Porosity of Place

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 33.)

By Jack Phillips


…pilgrim lost in a liturgy of pebbles… –Gustaf Sobin     *


It is an easy walk down to the East Nishnabotna. The mowed path of ground ivy, darling of English gardens and planted by newcomers wishing Iowa to be elsewhere, makes a footsome cushion and one would go barefoot if the Glecoma were not laced with poison ivy. Asiatic strawberry tasteless in fruit though pretty pervades the path as well. Said Gustaf Sobin of language, never more than the arbitrary imprint of a violated silence. I am sure that applies to feet.

So I try to be foot-soft and like I said it was an easy walk. The redstarts that nest here are always vocal and vireos too. But today a heavy absence startles me. The always lovely cricket-chorus frog-Cope’s gray tree frog chorus is always no more. Alas the conservation area has been improved by the draining of a large wetland adjacent to the path. I feel the deaths of a thousand friends.

I need Sobin more than ever and I almost left his heavily-collected works behind as one who tries to tread lightly and light. At times I have set out to memorize a few Sobin poems but they are hard enough just to read. His use of space spawns a thousand poems between the words and lines and gains weight along the way. They are deeply porous but hard to carry even so.

The heavy clays and thickened rivers of western Iowa are not known to be porous, but the East Nish oddly cuts deep into limestone and deeper even now having been quarried smack in the middle a hundred years ago. It behaves more like whitewater in this stretch than the sandy-mud meanders we love. It is nonetheless fun to climb on down and so we descend, three companions one of them a becoming-barefoot son. And into this cut I carry a fourth, Sobin and his spacey poem:

the body being porous, spoke of

light as          

solid, as a          

density quilled on

whisper alone….

It brings to mind that just a few days ago I told a gathering of MFA students for whom I was guest, that an ecosystem contains countless porous bodies, alive and decaying, through which energy moves. “Therefore, write a porous poem completely free of nouns and punctuation, a poem that actively participates in the energies that produce it. Go into the woods and be back in an hour and we will read them aloud while we pick off ticks.” As it turned out, some found the prompt impossible but all wrote well and some wrote beautifully.

And for some, the act of poetry further integrated them into the wildness of those woods. Poems became place. Given the soft muscles of speech, they took us somewhere wilder as we heard them; light-filled and more open we became on that breezy ridge with bird song all around, oaks black and bur and red. A tiny lizard with a blue tail. Tiger swallowtails and silver spotted skippers. Snakeroot in bloom, desmodium long past flower still bright. And even for some or so it seemed to me, words became quilled densities of wild light. Poem became poet, a body. Did they feel it?

Now perched on a flat place in the sharp rocks a kind rivulet finds my now-become bare feet. I am a body rushed through with finally frog song fading in and out between the bubble and dance and a bird on the breeze. The lightning weight of quilled whisper slips on the thin mud of  last-risen waters awaiting coming rains. My son distantly contemplates the properties of liquid earth under radiant heat or so it seems and I dare not interrupt the jabbering faces bobbing by. Our friend studies fossils yonder and soon we will find a small-town lunch. For now I am become a           pilgrim lost in a          liturgy of pebbles      , a mendicant in mourning for lost and lyric amphibians soothed now by lithic faeries on whispered stone.


*Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris blandchardi). Photo by Robert Smith.



Ponds-eye Pupils

(Becoming a Naturalist Part 32.)


By Jack Phillips


Early morning pondside      liquid eye echos light into pondweed      

into eyelash rushes      brightens tiny eyes brass and gold     

pupils black      and here I am a pupil            in a little frog’s pupil      

and together we are pond’s-eye                                 -tutored pupils.



Bullfrog froglet  (Lithobates catesbeianus). Photos by Troy Soderberg.


Pondside poetry this Sunday at Waubonsie State Park. Details here.

Dragon Poems and Butterfly Oaks


Chasing Dragons: the poetics of odonates.

A Sunday poetry-as-path retreat with TNS and the dragonflies of the southern Loess Hills. Sunday July 29th, Waubonsie State Park. Details here.


Oak Woodland Ecology: Butterflies and other Pollinators

Cedar Bluffs, Nebraska (private conservation area) with Dr. Ted Burk, Creighton University. Saturday, August 4th. Details here.

Amberwing’s almost Noon

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 31.

hallowenpennantfemale smith

Female Halloween pennant, Celithemis eponina, Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

By Jack Phillips

Early morning in the little cabin, coffee is on. I drag the table out back to the edge of the woods, into the dappled shade cast by birdsong. Towhee, bluebird, parula, cuckoo, vireos two kinds. Summer reduces my friends to happy trickles and so they stumble in as though by chance. Naturalists of our ilk are like that, being poets and philosophers and musicians and what-not and so-forth, students and artists and professors (a dog) and such characters believing in summer.

What a good day to write poetry, so we crowd around today’s teacher to take all the help we can get. We tumble, spin, and ponder the rhythms and lines assigned for today. For whom do we make these clicks and vowels? Is this day not enough for wrens and crickets? Now picking up the scent of a muse, we chase downhill to a weedy pond, Lake Victoria, surely named to amuse a long-ago local.

Late morning warm on the dock, some write and some doze and some watch a dragonfly circus. Pondhawks, widow skimmers, whitetails, amberwings, Halloween pennants, blue dashers. The shadow of a buzzard slides across the pond; sunfish suck off bugs stuck on limey duckweed. Swallows sip and skim. Everything loops and climbs and dives, swoops except for us, baking in the day and happy, cool feet in the water. Amberwing circles back to say:

“I take sunlight at dawn like my leafy perch until in heat I chase the things that eat things that eat the sun. Still I am the flesh of the morning star, hard candy, amber in fossil form living still.

All that I am and eat is stolen by your hunger and even sunlight is bent and stripped, ruined! by your hunger.

But not today. I have a Sunday pond and your eyes and your love and hopefully your love oddly, I hunger for your love and a world without you.”

My feelings hurt but seriously: why should she believe that we seek to do good and not harm, and believe that we can learn the difference? “Believe me when I say that we compose a few lines not so much to create something new than to be created anew, to become more creaturely and kin. We want only to share this moment with you, this sun, this space, and not to take up too much of either.” But she remains unconvinced. Bullfrog comments in the distance and to him we exist only as smelly weirdos of sunscreen and deet. But he seems sweet on one of us, commencing to croon whenever she laughs.

By and by we speak and move less and the wild world resumes the business of wildness, forgetting us gladly. The sun grows heavy in the form of passing time; images come to us on slight breezes being just now composed or imperfectly remembered. We drift on a wave of snoring frogs and nooning peeps and whispers, breathing in pondlife and  outpouring desire.

In Iowan bluffs what goes down climbs sweaty back up and so we do. Lunchtime overflows with delicacies fit for lower primates and now we browse hand-fruit and hummus. Ginger snaps go fast. Back out back at the edge of the woods in dappled birdsong we read our poems and laugh, having taken enough sun to welcome a snooze; the weight of our sapiens sins thins and slips with the yawning of our wilder selves. Someone reads a fresh poem as I study a tick traversing my blanket. A tiger swallowtail makes this ridge, bee balm and coneflower, a dreamy circuit. He is undeterred by the birdish hunger for those who suck nectar from things that eat the sun, and unimpressed and surely annoyed by our clever versifying.

Sphinx of the Southern Loess Hills

Genevieve Williams, poetry mentor of the day, gave us an hour to wander and read and write. The good thing about reading poetry, or trying to write it, is that it slows you way down. If not, our friend Chelsea may not have found something fat and slow and green.

sphinx kalmiae

Larva of Sphinx kalmiae. Photo by Chelsea Balzer.

Something so big and colorful should be easy to identify. But not so! That it is a sphinx moth larva is plain enough, but there are around 50 species of sphinx moths documented in Iowa. It looked to me like a species belonging to the genus Manduca, but our good friend Dr. Ted Burk set me straight. It is Sphinx kalmiae, the fawn sphinx. A nocturnal pollinator of the deciduous forest, the larvae feed on ash leaves and those of other members of the olive family. The fat green caterpillars, like wandering poets on a summer’s day, seek the cool and shady forest. Breezes stir us under high canopies and together we do our good work.                                                                                                            –Jack Phillips

July poetry in the woods at Waubonsie State Park. Contact Jack at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com. 

Seeing with Unworn Eyes

On August 30th, 1859 Henry David Thoreau wrote these words in his journal:

“Indeed, it is by obeying the suggestions of a higher light within you that you escape from yourself and, in the transit, as it were see with the unworn sides of your eye, travel totally new paths. What is that pretended life that does not take up a claim, that does not occupy ground, that cannot build a causeway to its objects, that sits on a bank looking over a bog, singing its desires?”

Of course, we do not hang on Henry’s every word. And at times we argue with him (or at least I do). But we do want to succumb to the wild light that burns within, to read the earth with the soles of our feet and to see with unworn eyes, and to wade into the bogs of our wild desires. The mission of The Naturalist School is to find our way into nature and to help others to do the same. Walking is the way. So is writing. And art. And meditation.

If that sounds good to you, we will be at Waubonsie State Park and other locations on Sunday mornings in July, guided by wild poets, artists, and woodland spirits. And songbirds, dragonflies, and toads. And frogs.

Contact me at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com.

–Jack Phillips


An unworn toad (new metamorph, Anaxyrus woodhousii), June 30th. Photo by Troy Soderberg.


Odonate Poetry this Sunday!

The dragonflies are glorious in July! We will watch them and write some poems.

meadowhawkpondhawk male

Sunday morning, July 8th with Genevieve Williams and Jack Phillips at Waubonsie State Park. No experience required, only curiosity. And a notebook.

9am – noon; optional afternoon time to write and hike. Tuition: $10 donation requested; free for TNS members and students. 9am – noon. Prepare for rugged hiking and wild accommodations.


Contact Jack Phillips at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com for details and to register.


12-spotted skimmerRS

Loess Hills dragonfly photography by Robert Smith no kidding, with his phone.

Things of Speechless Strength and Kisses


Mycological studies. (Photos by Robert Smith.)


Of fungi, Ranier Rilke wrote:

Long since, it has ben their job to make the soil
vigorous with the source of their free marrow.
…as they sleep
beside the roots and grant us, from their riches
this hybrid Thing of speechless strength and kisses. 
 waubonsiefungus and moss
Sometimes in fact today, I want to wade through ferns and snakeroot under high canopies to quiet spot and breezy to read Rilke, letting the Sonnets to Orpheus become sonnets to oak and hickory, fungus and frog. Green shadows against hot sky. Let’s do that on Saturday!
We still have a few spots open for our Poetics of Sticky Mysteries retreat on Saturday with poet Genevieve Williams and mycologist Katie Thompson. We will hike and write and find quiet moments to wait for Sappho or Orpheus or the muse of your choice and maybe a beatnik or two, perchance wandering transcendentalists chasing the ghost of Thoreau. And there will be bright and slimy creatures to celebrate the flatness of being and the primal words that just might find us. The spores of a poem. And a cool cabin to take our rest, sack lunch, check for ticks.
Teloschistes chrysopthalmus
 Let me know if that sounds good and visit the Summer Nature Writing Retreat page above. And if you can come a day early for the ecology workshop, we still have a few openings. Visit the Summer Oak Woodland… page for those details. In any case, embrace the heavy hush of summer in a wild place nearby.
— Jack Phillips
More from Rilke:
Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
and unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests:
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,
But from just listening….

Bombifrons in Love

Spea bombifrons, the spadefoot, neither toad nor frog, is rarely drawn from deep burrows but for love and later, for love’s spawn to become yesterday’s tadpoles, only to be found by those who secretly walk in secret places, wildly, wild.

We hope June finds you walking thusly. Or come with us!

Jack Phillips.


Spadefoot photo by Max Soderberg. (Spadefoot photo by Max photo by Robert Smith.)

Reading Rilke by the Kickatuus

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 30.)

by Jack Phillips

canopy at pahuk

Canopy by the Kickatuus. (Photo by Robert Smith.)


With all its eyes the natural world looks out

into the Open. Only our eyes are turned

backward, and surround plant, animal, child

like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, 8th Elegy.)


With each step deeper into these woods I am out of step with everything else that lives here. I feel the ground and beat my heart and vibrate my nerves and slide my eyeballs across the green firmament above and beyond it blue. I move in each of my parts at a different rate but not very much at all with the rhythm of this place, as much as I desire it. The Kickatuus beside and above us flows innumerable currents with each cycle and riffle, blood and run somehow finding the pulse that makes the river and watershed One. I wonder if my friends are feeling it too, but refrain from bringing it up lest they nod politely in my general direction. So furtively I pull Rilke’s Duino Elegies from my pack to sneak a few verses. We are supposed to be birding.

Last week a Pawnee man walked where we walk this morning. These waters and the bluff above are sacred to him. It is here that the world of his people began, it is here that animal wisdom was shared with humans, it is here that humans were welcomed into the circle of creatures. My friends and I walk around the edge of that circle, ever outside looking in, ever longing to look from the inside out with animal eyes. Or at least I do. The Pawnee man came from Oklahoma to pray the night into dawn.

Every human tribe once belonged to the primal circle of creatures, but now our clumsy presence makes an intrusion. Better that we would spend our time here in contemplation and of this we are reminded by an angry great-crested flycatcher after having interrupted his sexual affairs. We walk on to the very edge of the river and are chastised by a man-bird once again, having interrupted a kingfisher’s fishing for himself and his mate. He patrols this territory and finds himself busy this time of year with husbandly duties and a sacred circle to tend.

Kingfisher hovers

between spirit and story

between throat and fish.

In fact, it was right here that Kingfisher discovered a murdered boy drifting by. At Kingfisher’s intercession, the animal elders of the sacred circle elected to revive the boy. He was brought into the cosmogonic cave and taught the wise and medicine ways that humans have now forgotten, with the possible exception of last week’s Pawnee man and his people. Our species is bad at keeping wisdom and wildness. Not like a bird, in Rilke’s verse, “which knows both inner and outer, from its source.” Or even a gnat, for whom “everything is womb.”

What the kingfisher knows (and even the gnats that bite my eyelids) belongs to each of us in our creatureliness. Listen! Secrets whispered to us in the womb speak to us now in wild places. Rain falls and falls harder as we slip and climb up Pahuku, island hill, sacred bluff. Skinned and soaked and muddied, we shelter under a great-grandmother oak at the summit. She has been known to the Pawnee for many generations, growing within earshot when the first stories were told.


Taking shelter under Pahuku oak. (Robert Smith.)