Local Haunts and Hungers

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 35)

By Jack Phillips

 

Thirty-eight years and six weeks ago I sat under a fig tree and gorged myself. The figs ripened in their own good time but too slowly for those who walked by them every day. It was the only tree on that hill and the only native shade. Always tired eyes and feet, long days working dirt we loved so much our little tree. Native to the Negev and Sinai and Sahara just beyond she seemed to love us too on that gorging morning.

She was Asherah, Canaanite Mother Goddess. A few weeks before just meters away we had excavated a small figurine full of curve and bosom, fig-like in aspect and weight. A ripe fig is a milk-stretched skin, an asherah of honey and sun. As long as wild figs grow she will flow with sticky milk and the blessings of excess. Having survived intestinal storms of biblical proportions, we left for Egypt a few days later.

The ink was still wet on the treaty that opened the border. After a sandstorm journey and finally by the Nile we took refuge under the goddess once again, Isis locally known, deified fig tree with hieroglyphic wildlings and pharaonic halflings gathered round for nectars dispensed from stony fingers. Tombs give repose to the here and gone; wild half-gods of dune and delta parade in lithic figures with tree of life presiding.

So long ago and wildness still my longing, again today we climb our Pawnee hill on the river. Wet around sixty under clearing sky and Kickatuus pantheon we follow a local impulse as old or older than Levantine asherahs or anyway older than anyone knows. It seems these plums will never ripen until one day they do like a desert fig but these are not the pommes we seek. I recline under goddess arms to eat a bur oak-nut just as sweet to me and now I read Thoreau.

He complained or rather rejoiced that an acorn eaten indoors is not as sweet: is not the outdoor appetite the one to be prayed for? The bitterness for which oaks are known tempers my impulses but here is a lovely mother feeding her children: curculio weevils and hairstreak butterflies and all manner of nymphs and nestlings, cryptogamic slicks and slimes, secretive beasts and lately-come seekers with eyes on the bounty and mouths to the mast.

And like those nourished by sacred trees and even for forest atheists suckled no less by the tree of life, we are planters not eaters only. In crop and jowl and fingers we bear them, bury the ova of oak not eaten, the seeds of mornings ever new. Carefully slip the involucre to reveal the orb inside the cap and the galaxy of pores. Crack the pericarp, deftly remove the shell, nibble the nut to avoid the weevil maggots with whom you share your wild desires.

If rich and sticky, no matter if happy on the tongue or wincing, savoring or quickly spit into the bittersweet twining there, eat just one more, fill your pockets, and leave the rest to earthy circles. Plant them where the canopy breaks sunny, sacred to remain as long as oaks are feeding local haunts and hungers and native worlds to come.

 

 

*Photos by Troy Soderberg and Robert Smith (top left,  bottom right).

 

 

Wet Ecstasies in Oak

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 34.)

By Jack Phillips

lichens and puffball pahuku

We climb the switchback steeply up to sacred oaks living here before the first story-circle and living still. In younger days far-off I climbed temples claimed holy made of stone and bones of slaves and innocents crushed by jealous deities. Half-earth away from those blood-lusts still bleeding, this grove from sun-sugar by earth herself was grown and here we walk today.

The native humans vanquished and banished far-flung ever return in prayers and the potencies of this place. Broken humanesses expose our own exile from soil and joy too early weaned away. Souls come naked, feet step lightly on this risen land but why?

Every square rod of our world oozes melodies uttered in rutting ululations, in bullfrog sex balloons, in the gurgles of pinkish babies everywhere born. The planet pulses new moons and sunlight, carbon and fluxes and wonder fixed in tissue. On Pahuku hill every dawn whispers mysteries and sings secret fecundities, makes seen the hidden skin of the earth.

Of this Eden we have become supplicants. Trees of life bear this dome of sand and loam above Kickatuus waters. Eastern horizon made round by morning eyes, robin’s blue egg, the shell becomes sky. Belly-sweet serpents make fertile time to come. Wild fruits tempt us though not here forbidden but freely offered.

But today a giant has fallen, a keeper of stories in breath-enfleshed bones, of lifetimes forgotten remembered in wood. We walk through thorny thickets and attending generations to lay on our sadnesses and hands and to ask: what will remain of your wisdom written in xylem and phloem to earth now returning?

Answers come on sudden rain. Pawnee oaks patki-natawawi speak in tongues of water and wind, cold skin. Fungal blooms and bright lichens redeem the lost and the broken. Mud takes our feet as though bare and our bodies as somehow belonging. Wild plums yet bitter are sweet enough partaken, matter commingled with human desire. Slipping away a young woman now dances in ecstasy, wet mercies of the day.   fallen oak pahuku

*Photos by Robert Smith.

Porosity of Place

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 33.)

By Jack Phillips

cricketfrogsand

…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.)

bullfrogletfacetroy

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.

 

bullfrogleteyetroy

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

 

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

Dragon Poems and Butterfly Oaks

saffron-winged

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 to the edge of the woods out back, 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. An amberwing circles back to say:

“I take sunlight at dawn just 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 breezes being just now composed or imperfectly remembered. We drift on a wave of snoring frogs and nooning peeps and whispers, breathing in pond-life 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

woodhouseneometamorphTS

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

katieshands

Mycological studies. (Photos by Robert Smith.)

Friends,

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!
mossylog
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….