Savanna Surprises

Pollinator moth of the genus Haploa, Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith)

Pollinator moth of the genus Haploa, Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith)

The oak savannas and woodlands of the Loess Hills surprise the naturalist, the saunterer, and the scientist with vibrant mysteries. Those who walk slowly and look closely find immeasurable diversity and perplexing beauty. Bur oak communities feed and shelter thousands of insect species. Hundreds of these are pollinators ranging in size from tiny bees to bird-size moths in peculiar shapes, patterns, and colors. Sometimes the evolutionary advantage seems obvious. Sometimes the brilliant displays seem extravagant.

On Saturday, June 27th we will ponder brilliant savanna mysteries. Dr. Ted Burk from Creighton University will be our guide. Visit the Offerings 2015 page for more details.

Let nature surprise you.
Jack Phillips

William Clark’s Lofty Copse

Hidden Valley HNC

(Hidden Valley, Hitchcock Nature Center. Photo by Robert Smith)

During the summer of 1804, the Corps of Discovery entered the Great Plains by way of the Missouri River. William Clark described the native flora in his journal: “The Plains of this countrey are covered with a Leek Green Grass, well calculated for the sweetest and most nourishing hay – interspersed with Cops of trees, Spreding ther lofty branchs over Pools Springs or Brooks of fine water. Groops of Shrubs with the most delicious froot is to be seen in every direction…”

The Great Plains are known for rich biodiversity, but not often for its forests. The native nations and early explorers of the Missouri River region enjoyed a woodland bounty of cool waters and plentiful fruits sustained by upland forest watersheds. Our New Tree School workshops and saunters at Hitchcock Nature Center are sustained by these watersheds as well. Explore the rich biodiversity of the Loess Hills this Saturday on our Native Trees and Shrubs Hike and discover what William Clark found over 200 years ago. Consult the “Offerings 2015″ page for details on this and all of our June events.

Walk wildly. Apply insect repellent.

Jack Phillips

Making Friends with the Natives

Remnant Oak Savanna, Lancaster County, NE

(In oak savanna with friends. By Robert Smith)

Melvin Gilmore was an early 20th-century botanist who catalogued native plants and the names the First Nations gave them. In 1919 he wrote:

“The people of the European race in coming to the New World have not sought to make friends of the native populations, or to make adequate use of the plants or of the animals indigenous to this continent, but rather to exterminate everything found here and to supplant it with the plants and animals to which they were accustomed at home.”

Sadly, this imperialistic and destructive trend continues to this day with the promotion of exotic trees and shrubs by public agencies and corporate interests in the so-called green industries. In fact, exotics from outside our hemisphere like sawtooth oak, mock orange, oriental honeysuckles and bittersweets, and a host of Asian maples are being promoted as “adaptive,” as though they are more adaptive than our native plants with eons of evolutionary wisdom!

To mitigate this disturbing and persistent trend, New Tree School is committed to helping plant lovers from all walks to become better friends with the natives. To cultivate deeper relationships with the rich native biota of your local ecosystem, spend time in wild nature, patronize native plant nurseries, join your local native plant society, read the Bur Oak Manifesto, and attend New Tree School!

Plant well and saunter on,

Jack Phillips

Citizens of the Land

In a converted chicken coop on the banks of the Wisconsin River, the Aldo Leopold family spent summers on the parcel that became the laboratory for an experiment in ecological restoration, ethics, and citizenship. Leopold’s Land Ethic, born on that spent farm in the 1940s, quickly became the manifesto of the nascent conservation movement that continues to animate our movement to this day:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land….In short, the land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land to plain member and citizen of it.”

The Land Ethic

New Tree School recently spent a fine Saturday on Leopold’s land and the surrounding preserve. The theme of the day was Backyard Ecology: The Land Ethic at Home. We explored the woods and shared ideas about preserving nature and cultivating native ecology of our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. The restored native community of the Leopold property that began with Aldo and his family (and still under the care of the family foundation) gave us hope and direction. We concluded the day with a visit to the shack.

We will continue our work in the spirit of Leopold in our June and July workshops. Please visit the “Offerings” page for the updated 2015 schedule of Workshops and Saunters. Together our vision, native intimacy, and citizenship will grow.

– Jack Phillips

Backyard Ecology at Aldo Leopold's shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Backyard Ecology at Aldo Leopold’s shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Sauntering Deeper Still

Of woodland walks in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

… there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

I love ravines in all seasons, but deep haunts bestow on the attentive saunterer the fresh blessings of spring. Frogsong under descants of indigo bunting and grosbeak are announced in towhee; sentinel cardinals guard oak openings from tree tops. Quiet eyes find brilliant mosses and sunburst lichens as fragile ferns and woodland sedges fairly tumble and heap under displays of violets and flowers that look like underpants hung out to dry. The understory is told in shadblow and repeated in wolfberry and dogwood, but bitternut or basswood  get the last word. And each step deeper hears a new song and a new story and we are drawn even deeper still.

And so we love to saunter in spring, and the coming days will find us at the Aldo Leopold Center (Baraboo, Wisconsin) on May 9th and at Hitchcock Nature Center (Honey Creek, Iowa) on May 16th. Those who might join us will find the details on the New Tree School Offerings 2015 page, with other upcoming workshops, saunters and events.

Saunter on,

Jack Phillips

Ephemeral Wonders

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is an ephemeral wonder and a wild beauty. It appears in flower very briefly in early April and is bashful at dusk and on cloudy days, wrapping stems in leaves and hiding sunny faces. It is a wildflower in the truest sense as it will only be found where wildness is preserved or not to far gone to be recovered in some small measure. On a morning saunter this week, my son and I were reminded that wonder is ephemeral and that wildness is the only way forward.

Happily, wonder and wildness are close at hand. New Tree School is devoted to helping you find it where you live. In the coming weeks we will practice the art of wonder near Omaha and near Madison with small groups in deep woods and open prairies:

April 25th, Spring Birds and Wildflowers at Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek, Iowa.

May 9th, Backyard Ecology at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Consult the Winter/Spring offerings page on this site for more details.

Seek wonder, be wilder.

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.