Pond Studies at HNC Naturalist School


Pond Study at Hitchcock Nature Center.*



Boreal chorus frog (Anachris maculata) on bracket fungus (Laetiporus sulphureus). 


Boreal chorus frog tadpoles. (Laura Connelly.)


Bullfrog tadpole (Lithobates catesbeianus).


Ecologist Joseph Phillips teaches aquatic food webs.

damselfly larvae

Odonate larvae with giant duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) and lesser duckweed (Lemna minor).


TNS at  pond

Learn about The Naturalist School and our new Naturalist Certification Program in partnership with Pottawattamie County Conservation.  Click here.

*Photos by Robert Smith except where noted.


Energy Flux in Boots



the world according to naturalists

Earth.  (TNS workshop, 2016)



Raymond Lindeman’s 1942 diagram of a freshwater food web. Lindeman pioneered the concept of quantifying energy flux in food webs. He tested this approach in a Minnesota bog. We do that kind of thing at TNS.


“In this lake, where competitions are fierce and continuous beyond any parallel in the worst periods of human history; where they take hold not on the goods of life, merely, but always upon life itself; were mercy and charity and sympathy and magnanimity and all the virtues are utterly unknown…even here…an equilibrium has been reached and is steadily maintained that actually accomplishes for all the parties involved the greatest good which the circumstances will at all permit.”—Stephen Forbes, The Lake as a Microcosm, 1887.

Stephen Forbes and Raymond Lindeman found something beautiful and magnificent in wet and wild places that knew nothing of humanity. Yet we find beauty in nature and in human nature when we find ourselves in good company high on a prairie ridge or deep in the woods or up to our knees in green muck. That’s what happens at The Naturalist School. Wear boots with us.  Click here.

Anuric Therapies

boreal chorusfrog

Species TSN 207312 (Pseudacris maculata). Photo by Jeff LeClere.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 7)

Finding frogsong is my springtime wont. In my world, boreal chorus frogs start to sing before the vernal equinox and sing through the summer solstice and beyond. Humboldt’s “world-directing chorus” is closer to home for me; my muses prefer wetlands to mountaintops and midges to ambrosia. Pseudacris maculata is my slimy Sappho.

Following Thoreau’s journals is another wont. I’m curious about his musings as they correspond to mine. And while I find much of his writing contrived and constructed, his journal entries seem more candid. And he had an ear for members of the order Anura. On May 21st, 1851, he wrote:

I have heard now within a few days the peculiar dreaming sound of the frogs which belongs to summer, –their midsummer night’s dream…. The frog eyed the heavens from his marsh, until his mind was filled with visions, and saw more than belongs to this fenny earth.

Thoreau’s access to the dreams and visions of frogs may have been enhanced by drugs. A few days prior, he had all of his teeth pulled. Thoreau’s dentist used an experimental anesthetic that took him “to a greater space than you have ever travelled.” Though he saw the medicinal and recreational potential of this newly-invented “ether,” he deemed it only useful for those who could not be transported by thought, meditation, or sauntering. And by frogs:

When they peep, the loose wrinkled skin of the throat is swelled up into a globular bubble; very large and transparent and quite round, except on the throat side, behind which their little heads are lost, mere protuberances on the side of this sphere; and the peeping wholly absorbs them; their mouths shut, or apparently so. (May 1st, 1852)

Thoreau identified his chorus frog as “Hylodes Pickeringii,” coined by John Edwards Holbrook in his 1839 North American Herpetology. The Integrated Taxonomic Information System identifies it as Species TSN 776303 and sanctions the binomial Pseudacris crucifer. This is the name assigned by German explorer Prince Maximilian in 1838. My local chorus frog had already been discovered and named Chorophilis septentrionalis when Maximilian passed by here on his 1837 travels up the Missouri River. It was renamed Pseudacris maculata in 1850 by Thoreau’s friend Louis Agassiz.

The native peoples whom the prince encountered along the Missouri had their own names for these little frogs and knew them better than anyone ever will. But the true nature of this frog, like all frogs, can’t be named or catalogued. We can learn binomial nomenclature and native names and memorize mating calls, but until the vernal chorus rattles our eardrums and resonates in our sternums and vibrates our feathery souls like breeze on a web, we will have only historical names, serial numbers, and digital files. By song they reveal themselves and unleash a blast of fertility. A frog is a song made flesh and can only be known by experience. The sonic spheres they create are entered by muddy stealth through fragrant muck, slippery with love.

Like his ballooning peepers, Thoreau lost his little head in a globular bubble. That’s what I want from my amphibious muses.


Find yourself absorbed at The Naturalist School at Hitchcock Nature Center. 2016 Late Spring session begins May 1st. Click here for details.

Muses Found in Frogs

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 6

The vernal equinox stretches the sky and reveals familiar haunts with unfamiliar light. On that day we sauntered quietly into a deep ravine we know so well, but the pale light that drew us deeper brightened the “unworn sides of our eyes,” as Thoreau predicted. Mary Oliver’s belief that the equinox makes for wider roaming was also proven true and confirmed my suspicion that ecology needs poetry. Maybe that’s why Humboldt included so many artistic allusions in his Views of Nature and used poetry to illuminate his scientific observations. He finishes his introduction to the first edition with Nature’s “world-directing chorus” speaking to humanity:
“In the mountains is freedom! The breath of the tomb
Cannot climb up to the purest air’s home,
The world is perfect anywhere,
If Humanity’s anguish has not entered there.”
By enlisting the world-directing chorus he conjures the daughters of Gaia and Uranus, who saw no need to integrate science and the arts because they had not yet been torn apart. We now call this re-integration “consilience,” and many interpreters see Humboldt as its first champion. But the Muses are not impressed. With their adopted sister Sappho, they applied their wiles to Theophrastus and all who proved susceptible to musing in the scientific tradition that followed. Why should they celebrate those who come to their senses and see the web of Nature and the world as it is?
On that day in that perfect ravine, unworn and wide and free of human anguish, we were beguiled by the muse Anura. (She has taken her place as the head of the taxonomic order to which all frogs and toads belong.) My friends and I approached the vernal pools and wet meadows as boreal chorus frogs sang louder with each squishy step. On the vernal equinox, the web of life was braided and stretched with frog song as we found ourselves musing and thoroughly amused. Then the leopard frogs joined in. And a Carolina wren.
Pseudacris maculata

Pseudacris maculata, boreal chorus frog, in song. Photo by Neal Herbert.

 Find the Muses at The Naturalist School. To learn how, click here.


Sappho’s Jacket.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 5.)

Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the sun moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. (Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies.)

The island of Lesbos was not large for an island, but the largeness of its influence on our world is hard to exaggerate. Sappho preceded Theophrastus by around 300 years and was called by Plato “the Tenth Muse.” The 9 Muses, daughters of Uranus (sky god) and Gaia (mother earth) embodied and inspired all knowledge and creativity in the minds of ancient Greeks, and we hear that deified name in words like museum and music. To find a muse or to behave like a muse is known as musing . 

Naturalists do a lot of that. A naturalist is a ‘sappho’ with binoculars and a ‘theophrastus’ with muddy boots together wrapped in breathable polyurethane. And our musing in the softening spring creates a “wider room to roam in” like the woods of Mary Oliver. The vernal equinox expands our days and our wanderings. Our vernal musings create room to roam inside us. And like our native muses, we bring our friends along.

cub at cold spring swamp

Musing in polyurethane, Cass County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

Equinox Saunter: A Practicum. Sunday, March 20th. Read more here.

To Be a Naturalist: Citizen Science and Sauntering in the Loess Hills. Saturday, April 2nd. (The Naturalist School early spring session begins.) Read more here.

Citizen Science and Saunters

14.4 mb

Migrating sandhill cranes are staging along Nebraska’s central Platte River. Go see them!  Photo by Paul Johnsgard.


Coming events at Hitchcock Nature Center:

Equinox Saunter: a practicum. Sunday March 20th,  1-4pm. Sauntering is a method of walking in wild places. We have developed our own method based on “Walking” and other writings by Henry David Thoreau. This is an outdoor event that includes quiet contemplation and walking over steep and rugged terrain. A donation of $10 includes the new and revised edition of A Pocket Guide to Sauntering by Jack Phillips. Registration by March 18th is required. Contact Jack at newtreeschool@gmail.org.

The Naturalist School at Hitchcock Nature Center begins Saturday, April 2nd. Click here to learn more.

Becoming a Naturalist, part 4

The spring session of the Naturalist School begins April 2nd. Click here to learn more.

Curious Theophrastus

Of the many qualities that make a naturalist, curiosity is primary. That theme emerged from our recent “How to Grow a Naturalist  Colloquium and Vigorous Hike.” The other common quality is a wanderlust that may not take us to faraway lands, but always makes us desire wild places. By our reckoning, a naturalist is one who wanders, full of passion and curiosity, in places that speak of a world without industrial ambition. And we therefore wander, compelled by a desire to know for the sake of knowing and to look for the sake of seeing, in places that make us feel more wild and more originally human.


Our lusty wandering has no particular reason or practical goal, but our observations might prove useful. Among my favorite writers is Niko Tinbergen, author of Curious Naturalists, who writes: “… the endeavor to satisfy our curiosity about phenomena that intrigue us can, in totally unforeseen ways, acquire hard practical significance.” Perhaps one of the best examples of a curious naturalist is Theophrastus, who lived in the 4th-century B.C. and was a student Plato and Aristotle. In his surviving works, De Historia Plantarum (Enquiry into Plants) and De Causis Plantarum (On the Causes of Plants), we have perhaps the earliest documentation of one who studied nature closely for no practical purpose. Much older plant lists and descriptions from ancient Mesopotamia and China have survived, but these were concerned with medicinal plants.

c 1523

De Historia Plantarum, c.1523 edition

While Theophrastus was also interested in the practical uses of plants, his fascination with biodiversity was fed by wild and exotic specimens brought by travelers, most notably Alexander the Great. According to British historian and self-described naturalist John Wright, Theophrastus  “is the undisputed father of botany”  and  “a great scientist in a world that had not seen scientists before” and  “the first ecologist, noting the effects of soil type and climate on growth and species distribution.” His distinction and contribution comes from his observations of nature close to home on the island of Lesbos. “This was a modest man, who took the time to listen to others who knew the natural world and to study it, with care, himself. Perhaps this is his greatest gift.”
This “greatest gift” makes Theophrastus surprisingly fun to read. Enquiry into Plants has the feel of natural history and reads more like a naturalist’s notebook than the seminal work of philosophy it later came to be. In the section titled “Of the trees and plants special to particular districts and positions,” we find a patient naturalist making thoughtful observations of native trees:
Now all grow fairer and more vigorous in their proper positions, for wild, no less than cultivated trees, some love wet and marshy ground, as black poplar willow, and in general those that grow by rivers; some love exposed and sunny positions, some prefer a shady place.
Theophrastus  continues through that chapter making a methodical record of the trees of Lesbos and the surrounding region with special attention to habitats, niches, and plant communities. He compares these to trees in Egypt and Asia Minor and to more distant specimens brought by travelers. Even with exotic references, he writes from personal experience that conveys an intimacy with his local biotic communities. To a post-modern American naturalist, this ancient philosopher of Lesbos seems oddly familiar. He writes like one of us.
Lesbos was the home of the poet Sappho and is better known for love than ecology.  The contributions of this island to science and culture are profound, and have their source in the wild wanderings of young Greeks in love with nature. Theophrastus embodied the curiosity and nature-lust that all naturalists share, a way of being in nature that will heal the earth in unforeseen ways. Curiosity grows and good science is done when naturalists follow their wildest desires.