David Marlow climbs the hillside trails, framed all around with oak, hickory, maple, ironwood and walnut trees, with the ease of someone who has made this journey thousands of times, each step leading him to discover something new and connecting him to someone precious.
Marlow’s 60 acres of woodland adjoins 80 acres owned by Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation that was a gift from Marlow’s father-in-law, Dr. JH Gardner, in 2009. This land, including three pockets of remnant prairie — golden gems tucked among the trees on south-facing slopes — is Marlow’s sanctuary. It’s a reverent place of woodlands and a crystal, gurgling stream winding its way along the foot of ravines to the Des Moines River. The land offers Marlow soul-restoring respite from power lines, buildings and other icons of industry. "There’s a peace and unity here; this is a place where nature is coping.”
Marlow shared this land with his wife and partner, Anna Beret Gardner, for over 20 years. They raised their son, Gavin, here. When they first bought this land from Anna’s father, “It was a bare slate, and all I could think about was it needed a lot of work,” Marlow said. It was Anna who had the vision to build a home that would leave as small a footprint on the land as possible. The energy efficient home they built — almost entirely themselves — was designed to bring in natural light, stay warm during bitter winter nights with only a wood stove and circulate cooling breezes during sweltering summer days.
Inspired by nature
This land supported Anna’s work as an artist. In the woods, Anna found the inspiration and materials that evolved with her carving and care into artwork full of meaning. An acclaimed artist, she exhibited her works at the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C. Marlow has a favorite piece hanging in his living area. “I wouldn’t let her sell this one—the soaring eagle here. Its spreading wings are from butternut; the slightly misshapen breasts, created from walnut. The piece represents Anna’s triumph over breast cancer.”
After Anna was diagnosed, she returned to college at Iowa State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in biological and premedical illustration and then continued on to earn her master’s degree in interdisciplinary graduate studies, specializing in art, English and botany. While at ISU, Anna developed working relationships with the botany and ecology, evolution and organismal biology departments.
As she learned more about sound land management, she began to clear the cedar trees from the remnant prairies on the properties Marlow, she and her father owned.
Continued commitment to care for the land
Today, graduate students from ISU’s Natural Resources and Ecology Management program and INHF’s land stewardship staff continue Anna’s passion to restore this land. Working alongside Marlow, entranced by his stories and inspired by his commitment, a new generation of conservationists nurtures the land toward a state similar to 200 years ago, before westward progress disrupted the natural balance.
This land was important to Anna. So important, that when Anna was faced with recognizing her own mortality — and Marlow’s — during her battle against cancer, she made her wish to protect this land clear to her family. Anna passed away in 2006 from a fall. It was Anna’s passion for nature as an active conservationist that prompted Dr. Gardner to donate his 80-acre property in honor of his daughter.
Marlow found support and comfort in continuing to care for the land. He also found joy in sharing his passion for his woods, stream and prairie with INHF land stewardship staff who have worked to restore the remnant prairies, woodland and oak savanna on the neighboring 80 acres. He witnessed INHF’s commitment to the land. “They share my vision to recover the land to its natural woodland state.”
Relationships strengthen stewardship
INHF land stewardship specialist Ryan Schmidt and Marlow have forged a partnership and friendship through their work together. Schmidt says, “David has a sincere passion for the land. He’s forward thinking and incredibly humble. Listening to his perspectives on caring for his land inspires me to think forward like David in my land stewardship work. I have such great respect for David, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to support his dreams for these woods and prairies.”
Marlow considers the relationship with Ryan and other INHF staff special, too. In December 2014, Marlow placed his 60 acres in INHF’s permanent care through a conservation easement. The land will remain in his private ownership, but there are permanent protections that will stay with the property in perpetuity. “Their philosophy of working with landowners to understand and focus on the landowners’ wishes and the importance of relationships to protecting land is a primary reason I extended our partnership. That and INHF’s practices and scale. I felt a real sense of relief knowing that INHF will always care for Anna’s and my land.”
It comforts Marlow to know that the land will always be here for others after him to walk its hillsides, to breathe in its beauty, to help the land thrive. “Whoever winds up with this property when I do move on or whatever…well, I hope they appreciate that I’ve taken the first step to protect this place. I want them to know that you don’t have to donate or put an easement on a thousand acres to make an impact. That you work with and do the best with what you have. It doesn’t end up costing anything. And, it benefits so many.”
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 in a ravine on his land — and carry it along the trail to Anna’s place, that highest point on the land. At the summit, he’ll carefully place the rock along with countless others on a rock pile, faintly resembling a bishop chess piece, that now stands about three feet tall. He does this to remember. “But it’s not the rock pile…it’s the carrying that’s important,” Marlow says, his voice full of emotion.
With a gift and an easement, Anna’s family ensures that this land so sacred to Anna will continue to cope and find its natural state under INHF’s care. Future conservationists will work this land and perhaps, like the Marlows and Gardners before them, will turn their faces to the breeze when they reach Anna’s place and breathe in the stillness, remembering and thanking these families for their vision.