Bombifrons in Love

Spea bombifrons, the spadefoot, neither toad nor frog, is rarely drawn from deep burrows but for love and later, for love’s spawn to become yesterday’s tadpoles, only to be found by those who secretly walk in secret places, wildly, wild.

We hope June finds you walking thusly. Or come with us!

Jack Phillips.


Spadefoot photo by Max Soderberg. (Spadefoot photo by Max photo by Robert Smith.)

Reading Rilke by the Kickatuus

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 30.)

by Jack Phillips

canopy at pahuk

Canopy by the Kickatuus. (Photo by Robert Smith.)


With all its eyes the natural world looks out

into the Open. Only our eyes are turned

backward, and surround plant, animal, child

like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, 8th Elegy.)


With each step deeper into these woods I am out of step with everything else that lives here. I feel the ground and beat my heart and vibrate my nerves and slide my eyeballs across the green firmament above and beyond it blue. I move in each of my parts at a different rate but not very much at all with the rhythm of this place, as much as I desire it. The Kickatuus beside and above us flows innumerable currents with each cycle and riffle, blood and run somehow finding the pulse that makes the river and watershed One. I wonder if my friends are feeling it too, but refrain from bringing it up lest they nod politely in my general direction. So furtively I pull Rilke’s Duino Elegies from my pack to sneak a few verses. We are supposed to be birding.

Last week a Pawnee man walked where we walk this morning. These waters and the bluff above are sacred to him. It is here that the world of his people began, it is here that animal wisdom was shared with humans, it is here that humans were welcomed into the circle of creatures. My friends and I walk around the edge of that circle, ever outside looking in, ever longing to look from the inside out with animal eyes. Or at least I do. The Pawnee man came from Oklahoma to pray the night into dawn.

Every human tribe once belonged to the primal circle of creatures, but now our clumsy presence makes an intrusion. Better that we would spend our time here in contemplation and of this we are reminded by an angry great-crested flycatcher after having interrupted his sexual affairs. We walk on to the very edge of the river and are chastised by a man-bird once again, having interrupted a kingfisher’s fishing for himself and his mate. He patrols this territory and finds himself busy this time of year with husbandly duties and a sacred circle to tend.

Kingfisher hovers

between spirit and story

between throat and fish.

In fact, it was right here that Kingfisher discovered a murdered boy drifting by. At Kingfisher’s intercession, the animal elders of the sacred circle elected to revive the boy. He was brought into the cosmogonic cave and taught the wise and medicine ways that humans have now forgotten, with the possible exception of last week’s Pawnee man and his people. Our species is bad at keeping wisdom and wildness. Not like a bird, in Rilke’s verse, “which knows both inner and outer, from its source.” Or even a gnat, for whom “everything is womb.”

What the kingfisher knows (and even the gnats that bite my eyelids) belongs to each of us in our creatureliness. Listen! Secrets whispered to us in the womb speak to us now in wild places. Rain falls and falls harder as we slip and climb up Pahuku, island hill, sacred bluff. Skinned and soaked and muddied, we shelter under a great-grandmother oak at the summit. She has been known to the Pawnee for many generations, growing within earshot when the first stories were told.


Taking shelter under Pahuku oak. (Robert Smith.)

In the Circle of Bodies


Early April, southern Loess Hills. (Robert Smith.)

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 29.)

by Jack Phillips

We take this robin as a sign of spring, but three weeks in we still dress for winter. Our way of living is novel and only as old as the recent days of our species; we live in linear sequence of wardrobe. But her kind evolved in places like this and may have wintered here since the Pleistocene. The heat of her blood, 105 degrees by day and cooler at night, is governed by solstice and equinox and runs hot longer than it did a month ago. She lives by daylength and dawn, pulse and orbit, little circles within big ones, always free, here, now, primal, wrapped in rhythms even older.

She owes her being

to the fire in her flesh and

her flesh to this land.

A year ago in these Loess Hills we saw flowering bloodroot and dutchman’s breeches, ground plum and blue-eyed grass. Today, nothing. The robins have reasons enough to gurgle, pipe, and cheep-bleep-bleep with plenty of food by way of juniper berries and chilly worms, and a south-facing slope for to take their ease and there, so do I.

Out of the wind it is time to eat an orange. The robins tell me things but don’t much care if I listen. I turn my face to the sun and to their voices but their lyrics elude me. These are songs of of forgotten human nature, familiar and sweet like this orange but strange. In this moment, on this hill, we are bound by the pulse and shape of this place. Together we are bodies becoming cosmos: primate, robin, oak, and earth.

This spinning orb we ride

spawns, hatches great mysteries

while I eat my snack.

I would love to bask and write and listen longer, but I have other things to do. So I take the ridge and a cold blast to join my friends, having split up to find a missing man, now recovered. I for myself have not come all the way back but that’s okay because we know the pleasures of slow and quiet walking, the kind that gets you happily lost in the woods.

After an hour of contemplating every sedge, lichen, feather, and sprout, we point and gaze through a grove of shadows at a cankered old oak. A broken branch collar has been shaped into a basin by fungi and rain, and robins gather like supplicants around a sacred font.

Circle of heartbeats

each in turn flits, perches, dips.

Robins come to drink.

The three-ounce bodies melt away at our softest approach. In town we can almost pet them, forgetting the primal land and blood that made them. At a backyard birdbath amongst the mowers and croquet they are as wild as the rarest bird and as wild as the better part of human nature.   



Bird-bath oak, where bodies come to drink.        (Troy Soderberg.)


April 21st: spring birds and wildflowers, Harrison County, Iowa. April 22nd: Poetry as a way into nature, in Fremont County, Iowa. Details here.


Leaven in the Flesh

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 28)

By Jack Phillips

She opens a deep wonder, a pore where the bright mist of unknowing steams and seeps, a leaven in the flesh rising and released, the membrane of creation breathing out and in. We often seek but rarely see this flashing black/white-red vestige of that time when the earth moved and grew as she pleased, this pileated woodpecker. But we just did; I got goosebumps and my friend says “so did I.”

In this nearly-spring woodland we are seen more than we see and even our thoughts belong more to these woods than to ourselves. We are sugar-clay and slime down to the base of the spine. Our big wet brains are wild through and through except for, maybe, the thin halo of ego that binds the soul and tricks us into believing that the earth belongs to humans more than we, to her. But the leaven of this place raises the whole lump and with it our eyes to catch sight of one who watches us all the while. She flies away and draws us out — for a moment, freed.

Our gentle company moves lightly for humans on tender duff and moss, leaves. We fan out to get one more glimpse slinking down, down to snowmelt pools and dead timber, a favorite of oversized bills for an oversized woodpecker. How can this on-wing yeti, loud pounder, bright hawk-sized shredder of limb and log be harder to see than the drab and tiny warblers we will soon be chasing? We see her one more time —  undulating black/white-red flight. Then her hidden male calls from behind us and she answers: kuk-kuk keekeekee….

She flaps, dips, dissolves

into timber, leaves no trace

but rising desire.

We compose haiku in our heads and read pileated stories in basswood and ash. Eyes up we wander, watch, listen as we slowly climb to our sacred oak, chinkapin mother, to rest under steadfast arms. On our backs we melt into root and curve and cradle of earth, flopped here and there in our oakring, bag of almonds passing around. Fat shadows appear as hazy sky brightens and we are warm and I am getting dozy in the grateful sun.

Now distant, once more she calls: kuk-kuk keekeekee…. Pores of mystery open all around, barely the width of a filament or an eyelash, seeping the syllables of creation. In wakeful dreaming our earthen bodies rise and respire, make melody in skin and spore. Her lyric chanting leavens the slip and clay of this place and of our bodies.


Teloschistes chrysopthalmus.jpg

Apothecia (reproductive cups) of Teloschistes chrysophthalmus releasing clouds of mystery in Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith, while looking for pileated woodpeckers.)

The practice of poetic walking and writing on foot.

Explore poetry as a way into nature with Genevieve Williams, Matt Low, Jack Phillips, and TNS faculty. Sunday mornings, April 15, 22, 29, at Waubonsie State Park, Fremont County, Iowa. For more details and to register, contact Jack Phillips at

March finds Us Gravid

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 27)

By Jack Phillips


cubby bemused

               A naturalist bemused in March.                                                       (Photo by Robert Smith.)


How many ova have I swallowed? Who knows what will be hatched within me? There were some seeds of thought, methinks, floating in that water, which are expanding within me. The man must not drink of the running streams, the living waters, who is not prepared to have all of nature reborn in him, — to suckle monsters.  (Thoreau, Journal, August 17th, 1851.)

A month ago we walked on this pond, waters above and waters under our feet. The cold sky was an eyelid and the pond, a frozen eyeball. Horizons on every side were made round by my pupils and the year made round by ova and bone. The planet pulls the skin of dawn, noon, moon in turning and with it, the conceptions and consumptions of this pond.

On that February retreat we wanted to see birds and write poems and read the lines written in snow. The days burned short and our hearts burned long as the lost of this world, sinking with the sun. Orion chased Pisces across the southern sky. Coyote songs and fingered wings of buff and leather (and owls) made sleepless nights wilder. But mid-winter days fatten little by little, the yolk of the year growing, walks getting longer, almost out of firewood and let’s have another cup of coffee.

Now it is abruptly March, a time of rot, reek, rills of leftover juices glad now for the sun, melted chagrins laid bare. I walk with my friends along the pond: suck and mud, wet knees, extra pair of boots in the truck. In two weeks maybe three by slither, slink, skin on skin, earth will be redeemed. Green water will borrow moonlight for jellies and ribbons of jewels and our eyes, vernal mornings to find our faces there.

Soon, overwintered tadpoles will graze pondweed somehow still green. Soon, so very soon I can feel it, the waxing moon will draw up deep turtles, gravid as they are. When the first frog jumps on that liquid drum, pond and wood will ring. Singing frogs will make bubbles of love, these little Hyla of chorus and cricket and gray tree frogs of course, leopards, bullfrogs, and kinds of toads three or four; maybe a new species this year. But I have bubbles of my own, gravid as I am.

Something wild grows inside me. An ovum of my animal self, an inner creature belonging to these waters is bound by the person I think I am. This pond, a creek dammed and gagged and livestocked with hatchery bass and designer bream, is the same primal sea that pools inside my cells and in every living thing. In these captive waters, ancient minnows, shiners, spirits, chubs spawn wildly still; dinosaur dragonflies deposit their progeny, aboriginal amphibians ooze out jellied eggs and clouds of sperm. Souls are born, bodies raised. My primate brain behind searching eyes reflects on the surface. Ova and orange, moon and bone orbit this eyeball-in-an-egg, this sudden moment, March.

I watch my friends bemusing themselves by the pond and in the sloppy woods above. What do they bubble and love? What eggs do they bear? When dusk comes we write in the cabin with coffee and black bean soup. Flannel and wool, feet to the fire, muddy boots stay outside. Flames dance in dark pupils as we gaze at burning elm and a little smoke makes them wet, then I get some air on the porch under a clear sky. Through the woods the pond draws slippery moonlight. Pisces has the whole sky to swim in and my soul, the whole fish.  

Shadowless Secrets of Slant and Magic

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 26)

By Jack Phillips


Loess Hills above Missouri River floodplain. (Photo by Joseph Phillips)

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 26 )

The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of childhood… (Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums.)

The forest in all mythologies is a sacred place, as the oaks among the Druids or the grove of Egeria… the deeds done and the life lived in the unexplored secrecy of the wood, that charm us and make us children again…. (Thoreau, Journal, 23 December, 1851.)

From north to south between almost South Dakota and backwoods Missouri, the Loess Hills feed the floodplain with deep gorges in relief and time. There is an amazing ravine, our Magic Valley, that we keep secret except for our close and reverent naturalists sworn to keep watch against greedy harvesters and herbalists proven to be rapacious in these parts. It strikes me as unconscionable that so many “nature lovers” and “natural” practitioners see nature as theirs to pillage as though holding special privileges reserved for the enlightened. Primal America continues to be ravaged and desecrated as new mysteries are revealed. We guard them.

We love these ancient hides and hollows, these strong fingers that kneed and cleave the doughy hills of loess. Through our Magic Valley the stream of creation slips and puddles, moves on, soaks in. Like every rich ravine it is a seam, a crease in the earth where sunlight goes sideways and every noon is a soft dawn and the whole day is a twilight under the high green firmament. This is a refuge from wind and prairie fires, a sanctuary for the tender and the primitive. We find something original in our slanted walking, in the summertime pool of chlorophyll and bone and mud and cytoplasm. Rarely-seen amphibians, birds heard only in silence, and an abundance of plants best described in The Flora of Wisconsin, appear far west of where we expect, or south. But the denizens of Magic Valley grow right where they evolved and belong. 

We marvel at how close it is to what it was, and at the potencies of what it will become. We’ve spent long hours reading the bellies of toadlets, divining the spotted clues to species, and the subtle dorsal ridges of leopard frogs; all recorded species present and accounted for. But many of the plants are new records for this part of Iowa: bellwort, cohosh, spikenard, a Canadian viola revealed to be native here, and a neotropical oozy-chartreuse softball-like fungus that has only been documented a handful of times in temperate North America. Satyrs and nymphs abound. Dragonfly kaleidoscopes warm up in sunny breaks before resuming daily patrols of ridgetop predation. Promiscuous forest snails cavort and party in ways only possible for snails. Mosses and soil-lichens quilt the magic slopes between and before waves of spotted jewelweed, and carry the daydreams of summer through the fall and into the winter to where we walked today.

Our gang has thinned halfway between Solstice and Vernal Equinox. We love the winter to a one, but a weekday morning at 5 above with 15 mph northwest competes poorly with warmer obligations that will seem less obligatory as spring approaches. This morning just the two of us climbed the mountain of snow created by county plows to reach the hidden trailhead to record winter birds and fungi, and the odd species of furtive shrub now revealed by frugal days.

I charged ahead like Davy Crockett, out-pacing my much younger companion, sound of wind and limb. “What’s the hurry?” she chimed. I suspected that beyond wanting to get my blood moving, I was chasing the daydreams of summer. The trudgy trail became a winding memory a half mile in. Sadly I longed for the ripple of far-gone greener days, indifferent to the crystalline forest that would thoroughly enchant me if given the chance.

The mindful present soon won me over. We followed perfect bobcat footprints following the deer trail as we steeply made our own; our feet gained purchase in crusty snow and stayed gratefully dry. We crunched and climbed up and down, often stopping to listen to silent woods. We expected nuthatches and woodpeckers, maybe a titmouse or chickadee. But nothing. The cutting wind pursued us on every slant and aspect, sharpened against the stoney sky. Cold but happily winded, we gained the final high ridge and followed the curving cat-back spine to the apex of Magic Valley, with last night’s wildcat still leading the way.

A young eagle bolted up and out of Magic Valley at our descent, and the bygone bobcat took another tack. By tricks of physics the south-facing slope cast a diamond shine, a reflective luminescence, a skim-coat of alabaster fantasies with ancient oaks angeling above, but shadowless, birdless but an owl. Wintergreen mosses frosted over, but here and there the seafoam fairydust lichen painted corky fissures. A fiber of song caught in a tree. The energies of summer rushed and bubbled, frigid, timeless, feverish, frozen, still. I loved nothing more than to be here, now, cold, somehow my feet got wet, happily caught in the bright side of a shadow. These woods do that to you.

Sauntering the Most-loved Sun

By Jack Phillips

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 25.)

“When the sun shines unobstructedly, the landscape is full of light, for it is reflected from the withered fawn-colored grass, as it cannot be from the green grass of summer. The bluebird carries the sky upon his back.”  

(Thoreau, Journal, April 3rd, 1852.)


The male bluebird basked high in the cottonwood at the head of the road. He carried the sky upon his back, as bluebirds of both genders and all seasons everywhere do. The road was closed to traffic due to snow, squeaky underfoot. We stopped frequently to listen for birds who, by natural selection or personal choice chose to spend the winter in the Loess Hills. And we, requiring a walk for no particular reason, thought it best to saunter at minus 14 fahrenheit while others of our coterie remained in the cabin writing poems by the fire. Bluebird backs carry the sky, and the sun as well; in every season a clear sunlight makes the sky the color of bluebirds and bluebirds the color of sky.

This is the season of the most-loved sun, thusly proclaimed by W.S. Merwin’s poem, “To Winter:”

… season from before knowledge reappearing

days when the sun is loved most


saunter jan 31 wide view

Governed by emotion over thermodynamics, we faced the southeast sun. My few and only square centimeters of exposed skin wanted to feel the sun; I closed my eyes to make orange eyelids inside. A secret summer. Bluebird was too vigilant for even a moment of make-believe but seemed, like us, to love the full-frontal sun. Bluebirds save the colors of summer on their breasts, keeping orange enough for winter days.

Juncos aver. Not August but December, no blue sky or sunshine, they wear the winter night. In my youth I thought juncos were little sooty birds with snow stuck to their fronts. In these parts we have two kinds: the slate-colored, working from a slim palette of charcoal and school-room chalk, and the less-common Oregon junco, smudgy-gray on white with rusty sides. Now, under a new taxonomic regime, we are provided with only the dark-eyed junco, one species to handle all of our bird-list junco needs. Even the university website into which we feed our citizen science only allows for that one appellation, rendering my careful childhood ornithology into sentimental sobriquets. I nonetheless hold fast to my innocent ways, and give each junco rendition credit for plumage that obviously means something to them, and to me, if only in my notebook.

They also love the most-loved sun in unbluebird-like ways. After standing in solidarity with that bluebird in solar devotion, I caught up with my companions as we together rounded a bend. A flock of two-in-one juncos kept the company of tree sparrows, close cousins wearing chestnut caps and black medallions. Their shared breeding grounds in the far north must be really cold to make these below-zero days far-south enough for them. But they showed not interest in steadfast basking, opting instead for an avian circus.

Even the hard birders in our ranks were surprised at the spectacle we met up ahead. One by one, a mixed dozen shot up and out of the adjacent ravine and took positions on the road, each one facing a stem of switchgrass slightly bent under a frosty seed-head. After a brief but considered moment, each sparrow and junco jumped and flicked and flittered upward to seize the frond just near the top. Slung beneath or balanced above, each bird gingerly rode the stem to the ground; somehow springy not stiff.

If this ingenuity were not enough, we were struck by a mirthful display. We had watched birds at play before; just recently in late summer we watched, not far from here, juvenile red-headed woodpeckers play keep-away with acorns. Feeding was surely in progress today, with seed-heads held to the ground to peck and pluck between little black toes. But for reasons apparent only to them, much like our wont to walk when deep cold makes sun best loved, many preferred just to swing and bounce and play.


*Photo by Robert Smith.