Proposed urban forest in Dysart

The Viola Irvine Nature Preserve

Cathy Irvine’s dog Duckie takes a break on the edge of the proposed Viola Irvine Nature Preserve in Dysart — a two acre wooded parcel located just south of 310 Sherman Street. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

The citizens of Dysart are about to gain some trees, tranquility, and a special piece of the town’s history thanks to the generosity of local conservationist and retired teacher Cathy Irvine.

If all goes to plan, a two acre wooded parcel once owned by the late Joseph Dysart — local farmer, newspaper editor, state senator, and Iowa Lt. Governor for whom the town gets its name — will soon become the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve.

Cathy Irvine owns the property now and has been working in conjunction with the Dysart City Council to donate the urban forest located adjacent and south of 310 Sherman Street on the southeast side of town to the city.

“This piece of land was ceded to Joseph Dysart in 1855,” Irvine said on a humid mid-August morning as she stood near the edge of the wooded parcel. “In 1904, [my husband] David’s great grandfather bought it. … In the late ’50s, early ’60s David’s parents [David, Sr. and Viola] bought it.”

David and Viola once lived in the home at 310 Sherman Street — having replaced the old farmhouse there with the newer prairie style home in the 1960s.

Local conservationist and retired teacher Cathy Irvine holds a feather she found in the woods behind her late mother-in-law Viola Mehlhaus Irvine’s 310 Sherman Street home in Dysart. Cathy is working to turn the woodlands behind the home into a nature preserve and donate it to the city for the public’s enjoyment. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

The woods were their backyard.

“[Viola] sat in the kitchen and looked back here at the woodlands and it brought so much tranquility and peace,” Irvine said of her late mother-in-law. “It got her through a long illness. I want to see it preserved as it is now.”

The preserve would feature a natural wood chip trail starting along a pine tree lined easement directly off Sherman Street — east of the home’s driveway — then wind through the woods before ending on the west side where Maple Street ends.

Through the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa, Irvine is working to create an endowment which would provide $4,000 annually to the city of Dysart for ongoing maintenance of the preserve. She’s also been working with the local tree board on how best to prepare the property ahead of preservation.

During a recent Dysart City Council meeting, the council voted to forward Irvine’s plan for the preserve on to the city’s attorney. While Irvine waits on the legal aspects of the preserve to take shape, she’s not wasting any time working to improve the landscape.

Local conservationist Cathy Irvine leads a hike through her two acre wooded parcel on the southeast side of Dysart that she hopes to donate to the city for the creation of the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve. The preserve — named in memory of her late mother-in-law who once lived on the property — would feature a walking trail with public access from Sherman Street. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

“It’s mostly walnut trees, some over 150 years old,” Irvine said as she hiked through the woods that August morning, pointing out native wildflower plantings she’s made as well as Irvine family memories.

“In my husband’s lifetime, they used to bring sheep in to mow this down. We brought goats in [recently] for brush management. After the goats, I dug out a lot of raspberries. … My friend has a woodland garden and she dug me some plants. I just sprinkled them out in places where we don’t have to take any invasive species out.”

Irvine has found evidence of owls in the woods and also fox.

She’s hoping in addition to the public visiting the preserve to hike, birdwatch, and immerse themselves in nature, local teachers will also seek out the space.

“Teachers that would want to find a place to learn out in nature, maybe write a story.”

The proposed public easement in Dysart which would allow access to the planned Viola Irvine Nature Preserve is pictured in mid-August of this year. The easement is located directly east of 310 Sherman Street. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

To that end, Irvine is planning to turn the cement pad of an old garage tucked deep in the heart of the woods into a space for a bench meant for “quiet contemplation.”

It’s been more than a year, Irvine said, since she launched her idea for an urban forest and all the benefits such a space can provide like air and water filtration, flood control, carbon storage, energy conservation, animal habitat, and even natural beauty.

For all those benefits and more, Irvine is willing to be patient — much like the woods in which she walks and Viola Irvine loved so deeply.

“It’s in the hands of the lawyers right now but I want it protected in perpetuity.”

An owl feather lies on the ground at the future site of the proposed Viola Irvine Nature Preserve in Dysart. Photo by Ruby F Bodeker