Tikhon "Tom" Brandner bounced over bridges only inches wider than his "all-terrain" golf cart, stopping to toss handfuls of feed for geese into the ponds and creeks of his private Aiken County retreat, Prayer Island.
The area around the top two ponds is green all year, he said. When plants downhill leaf out "I call it 'The 26 Shades of Green' down there - it is unbelievable how dark it gets in the summer."
It took 10 years to find the property. He wanted land with a creek running through it - not just around it. In the 22 years since he bought it, he's planted seedlings, shrubs and bulbs by the thousands to create a wooded landscape where even his grandparents, who lived in Europe's Carpathian Mountains, would feel at home.
The retreat is a place to recharge his spiritual batteries, to reconnect with God, to pray, said Mr. Brandner, a dark-bearded deacon at St. Catherine's Antiochian Orthodox Church in Aiken. "There is a lack of places set aside solely for prayer and meditation. That is the only reason Prayer Island exists."
There is no prayer chapel to keep up, no mission collection on Prayer Island, but it is difficult for people to see it is a refuge from the world, he said. "When you say you planted 12,000 trees, most people think you have done it for money."
People also ask how much acreage he has, a sore point with him, he said. "I always say 'enough.' Americans don't like that word. But for me, it is enough."
He visits weekly if not more often, sometimes camping two to four days at a time, sometimes writing sermons there. He's never far from spotting a newt or lizard, some bird or duck, a deer or rabbit.
The last area he developed on the property, a tear-shaped island, is accessible only by crossing a bridge. A clearing holds an altar of cinderblocks that shelters three small icons: one of Christ; one of Mary, the mother of God; and one of Mr. Brandner's patron saint, St. Tikhon, the tree-dweller.
"St. Tikhon died in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue - that is how I remember it," said Mr. Brandner, lighting fresh candles on the altar, which he does each week.
Tikhon, the saint, left the "big city life" of Moscow for the "big woods of Kalauga, where it never gets warm," and moved into a hollow oak, he said, lighting another candle.
Russian disciples later formed a monastery near the tree and made Tikhon its first abbot, said Tikhon, the tree-planter, as Mr. Brandner likes to call himself.
For many years, he has planted trees over Christmas break from his job as a school psychologist working with special education students. He retired after 30 years and now is a psychologist with Aiken County Career and Technology Center.
This year he put in white pine seedlings and button bushes amid the bald cypress, wax myrtles, wild magnolias, gum, pine and paw-paws - the last has fruit that "tastes like banana," he said.
Kentucky-born, Mr. Brandner grew up in the woods of Illinois and Michigan. He refuses to cut down a tree unless it is diseased.
In Genesis, the earth is "put under Man's dominion," he said. His understanding is that "stewardship is not dominating, but being a good steward."
He calls the private preserve near the Central community "a cathedral without walls." He has held weddings and memorials there and shared its paths with other nature lovers, special education students and prayer groups.
"One of the problems in America is that we have a lack of holy, sacred places" set aside just for prayer, he said. Some argue that people can pray anywhere because every place is holy - God is everywhere, he said. "We could do it anywhere, but typically we don't."
Instead, people need a place to go where the attitude is "this is the place where we talk to God," he said.
The sense of peace and well-being he has comes from prayer but also from tending Prayer Island's woody hills - cleaning up brush, feeding the geese, tracking wandering beaver. Prayer Island has helped him continue a high stress job, and the sense of calm lingers when he returns to work, he said.
Before buying the property, he used to walk in Hitchcock Woods or fish at Thurmond Lake to relieve stress. "I would hear the fish were biting up in Clarks Hill," he said. "And by the time I got there, they had stopped."
When he found Prayer Island, he had to choose between it or a new car, he said. "I didn't buy the car."
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