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.


A Moonish Saunter

The waxing soft and gibbous moon smudged the sky and
our upturned faces.
She said: “Do I see myself in that frozen pond again,
and again like skipping stones?”



The waxing gibbous moon last night, seen on saunter. (photo by Lance Brisbois.)

As we stood by the pond, after fairly floating down and across that cold savanna and through the woods, the night felt immeasurably great. We then climbed a steep knoll and lay down on the grass.
The thin clouds stretched a milky film with here and there a faint star. The yellow and buff terrain rolled under and away, now and again punched through with oak and shadow.
Tomorrow night the sky will be clear and the moon nearly full, but nowhere nearly as bright as when we walked hushed and crunchy across the prairie woods, then took our repose to consult the moon.

Finding Fields of Light

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 14)

I would write praise poems that might serve as comforts, reminders, or even cautions, if needed,  to wayward minds and unawakened hearts.

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and chances are one.

                                                                        (Mary Oliver, Winter Hours.)


A good place to read “Moss” by Mary Oliver. (Photo by Madeline Cass.)

One might think that a winter workshop on lichens and bryophytes would draw naturalists, but this time our naturalists were also artists, poets, writers, and photographers. It seemed perfectly normal, even expected, when we stopped by a mossy tree or bright vista to read a poem or bit of woodsy prose, as we often do. Our nature school believes that nature study requires imagination, the ability to see the invisible threads that draw together the web of life. It also requires deep listening to the sounds and songs of nature and the infinite spaces between them, like the spaces between the lines of a poem. Poets find inspiration in wild places and poetry illuminates those places for us.

How time in nature affects each of us is unknowable except by what is discovered in reflection and shared in retrospect. Our new colleague Paula Wilson, a brilliant visual and performance artist from New Mexico, sent a poem to the group a couple days later. Our rugged workshop had reminded her of “Awake Awhile” by Hafiz, a 14-century Persian poet and illuminator of interior worlds. Hafiz wrote in couplets called “ghazals,” gazelles that jump across the page. Here is one gazelle from that poem:

Awake, my dear. Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out to the vast fields of light and let it breathe.

One might find fields of summer flowers conjured with these lines, not a Loess Hills prairie in January called to mind. Paula and I had climbed out of a deep and dark ravine ahead of the others. (Our small band had been stretched and thinned over the up and down terrain, and some lagged behind to adore an unusual concentration of cat-tongue liverworts along an open brook.) We emerged from the oak and hickory ravine into a bright honey swath of prairie, a field of light worthy of a Persian poet. The low sun warmed our faces and cast long shadows as if it had decided to set at noon on a horizon of its own choosing.


Hafiz’ field of light, Fremont County. Iowa. (Madeline Cass.)

On that high ridge, we stripped off layers as the others joined us. Madeline Cass, devoted naturalist and photographer, made meadow pictures with the funny light. Others were given to hands and knees, and found themselves astonished at lively flies and a wide-awake grasshopper nymph. I saw a spider. Overwintering songbirds chattered and fed with fervor. Woodpeckers hammered the sunny side of trunks. Circling raptors seemed not so lazy. We marveled at the summerish day and at the ways that nature had become aroused. Had Hafiz come along this time, his wakeup verse would have been heard and his vision proven.

We assume a winter dormancy in our colder climes. But nature does not sleep; seasonal living is keyed to length of days and the ambiguities of solar radiation. Our wild mother lies in wait for moments of summer come low in the sky and born on southern breezes, but finds sunlight enough even on the bleakest of days. Likewise for the artist, the poet, and the naturalist, luminous spaces appear in the daily rhythm and round throughout the year. Our faces were warmed in that field of light and later, by the fire.


Foliose lichen with cup-like apothecia. (Madeline Cass.)

Find information about Paul Wilson’s new show at http://www.bemiscenter.org/art/exhibitions/paula-wilson.html

Learn more about Madeline Cass and her work at  http://www.madelinecass.com/magic/

See our winter workshops and saunters schedule here.

Getting There on Foot

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 13.)


Not by car, or by plane,

not haysled

nor old clunker

— not by Elijah’s chariot of fire!

You won’t get any farther than Basho.

He got there on foot.

                                         (Olav Hauge, “Not by Car” in Luminous Spaces.)

While sauntering, we came upon a dead basswood that had been sculpted by pileated woodpeckers. We reached it by walking on an old camp road and then for a little while on an old spring-fed brook, made frozen by the impoundment that now includes it. Tributary springs stayed open, and here and there in the frosted ice of the pond, a circle of open water hovered above a spring buried by captive water and mud. Despite a series of dams, the brook still holds fast to an ancient spirit that we now hope to find in our meandering.

So we walk, trying to recover something within ourselves as the wildness of that brook still tries to find its way. The brook still flows, but has been robbed of destiny. Where it meandered in bygone days it now moves vertically in a column of current, revealed in interrupted ice. That brook is an ancient traveler forced to stand still, or to make slow progress where it wants to rush and babble.

The whole ecosystem is trying to find ways to be wilder. Pileated woodpeckers, that now and again make a comeback in a breeding pair or two, are boxed in like that brook. Here they used to pound and call and make themselves proud. They now lurk as ghosts in the shadows of a former forest of massive cherries and oaks. The spit of habitat that now remains is surrounded by fields of cash crops and a flood plain, once the braids and brakes of the Missouri River, which has itself become tame and sluggish where it formerly swelled and raged.

The restoration and preservation of wild places requires that nature expands beyond the limits we have placed upon her and flows with more freedom. A wild brook follows the lay of the land and is shaped by it. Likewise, we will recover our ancient wildness and wisdom by becoming more brooklike.

Our colleague Robert quoted the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes by proclaiming (in Latin, not Greek) the phrase: solvitur ambulando: “it is solved by walking.” In the tradition of poets, naturalists, and poet-naturalists, something vital is found by walking in wild places. Olav Hauge, a 20th-century Norwegian poet-farmer and avid walker through birch and heath, made this observation: “sitting down to write poetry is no use; this is ancient wisdom.” In search of nature, poets and naturalists get there on foot.

The most famous Zen poet and writer of haiku did not sit down to write, but composed with his feet. After his home burned, Matsuo Basho began to wander alone, for months at a time, through the wild interior of 17th-century Japan. His poetry is the poetry of walking that became the watershed of nature verse to our day. The clear lines of Basho ring true in the winter woods:

I am a wanderer,

so let that be my name.

The first winter rain.

After admiring the pileated sculpture and watching our shadows on the frozen pond and listening for pileated calls, we gingerly walked out onto the ice. With great care we approached a liquid pool, a perfect circle of spring water rising from below. A few bright lime duckweeds, fluorescent against the clear darkness, wandered in the captive current.


Saunterers on a frozen brook. (Photo by Sarah Berkeley.)

Winter workshops and saunters, click here.

Learn to Play the Ice Harp


Musical notation for ice harp, written by a coyote on frozen pond at Waubonsie State Park. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Becoming a Naturalist, part 12

We were ascending a steep ravine when suddenly, from behind and below, the sound of shattering ice rang through the woods. I turned to see a young man of our company lobbing ice missiles onto a frozen pond, breaking chunks off the edge and flinging them high into the air. They sounded like icicle wind-chimes as they jingled and danced across the ice.

What compels us to throw random objects at bodies of water, big or small, frozen or fluid? Some might wistfully opine that our friend’s inner child had been set free. Thoreau had a different take on such antics, similar to those in which he had often engaged during a saunters like ours. Something primal and musical is liberated when we fling things on pond ice or follow mid-summer frog-songs into wooded ravines. If anything was liberated at that winter pond, it was not childish impulses. It was the music of a frozen muse, by Thoreau’s telling:

“My friend tells me he has discovered a new note in nature, which he calls an Ice-Harp. Chancing to throw a handful of pebbles upon the ice where there was an air chamber under the ice, it discoursed a pleasant music to him. Herein lies the Tenth Muse, and as he was the man to discover it probably the extra melody was in him.” (Journal, December 5th, 1837.)

The friend in that story was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described the event in his own journal but did not mention a muse. That was Thoreau’s interpretation, but he did not know the muse by name. Plato identified the Tenth Muse as Sappho. She was credited with the invention of a certain poetic meter and of lyric poetry itself, so named because her recitations were accompanied by lyre, while the wind-god Aeolius made harps of trees. In Thoreau’s woods, the Aeolian harp was a thrush, and the Tenth Muse, appearing now and again in his Journal, was thusly accompanied. And also by singing toads.

A few years later, Thoreau took an evening walk with another friend. When they passed by a pond, the summer “dream of a toad” rang out, but his friend could not hear it. Thoreau diagnosed his deafness as an inner-ear turbidity caused by the pervasive commotion of modern life: “How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we were made, clear!” Each of us in our wild and natural state is a crystal pool, receptive to the dreams of toads, frozen muses, and all the musical vibrations of nature. In an almost Zen-like turnabout, one who walks by the pond becomes the pond.

Wild music fills our crystal stillness. Find a frozen pond and listen for muses: Aeolian thrushes have made for the south, but January plays her woodpecker drums. Dreaming frogs are sleeping deep, but frosted oaks creek and croak.The songbirds of summer evenings become the what-cheers and che-winks of shorter days. Oddly, owls embrace the day and hoot for love at noon. Bladdernut rattles, and bittersweet. Musical notation, in coyote tracks and rabbit dashes, is written on new-fallen snow. And if you learn to play the ice-harp, you can add your notes to all the rest.


For details on The Loess Hills Nature School 2017 Winter Session, click here.