Colors that escape us.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 15)


Gathering for a Saunter in the flannel woods. Hartman Reserve, Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)



Fields we saw

blooming with

so many different flowers,

frost-withered now

to a single hue.

(Saigyō Hōshi)


The wooded hills along the Cedar River were introspective. The sky was the color of white smoke that rose from a hot fire built on clean and cured elm. We gathered close to talk about sauntering, that distinctly Thoreauvian woods-walking that is deceptively simple but infinitely healing. Winter is good for this and for other contemplative work. The clean lines and contrasts that create luminous spaces are lent to quiet conversation and the seasons of spirit that easily escape us in more verdant times.

But this morning was different. It was the soft underbelly of the season, not a chrystalline day that sharpens the senses. A coming blizzard made a sky that was at once dull and bright and the forest reflected the dim light inward. The stones in the brook looked like oiled leather. The forest floor was brightly dull as well, a russet-brown and orange rustle that betrayed the walker against otherwise quiet woods. The whole morning was subtle and subdued, soft, beautiful but weary of winter, unseasonably warm and void of snow. The woodland palette, heavy on grays and browns, was woven into a faded flannel.

Our eyes adjusted as we left the fire and wended our way into a watercolor painting with trees drawn in charcoal and chalk and smudged with fingers. Gray-green lichens and some others  the color of old pumpkin and warm butter splotched trunks both upright and fallen. Brown creepers revealed the nature of bark as the they pecked for hidden morsels; we drew close to see topographies of canyons and flats. Nuthatches, chickadees, and woodpeckers too, flitted and trapezed through naked canopies, drawing our eyes to the beacon-red buds of basswood and those of sulphur on hickory.

We hunkered close to a prostrate basswood, full of fungi.  We ran our cold fingertips across the  slightly sticky and bright green algae that frosted the tops of turkey-tails. That log presented to us a winter bouquet of wood ears, brown witches butter, artist’s conks, sheet-fungi and jellies, each with a Linnaean name that mostly escaped us. But something more escaped that hollow trunk barely inches from our hovering faces. Silently but suddenly, a missile with a flaming tail was fired out the hollow end.

The projectile made an orange-red stripe on the duff of cast-off autumn. The fat and fluff of vulpine pelage ignited the russets of oak leaves and by contrast, made the grays and steel of lichens greener and the greens of mosses brighter. Commotion ensued with the alarms of squirrels and crows. Frozen deer twitched, then fled. Nature was transfigured, her secrets revealed, and her true colors exposed. Just as suddenly, the fox disappeared and the bright surge faded along with our laughter. We returned to our saunter, and nature to her contemplations and the sameness of the day.

Winter surprises with jointed legs.


Grasshopper nymph, (Chortophaga sp.) found active at Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County, Iowa on January 21st, 2017. (Photo by Robert Smith.)


Insects in Winter: Strategies for Survival

With Theodore Burk, Ph.D., Creighton University. Saturday, February 18th at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa. For details, click here.


A Moonish Saunter

The waxing soft and gibbous moon smudged the sky and
our upturned faces.
She said: “Do I see myself in that frozen pond again,
and again like skipping stones?”



The waxing gibbous moon last night, seen on saunter. (photo by Lance Brisbois.)

As we stood by the pond, after fairly floating down and across that cold savanna and through the woods, the night felt immeasurably great. We then climbed a steep knoll and lay down on the grass.
The thin clouds stretched a milky film with here and there a faint star. The yellow and buff terrain rolled under and away, now and again punched through with oak and shadow.
Tomorrow night the sky will be clear and the moon nearly full, but nowhere nearly as bright as when we walked hushed and crunchy across the prairie woods, then took our repose to consult the moon.

Finding Fields of Light

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 14)

I would write praise poems that might serve as comforts, reminders, or even cautions, if needed,  to wayward minds and unawakened hearts.

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and chances are one.

                                                                        (Mary Oliver, Winter Hours.)


A good place to read “Moss” by Mary Oliver. (Photo by Madeline Cass.)

One might think that a winter workshop on lichens and bryophytes would draw naturalists, but this time our naturalists were also artists, poets, writers, and photographers. It seemed perfectly normal, even expected, when we stopped by a mossy tree or bright vista to read a poem or bit of woodsy prose, as we often do. Our nature school believes that nature study requires imagination, the ability to see the invisible threads that draw together the web of life. It also requires deep listening to the sounds and songs of nature and the infinite spaces between them, like the spaces between the lines of a poem. Poets find inspiration in wild places and poetry illuminates those places for us.

How time in nature affects each of us is unknowable except by what is discovered in reflection and shared in retrospect. Our new colleague Paula Wilson, a brilliant visual and performance artist from New Mexico, sent a poem to the group a couple days later. Our rugged workshop had reminded her of “Awake Awhile” by Hafiz, a 14-century Persian poet and illuminator of interior worlds. Hafiz wrote in couplets called “ghazals,” gazelles that jump across the page. Here is one gazelle from that poem:

Awake, my dear. Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out to the vast fields of light and let it breathe.

One might find fields of summer flowers conjured with these lines, not a Loess Hills prairie in January called to mind. Paula and I had climbed out of a deep and dark ravine ahead of the others. (Our small band had been stretched and thinned over the up and down terrain, and some lagged behind to adore an unusual concentration of cat-tongue liverworts along an open brook.) We emerged from the oak and hickory ravine into a bright honey swath of prairie, a field of light worthy of a Persian poet. The low sun warmed our faces and cast long shadows as if it had decided to set at noon on a horizon of its own choosing.


Hafiz’ field of light, Fremont County. Iowa. (Madeline Cass.)

On that high ridge, we stripped off layers as the others joined us. Madeline Cass, devoted naturalist and photographer, made meadow pictures with the funny light. Others were given to hands and knees, and found themselves astonished at lively flies and a wide-awake grasshopper nymph. I saw a spider. Overwintering songbirds chattered and fed with fervor. Woodpeckers hammered the sunny side of trunks. Circling raptors seemed not so lazy. We marveled at the summerish day and at the ways that nature had become aroused. Had Hafiz come along this time, his wakeup verse would have been heard and his vision proven.

We assume a winter dormancy in our colder climes. But nature does not sleep; seasonal living is keyed to length of days and the ambiguities of solar radiation. Our wild mother lies in wait for moments of summer come low in the sky and born on southern breezes, but finds sunlight enough even on the bleakest of days. Likewise for the artist, the poet, and the naturalist, luminous spaces appear in the daily rhythm and round throughout the year. Our faces were warmed in that field of light and later, by the fire.


Foliose lichen with cup-like apothecia. (Madeline Cass.)

Find information about Paul Wilson’s new show at

Learn more about Madeline Cass and her work at

See our winter workshops and saunters schedule here.

Getting There on Foot

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 13.)


Not by car, or by plane,

not haysled

nor old clunker

— not by Elijah’s chariot of fire!

You won’t get any farther than Basho.

He got there on foot.

                                         (Olav Hauge, “Not by Car” in Luminous Spaces.)

While sauntering, we came upon a dead basswood that had been sculpted by pileated woodpeckers. We reached it by walking on an old camp road and then for a little while on an old spring-fed brook, made frozen by the impoundment that now includes it. Tributary springs stayed open, and here and there in the frosted ice of the pond, a circle of open water hovered above a spring buried by captive water and mud. Despite a series of dams, the brook still holds fast to an ancient spirit that we now hope to find in our meandering.

So we walk, trying to recover something within ourselves as the wildness of that brook still tries to find its way. The brook still flows, but has been robbed of destiny. Where it meandered in bygone days it now moves vertically in a column of current, revealed in interrupted ice. That brook is an ancient traveler forced to stand still, or to make slow progress where it wants to rush and babble.

The whole ecosystem is trying to find ways to be wilder. Pileated woodpeckers, that now and again make a comeback in a breeding pair or two, are boxed in like that brook. Here they used to pound and call and make themselves proud. They now lurk as ghosts in the shadows of a former forest of massive cherries and oaks. The spit of habitat that now remains is surrounded by fields of cash crops and a flood plain, once the braids and brakes of the Missouri River, which has itself become tame and sluggish where it formerly swelled and raged.

The restoration and preservation of wild places requires that nature expands beyond the limits we have placed upon her and flows with more freedom. A wild brook follows the lay of the land and is shaped by it. Likewise, we will recover our ancient wildness and wisdom by becoming more brooklike.

Our colleague Robert quoted the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes by proclaiming (in Latin, not Greek) the phrase: solvitur ambulando: “it is solved by walking.” In the tradition of poets, naturalists, and poet-naturalists, something vital is found by walking in wild places. Olav Hauge, a 20th-century Norwegian poet-farmer and avid walker through birch and heath, made this observation: “sitting down to write poetry is no use; this is ancient wisdom.” In search of nature, poets and naturalists get there on foot.

The most famous Zen poet and writer of haiku did not sit down to write, but composed with his feet. After his home burned, Matsuo Basho began to wander alone, for months at a time, through the wild interior of 17th-century Japan. His poetry is the poetry of walking that became the watershed of nature verse to our day. The clear lines of Basho ring true in the winter woods:

I am a wanderer,

so let that be my name.

The first winter rain.

After admiring the pileated sculpture and watching our shadows on the frozen pond and listening for pileated calls, we gingerly walked out onto the ice. With great care we approached a liquid pool, a perfect circle of spring water rising from below. A few bright lime duckweeds, fluorescent against the clear darkness, wandered in the captive current.


Saunterers on a frozen brook. (Photo by Sarah Berkeley.)

Winter workshops and saunters, click here.

Learn to Play the Ice Harp


Musical notation for ice harp, written by a coyote on frozen pond at Waubonsie State Park. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Becoming a Naturalist, part 12

We were ascending a steep ravine when suddenly, from behind and below, the sound of shattering ice rang through the woods. I turned to see a young man of our company lobbing ice missiles onto a frozen pond, breaking chunks off the edge and flinging them high into the air. They sounded like icicle wind-chimes as they jingled and danced across the ice.

What compels us to throw random objects at bodies of water, big or small, frozen or fluid? Some might wistfully opine that our friend’s inner child had been set free. Thoreau had a different take on such antics, similar to those in which he had often engaged during a saunters like ours. Something primal and musical is liberated when we fling things on pond ice or follow mid-summer frog-songs into wooded ravines. If anything was liberated at that winter pond, it was not childish impulses. It was the music of a frozen muse, by Thoreau’s telling:

“My friend tells me he has discovered a new note in nature, which he calls an Ice-Harp. Chancing to throw a handful of pebbles upon the ice where there was an air chamber under the ice, it discoursed a pleasant music to him. Herein lies the Tenth Muse, and as he was the man to discover it probably the extra melody was in him.” (Journal, December 5th, 1837.)

The friend in that story was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described the event in his own journal but did not mention a muse. That was Thoreau’s interpretation, but he did not know the muse by name. Plato identified the Tenth Muse as Sappho. She was credited with the invention of a certain poetic meter and of lyric poetry itself, so named because her recitations were accompanied by lyre, while the wind-god Aeolius made harps of trees. In Thoreau’s woods, the Aeolian harp was a thrush, and the Tenth Muse, appearing now and again in his Journal, was thusly accompanied. And also by singing toads.

A few years later, Thoreau took an evening walk with another friend. When they passed by a pond, the summer “dream of a toad” rang out, but his friend could not hear it. Thoreau diagnosed his deafness as an inner-ear turbidity caused by the pervasive commotion of modern life: “How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we were made, clear!” Each of us in our wild and natural state is a crystal pool, receptive to the dreams of toads, frozen muses, and all the musical vibrations of nature. In an almost Zen-like turnabout, one who walks by the pond becomes the pond.

Wild music fills our crystal stillness. Find a frozen pond and listen for muses: Aeolian thrushes have made for the south, but January plays her woodpecker drums. Dreaming frogs are sleeping deep, but frosted oaks creek and croak.The songbirds of summer evenings become the what-cheers and che-winks of shorter days. Oddly, owls embrace the day and hoot for love at noon. Bladdernut rattles, and bittersweet. Musical notation, in coyote tracks and rabbit dashes, is written on new-fallen snow. And if you learn to play the ice-harp, you can add your notes to all the rest.


For details on The Loess Hills Nature School 2017 Winter Session, click here.

Solstice Nymphs and a Fire.

It was the darkest night in this lifetime so far. That’s what the science said and I believed when I could not find the moon.  By rare arrangement of the heavens, it was also the solstice.


Solstice saunterer, glad for the fire and the longest night.         (Photo by Lance Brisbois.)

We sauntered darkly on a high woodland ridge under the Pleiades sisters. These astral nymphs were not bright enough to light our feet, despite their pedigree of Atlas and Bright Sky, old deities for whom most of us are now atheistic. Atlas was sentenced by Zeus to hold up the sky, but at least he gave his daughters a place to live and a job. (He has help from herculean bur oaks at every solstice, the heaviest night of the year.) His girls guide travelers who pass sundown.

That’s what the mythology said and I believed when I saw the chart with Orion and the dippers with the sisters, and maybe that bear, unrolled above on the inky night. Indigo buntings used it when they left 6 weeks ago. Sometimes we receive replacement buntings the color of prairie snow. Migrating from the arctic, snow buntings refuse help from the starry maidens and blindly follow hidden meridians. I hope they come this year.

The twinkling nymphs were a lovely distraction as we tried to see with our feet over roots and ruts. We left our flashlights behind. In summer we’ll do it barefoot.
The longest night of the year enchants those who love nature. But we were glad for the fire.
Happy solstice,


Vagrancies of Place


LeConte’s Sparrow, an early-winter migrant through the Loess Hills. (Photo by Nic Salick.)

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 11)

“These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, but here is all the summer they want.” (Henry David Thoreau, Journal, December 11th 1855.)

Today we walk along a thin spine of arched earth, a cat’s back raised against the sky above the Missouri River floodplain. High ridges in the Loess Hills are striped with deer trails, used by coyotes and badgers and all manner of varmints, and by early white invaders and earlier still, native peoples. Indigenous humans and many other species have been extirpated, and the wagon roads of their European vanquishers have almost vanished as well.  And now, our band of naturalists follows these trails and tracks.

On that ridge we meet newly-arriving migrants, brilliantly festive and richly arrayed. They are parties of juncos and sparrows, titmouses and finches, the solstice gems of this place. Summer-like wintering grounds are well within range and reach, but our frigid climes are summer enough for them. In August they make smudges and rusts, but today they are obsidian and ruby. They remind me of the travelers Thoreau encountered on this day, 161 years ago:

“There is superadded superfluous paintings and adornments, a crystalline, jewel-like health and soundness, like the colors reflected on ice-crystals….The woods and the fields, now somewhat solitary, being deserted by their more tender summer residents, are now frequented by these rich but delicately tinted and hardy northern immigrants of the air.” (Thoreau, Journal, December 11th, 1855.)

These bright immigrants belong to this place and to this season; we do not. We are vagrants of this place, having vanquished the original residents of scale and skin and feather, now longing for something true and native and real. We are cold and looking for birds, but more deeply, for wildness and a sense of belonging. We have this in common with Thoreau.

Contrary to the mythological Thoreau of calendars and coffee-table books, he wrote from a place of emptiness and alienation and cold feet. Thoreau reads as an enlightened saint in his highly refined Walden, but his personal letters and journals air his grievances about the weather and his neighbors and his disappointing boots. He suffers an unrequited love for his virgin maiden and savage mother, nature. Here we find a companion who is a lot like us: “If any part of nature excites our pity, it is for ourselves we grieve, for there is eternal health and beauty. We get only transient and partial glimpses of the beauty of the world.” (December 11th, 1855.)

The power and genius of Thoreau lies in his longing for beauty and healing. His genius, in my view and in the view of an increasing number of scholars, is most clearly and candidly expressed in his published 14 volume Journal: “Is not a poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good  journal? We do not wish to know his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day” (October 21st, 1857). The Journal is most accessible in abridged editions, and the good ones are faithful to the original form, character, and length of the daily entries. Like a winter landscape, we find long narratives of the ordinary and the random in-breaking of brilliance.


Thoreau Journal, December 11, 1855*.


In fact, his December 11th journal entry perfectly describes our experience, except for the native species he encounters. The non-heroic and day-to-day Henry David climbs with us up this cold and hard Iowa hill on this snowless and almost birdless morning. The sugary loess soil is deeply eroded by the impress of human avarice and alienation, his frequent complaint. Settlement has skeletonized these hills; exposed roots and sometimes junk make a useful ladder. Now on the summit, winter finally bears wild fruit, transient glimpses of beauty:

” All the fountains of nature seem to be sealed up. The traveller is frozen on his way. But under the edge of yonder birch wood will be a flock of crimson-breasted lesser redpolls, busily feeding on the seeds of birch and shaking down the powdery snow! As if a flower were created now in bloom, a peach birds be fully ripe on its stem.”

Every naturalist in the American tradition walks with Thoreau. He sought an authentic and distinctly American experience of the sacred in nature, and a way of recovering what it means to be human by restoring our sense of wildness. His December 11th walk brought clarity of insight: “The age of miracles has thus returned….In winter, too, resides immortal youth and perennial summer.” But Thoreau is dead and his New World is gone. He was a wanderer like us, but we have to find our own way home.

Find your own birds and see with your own eyes. Winter sparrows are summer enough. Read Thoreau’s Journal but write your own.To become a naturalist is not to become more like Thoreau, but to find ourselves lost in nature. There is a threshold between having an itinerary and being curious, between being a tourist and being a vagrant. The most powerful moments come when we are lured off the trail and into the bush, when our walking is transformed into wandering, when the hiking is hostile, where nature is not always beautiful but always mysterious.


*Read a transcription of Henry David Thoreau’s December 1855 Journal here.

Winter Citizen Science and Saunters: Click here.



Cleansing Perception

saunter jan 31 wide view

Sauntering at Hitchcock Nature Center in early winter. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 10.)

I sat in the kitchen of a south-Omaha art studio drinking good coffee in front of a plate of Mexican pastries. As I went on too long about what Henry David Thoreau said in his Journal on this morning in 1851, my artist-naturalist friend jumped up and disappeared. I love to talk about Thoreau’s paradoxical apologetics for identifying, classifying, and documenting his local biota and then setting all that aside in order to perceive the true nature of a plant or an animal.

I’m sure Christina had grown tired of my Thoreauvian mantras repeated once again for the other guests at the table.  But that’s what we do: we teach ecology and taxonomy and citizen science in general, but also sauntering: a way of walking and a rubric of in-seeing, aided by journaling, drawing, poetry, and contemplation. A good naturalist, in our school of thought, can identify birds and frogs by song, recite botanical Latin, and write a good haiku.

But she returned as quickly as she had bolted and proclaimed: “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” holding a book by that name. I had only a dim knowledge of artist Robert Irwin, but was very intrigued that his biography was so named. But I was not surprised to find the famous quote from the eighteen-century mystical poet and artist William Blake invoked by Irwin: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”


Winter liverwort at Hitchcock, seen on a Saunter. (Robert Smith.)

It seems that Irwin and colleagues had conducted a sensory-deprivation experiment, during which Irwin had spent six hours in an anechoic chamber at UCLA. (That does sound like something an avant-garde artist would do in California in 1968.) He had proved for himself Blake’s dictum. Speaking of his experience, he reported: “For a few hours after you came out, you really did become more energy conscious, not just that leaves move, but that everything has a kind of aura, that nothing is wholly static, that color itself emanates a kind of energy. You noted each individual leaf, each individual tree. You picked up things which you normally blocked out….”


December mosses revealed at Waubonsie State Park. (Photo by Billie Shelton.)

An anechoic chamber is not only sound-proof, but echo-proof, and is used by engineers to test equipment and materials for acoustic sensitivity and properties. And apparently, by artists seeking sensory cleansing.  A human in such a chamber is left only with the sound of thinking (which disappears over time) and the electrical hum of the nervous system. Upon emerging, Irwin channeled Blake and unwittingly, Thoreau: “Aye, when we are lifted from the film and slime of habitual life, we see the whole globe to be an aerolite, and reverence it as such, and make pilgrimages to it, far off as it is.” (30 August, 1856.)

We love to saunter when the nights get longer and the days grow colder.  A wild place in winter functions as an aerolite and as an anechoic chamber, not by canceling echoes that  bounce lively in the winter woods, but by cleansing the doors of perception in the naked landscape. Summer is stripped away and the world is framed in tawny stalks and corky trunks. Preconceptions and our habitual foliage can obscure mysteries that require a clear line of sight. They are shed like leaves.

The morning after coffee and pastries and kitchen philosophy, we made an early-winter pilgrimage in earnest. The frozen air made sparrows bright, mosses florescent, and drab fungi suddenly resplendent. We sauntered over steep earth, climbing ladders of shadows in and out of deep ravines. In the bottoms we found bryophyte jungles. The tall forest above made skeletal canopies except when condescending to mushrooms. Fissures in oaken bark nursed verdancies of lichens, made greener or more orange with frosting. Sunburst lichens radiated against the season and prickly vines of smilax, holding green, defied the russet day. Colors will burn even hotter with the coming snows.


Hackberry given to Waubonsie turkey-tails. (Photo by Westy Nelson.)

Winter Workshops and Saunters in the Loess Hills: click here for details.

Keeping Winter Hours


On the path to mystery

Following Oliver and Thoreau at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith).

We must re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, every winter day. (Henry David Thoreau, Journal, December 29th, 1856.)

I would not talk about wind, and the oak tree, and the leaf on the oak tree, but on their behalf. I would talk about the owl and the thunderworm and the daffodil and the red-spotted newt as a company of spirits, as well as bodies. I would say that the fox stepping out over the snow has nerves as fine as mine, but better courage. (Mary Oliver, Winter Hours, 2000.)


Finding nature and better courage in the Loess Hills. (Robert Smith.)

The rich biodiversity and topography of the Loess Hills takes on a subtle vibrancy in winter, and we will find ourselves sometimes cold but always enlivened as we trudge and slip steeply up and down. The ridges shine with long vistas while the deep ravines keep secrets, but not too tightly. Good boots are the thing.


On Sunset Ridge at Waubonsie State Park. (Joseph Phillips)

And good companions and teachers. This winter we have a new teaching and research site to explore. As we continue our work at Hitchcock Nature Center, we will add Waubonsie State Park to our Sauntering and Citizen Science activities. We will re-ally ourselves with Nature as Thoreau would say, and find the better courage of winter spirits, as Oliver would have us do.

Winter in the Loess Hills: 2016/17 citizen science and Saunters: click here.