To the heartland; stories from the Network

Firesoul Melissa Burdick

Just outside Des Moines, Iowa, is a Sacred Place nested inside The Brenton Arboretum — a veritable botanical wonderland. We recently checked in with Firesoul Melissa Burdick who took us on a remote, narrative tour of the Arboretum’s ever-expanding collection. She also shared how visitors have responded to the site since the onset of Covid-19.  

First, a little background about the Arboretum itself.  Established in 1997 by Sue and Buz Brenton, a lifelong childhood friend of our co-founder, Tom Stoner, the Arboretum’s mission is to inspire joy through the beauty and knowledge of the natural world of trees. It does this through education, conservation and research around woodsy plants, all carried out in a setting of quiet enjoyment. 

Here you’ll find more than 2,500 trees and shrubs representing 500 species, hybrids and cultivars; the trees presented in a context of sweeping vistas of native prairie. And most of the tree and shrub collections are grouped by species to allow direct comparisons. Melissa painted a picture of prairie elements including native grasses, including buffalo grass, blue grama, little bluestem, and sideoats grama and native wildflowers. 

Situated overlooking a grass labyrinth, the Nature Sacred bench provides a quiet area of respite and contemplation within the larger campus. Perhaps the most striking things we learned from Melissa centered around the journal entries collected here during the most challenging days of the pandemic. 

Prior to Covid-19, Melissa said that typical journal entries were somewhat bland – visitors made notes about the weather or jotted things like “Tammy was here.” She and her team noticed a significant uptick in both the number of entries during 2020 and the early months of 2021, and a shift toward deeper, more meaningful revelations. “I made peace with God today” is one example. 

At Nature Sacred, we know that both writing and reading journal entries on our benches can bring tremendous positive benefits to healing and wellness for visitors to Sacred Places. However, Melissa reminded us that these powerful messages about the meaning of the Sacred Place in people’s lives can sustain and fulfill Firesouls and their dedicated team members, whose efforts to maintain and enhance these green spaces can go unnoticed and are often undervalued. As Melissa said, “Most of what we deal with are the squeaky wheels, the complaints, the trash, cigarette butts, even dirty diapers. For my team, these types of entries make the blood, sweat and tears worth it. That we are creating this kind of place for people to heal. No one is going to come up to you and say that, but they will write it in the journal.” 

During the pandemic, the Arboretum was able to safely stay open to the public with membership increasing by 100 households and visitation increasing by 68 percent. Melissa and her team had to cancel or reschedule rentals at the site but were able to get creative with community engagement through grab-and-go versions of their popular make-and-take educational programs and a Halloween drive-through.

Now that safe gathering is available at The Arboretum, in-person programming has resumed; think storytime visits by children’s book authors, Teddy Bear picnics, wellness series and photography challenges. 

Each Sacred Place is like a world unto its own; The Brenton Arboretum, no exception. 

If you are in the Des Moines area or plan to pass through, make sure it’s a destination; and remember to leave a note in the journal.