New book unlocks nature’s mysteries at Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum

Bookmark and Share

October 2, 2015

By Mike Killeen

The Saint John's Abbey Arboretum was an unexplored mystery to Larry Haeg while he attended Saint John's University.

Now, he and co-editor Jenny Kutter have attempted to unlock the mysteries of the 2,500-acre Arboretum with a new book, "The Nature of Saint John's: A Guide to the Landscape and Spirituality of Saint John's Abbey Arboretum" (224 pages, $12.95 paperback, $9.99 eBook, Saint John's University Press).

The Abbey Arboretum is Minnesota's largest arboretum, and is among the largest in North America. The guidebook features detailed topographical maps and descriptions of six hiking trails, descriptions of 120 species of vegetation and wildlife, profiles of pioneer Benedictine stewards and meditations and prayers for spiritual renewal, and includes an introduction by Abbot John Klassen, OSB, of Saint John's Abbey.

"It's a tribute to more than a century and a half of Benedictine stewardship, and especially to the foresight of the Rev. Paul Schwietz," said Haeg of the former land manager of the Arboretum, who died in 2000. "He was the first to envision these 2,500 acres not just as separate fragments of forest or prairie or savanna or lakes and wetland but as a large, unified, naturally functioning ecosystem to be preserved and protected for study, work and discovery in our search for God. He changed the whole way we look at 'The Nature of Saint John's.' He saw the entire 2,500 acres as a sacred, unified whole."

Kutter did not get the chance to meet Schwietz, but said his commitment to stewardship in the Abbey Arboretum extended beyond caring for the land.

"Fr. Paul's foresight regarding the abbey lands extended to the stewarding of community, recognizing not only the ecological value but also the spiritual, educational and recreational values of this landscape, thus creating a vision that can service the land and the people together," Kutter said. "And, that's really what made a project like this possible."

Haeg said the Arboretum is a hidden gem of Minnesota, and "is becoming more so every year with the advance of commercial and residential development up the I-94 corridor." In that light, Haeg and Kutter envisioned a book that would be "open and welcoming" to a broad audience - including those who were not familiar with the Arboretum.

"It should open up a new world for them, a world they've seen from a distance for many years but never stopped to explore because they didn't know where to start or where to walk or what to look for," said Haeg, who graduated from SJU in 1967 with a degree in English. "We wanted it to be not only a guide to the landscape but also a prayer book, something that unites the natural and spiritual worlds because Benedictines believe biology and theology are inseparable in God's creation."

Plenty of people have written about the Arboretum over the years - monks such Alexius Hoffman, Vincent Tegeder, John Kulas, Hilary Thimmesh, Gunther Rolfsen, Alfred Deutsch, Klassen and Colman Barry; College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University professor of biology Steve Saupe; and Tom Kroll, the current land manager of the Abbey Arboretum.

"This little guide simply synthesizes some of their best thinking and writing and presents it to a very broad audience as a beginner's guide to the Abbey Arboretum," Haeg said.

But the biggest helper for Haeg was Kutter, a 2003 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict with a degree in chemistry and department coordinator for Saint John's Outdoor University and the CSB/SJU environmental studies department. Kutter, her husband, Ryan, and Kroll led the selection process for the six trails; Jenny Kutter selected the species of native vegetation and wildlife and provided first drafts of all their descriptions.

"Jenny is the environmental science brain behind this book. It would not exist without her," Haeg said. "I'm about twice her age, but I was simply her student throughout the project. She and her husband, Ryan, and Tom Kroll were so generous with their time throughout this project, accompanying me on trail hikes - as did the Rev. Hilary Thimmesh and Br. Walter Kieffer - and patiently answered all my questions and provided the context and the background."

"When I met Larry to begin work on this project, it was immediately apparent to me that his vision for the book was driven very much by the 'sense of place' that most of us feel but can't always put into words here at Saint John's," Kutter said. "Larry saw an absence of literature about Saint John's that gives people a history of and connection to land - a field guide of sorts.

"With Larry's initial vision in mind, we pulled together a great editorial committee of people to help us curate the vast amount of possible content into a book that we wanted to be a field guide in size as well as name," Kutter said.