Plant wild oaks.

PHC Planting (2)

Wild oak project, Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Alyssa Shukar

If you want to restore some wildness to your home, neighborhood, or local ecosystem, plant native plants – local and wild. If you have room, plant oaks.

Announcing the fall 2016 oak sapling sale. All proceeds benefit The Naturalist School at Hitchcock Nature Center.  Click here.

Bur Oak Acorns, Loess Hills Ecotype. Photo by Jacob Phillips

Tashka-hi (bur oak) acorns from HNC. Photo by Cub Phillips.

Vireo Unnamed

yellowthroated vireo

Yellow-throated vireo (Vireo flavifrons) at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Photo by Nick Salick.)

Becoming a Naturalist, part 8

I open my notebook on a log under a singing vireo. My writing workshop assignment finds me casting about for ideas, and vireo seems to be working on an assignment of his own. He sounds like he is trying out a few phrases before deciding on a theme. But I have to admit that I am projecting my own indecision and lack of inspiration onto him. There is nothing tentative or improvised in his song; he sings a territorial melody written in deep time. The only one looking for ideas in this clearing is me.

My unfinished task does not prevent me from looking him up in my bird book, and I welcome the diversion. The breeding range of Vireo flavifrons, the yellow-throated vireo, reaches the western limit in our woods and we’re glad to have them. His name, assigned by the followers of Linnaeus, is found on our nature center’s comprehensive species list. But Vireo flavifrons was here long  long before Homo sapiens and that name belongs to us, not to him.

Scientific names are useful. Our naturalist school learns and teaches taxonomy, identification, and measuring; these are tools of conservation ecology. They help us diagnose the damage humans have reeked and devise mitigations and protections of what remains. But becoming a naturalist requires the work of consilience as well. Like Humboldt and Thoreau, we embrace both science and creativity and carry in our knapsacks field guides and books of poetry. We want to equip our students to identify a wide swath of taxa and to write a brilliant essay.

We hike among innumerable muses, the old muses of art, mythology, and metaphysics and muses much older, taking the form of frogs and ferns, cicadas and sacred trees. We give some of our muses names from the ancient Greco-roman world, names like wood satyr and dryad’s saddle. Nymphs emerge from the ponds as winged dragons. Ovid’s ancient sprite Smilax becomes our greenbrier and Ambrosia, food of the gods, becomes our ragweed. Taxonomy is made of mythology and we walk, arm in arm, with Theophrastus on one side and Sappho on the other.


A muse takes the form of a pondhawk at HNC. Pursue these and other muses at The Naturalist School.  See late summer schedule here.  (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Thoreau embraced ancient greek mythology for its service to wildness and argued that these are not the stories of gods but of natural history. When he was accused of being a pantheist he embraced that intended insult. He was denied admission into a an esteemed  academic society because, as he believed, he was a mystic. While he was devoted to scientific nomenclature, he was mindful of its limits. He spent the weight of his days and writing on what we now call citizen science, making phenological charts and records and taking pride in his skills as a botanist. But he also warned that these endeavors could hinder the pursuit of wild nature. His journal entry for February 18th,1860 advises:

We can never begin to see anything as it is so long as we remember the scientific term which always our ignorance has imposed on it. Natural objects and phenomena are forever wild and unnamed by us.

Like Thoreau, the naturalists I listen to are followers of science and poetry. Consilience of science and art, inquiry and creativity, method and mystery is critical if we are to address the alienation of humans from nature. To be a naturalist, it seems, is to build a firmament of objectivity and creativity only to break through this crust to realities beyond. Data points and poems and paintings are transformed into doors. In Earth House Hold, environmental activist and beat poet Gary Snyder writes:

The voice of inspiration as an “other” has long been known in the West as The Muse. Widely speaking, the muse is anything other that touches you and moves you. Be it a mountain range, a band of people, the morning star, or a diesel generator. Break through the ego-barrier.

Thoreau sought and spoke for nature beyond human-generated barriers. In our day, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, and others who are followers of science and makers of art, seek and defend mystery. In Winter Hours, Mary Oliver writes:

When I write about nature directly… I mean landscapes in which we are reinforced in our sense of the world as mystery, a mystery that entails other privileges besides our own  –  and also, therefore, a hierarchy of right and wrong behaviors pertaining to that mystery, diminishing it or defending it.

The vireo is still singing. His territorial warning is meant for other males of his species, but it is somehow intended for me as well, or so I imagine. He defends the boundary of mystery, an ancient boundary of his own kind, against those who would diminish rather than defend. Perhaps I can find my way in and take up a position beside him. I close my notebook. My assignment will wait and the vireo shall remain undocumented.

Catch and release.

pondhawk male

Male eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) under study at The Naturalist School. This male specimen was captured on June 25th and was released unharmed. (Robert Smith.)

Summer session continues:

July 1st Butterflies, July 2nd Wildflowers, July 3rd Writing in nature, July 9th Dragonflies, July 10th Understories. For details, click here.

Pond Studies at HNC Naturalist School


Pond Study at Hitchcock Nature Center.*



Boreal chorus frog (Anachris maculata) on bracket fungus (Laetiporus sulphureus). 


Boreal chorus frog tadpoles. (Laura Connelly.)


Bullfrog tadpole (Lithobates catesbeianus).


Ecologist Joseph Phillips teaches aquatic food webs.

damselfly larvae

Odonate larvae with giant duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) and lesser duckweed (Lemna minor).


TNS at  pond

Learn about The Naturalist School and our new Naturalist Certification Program in partnership with Pottawattamie County Conservation.  Click here.

*Photos by Robert Smith except where noted.


Energy Flux in Boots



the world according to naturalists

Earth.  (TNS workshop, 2016)



Raymond Lindeman’s 1942 diagram of a freshwater food web. Lindeman pioneered the concept of quantifying energy flux in food webs. He tested this approach in a Minnesota bog. We do that kind of thing at TNS.


“In this lake, where competitions are fierce and continuous beyond any parallel in the worst periods of human history; where they take hold not on the goods of life, merely, but always upon life itself; were mercy and charity and sympathy and magnanimity and all the virtues are utterly unknown…even here…an equilibrium has been reached and is steadily maintained that actually accomplishes for all the parties involved the greatest good which the circumstances will at all permit.”—Stephen Forbes, The Lake as a Microcosm, 1887.

Stephen Forbes and Raymond Lindeman found something beautiful and magnificent in wet and wild places that knew nothing of humanity. Yet we find beauty in nature and in human nature when we find ourselves in good company high on a prairie ridge or deep in the woods or up to our knees in green muck. That’s what happens at The Naturalist School. Wear boots with us.  Click here.

Anuric Therapies

boreal chorusfrog

Species TSN 207312 (Pseudacris maculata). Photo by Jeff LeClere.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 7)

Finding frogsong is my springtime wont. In my world, boreal chorus frogs start to sing before the vernal equinox and sing through the summer solstice and beyond. Humboldt’s “world-directing chorus” is closer to home for me; my muses prefer wetlands to mountaintops and midges to ambrosia. Pseudacris maculata is my slimy Sappho.

Following Thoreau’s journals is another wont. I’m curious about his musings as they correspond to mine. And while I find much of his writing contrived and constructed, his journal entries seem more candid. And he had an ear for members of the order Anura. On May 21st, 1851, he wrote:

I have heard now within a few days the peculiar dreaming sound of the frogs which belongs to summer, –their midsummer night’s dream…. The frog eyed the heavens from his marsh, until his mind was filled with visions, and saw more than belongs to this fenny earth.

Thoreau’s access to the dreams and visions of frogs may have been enhanced by drugs. A few days prior, he had all of his teeth pulled. Thoreau’s dentist used an experimental anesthetic that took him “to a greater space than you have ever travelled.” Though he saw the medicinal and recreational potential of this newly-invented “ether,” he deemed it only useful for those who could not be transported by thought, meditation, or sauntering. And by frogs:

When they peep, the loose wrinkled skin of the throat is swelled up into a globular bubble; very large and transparent and quite round, except on the throat side, behind which their little heads are lost, mere protuberances on the side of this sphere; and the peeping wholly absorbs them; their mouths shut, or apparently so. (May 1st, 1852)

Thoreau identified his chorus frog as “Hylodes Pickeringii,” coined by John Edwards Holbrook in his 1839 North American Herpetology. The Integrated Taxonomic Information System identifies it as Species TSN 776303 and sanctions the binomial Pseudacris crucifer. This is the name assigned by German explorer Prince Maximilian in 1838. My local chorus frog had already been discovered and named Chorophilis septentrionalis when Maximilian passed by here on his 1837 travels up the Missouri River. It was renamed Pseudacris maculata in 1850 by Thoreau’s friend Louis Agassiz.

The native peoples whom the prince encountered along the Missouri had their own names for these little frogs and knew them better than anyone ever will. But the true nature of this frog, like all frogs, can’t be named or catalogued. We can learn binomial nomenclature and native names and memorize mating calls, but until the vernal chorus rattles our eardrums and resonates in our sternums and vibrates our feathery souls like breeze on a web, we will have only historical names, serial numbers, and digital files. By song they reveal themselves and unleash a blast of fertility. A frog is a song made flesh and can only be known by experience. The sonic spheres they create are entered by muddy stealth through fragrant muck, slippery with love.

Like his ballooning peepers, Thoreau lost his little head in a globular bubble. That’s what I want from my amphibious muses.


Find yourself absorbed at The Naturalist School at Hitchcock Nature Center. 2016 Late Spring session begins May 1st. Click here for details.