The Naked Naturalist

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 17)

On our spring naturalist retreat, we identified many organisms found in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills. We also did yoga, wrote essays, made art, took pictures, and composed haiku to the mating calls of treefrogs. Some in our group stretched the 2-day retreat into 3 and 4, and we will have another one later this summer. When I invited a friend to attend our next naturalist retreat, she laughed and  asked: “Can I at least leave my boots on?”

Funny how that keeps coming up. True, it sounds like we are “naturists,” the devoted nudists for whom clothing is a barrier to the natural world, to each other, and self-awareness. Naturalists in my school of thought seek a different kind of awareness, one that requires another form of nakedness. Nonetheless, the confusion seems to be common. Just a few weeks ago I attended an art opening by Paula Wilson, an artist from New Mexico and an avid member of our school when her travels allow. She introduced me as her naturalist friend to some patrons, who later asked her: “How does he make a living taking his clothes off in the woods?”

Paula told me about this the next morning while on a last-minute hike, along with our colleague Robert Smith, before catching a flight to her next gallery show. A round of jokes ensued about men our age with big bellies and hairy backs going naked in the woods and sasquatch sightings. Paula, a petite desert flower good and kind, did not join in. When the jokes ran out, it was my delight to tell her a story that took place in those very woods, at the pond we just had passed along the trail.  

Early one cool spring morning, we had so much gear that I uncustomarily loaded up an ATV with buckets, nets, seines, extra clothes, and all manner of rubber boots and waders for our treefrog tadpole survey. My friends would follow on foot. Our goal was to identify and document the tadpoles of 3 hylid species found at our site. These are treefrogs and kin, distinguished by a suction pad and an extra joint on each toe. Many are small and some are tiny.


Boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata). Note suction pad and extra joint on each digit.  (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Mating treefrogs are bashful; they abruptly stop singing at any movement that could mean danger. As I drove toward the first pond, I shut down as soon as I might hear them, and let myself be hypnotized by Pseudacris maculata, the tiny boreal chorus frog. I heard depth and resonance in this chorus; in concert they are enchanting. They create sonic overtones far beyond their octaves. I can’t even imagine what the females are hearing. The first humans to hear these songs lived wild, exposed, and tuned in. I want to hear what they heard.

As I continued on my route, the chorus stopped well before I reached pond. After I unloaded the gear, I continued on toward another pond, much bigger, to drag a hidden canoe to the water. As I approached, I was met not by a boreal chorus, but by a small band of webelos. (At this point in the story I stopped to explain to Paula that a webelo is the transitional stage between a cub scout and a boy scout, like a tadpole with legs.) They watched me intently as I passed. After setting the canoe in the pond, I began my return trip to gather my naturalists and fetch the gear. The watchful webelos had not wavered.

 As I drove again by the encampment, I was hailed by the the leader, no doubt the father of a webelo. I turned off the engine and greeted him. The webelos remained at a safe distance, save for one by his side. He spoke softly, as though raising a delicate matter: “Are those other people coming down here? Can you give us a few minutes to break camp?” I assured him that we would be no bother, and that we would be working at the far end of the pond. He spoke even more softly, as though very uncomfortable: “Will you be keeping your clothes on?”

It took me a moment to clear the incredulous frog from my throat. I assured him that my colleagues and I would remain fully clothed. He now seemed suspicious, and informed me that he had taken some webelos on an early hike, and came upon a female member of my group frolicing naked through the woods, followed by a photographer. At this point the face of the attending webelo brightened, as did the faces of those who had crept hopefully close.

I again assured the adult leader that our research protocols do not include nude science, and that the naked woman probably doesn’t know what poison ivy looks like. Leaving the relieved pack leader and some disappointed boys, I drove off to resume my duties. When I reached the first pond, I found my gang still wearing layers of flannel and rubber, covered in mud and crouched over buckets, all present and accounted for. I never did see the naked woman with a rash.

Paula liked my story. As we drove back to the city to catch her flight, we discussed the similarities between nature-lovers and nudists, naturalists and naturists, and the underlying truth. A deep encounter with the natural world requires stripping away ego and expectations and assumptions, and baring your soul if not your body. No matter what you are wearing or not wearing, sometimes you just need to listen to the frogs.





Finding Turtle-mind.

painted hatchling

Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) within hours of hatching on May 17th, Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

On September 5th, 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson made this observation in his journal: “All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle.” It is not entirely clear what was going on in his thoughts, but we know for sure he was not thinking the thoughts of a turtle. Regardless how close we get or how deeply we connect with nature, we need to be aware that human thoughts belong to human nature.

We also need to embrace the reality that human nature, dreams, and aspirations come from the wildness within, and that we share that basic wildness with each turtle that hatches in the warm soil of spring and begins the dangerous and wonderful journey toward home. At The Naturalist School, we believe that finding our primal wildness, and growing wilder each day, is the work of a naturalist and of a healthy, thoughtful human being.

If you meet a hatchling turtle on the path, greet your sweet cousin and help that little one find the way. And join us at The Naturalist School. Click here for this week’s adventures.


Spring in the Loess Hills

                                                                          Photos by Robert Smith and Nic Salick

This week at Loess Hills Nature School:

Spring birds and butterflies with Jason Anderson, Saturday, May 6th.

Woodland and early prairie wildflowers with Neal Ratzlaff, Sunday, May 7th.

Sedges: identification, ecology, and phenology with David Sutherland and Neal Ratzlaff, Monday, May 8th.

Details here.

Finding a Muse in Oak




                                                                                                                                 (Photos by Robert Smith.)

If you were to find us on the trail, you might find us reading a poem, naming a plant, face to face with a fungus, or sketching a seedling. Or lying in wait for a gnat-catcher, chasing a swallowtail, dreaming with tree frogs in a mossy glen. This is our way of being a naturalist, and the way of being a naturalist that we teach. That is, we desire to live in nature, equipped with curiosity and little else.



Becoming a naturalist requires creative space and contemplative mornings and breezy afternoons. To this end, we will find a Muse in Oak, or at least give ourselves to that possibility at Waubonsie State Park on May 15 – 17th.  If you would like to join us, we have room for a few more curious and creative people, and those that want to be more so. waterleaf

You can come each day or camp, or rent a cabin. We’ll keep it small and spend our time under canopies of oak studying fungi and bryophytes with Katie Thompson, writing with John Price and Matt Low, doing woodsy art with Madeline Cass and Sarah Berkeley, and sauntering in the way of Thoreau.

Waubonsie in the morning

Morning at Waubonsie. (Photo by Michelle Miller.)

Loess Hills Nature School: Finding a Muse in Oak retreat. Click Here

Early Pleasures

The color of blossoms

must be dyed in that sound –

a warbler’s call

lovelier than ever

in the spring dawn.

                                   Saigyō Hōshi


Sanguinaria canadensis is now in bloom, but not for long. (Photo by Cub Phillips.)

Getting Lost in Day Length


(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 16) by Jack Phillips

It’s easy to get turned around in deep ravines, beyond going up or going deeper. Sense of place and of time fades in that magic space of getting lost. When we finally climbed up a ridge and over another, then another to find our way back to the cabin, the unusually hot February sun had baked me in my flannel. Sitting down to rest, I opened a book of 12th-century poetry by Saigyō Hōshi and read:

I’ll forget the trail

I marked out on Mount Yoshino

last year,

go searching for blossoms

in directions I’ve never been before.

We know well those ravines and ridgetops we frequently survey and saunter, but like Saigyō we often lose our way. When we do, it is because we have become enraptured by something secret and wild, or have seen something familiar in an unfamiliar light. Losing ourselves in nature is easy traversing ridgetops and ravines where the land folds in on itself, expanding and collapsing with every footstep. Every particle and every creature and the even the quality of light changes every moment, and find we ourselves in a new world when we pay attention.

Nature is always in process, and the timing of natural processes is called phenology. That is, the timing of processes like birth and death, reproduction and aging, migration and dormancy. Phenology is the way biology navigates time, and is related to the journey of the earth around the sun and the rotation of the earth in the daily round. Length of days and nights provide the primary cues, and temperature is also a factor. Warm days in winter can move phenology up a week or two, and trick a few plants and animals into spring behaviors when the days are still too short.


Flowers of slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) in late February, Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

The combination of day length and temperature usually keeps phenological variation from getting too extreme, but lately the little wrinkles in time seem more like warps and wormholes. On our hot February saunter, we saw early butterflies a month too early, hazels in bloom out of season, and some slippery elms in full-on April flower. Like the poet and the naturalist, nature sometimes loses her well-marked way. Then it snowed that night.

The next morning the wilted blossoms of slippery elms made rubies on the snow. A fox led our saunter with her fresh tracks as we followed her along a ridge top and through an oak savanna. She had marked her trail with urine and here and there with blood; she was in heat and in season, right on cue. In a few weeks we will lose ourselves in the woods again, when the elms are red with new blossoms, and the days are longer and the time is right.

March Workshops and Saunters: click here.

Colors that escape us.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 15)


Gathering for a Saunter in the flannel woods. Hartman Reserve, Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)



Fields we saw

blooming with

so many different flowers,

frost-withered now

to a single hue.

(Saigyō Hōshi)


The wooded hills along the Cedar River were introspective. The sky was the color of white smoke that rose from a hot fire built on clean and cured elm. We gathered close to talk about sauntering, that distinctly Thoreauvian woods-walking that is deceptively simple but infinitely healing. Winter is good for this and for other contemplative work. The clean lines and contrasts that create luminous spaces are lent to quiet conversation and the seasons of spirit that easily escape us in more verdant times.

But this morning was different. It was the soft underbelly of the season, not a chrystalline day that sharpens the senses. A coming blizzard made a sky that was at once dull and bright and the forest reflected the dim light inward. The stones in the brook looked like oiled leather. The forest floor was brightly dull as well, a russet-brown and orange rustle that betrayed the walker against otherwise quiet woods. The whole morning was subtle and subdued, soft, beautiful but weary of winter, unseasonably warm and void of snow. The woodland palette, heavy on grays and browns, was woven into a faded flannel.

Our eyes adjusted as we left the fire and wended our way into a watercolor painting with trees drawn in charcoal and chalk and smudged with fingers. Gray-green lichens and some others  the color of old pumpkin and warm butter splotched trunks both upright and fallen. Brown creepers revealed the nature of bark as the they pecked for hidden morsels; we drew close to see topographies of canyons and flats. Nuthatches, chickadees, and woodpeckers too, flitted and trapezed through naked canopies, drawing our eyes to the beacon-red buds of basswood and those of sulphur on hickory.

We hunkered close to a prostrate basswood, full of fungi.  We ran our cold fingertips across the  slightly sticky and bright green algae that frosted the tops of turkey-tails. That log presented to us a winter bouquet of wood ears, brown witches butter, artist’s conks, sheet-fungi and jellies, each with a Linnaean name that mostly escaped us. But something more escaped that hollow trunk barely inches from our hovering faces. Silently but suddenly, a missile with a flaming tail was fired out the hollow end.

The projectile made an orange-red stripe on the duff of cast-off autumn. The fat and fluff of vulpine pelage ignited the russets of oak leaves and by contrast, made the grays and steel of lichens greener and the greens of mosses brighter. Commotion ensued with the alarms of squirrels and crows. Frozen deer twitched, then fled. Nature was transfigured, her secrets revealed, and her true colors exposed. Just as suddenly, the fox disappeared and the bright surge faded along with our laughter. We returned to our saunter, and nature to her contemplations and the sameness of the day.

Winter surprises with jointed legs.


Grasshopper nymph, (Chortophaga sp.) found active at Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County, Iowa on January 21st, 2017. (Photo by Robert Smith.)


Insects in Winter: Strategies for Survival

With Theodore Burk, Ph.D., Creighton University. Saturday, February 18th at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa. For details, click here.