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

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