A higher calling is at the heart of Jim Kessler’s conservation story.
“Kathy and I are people that take our Christian faith pretty seriously and see this as a part of taking care of God’s creation,” he explained.
It’s no wonder then that the 30-acre plot he and his wife Kathy donated in 2018 to Bur Oak Land Trust has become a sanctuary for wildlife and people.
The first time Jim visited a prairie was after grad school. He grew up on a dairy farm in Oskaloosa where he says he spent a huge amount of time outdoors. He earned a degree in natural sciences teaching, and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Northern Iowa, then took a few ecology classes led by professor Ben Clausen, one of the early environmental educators in Iowa and leader of the award-winning Iowa Teachers Conservation Camp, where he got to learn about and explore prairies. The pivotal moment though, Jim said, was around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970.
“I had never been a protester, so I wasn’t out there,” he said with a chuckle, “That’s not the way I operate.”
He was in his college bookstore when he pulled a book off the shelf and bought it.
“It was called, ‘A Moment in the Sun,’” he said, “which is a Sierra Club book, and it explained the environmental crisis, which was unbelievable.”
He described learning of ecological horrors like the Cuyahoga River burning in Ohio that left a resounding impact.
“I mean, I finally got it,” he said, “We have a problem here. We’re abusing the Earth.”
It wasn’t until he saw his first prairie in bloom that he knew what he needed to do to care for the land around him.
“That was the most beautiful spot I’d ever seen,” he said, but after that moment sadly, the prairie didn’t last long. The land was in an estate, Jim said, and was plowed over and farmed a couple years later. Jim was devastated.
“I really grieved about that because I fell in love with it, and so did my wife,” he said, “We decided that if we had the chance to buy a property near Grinnell and near our church that we would do that and do natural restoration on it.”
Kathy, an avid birder, was part of the local Audubon Society. She and Jim went to a meeting where Kathy mentioned that they were casually looking for some land to buy near Grinnell. It turns out someone from the group, a developer, had timber and 20 acres of land they wanted to sell, but the land was under an option agreement. Jim told the developer if the option were dropped, to let him know.
“And I didn’t think about it,” he said, “Kathy prayed about it to help them to drop their option. Two weeks later they did.”
Jim is a lifelong learner and educator. He taught science at Newton High School for 34 years. Back in the 70s when no one was teaching ecology to high school students, Jim said he had to create his own lesson plans, and he also managed the prairie that was planted behind the school. Creating his own backyard prairie garden inspired him to work on a larger scale.
In 1998, the Kessler’s were able to buy the land they wanted just west of Grinnell to make their restoration dreams come true. They wasted no time getting started on projects.
Jim consulted with experts like Daryl Smith, founder of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at UNI, about restoration as he worked on bringing the land back to life. He brought in native plants from around the county, learned how to get rid of the invasives and even grew some plants in the couple’s greenhouse.
Through a lot of learning and some trial and error, Jim has reconstructed the prairie and wetland of the preserve and continues to restore the woodland.
For him, it wasn’t enough to have concern for nature and do the work to care for it, he also wanted to share his knowledge with others so that they may be compelled to care, too. He spoke at his church about the work he had been doing at the preserve and what he had learned over the decades-long process. That presentation led to many more around the country, and Jim has now become quite the public speaker, though he would say otherwise.
“I’m a teacher,” he said, “I’m not a public speaker. I’m not the splashy guy. That’s not me.”
Nonetheless, Jim has passed down his passion for nature to many including his son Paul, who also teaches biology in Grinnell and has done his fair share of work on the preserve. Kessler Prairie also means a lot to Jim’s grandchildren, who come from Des Moines to stay overnight and to get their “pysches back together,” he said, chuckling. Jim has equally inspired Bur Oak staff and members of the AmeriCorps crew through the work he does.
“They comment about how they love to come out here and work,” he said, “I think part of it is they get to see a real person that’s doing some of this. I always sincerely express appreciation because I knew when I started working on the woods, I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to live long enough to see this finished.’”
But with Bur Oak’s help, changes to the woodland started happening quickly. Soon, the entire area will be ready to be burned, which has not happened since Jim has owned the land. He keeps finding new things at the preserve to learn about and work to preserve like bumblebees that may be on the endangered species list in the near future and the rare bobolink, a prairie bird that is in decline due to habitat loss. Those creatures, and hundreds of other plant, insect, animal and bird species find a home at Kessler Prairie. When asked how the nature all around him makes him feel, he said, “pretty wonderful.”
“I read about how all of this affects people’s mental and physical and spiritual health,” he said, “I get to experience that every day of my life because we live in the middle. I am incredibly thankful and incredibly blessed to be a little part of [the preserve] and to help it along.”
Jim has spent the last 25 years seeding, mowing, cutting, treating, and caring for his slice of heaven. Donating the land to Bur Oak was the Kesslers’ way of protecting all the work done to restore it, to ensure that the management would continue forever, and to leave a respite for the many living things that have come to rely on it.
“Climate change is a huge problem, one I’ve watched over my lifetime, and pollinators are just getting hammered,” Jim said, “They need places where they can survive, and I don’t know if 30 acres is going to accomplish that, but it’s what I can do intensively.”