Plain Pleasures, Kindly and Native

Ralph Waldo Emerson walked his neighborhood woods in Concord, Massachusetts musing and talking to himself and later writing in his journal. In 1841 he entered: These enchantments are medicinal, they sober and heal us. These are the plain pleasures, kindly and native to us.

For Emerson and for us, local pleasures are the most powerful and healing. They enliven us kindly. Native pleasures are not too distant or awesome. They are close, simple, and medicinal in their subtle beauty. I find this truth in every saunter.

Last week with son Joseph, the beautiful but frozen Wisconsin woods were crashed by a warm seep – a verdant, warm, and open spring that flowed into Lake Wingra. Robins bathed, puddle ducks puddled, delicate summer insects touched on crusty rime, and winter woodpeckers made red exclamations on balmy anomalies. I do love late winter’s junco-feathered skies, but this time of year I could do with a bit of green. Suddenly we found ourselves in lush and leafy mercies. I felt good, if not healed, of winter’s crusty crank.

Happily, winter greens are never far off – if we walk slowly in our musings. Underfoot and all around lichens, mosses, and defiant algal variations dapple the winter woods with blues and steels and emeralds. I am sure Emerson was pleasured by these plain native jewels of his own woods. We will be delighted as well, when we welcome John Pearson (notorious lover of cryptogams) to New Tree School in the Loess Hills on March 21st. The first day of spring will bring new charms, but winter’s plain pleasures will still be given freely. Read our Winter and Spring 2015 Offerings for details and for other invitations to plain Emersonian pleasures, kindly and native to us.

Wingra Woods, Madison Wisconsin, in February
Wingra Woods, Madison Wisconsin, in February

Expanded edition of the Manifesto now available.

Now available!

Now available!

Friends of NTS,

In the 11 months since The Bur Oak Manifesto first appeared in print, we have spent prodigious days in the bush – in Iowa, Wisconsin, Manitoba, and Alberta. Walkabouts and saunters have taught us the prodigality of nature and has transformed us into prodigal naturalists. It therefore seemed fitting and right to include a new series of essays in the new and expanded edition of The Manifesto. The Prodigal Naturalist series chronicles our walkabouts and saunters, as well as our attempts to test Emerson and Thoreau in the field. Order your copy and read it under your favorite oak. To order:

Walking Brightly in Winter’s Savanna

Loess Hills in winter. Photo by Robert Smith

Loess Hills in winter. Photo by Robert Smith

Reflecting on a winter saunter, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium….

As it happens, Thoreau’s Elysium is not in 19th-century New England, but in 21st-century Loess Hills of Iowa. At least for us. If you have time, we’d like to show you the way on Sunday afternoon, January 25th.

We’ll meet at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa for our first Saunter of 2015. Our Sauntering will be vigorous and steep, requiring warm clothes, good health, and a sturdy attitude. And a reservation. Contact me to sign up and to get further directions by Friday, January 23rd.

More Saunters will follow! Watch this site for announcements, read Thoreau’s “Walking,” and live brightly with your boots on.

Saunter on,


Thoreau’s Complaint is our Challenge

Remnant Oak Savanna, Lancaster County, NE

Colleagues and friends,
A century and a half has passed since Henry David Thoreau complained:
We cultivate imported shrubs in our front yards for the beauty of their berries, while at least equally beautiful berries grow unregarded by us in the surrounding fields.

Those of us who love wild ecosystems and native biota, and work hard preserve them and to educate people to do the same, hear his words. His fine book Wild Fruits is dedicated to this concern and more importantly, to the appreciation of native plants. If you haven’t read it, you should!

In the meantime, an invasive and exotic plant colloquium is in order. Our colloquium will be an educational experience that draws on expertise from a variety of disciplines. We will meet at Hitchcock on January 19th for expert presentations, lively discussion, and invigorating hikes.

We will ask hard questions and share stories. We will eat hot soup and drink good coffee etc. We will learn about the history of exotic and invasive organisms and the cultural values that cultivated them. We will explore successful strategies and philosophies for restoring and preserving native plant and animal communities. We will be inspired to educate our clients, community leaders, and the public on the value of local native ecosystems and the need to fight for them. We will support each other in our good work. All in one day!

Our faculty for the day includes Susanne Hickey, Howard Eyre, and Chad Graeve. They are good friends of New Tree School and are looking forward to our time together. Their bios, topics, and interests follow below. This will be an enjoyable and productive day, and we will keep the gathering small. Please let me know soon if you plan to attend. And don’t forget to read Thoreau in the pale light of winter.

Happy solstice,
Jack Phillips

Hitchcock Nature Center and New Tree School present:

How we got here, where we need to go.
Invasive exotic plants in tallgrass prairies, savannas, and upland woods.

A colloquium and field session with Susanne Hickey, Howard Eyre, and Chad Graeve.
Monday, January 19, 2015. Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek, Iowa.
Native plant advocates, land managers, landscape architects, and environmental activists are invited!
(Registration by January 12, 2015 is required.)

Colloquium presenters and details:

Susanne Hickey, Iowa Director of Conservation Programs, The Nature Conservancy
Susanne has worked for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa since 1992 – most of those years in the Loess Hills working with landowners and partners on prairie restoration and protection. She currently manages conservancy projects across the state. Susanne’s passions are centered on the Great Plains – whether it’s thinking about getting fire back on the landscape at scale, working one on one with landowners to protect their prairies and oak woodlands, or sitting on the bank of the Niobrara River catfishing. Susanne writes:
The prairies and oak woodlands in the eastern Great Plains are often overlooked and misunderstood. Understanding the historical context for how these systems were shaped is important (native grazers and fire), but today those historical factors must be considered within the context of modern day issues including invasive species, fragmentation and broader land use concerns.

Howard Eyre, Assistant Professor, Landscape Architecture and Environmental Science, Delaware Valley College, Doylestown, PA
Howard is a native of Doylestown, but has been fortunate to have been able to travel and study environmental systems in many parts of the United States and northern Europe, particularly forest communities. This has developed his appreciation for understanding environmental systems and how human activity has impacted our habitats. He has also been fortunate to had the opportunity to have spent time with Dr. Alex Shigo and learning to view and understand forest systems in a whole new way. Howard writes:
Invasive organisms, plants, insects, birds, etc. place a burden upon the balance that should be functional in any ecosystem. To understand this burden and to develop a means of moving forward from today requires understanding not only the system, but knowing how we got “here”. Environmental systems are functional in regulating the organisms within that system, but when an intruder arrives, the system must make adjustments. Understanding how the system adjusts is critical to moving forward towards improved environmental conditions.

Chad Graeve, Natural Resource Specialist, Pottawattamie County Conservation
Chad has been employed by the people of Pottawattamie County in various capacities since 1994 and works alongside other staff and volunteers to restore natural areas. He is privileged to live and work at Hitchcock Nature Center – in the heart of the globally significant Loess Hills landform – and is continually learning about the importance of healthy human relationships with the places in which we live and work. Chad writes:
Most people recognize the importance of health – especially as it relates to the human body. If the body is properly nourished, gets healthy sleep, is mostly unstressed, and is appropriately exercised, it is resilient and its immune system capable of warding off invasive pathogens. Natural areas can be thought of in a similar manner. However, most natural areas remaining are not intact and lack the integrity to be resilient. Their vulnerability is largely due to our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with the land and is most visibly recognized by the presence of invasive non-native plants.

Susanne, Howard, and Chad will each give short presentations for the purpose of provoking thought and questions. The agenda of the day will allow for discussion, confronting challenges, and sharing our native dreams. We will also take short hikes to see the restoration and management work at Hitchcock. The New Tree School philosophy insists that people learn and grow in community, in conversation, from Nature.

We will meet at the Loess Hills Lodge at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa (5 miles north of Crescent; 20 minutes from Downtown Omaha). The day begins informally at 8:30 am for coffee etc. The colloquium begins at 9am and will finish at 3pm. We are asking for a contribution of $35 to support stewardship programs at Hitchcock Nature Center. Lunch will be provided.

Please bring a coffee cup, water bottle, and dress for outdoor activity. Our hikes will be short, but the terrain can be challenging. Please prepare accordingly. If you have special dietary needs, please let me know.

To ask questions and to register, contact me (Jack Phillips) soon (!) at 402.571.7460 or . The deadline to register is January 12, 2015.

How to Grow Poets and Philosophers

“A township where one primitive forest waves above and another primitive forest rots below – such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walking

It is not too late for us. True, children are the future and we need to begin nature education early, but if we want to raise young naturalists and a future generation to save the planet, we must become naturalists ourselves. And that, my friends, means becoming a poet and a philosospher!

Good naturalists are good poets and philosophers as well as good ecologists. Loving and saving nature comes down to what we see in her and what she means to us. These are poetic and philosophical questions! Is the natural world a vast source of raw material to bend and use for our needs and amusement, or is it vital and mysterious presence that demands her own dignity and respect?

We see nature for who she is in wild places. For Thoreau that meant the woods and swamps around 19th- century Concord, Massachusetts. For us, it means the few remaining wild places that still remain close to where we live.

One wild place that is suitable for raising naturalists and poets and philosophers is Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa (near Omaha). On Saturday morning, September 13th, we will gather for a Saunter in the spirit of Thoreau’s Walking. I’ve missed our summer Saunters as many of us have – so we shall saunter again. Gather at the Hitchcock barn (not the lodge) at 7:30 am. We will finish by 10:00. Prepare for a hike and a discussion of Walking ( available at this link: Please let me know if we can expect you at .

And please note these upcoming New Tree School events:

Seeking Nature and Planting Trees, Friday October 3rd, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa (contact Jack for more information).

A Day with Mark Hirsch and That Tree: a morning Saunter and afternoon nature photography workshop, Saturday October 11, Hitchcock Nature Center (see posts below).

A word from Mark Hirsch

Mark and that tree.

“My experience with That Tree started out so organically and then it evolved into my unintended adventure. It seems odd to describe it this way but I have developed an incredible friendship with a tree. The valley of That Tree and her surrounding realm have become a place I am so familiar with. Her changes through two full growing seasons and now as I am well into my third, it has been like watching my children grow up or watching my grandparents age. As she has changed, so have I. My time in the forest with That Tree has been very solitary. The introspection combined with my solitary observation has provided me with a truly transformative and therapeutic adventure. I look at the world differently.” – Mark Hirsch, photographer and author of That Tree.

Spend an autumn day with New Tree School and Mark Hirsch in the oak woodlands and savannas of Iowa’s Loess Hills. Saturday, October 11 at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek. Morning session: Sauntering and conversations, 8:30  – noon. Afternoon session: Nature photography with a smart phone workshop, 1:00 – 4:30pm. 

Each session is $45/$80 for both. Enrollment will be limited to keep each session small, so contact Jack Phillips ( to reserve your place and to learn more about this amazing event. To learn more about Mark Hirsch, visit

A New Tree School saunterer finds snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) in Iowa's Loess Hills. Photo by Robert Smith.

A New Tree School saunterer finds snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) in Iowa’s Loess Hills. Photo by Robert Smith.

Thoreau’s Perverse Back Yard

Henry David Thoreau, the philosophical leader of our Saunters and the spiritual patron of woodsy wanderers everywhere, had definite ideas about landscape design. In Walking he vigorously advocates for wildly native neighborhoods right in town:

“Yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.” 

He would even prefer to have his house in the middle of that wild thicket:

“I often think that I should like to have my house front on this mass of dull red bushes, omitting other flower pots and borders, transplanted spruce and trim box, even graveled walks – to have this fertile spot under my windows… 

Many of us share in this native plant perversity so we might as well embrace it, celebrate it! We will do just that on our next and final Saunter of the summer. We will share ideas on how to plant native plant communities in our yards and seek out wild and lovely trees and shrubs that would make Henry David envious. For me, I want to visit gooseberry, wolfberry, bladdernut, toothache-tree, bee-tree, mossy cup, dogwood, coffee-tree, shadblow, and many others with fanciful names and wild dispositions. This is the ecosystem that sustains us and that we should welcome into our lives and homes.

Saturday, August 2nd at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek Iowa, 7:30 to 10:00am. See previous posts below for more details. And please let me know if you can come.

Saunter on,