and enjoyed for generations to come.