Becoming a Naturalist, part 2.


Alexander von Humboldt at Chimborazo with botanist Aimé Bonpland. Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch in 1810.

I write this post as I sit with a strong Ethiopian and a dead German. I was already sick of politics on my drive into midtown Omaha, so I departed from my routine and turned off NPR. My favorite coffee shop is usually quiet, but today it offers no escape. Tables are full and everyone seems loudly obsessed with last night’s debate and the latest round of political punditry. But as I take another sip of Ethiopian and my eyes return to my open book, my long-dead companion makes an observation:

He who seeks spiritual peace amidst the unresolved strife between peoples therefore gladly lowers his gaze to the quiet life of plants and into the inner life of the sacred force of Nature, or, surrendering to the instinctive drive that has glowed for millennia in the breast of humanity, he looks upward with awe to the high celestial bodies, which, in undisturbed harmony, complete their ancient, eternal course.

Alexander von Humboldt wrote this on his 1799 New World expedition, published in Germany as Views of Nature* in 1807. Yet he spoke to me across the continents and centuries: The best way to silence squabbling politicians is to enter the hidden life of nature.  I take another sip and he continues:
Thus do the races of men die away. The admirable lore of the different peoples fades away. But with the wilting of each blossom of the spirit, whenever, in the storms of the times, the works of creative art are scattered, so forever will new life sprout forth from the womb of the Earth.
 The “inner life” that Humboldt invokes is beyond social discourse, and is, like the journeys of the stars, far older than human ambition. The real story, our story, is to be heard and told in nature’s womb. Alexander then adds this footnote: “Certainly, Nature in every corner of the Earth is but a reflection of the whole.” His message to me was clear. Finish your coffee and find yourself in deep woods and open spaces. The news you need is out there.
Every naturalist is indebted to Humboldt, in word and practice. Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and many other bright lights intentionally followed in his footsteps and were deeply influenced by his scientific method and conclusions. Some writers have gone so far as to claim that Humboldt invented “nature” as a modern concept. Exaggerations aside, Humboldt was an early exponent of nature as a global web of dynamic relationships instead of a collection of isolated species and dead specimens to be studied in museums and herbaria.
It seems obvious to the 21st-century naturalist that nature is best understood as a web of life that includes both organic and inorganic components, but this was a radical view in Humboldt’s day.
It may also seem obvious that nature is best studied and experienced in the field rather than in a museum or classroom, but that was Humboldt’s contribution as well. He belonged to the emerging guild of naturalist-adventurers that gave subsequent generations of naturalists with wanderlust the scientific justification for their expeditions. Such was certainly the case with Charles Darwin and his contemporary British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently formulated a principle of natural selection as a result of his far-flung field work. A generation later, John Muir proclaimed that he wanted to “become a Humboldt” as he began his life-long journey that eventually took him into the Sierra Nevada and to the heart of the American conservation movement.
In a very real sense, to be a North American naturalist is to follow Muir and to “become a Humboldt.” Happily for us, one need not travel to the far ends of the earth to discover nature; it is also a Humboldtian truth that “nature in every corner is but a reflection of the whole.” It matters more how deep than how far.
 If Humboldt challenged the naturalists of his day to discover nature in the wild, he challenges us to immerse ourselves, and those we hope to inspire, deeply into the wild places that remain.
Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt, edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls, translated by Mark W. Person.

How do we “become a Humboldt” and help others to do the same?  We invite you to join us to explore these questions and to learn about our new naturalist education initiative in partnership with Pottawattamie County Conservation. On Thursday, February 25th we are convening How to Grow a Naturalist: a colloquium and vigorous hike at Hitchcock Nature Center.  Click here for more information.



Becoming a Naturalist

Being a naturalist is the world’s oldest profession. Early humans lived in deep kinship with the natural world. To become a naturalist is to become who we are. But the naturalist tradition in the western world holds at the center a paradox: nature is our true home but is also a deep mystery; it is at once who we are and wholly other. Being at home in nature for post-modern humans requires becoming less alienated from nature while recovering an ancient sense of mystery. To enter the natural world is to at once cross a threshold into the familiar and into the unfamilar. Here’s poet Mary Oliver:

Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I have felt more at home here than anywhere else, including my own house. Stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight. I was stepping across some border. I don’t mean just that the world changed on the other side of the border, but that I did too.


On the path to mystery

Becoming naturalists at Hitchcock Nature Center.

One hears the echoes of Ralph Waldo Emerson here, and for good reason. Mary Oliver says of Emerson, “I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy.” We can plainly see her roots in Emerson’s second-series essay Nature:

At the gates of the forest, the surpised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom  falls off his back with the first steps he takes into these precincts…. The tempered light of the woods is like perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently-reported spells of these places creep in on us. The stems of pines and oaks gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.

For those of us who want to grow as naturalists and to grow naturalists, the path is Möbius-like – a closed loop of infinite variety that similtaneaously takes us home and away. Nature becomes more unknown as it becomes known. In this Emersonian tradition,  Barry Lopez writes:

A modern naturalist, then, is no longer someone who goes no further than a stamp collector, mastering nomenclature and field marks. She or he knows a local flora and fauna as pieces of an inscrutable mystery, increasingly deep, a unity of organisms Western culture has been trying to elevate itself above since at least Mesopotamian times.

And Lopez offers this advice: “pay attention to mystery.”

How do we cultivate that attentiveness and help other adults to do the same? Is there a practical methodology? Is there a rubric of mystery, a school of nature?

We invite you to join us to explore these questions and to learn about our new naturalist education initiative in partnership with Pottawattamie County Conservation. On Thursday, February 25th we are convening How to Grow a Naturalist: a colloquium and vigorous hike at Hitchcock Nature Center.  Click here for more information.



Snow Leopard of the Loess Hills.

saunter jan 31 wide view

New Tree School members expect nothing and find everything at Hitchcock Nature Center. Photo by Robert Smith.

Peter Matthiessen’s classic The Snow Leopard includes a lesson for all who walk in wild places: Expect nothing.

When we shed our expectations and preconceptions and enter nature as infinite and mysterious, a whole world, a new world opens before us in those landscapes we thought we knew. We may not travel the the farthest ends of the Himalaya like Matthiessen, but we can find nature as mysterious and wild close to home.

Find a wild place and leave your expectations behind.

Black Elk Plants

Nicholas Black Elk (1863 – 1950), an Oglala Lakota visionary and “medicine man,” told his life story to John G. Neihardt in 1931. In Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt preserved the Great Vision that has become a guiding and sacred image for the Lakota and other First Nations, and for all people with open eyes and hearts. During that vision, the 9-year-old Black Elk

“took the bright red stick and at the center of the nation’s hoop I thrust it into the earth. As it touched the earth it leapt mightily in my hand and was a waga chun, the rustling tree, very tall and full of leafy branches and of all birds singing.”

The sacred place seen in that vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the sacred waga chun was the indigenous cottonwood (Populus deltoides), the sacred tree of the Sun Dance and other Lakota rituals.

cottonwood Saunders County

Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) in Saunders County, Nebraska. Photo by Robert Smith.

The sacred cottonwood embodied the identity, history, and hopes of the Lakota not only because it appeared to Black Elk in his vision, but because the cottonwood embodied the earth community to which they belonged. The Lakota Nation, like the local cottonwood, belongs to the land that gave them birth and life; they belong to one native community that is bound forever to that land and to each other. This vision speaks to all who love and belong to the wild earth.

How to Plant a Sacred (Native) Tree with Jack Phillips. Sunday, January 24th, 2-4pm. John G. Neihardt State Historical Park, Bancroft, Nebraska.This event is free and everyone is welcome. Contact Amy Kucera at for more information, directions, and to register. This is an indoor and outdoor native tree workshop. Please dress for native weather.


Fullness of Life Found in Emptiness

Of winter, Annie Dillard writes:

Outside, everything has opened up. Winter clear-cuts and reseeds the easy way. 

winter books

When the leaves fall and the striptease is over, things stand mute and revealed. Everywhere skies extend, vistas deepen, walls become windows, doors open. 

All that the summer conceals, winter reveals.


Of winter, nature writer and teacher Matthew Low writes:

Snow covers the ground and the trees are bare, but the hills and forest remain plentiful for saunterers with senses attuned and minds open. With a combination of readings, writing activities, and outdoor exploration, our day will be spent contemplating the fullness of life found in the emptiness, solitude, and silence of winter in the Loess Hills.

Reading and Writing Nature with Matthew Low. January 23rd, Hitchcock Nature Center. Click here for details.






Soapweed Saunters

Waubonsie Saunter, January 2016. (Joseph Phillips)

Waubonsie Saunter, January 2016. (Joseph Phillips.)

When sauntering in the oak canyons of western Nebraska, we love to see  soapweed (or narrow-leaf yucca, Yucca glauca) in bloom and in fruit. The delicate bell-shaped flowers and creamy-colored pods brighten the prairie against the grayish green sword-shaped leaves. The seeds make a tasty snack in summer, but we have never had occasion or need to pound the roots into laundry suds. Happily and surprisingly, we also find Yucca glauca hundreds of miles to the east in Waubonsie State Park.

1957 Yucca

“With fruiting yucca stalks in the foreground and the broad Missouri river valley behind, Waubonsie Park Officer Lynn Johnson toils up a steep park hill. Yucca is common in the far west but most unusual in Iowa.” (Des Moines Register, 1957.)

At the southern reaches of the Loess Hills, yucca makes an odd companion with eastern forest trees like black oak (Quercus veluntina), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and pawpaw (Asimina triloba). On our first Waubonsie saunter of the new year, we were surprised again by green starbursts in the snow.

Yucca glauca at Waubonsie State Park, January 2016. (Robert Smith)

Yucca glauca at Waubonsie State Park, January 2016. (Robert Smith)

Winter promises to enliven us on every ridge and in each ravine, in crunchy prairies and in open woods laying black shadows on snow. Bundle up and be surprised, and join us at New Tree School if you can.

Frozen Thoreau, January 17th; Reading and Writing Nature, January 23rd at Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek, Iowa. How to Plant a Sacred Tree, January 24th at John G. Niehardt State Historical Park, Bancroft, Nebraska. Click here for details.


Ikkyū’s Frosty Love Letters

New Tree School members are less likely to read Zen poetry than floras and field guides, with the exception of the young naturalist that shared with me the poetry of the 15-century Zen monk  Ikkyū. And while we are more likely to study sedges than sutras, Ikkyū’s poem speaks to this season:

Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma

And endlessly chant complicated sutras.

Before doing that, though, they should learn

How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon.


New Tree School at College Woods. Durham, New Hampshire 2005.

Winter bids us to lay aside manuals and field guides and briefly forget the taxonomic sutras of woods and meadows. We read clearly now the bare lines of stories and love letters. Under and above the snow, the long arch of nature meets the sun at both ends of the day. Even the night, still falling early but later each day, writes inky verses that wax, then fade with new moons.

Pull on your wool socks and find yourself in a wild place. Winter soon will wane as days grow longer and the nights, shorter.


A Naturalist?

As one might expect, I was asked what I “do” at my class of 1975 reunion last summer. I drew puzzled looks when I said “I’m a naturalist.” After explaining what a naturalist is and does, puzzlement evolved into the surprised query: “you do that for your job?”

In fact, there are plenty of professional naturalists around. But the title “naturalist” gets applied to a variety of job descriptions – most often applied to environmental educator or leader of elementary school field trips. These are very important roles. But there is an older concept of naturalist, a concept that is closely tied to the tradition of Johnsgard, Wilson, Ray, Dillard, Leopold, Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, Darwin, Humboldt, and all the way back to Theophrastus, the disciple of Aristotle. It is not a job or a hobby. It is a life’s work and a way of seeing the world, and a profession that is integral to the health of human communities. Ralph Waldo Emerson pondered the need for naturalists in his personal journal on October 24th, 1850:

“Now that the civil engineer is fairly established, I think we must have one day a Naturalist in each village as invariably as a lawyer or a doctor… The universal impulse toward the natural sciences in the last 20 years promises this practical issue. And how beautiful would be this profession!”

Emerson goes on to nominate local acquaintances for the job. Among others, he names Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau would have been qualified for the naturalist job not by his philosophy or social activism, but by his encyclopedic knowledge of his local biotic community and ecosystem, and his conviction that the wellbeing of humanity depends on deep and local intimacy with “Nature.”

Wild naturalists at Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa's Loess Hills.

Wild naturalists at Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa’s Loess Hills.

I was recently asked for an interview by an Omaha World Herald reporter. I invited Andrea Kszystyniak for a wild hike during a warm week in November. She raised the inevitable question as we listened to birdsong and studied sedges and tasted bitter berries. Happily the answer came in that moment: a naturalist is a student, pilgrim and explorer of a native place, guided by curiosity and joined by good company. (Thoreau was good at the former but poor at the latter; he disdained company save for a chosen few.) Andrea was a delightful companion and wrote an insightful news story. (To read it, click here: Naturalist… )

I am certainly not an exemplary naturalist. Let us rather look to others among us – the likes of E.O Wilson ( I love his book In Search of Nature) and Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek should be the manifesto for modern naturalists). Above these witnesses, I look to my mentor, friend, and coffee pal Paul Johnsgard. Those of us who seek nature at the center of this continent have no one better to read and emulate. Of his plethora of great books, my current favorite is Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie (2014).

But don’t sit inside reading! Find wildness where you live. Fall in love with nature every day. Pick up a book while waiting for the blizzard to quit, rain to stop, morning to break, mosquitos to die down, or boots to dry. And come to New Tree School. This month we offer a workshop on Lichens and Fungi, and a Solstice Saunter. Click here for details.

And saunter!



Sideways Light and Autumn, Lately


Autumn hickories

Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) in stubborn yellow at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith)

Loess Hills autumn has been lately warm; but not so much today. If we saunter in, we may not saunter out of Sawmill Hollow.

The road into Sawmill Hollow  Conservation is muddy on a good day; it is classified as a “B” road, but that is a bit optimistic. If today’s wet forecast is correct (also optimistic, to be sure) we will be able to get in but not to get out.  I love the sideways light this time of year and the way dusk falls backyard into bright afternoons. But not so bright today!

So as not to become temporary residents that hollow, let’s cancel today’s Saunter. But please think about joining us for the Solstice Saunter on December 20th at Hitchcock Nature Center (Honey Creek). Let me know if you plan to attend. In the meantime, we can wander into the bush and watch autumn slide into winter.
And when you come inside to get warm and dry and read Johnsgard or Dillard or maybe Thoreau, take a minute to read the excellent news article by our good friends Andrea Kszyzstyniak and Kent Sievers. They captured the spirit of NTS and the Loess Hills.  Click here
And saunter.
Jack Phillips