Prairie Birthdays


collecting seed

The Naturalist School collects prairie seed in late August at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Photos by Robert Smith.)

The life of a naturalist is governed not by calendars but by phenologies. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold observed: “During every week from April to September there are, on the average, 10 wild plants coming into first bloom…. No man can heed all these anniversaries, no man can ignore all of them.” This does not take into account the countless births and hatches, movements and migrations, gestations and ripenings, solstices and equinoxes, love, and the waning of moons and seasons and lifetimes in woodlands and prairies.

seed in hands

Living by nature’s rhythms sounds idyllic and lovely, but it comes with uncertainty, sometimes bad weather, bug bites, and hard walking. And when there’s native seed to be gathered and a prairie to be sown, a naturalist becomes gatherer and a sower. Leopold concludes: “Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation…”

sowing seed

Sowing our wild seeds in a prairie restoration with the help of the wind.

Becoming a naturalist is not always a vocational choice, but it is a life choice. It is a decision to “live in each season as it passes” as Thoreau advised. We can help you with that. The early fall session of the Naturalist School begins September 3rd. For information, click here.

Dreaming Amphibiously

Late summer session continues this weekend. Click here for details.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 9)


Metamorph of Woodhouse’s toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii) at Hitchcock Nature Center. Photo by Laura Connelly.

Botanizing with my naturalist school colleagues under a dark sky, a raindrop fell on the dry soil at my feet. But as it bounced along I realized that it was a tiny toad, not a droplet, but a toadlet. When it finally began to rain, the dry earth came alive with yesterday’s tadpoles. Aristotle believed that frogs and toads and salamanders were generated spontaneously in the clouds and flooded the land during summer storms. It made sense; the toadlets at my feet increased with the falling rain.

Our local toads emerge from lowland waters during the third or fourth week after the solstice and travel overland to their preferred habitats. We find four species in our Loess Hills: plains spadefoot (Spea bombifrons), great plains (Anaxyrus cognatus), American (Anaxyrus americanus), and Woodhouse’s (Anaxyrus woodhousii). We seldom see bombifrons. Fossorial in habit, they live deep in the soil and only appear during rainy summer nights. Woodhousii is our common toad of the high ridges. They aspire to the heights and the distance they climb as tiny metamorphs is inspiring. We sometimes find them hopping about the wooded ravines and wet meadows with their lowland cousins americanus and cognatus, but the bald hills belong to them.

If not spontaneously generated, toads and frogs are no less spontaneous generators of imagination. They are magicians of metamorphosis, emerging from the primal mysteries of water and muck to awaken the dreamer and the naturalist within. They call to us in the night and into the woods on rainy days, singing the songs of lost youth and long summers, of muddy feet and sleeping with the windows open. Even in nature-deficient lives, they are the fairy-tale agents of witches and damsels, of nightmares and fantasies and midsummer dreams.

Thoreau was captivated by the singing toads of New England nights and knew them as dream-frogs. In his journal on May 3rd, 1852, he described their dream-song as a “bubbling sound, such as children, who stand nearer to nature, can and often do make, this and many others, remembering their frog state.” They were still singing two days later: “My dream-frog turns out to be a toad…. Their piping was evidently connected to their loves…it is a dreaming, lulling sound, and fills the crevices of nature.” He then concluded: “The music of all creatures has to do with their loves, even of frogs and toads. Is not the same true with man?”

What did Thoreau dream as the dream-frogs sang outside his window? Did the amphibious love songs make him dream of nature personified, whom he professed to love as a maiden? Was he transported back to his bubbling and froggy childhood? Did he return to the primal frog-state of humanity? Or did he simply dream of toadlet multitudes, soon to emerge from the vernal ponds to overrun the woods of his rainy-day walks?

And the dream-frogs are dreamers themselves, as he wrote a few weeks earlier: “I have heard within a few days that particular dreaming sound of the frogs which belongs to the summer. Their midsummer night’s dream.” They are not only dreamers, but visionaries:

The frog had eyed the heavens, from his marsh, until his mind was filled with visions, and he saw more than belongs to this fenny earth. He mistrusted that he was become a dreamer and a visionary. Leaping across the swamp to his fellow, what was his joy and consolation to find that he too had seen the same sights in the heavens, he too had dreamed the same dreams!  

Of what would frogs and toads dream if not of waves of progeny flooding the woods on rainy summer days? We might be quick to dismiss Thoreau’s visionary amphibians as fanciful literary devices the way we might dismiss Aristotle’s amphibious storms as quaint folklore. But for Thoreau, nature was the realm of wild dreams and visions. A naturalist dreams the dreams of toads, of wild places flooded with new life.

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.