Sideways Light and Autumn, Lately


Autumn hickories

Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) in stubborn yellow at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith)

Loess Hills autumn has been lately warm; but not so much today. If we saunter in, we may not saunter out of Sawmill Hollow.

The road into Sawmill Hollow  Conservation is muddy on a good day; it is classified as a “B” road, but that is a bit optimistic. If today’s wet forecast is correct (also optimistic, to be sure) we will be able to get in but not to get out.  I love the sideways light this time of year and the way dusk falls backyard into bright afternoons. But not so bright today!

So as not to become temporary residents that hollow, let’s cancel today’s Saunter. But please think about joining us for the Solstice Saunter on December 20th at Hitchcock Nature Center (Honey Creek). Let me know if you plan to attend. In the meantime, we can wander into the bush and watch autumn slide into winter.
And when you come inside to get warm and dry and read Johnsgard or Dillard or maybe Thoreau, take a minute to read the excellent news article by our good friends Andrea Kszyzstyniak and Kent Sievers. They captured the spirit of NTS and the Loess Hills.  Click here
And saunter.
Jack Phillips

Scientists and Infants

Waubonsie in the morning

Morning at Waubonsie, taken by Michelle Miller on an autumn saunter with New Tree School.

Every time we walk in a prairie or forest with our eyes open, we walk in the tension between questions and answers, between poetry and science. Annie Dillard says it this way:

“I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Sometimes we wander about bewildered, finding plants we can’t identify and seeing familiar things in unfamiliar light. Michelle captured that feeling in the photo above. On those days curiosity guides us and questions are more important than answers. And sometimes we want answers and invite experts and scientists to come along.

Curiosity will guide us on our next Saunter at Sawmill Hollow Wildlife Area in Harrison County, Iowa on November 29th. And we’ll learn some mycology in the field at our Lichens and Fungi workshop on December 12th, with biologists John Pearson and Katie Thompson. Click here for details.



What is a Saunter?


Euonymus atropurpureus greets a Saunter at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith.)

On May 1st, 1857, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau went for a walk in the woods. Each of them mentioned that walk in their journals but described completely different experiences. Thoreau wrote about his cleverness in fashioning a specimen box from birch bark and didn’t have much to say about his companion. Emerson, on the other hand, praised Thoreau for his cleverness in his journal entry and hoped that their walk together would heal a rift in their friendship. He envisioned a new collaboration: “We will make a book on walking, ’tis certain, & have easy lessons for beginners. Walking in Ten Lessons.”

Ralph and Henry never wrote such a book. So the task fell to me. A Pocket Guide to Sauntering draws on the journals and essays of Emerson and Thoreau. Sauntering as a way of walking originates with Thoreau; New Tree School has clarified and adapted his philosophy. The Pocket Guide states that

“A saunter, properly undertaken, explores inner landscapes as well as the terrain being traversed. It is introspective while being shaped by the lay of the land.”

If you want to know more about the New Tree School method of sauntering, or to get your hands on  A Pocket Guide to Sauntering, you will need to join us for a Saunter. Click  here to find us in the bush.

Saunter forth!



Chasing Rilke’s Turkey Tails

Good naturalists,

This morning I walked in my home-woods and found turkey tails on broken redbud under a red oak. I took a picture:

Trametes versicolor,

Trametes versicolor, “turkey tail fungus,” on Cercis canadensis.

Upon returning to the house my son Cub oddly handed me an English translation of Ranier Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. There I read a sonnet that speaks to the rhythms of earth, time, and the life of a curious naturalist:

We puzzle over flower, vine-leaf, fruit.

They speak not just the language of the year.

A thing of succor rises from the dark

and its hues may gleam of the jealousy

of the dead, those who strengthen the earth.

What do we know of their share in it?

It has long been their practice to enrich

the loam with their own free marrow.

We spend every day and season puzzling through prairies and woods, our own marrow strengthened by the earth and by those mysteries that give strength to the earth. Now as autumn fires give rise to softer days, our walks are met with the jealous hues of lichens and fungi that quietly devote themselves to making loamish marrow.

On Saturday, December 12th we will spend the day in the bush with our generous NTS experts Katie Thompson (Iowa State University) and John Pearson (Iowa Department of Natural Resources). The Loess Hills will gleam with Rilke’s brightness as autumn approaches the Solstice. Join us:

Late Fall Lichens and Fungi in the Loess Hills with Katie Thompson and John Pearson. Saturday, December 12th, 9am to 3pm at Hitchcock Nature Center near Honey Creek, Iowa. Tution: $30 (full-time students free). Dress like a field biologist and expect rugged walking. Bring a water bottle, coffee cup, a hearty sack lunch, mushroom field guide (if you have one), and a favorite book of poetry (if you are so moved). We’ll provide hot drinks. Register with Jack Phillips at by December 9th.

October Oaks, Birds, and Saunters

“A saunter, properly undertaken, explores inner landscapes as well as the terrain that is being traversed. It is introspective while being shaped by the lay of the land….The purpose of sauntering, if there is one, is to experience nature deeply and to let curiosity grow.”
From A Pocket Guide to Sauntering. 

At New Tree School, we love to saunter. We have found that walking curiously in prairies and woodlands, taking under advisement the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Dillard, and many other witnesses, sharpens our science and deepens our love. If one saunters forth looking for birds or oaks, she may find them. But the saunterer may find something beautiful inside as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote “nature is loved by what is best in us.” We have found that to be true.

New Tree School saunterers under old chinquapin oak in Fremont County, Iowa

New Tree School saunterers under old chinquapin oak.

We invite you to look for birds and learn their songs, walk wildly in tallgrass and timber, and learn about conservation along the way. And let love grow. Click here for October Workshops and Saunters.

Available at New Tree School events.

Available at New Tree School events.

Our Promiscuous Company

Henry David Thoreau could act like an old curmudgeon, even at the age of 42. He entered the following in his journal for September 16th, 1859:

I am invited to take some party of ladies or gentlemen on an excursion, – to walk, or sail, or the like, – but by all kinds of evasions I omit it, and I am thought to be rude or unaccommodating therefore. They do not consider that the wood-path and the boat are my studio, where I maintain a sacred solitude and cannot admit promiscuous company. 

What did he expect? After all, he claimed in his essay “Walking” that he intended to speak for wildness, so that his neighbors would become  better “citizens” of and “part and parcel” of Nature. True, the naturalist’s soul requires periods of silence and solitude in woods and prairies, in deep ravines and on windy ridges. However, insights are shared and friendships are forged on cranky Thoreau’s “wooded path,” and perhaps his solitude was at times not a choice but the result of his personality.

Today our first Autumn Saunter was brilliant, prodigal, and promiscuous. Nature lavished her blessings on our wandering band through savannas of contemplation and conversation, laughter and introspection. Our friend Jennifer snapped this photo along the way:

Monarch on thistle. (Jennifer Godfry)

Monarch on thistle. (Jennifer Godfrey)

And so we will continue saunter forth through autumn in the spirit of Thoreau (without his crankiness) using his “Walking” as our guide. New Tree School workshops and saunters are open to everyone who wants to indulge natural curiosity and the promiscuity of wildness that Thoreau encouraged but sometimes could not abide. Clink on Autumn Offerings for New Tree School dates and locations this fall.

Be wilder. Bring your friends.

Jack Phillips

Wild Walks and Driftless Saunters

Cornelia Mutel’s Fragile Giants: a Natural History of the Loess Hills endures as the standard comprehensive work on Iowa’s Loess Hills, now almost 30 years since publication. For Connie and for those of us who love it, the Loess Hills landform is “one of North America’s special gems, possessing natural features rarely duplicated elsewhere on the planet.” Many of us in the New Tree School community have discovered something else quite rare in those hills: ancient and vital sanctuaries of wildness. Connie continues: “In addition, the native inhabitants of the Loess Hills to some degree have been protected by the rugged loess topography. While lands on all sides have been converted to cropland, extensive areas of the Loess Hills have remained in prairie and woodland, communities that contain rich and unusual mixtures of native species.”

New Tree School in the Loess Hills

New Tree School in the Loess Hills (photo by Robert Smith).

Cornelia Mutel’s observations seem to channel the spirit of Henry David Thoreau and to echo his  journal entry of August 30, 1856: “I see that all is not garden and cultivated field and crops, that there are little oases of wildness in the desert of our civilization, wild as a square rod on the moon, supposing it to be uninhabited.” And in this same spirit, Aldo Leopold in his Sand County Almanac (1949) celebrates, though with some sadness and irony, local native “frivolities” that could remain as oases of native flora, the “idle spots on every farm” that could preserve native plant communities as part of the “normal environment of every citizen” so long as “cow, plow and mower” are kept at bay.

We seek those idle spots and wild oases, those square rods of moon-like wildness, those hidden places folded into deep ravines and hovering out of reach on sun-baked ridges, those gems and niches that have never known a plow, cow, or garden. And we invite fellow seekers with sturdy boots and dispositions to join us this autumn in the Loess Hills of Iowa and in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin for wild walking with provocative teachers with wild ideas.

Our 2015 program partners are Golden Hills (Iowa) RC&D, The Aldo Leopold Foundation (Baraboo, Wisconsin), and Pottawattamie County (Iowa) Conservation. The Autumn Quarter schedule is now posted. Click on the Offerings 2015 tab above.

Native places are disappearing as our planet becomes less wild every day. Our workshops and saunters can help you discover wildness close to home, recover a sense of wildness within, and take up the work of preservation. Sign up soon – we keep our sessions small.

Go wilder.

Jack Phillips

Wild Stories in Written in Loess

“That movement from wilderness to exploration and settlement through displacement and destruction calls for healing and restoration, and what it reveals about the evolving environmental imagination is one of the central plots of this story – and the story of the tallgrass itself.

It is a story that continues to be written, on the page and in the earth.”

John T. Price, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

Summer Saunter in the Loess Hills    (Robert Smith)

Summer Saunter in the Loess Hills (Robert Smith)

We spend a lot of time in the Loess Hills of Iowa. Sometimes we give workshops, do research, monitor biotic communities, collect seed, and engage the work and philosophy of stewardship. And sometimes we saunter. When one saunters, the data disappear and the tasks of the day dissolve, and the story of the land – the true and ancient story – appears. Sometimes we write it in words or share our insights on the trail. Sometimes we write new chapters with our footsteps. And sometimes we just listen.

If you write, read, walk, or listen in nature, we invite you to spend a Saturday morning with author and prairie wanderer John T. Price at New Tree School on July 25th. The only prerequisites are a desire to grow in nature and registration by Wednesday, July 22nd. The program begins at 8am. For details, click here: Offerings

We will keep the group small, so sign up soon!


Hardwired for the Paleolithic

I’ve been reading Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing tiger beetles and other new ways to engage the world by Sharman Apt Russell. Tucked inside her beetle notes, she writes:

“Pattern recognition. Four creamy dots. Something in the world and something in my brain snap into place like a Tinker Toy. Tiger beetle and butterfly enthusiasts share this satisfaction – matching up beauty with order. Chevrons, bands, circles, dots…. I confess to that Paleolithic nostalgia. We are hardwired for walking through the woods, along the river, feeling at home, matching patterns, knowing what we see and what to do next.”

Great Spangled Fritillary (Robert Smith).

Great Spangled Fritillary (Robert Smith).

New Tree School embraces, teaches, celebrates, and cultivates wild nostalgia and primal pleasures – Paleolithic or new, ordered or brilliantly chaotic. Or at least we try. We will take you out into the bush and show you vibrant chevrons, stripes, dots, squiggles, endless circles, bursts of color, shimmering sunlight and murky shadows – and give you some ideas about how it all fits together.  Finding inner wildness is up to you.

Click offerings 2015 for our upcoming workshops and wild pursuits.

Jack Phillips

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