Meadowhawk Watches

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 18) by Jack Phillips.


White-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtusum), three days after the summer solstice in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

I reversed my usual route and decided to climb the steep face of the bluff that loomed over the little roadside parking. It is best to come down this west face rather than to go up, but on that early morning the oddly-cold late-June wind, barely beyond the solstice, advised a jacket and promised to push me up. She was little help, and soon my exertion made the jacket gratuitous. Many times I have learned not to trust the wind, but I was anyway beguiled by her confident demeanor gained by her long blow up the river valley.

I stopped to take a breather and to pack my wrap. I had only reached a shoulder, and soon gained the summit after another steep and hard ascent. There I found an unusual calm. The high savanna ridge was sunny and still and resplendent with diamond flowers, purple prairie clover and some white, and here and there an impatient rudbeckia well ahead of normal blooming. As I stood still and breathed hard, I was suddenly surrounded by squadrons of bright dragonflies of myriad colors and nimble flight.

They had their own reasons for mounting that ridgetop, as became apparent as they looped and landed on sunny perches to take the sun. They needed to warm up before commencing their ectothermic duties of hunting and mating and derring-do. I looked around at the familiar faces of pondhawks, blue dashers, whitetails, twelve-spotteds and widow-skimmers — all content to watch me watch them. I find it fascinating and a little unsettling that they can turn their heads like little deities with monkey faces. With each of my furtive steps, some would flit and some would hold. I reached out to gently touch a glowing-green female pondhawk on her wingtip; she remained unperturbed.

A few steps on, a host of mango and cherry seraphim darted from the woods and took positions on bluestem and rye. Some were saffron. With my close-focus binoculars, I studied their faces and even the hairs on their legs and veins in their wings. I made a new entry for white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) in my odonate survey for this site. With each step the meadowhawks turned their faces, and I suddenly felt all eyes on me. I put away my notebook and lenses, feeling that I had crossed a sacred boundary and had received an undeserved vision.

Sometimes the dragonfly pantheon offers less taxonomy and more divinity and asks less documentation and more reverence. Their lives and that high place were not to be reduced to species lists as though a bit of Latin could reveal their true identities. I needed to be precise in my science and attentive to the wild mystery that surrounded me. I walked on that high savanna as on a sacred place, but not through any scientific knowledge or spiritual insight on my part. It had been consecrated by dragonflies.

Spiders that fish.

dolomedes triton

Dolomedes triton, six-spotted fishing spider, captured, admired, and released at The Naturalist School last Saturday. It measured more than 2″ wide. They lie in wait on aquatic vegetation for fish and other prey. (Photo by Robert Smith.)


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.)