Halo Days

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 38.)

By Jack Phillips

How odd to be strange to these homewoods our frequent haunt and saunter. Chitters and gabs make us alien beings in the womb of our being with each step more strangely made here. Not so the birds and those who make rustles with each sound they are further made music, foxes the footprints of spirits.

Halo days ring the solstice lay bare the woods and our transgressions, cold mercies and clearly human wounds. Still or walking the winter woods might be entered silent step and breath. Sun on our shoulders lays lumens before us and shadow-black bones of daylight. Least weasel little ghost ellipsis written in snow.

Oaks black and red, chinkapin, bur. Oyster fungus and some jellies, fairy-dust lichens, crusty sunburst. Hazelnut, wahoo bent-over boughs. Frozen pond eyeball, dead-stare widened sky. Blue-bead as raccoon-grape sometimes known (the biggest we have seen) a corky python loops and climbs “present but rare” as indicated here.

Beep-beep-beep a nuthatch. The path dissolves to deer tracks and consciousness to creatureliness, ego to impulse: give us ferity and animal hungers, eyes for the unseen, feet for keeping secrets. Earthlings in love with earth and now our softened presence, these woods await our rare devotion.


ampelopsis cordata

Ampelopsis cordata, blue-bead vine in Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith


Shack Simple, simple.

walking at wsp

Wandering poets, December Shack Simple in the southern Loess Hills.

Poets, Philosophers, Artists, Wildlings:

The discipline of “shack simple” was practiced by some of the Beat poets of the late fifties and early sixties; the term was coined by Gary Snyder. Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, Snyder and writers of the San Francisco Renaissance believed in the importance of spending time in a rustic and simple cabin in order to pursue the “serious exuberance” of experimental writing. Time in nature, time in silence. Can you dig it?
In the beat of shack simple we read Annie Dillard and Olav Hauge further emanating the lyricism that some might say began with Basho, some might say Thoreau; every walk a pilgrimage and every pond summer and winter the glass eyeball of the cosmos and let us not forget Mary Oliver and Bernd Heinrich. But more than reading we walk and write, draw, meditate. Nothing more is needed than quiet attention then nature rushes in. Wear good boots.
frozenbud, ostrya
Winter is lent to shack simple and last Sunday was simple. Deep snow, deep silence, fox tracks, turkey tracks, milky sky sliced by crows and jays, eagle in a tree. Deer on the path ahead. Chelsea’s sweet potatoes, Shaun made soup. Robert stayed for 3 days. Feet to the fire the cabin gets a little smoky when the fire gets low; one more log, then one more. We hope Billie brings ginger snaps this Sunday.
Just a taste, just a day but just enough to learn simple silence with or without a shack it all adds up, writing poems ourselves being written, slowly spinning the earth under our feet. Frosty our breath goes before us with sun on our backs and shadows we follow. Perhaps a versicle slides off a wet branch, droplets thrown from a spinning faerie or sprite, colors of a passing bird to find our faces.
— Jack Phillips



Shack Simple fire, last Sunday. All photos by Robert Smith.

Shack Simple with The Naturalist School in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills, winter session 2019. Applications now being accepted. Contact Jack at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com .

One Owly Owl.

Mysterious goblins haunt our familiar walks at night. They migrate in scattered patterns with little site fidelity even when they nest as they secretly do so here. When captured for banding they remain curious and docile and surprisingly so, or perhaps they are simply stupefied by giant admirers with headlamp eyes.

One particular female pitched a fit when she found the pre-recorded love song to be a ruse and did not fancy the ornament with which she was fitted, our three-eyed science be damned. Ghostly proclivities have served her species well and our do-good intentions are less honorable to her as rude. Maybe those prone to tantrums are less frequently captured but in any case let each of them be loved and quickly released into night.

— Jack Phillips

angry saw whet

Abbe Richardson of The Naturalist School captured, recorded, and banded his hatch-year female saw-whet owl on November 10th at our TNS site in Saunders County, Nebraska. This tiny owl was very irritated and uncooperative, and was quickly released unharmed. (Photo by Abbe.)

Iambic Muck and Shivers

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 37.)

By Jack Phillips


Early October snow. (Robert Smith.)


Walking wildly in wild places makes fluid the earth and the past makes current, memory and promise together flow and puddle, run over. Bodily we float the weight of our being; this is the faith and physics of the walking tradition but poets today are few. Sweet friend wishing she could make it baked for us instead, apple-butter cardamom cake and medium-roast tarry us by the fire. Another slice, cup, then out, up the snow-on-mud steep bluff.

I am warmed by wool socks to the fireplace writing home-poems or so imagine of friends with us only in verse. North wind blows eagles high drives accipiters low into canopy ricochets, too big for kestrels too small for falcons, too fast for a sybil or muse, oracles left to kerfuffling jays. Last week’s buckeyes, monarchs, nymphalids, pearl crescents having forsaken blue sage and lately snakeweed leave us to wet impulses in bark-barely shadows.

(Today is made hoary before summer has traded jade for amber, butter, and burnt oranges before afternoon is traded for dusk. Juncos are here as always come early; a frog lingers coldly to begrudge the equinox lost. In nature time is beat and not meter; seldom iambic though the poet wishes it so to be.)

What will it take to become a current flowing over, body taking earth lightened by the weight of time? As much as I want to walk barefoot in my boots I make muddy memory on this land as one clumsy and dumb with the sins of my kind. Figments appear on the trail ahead, poets of old earth and time more magic than here and now, so easy to believe they left no scars on the planet only tracelessness. But no.

Nature poets gone before us have muddied and mucked their way into used bookstores. Much less than to make a footprint where we don’t belong does it take a poem to make, nothing more than clear exuberance of wild moments running over, each step flowing into the next on land no more enchanted, no less than it ever has been. Or holy.

And the words of my companions more vital, alive than those words unshelved and liberated only by virtue of our woodsy satchels. Bashō on the open page Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau weep and run under soggy snowdrops. Maybe in their day they didn’t mind so much wet feet. Maybe they moved as one with cosmos gliding deer-like over trackless terrain, memory melting into moment, right-foot, left. Maybe perfect poems crystalized instantly on sybilline lips. Maybe friends baked for them cardamom cakes. Probably not.

The book-weight we carry can lighten us when we pause to read a favorite but the load of our longing belongs each to us only. Raw earth alone can free us. Nature is absolute freedom and wildness said Thoreau and so on and so forth said he. But I will keep him in my pack for now as right as he may be along with others in pages bound, zippered in. Even Oliver!

In this moment in muscle and blood-rush shivers, earth-beats in living skin matter most. We go lightly in love with silence but a silence never requiting; the woods here and prairie, river bubble voices of a thousand beings as free as we might be freed, to quiet mouths, minds, feet speak freely. Come what may muddy is later shared boots by the door feet to the fire, cardamom cake still some left fresh pot of coffee on, and poems of our own composing.

Autumn part One


Photos by: Troy Soderberg (leopard frog),


Jessica Mizaur ( Jenna finds Laetiporus),


american toadletbecky

Becky Colgrove (all-American toad),



and Robert Smith (monarch on sage, early October snow, Saunders County, Nebraska).

pahuku in snow


Autumn and winter Saunters, surveys, and Poetics of Place. Contact thenaturalistschool@gmail.com. 

Autumn Spins Involute

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 36)

By Jack Phillips

flamed tiger snail (soderberg)

Flamed tiger snail (Anguispira alternata) in autumn, Saunders County, Nebraska. Photo by Troy Soderberg.


Walking on this equinox our orbit feels not circular but involute, the sideways view of a woodland snail, long end of a spring come undone. Threads unwind from spool of Sun become then again wound around spine of the earth always leaving a tail or fray to tug. But migrating warblers are unwinding time distracted this year and the earth takes a wobble.

A more uncertain spool is looser and better bound for mystery and a walk, loose ends to follow. Every time I enter these woods I come unmade then made but what about today? These morning snails seem slightly more spun out, mossy involucres disheveling more their frumpy acorn caps and this fresh frog at home a vagrant, me too.

A new way of seeing needed I belly to warm earth summer hungover, face turned to mollusk umbilicus. From the center they grow and coil and find their being, rings adding time like wood, bygone days round and hard, new life shiny, sticky-slick and slip. Mating tiger snails take the day each one two genders at least. How else to right the cosmos?

They are masters of axis riding this orb, umbilicate bodies taking celestial form. Do not the stars make tailing wheels around this navel? That is what I want from my snails and I will lay here until I get it: to be spun and centered but never lacking for loose ends slack enough to swing the round years behind, slime-sliding easy on muscles and moments to come.  

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


…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.)


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.



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


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