Everybody has a laughing place. I know this to be true because Brer Rabbit says so in "Song of the South," and Walt Disney wouldn't lie to us. One of the first things I like to find our about people is where their "place" is - where they go to think, to recover from the wounds of life, the place that makes them feel right.
It might be a quiet clearing in a grove, a particular rock next to the lake on a good fishing hole, a spot next to a singing creek in a back field, a tiny stretch of beach that few people know about. It might be a funky old book store, or a spot in the attic where the sun pours through a small window, or a deck chair next to a busy bird feeder. It doesn't matter where it is, so much, it matters that it's yours. And if you have none - no place to go to escape, no place that makes you feel better, put down this newspaper right now and get to looking.
It was with this fascination about laughing places that I read an article about "Anna's Place," in Boone County.
Anna was Anna Beret Gardner, a nature artist and breast cancer survivor. She obtained the land now known by her name from her father - it had been a native woodland stripped of its lumber to supply the demands of growing Des Moines in the 1800s.
In her 20 years on the land, living and raising her son in a handbuilt home heated only by a wood stove and cooled only by the breeze, it re-emerged with beautiful hickory, walnut, oak, maple and ironwoods, unmarked trails good for communing with the wildlife, and a few golden pockets of virgin prairie.
Lori Southard Howe, a contributing writer for the Iowa Natura Heritage Foundation magazine, describes it in a way that makes me long to discard my desk duties and go exploring:
"It's a reverent place of woodlands and a crystal, gurgling stream winding its way along the foot of the ravines to the river. The land offers soul restoring respite from power lines... there's a peace and unity here; this is a place where nature is coping."
In the woods, Anna found the inspiration and many of the materials for her sculptures, which were shown as far away as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. It had to be her laughing place - and Anna would need it.
After being diagnosed with cancer, she returned to school and feverishly earned degrees at Iowa State, forging interdepartmental relationship through her varied loves in art, English, botany and ecology, to the amazement of her professors.
Today, environmental students from the college and elsewhere come to Anna's Place to continue her passion for restoring the land.
Before she passed away, Anna made it clear that this land had to be protected. Her father donated his property in honor of his daughter, and her longtime partner David Marlow has worked with the Iowa Natural Heritage land stewardship staff to continue restoring prairie, woodland and oak savannah to its natural state. The land has been placed in a conservation easement to ensure for its permanent care.
This, my friends, is how nature will survive in Iowa in the future. The times of buying huge regions for state parks is long gone.
Arrangements like this one allow land to remain in private ownership, but apply permanent protections for its use. It is something for those who own property that is not needed or suited for agland to consider.
It doesn't take thousands of acres or even a donation of land to make a difference. Scraps and slices of natural land are all we have left in Iowa, we have to fight for every acre to survive or be restored, if we are to have anything to pass down.
Anna's Place will always be cared for. Future generations will walk its hillsides and breathe in its beauty, as Howe writes (so well that it makes my toes curl up in joy.)
"Marlow will continue exploring these woods that connect him to Anna. On a full moon, you might find him walking up to Anna's most treasured place, the highest point on the land, remembering.
"'Our favorite hikes were winter nights, snow reflecting the moonlight, the trees casting a moon shadow, seeing everything and not seeing anything at all. Yeah, on a snow-covered, full moon night, we walked.'
"Often Marlow will select a rock - perhaps from Anna's collection curated from their family's many travels or maybe a rock discovered from a ravine on his land - and carry it along the trail to Anna's Place... at the summit, he'd carefully place the rock along with countless others, on a pile, faintly resembling a bishop chess piece.... He does this to remember. 'But it's not the rock pile, it's the carrying that's important,' Marlow says.
There is magic in those laughing places, people. They are sacred territory. Find yourself one, do all you can to protect it, and pass it on.