Verdant Flatness of Being

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 24)

By Jack Phillips


Cat’s tongue liverwort (Conocephalum sp.) with scarlet cup fungi ( Sarcoscypha sp.) in Lost Canyon, Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

Botanists and poets, philosophers and birders, nature-lovers and land managers and artists  shuffle down a snowless winter ravine. Black oaks and reds, burs and chinquapins stand raw against the sky, having piled their leaves into russet heaps all the way down, deep enough to lose your footing or sight of your dog. Our sleek companion, half labrador and half something else and then some, swims and bobs her way through the red river of leaves, seal-like in her shiny exuberance. Our destination is Lost Canyon, named by girl scouts long ago when a summer camp preceded the current Loess Hills preserve.

We find the canyon to be eerily and defiantly festooned with “cryptogams,” those spore-producing creatures that are ubiquitous but often hidden in every ecosystem. Neon liverworts, crunchy mustard and lime lichens, shiny slime molds, tender mosses, and a rich palette of fungi creep along icey springs and seeps. The plush verdancies bid us to rest and read “Moss” by Mary Oliver:

Maybe the idea of the world as flat isn’t a tribal memory or an archetypal memory, but something far older — a fox memory, a worm memory, a moss memory.

We carry poems in our packs because we never know when we might need one. And field guides, too. In their primal yet novel ways of being plants or plant-like, cryptogams are hard to parse. These wooded hollows bubble with curiosities. In the tawny, orange, frosty, and green seasons they show colors and forms that startle and delight us: wood ears, witches butter, pheasant back, cat’s tongue, chicken of the woods and some hens, dryad’s saddle, sunburst, honey mushroom with shoe-string on the side, earth star, scarlet cup, eyelash cup, artist’s conk, and the colorful but perhaps less charming stinkhorn and dog vomit fungi.

Thoreau loved the cryptogams of his New England winter woods as they appeared “loose, flowing, flattened out, the colors brighter for the damp,” and proclaimed December 31st, 1851 to be the “solstice” for mosses and lichens. We are fascinated by the vivid fertilities in our own winter hollows, as we loosely flow flatter and brighter for the damp, going belly-wise through slippery duff and hoary bramble, a lens in one hand and Oliver in the other:

Memory of leaping or crawling or shrugging rootlet by rootlet forward, across the flatness of everything.

Expertise is useful when exploring this creeping mantle of the earth. Our guide is a young, wide-eyed mycologist with the soul of a seeker. Katie Thompson teaches us cryptogamic ways of being alive in this world, by definition mysterious and yet somehow basic and familiar, so vivid in the lives of these creatures. We become more human by being less so, and better bipeds by imitating salamanders. Falling into this deep ravine, into deep time, into deep kinship, we rediscover a simpler way of inhabiting this earth that our ancestors knew.

Cryptogams, so-called for their secret sexualities and explosions of genders, have proven mysterious in natural history as well. They have often gone unnoticed and poorly documented and in this respect, our every-season expeditions have an element of discovery and adventure. Taking to our bellies in the winter-green and calicoed canyon, wild puppy romping ahead, we slip into the verdant flatness of being. We commit to our notebooks a catalogue of curiosities by common name and genus and if we’re lucky, by species. And in between, in a margin, under a sketch, or on a scrap, we collect the cryptic spores of poems yet to be written.



The Om of Thickets and Churries

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 23)

By Jack Phillips


Autumn threads composed by spiders.  Photo by Sarah Berkeley*

Autumn turns the gentle unfolding of the seasons into a tangled heap. It is a time of overwhelming activity in the woodlands and savannas of the Loess Hills: shedding and senescing, throwing seed and sprouting, popping up and spewing spores, feeding and weaning, hatching, rutting, mating, migrating, arriving, and hibernating. Thickets and canopies are filled with flits and fidgets as the sleepy birds of summer days, and new arrivals from the north, chitter-chit and churry, hammer, sing, hoot, honk, and chant their way to winter. The fibers of spring, woven tightly by the solstice, unravel into a fray of knots and loose ends by the end of October. If you tug on a loose end, you will soon get lost in a thorny thicket of endless connections.

That’s what happened to me this morning as I sauntered in a savanna woodland. I tugged on the churry-chur of a passing bluebird, but then a nuthatch broke that thread with a squeaky beep-beep-beep, so sharp against the soft musings of juncos. A waxwing picked up the loose end and wheezed a thin complaint. Then the churries, beeps, musing, and wheezing got tangled with some chanted lines in my head.

This chanting in my head started yesterday when our naturalist school planted a native tangle right in the middle of town. We were joined by a local Hindu community that has been planting with us for years, instructed by their guru to plant trees as a spiritual discipline. I was happy to harness that Dharmic admonition. We began planting this urban arboretum when it was a monosyllabic lawn. But now, ten years on, it has become a wildish swath where one might listen to a bird or compose a poem.

We gathered together when the planting was done, muddy knees and warm in the pumpkin sun. Everyone joined the circle to celebrate the connectedness of all living things. They chanted in sutras in a language unknown to me; the only word I knew was Om. But I recalled that “sutra” means “thread,” and through their chanting they were woven into the newly-planted thicket.

Their chanting stayed with me this morning as I sauntered through oak and bramble. Not knowing the words in the first place, I heard only the texture of the voices, mostly female and young, and the vowel sounds of honey and butter. I carried the chant under and through thickets of purple canes and thorny stripes and bristly reds, and sat down on a log.

A few minutes of sitting quietly brought flits and fidgets and the wild savanna sutras reserved for autumn. Bluebirds came with churry-chur. I was wrapped in amber vowels sung by muscle and breath belonging to this place more than we. The chanting in my head became birdsong in the bush; it was no longer a remembering, but a hearing; no longer a memory, but a moment. In every city and tangle and tongue, primal voices weave and bind together the lives of every living thing. That’s what the bluebirds did to me today.

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Trichaptum biforme in November, Iowa’s Loess Hills. Photo by Billie Shelton.


*Photo by Sarah Berkeley used by permission.


Re-wilding of Urban Omaha

Henry David Thoreau is for many a champion of wilderness, but he was for his entire life an urbanite, a city-dweller like most of us in the 21st century. Even when he lived briefly at Walden, he did not live in wild solitude; Walden was more like a city park than a wilderness area, and he often entertained visitors in his cabin and went into town several times a week. For me, that makes his thoughts on the human experience of nature most compelling. Thoreau sought to discover wildness at the heart of human civilization and bustling city life.


Black oak (Quercus veluntina), germinated from wild local acorns, planted by volunteers, and growing in the heart of Omaha. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

The Naturalist School takes this to heart. Sure, we spend lots of time helping people from all walks to walk wildly in wild places, but we also work hard to help communities throughout North America discover and cultivate wildness at home. That’s what we’re doing in Omaha; we’ve established a native woodland arboretum right in the heart of the city, and we’re in the process of bringing a measure of wildness to Omaha’s Old Market.

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Shumard oak acorns (Quercus shumardii) collected in western Iowa by The Naturalist School members. (Robert Smith.)

We began this project a few years ago, and our wild trees grown from native seed have thrived. Our members collect wild seeds and nurture them into robust saplings, and we love to plant them and watch them grow. We have been invited by the Downtown Improvement District to plant a measure of native nature once again, but not with a frumpy and rangy wildness that Thoreau might have preferred. Rather we have worked with the D.I.D. and the city of Omaha to develop guidelines for green space plantings that express Nebraska’s natural heritage, and that give residents and visitors a breath of fresh local wildness until they can get back to the woods and prairies that await them.


Native prairie grasses, soon to appear in the Old Market. (Photo by Sarah Berkeley.)

Come and see what we’re up to, or even help us plant wild oaks and native grasses on Sunday, November 5th on Howard Street between 11th and 12th, south side, at 2pm. No tools or experience is required, just a love of nature and living in town.

Poetics of Sticky Mysteries

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 22

by Jack Phillips

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Broad-banded forest snail (Allogona profunda) in mid-October, Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Troy Soderberg.

Talk of mysteries! – Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

                            Henry David Thoreau, ”Ktaadn and the Maine Woods,” 1848.


This morning, as I was on my way to meet up with my poetry workshop, I encountered a familiar face on a winding woodland trail. She was birding. After our pleasantries she asked: “why would naturalists need to write poetry?” That is a good question, and I sometimes struggle to explain how poetry can help us experience the mysterious realities of nature more deeply. She politely nodded as I tried to say something meaningful on the subject then hoisted her binoculars to catch an errant warbler.

As it happens, David Hinton’s new book is concerned with similar questions. The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape, opens with a watershed moment in the American nature-writing tradition: Thoreau’s “talk of mysteries” journal entry, written during a failed attempt to climb Maine’s Mount Ktaadn. Thoreau experienced a deeply profound and existential contact with, in Hinton’s words, the “inexplicable thusness of things, this immediate reality, unknowable and unsayable, reality that is pure question, pure mystery.” That pure mystery is the pure question that poetry can help us experience and explore. I don’t think that answer would have been very satisfying for my warbling friend. Nonetheless, Hinton’s new book can be useful for a naturalist to consider for a few reasons.

First, he begins with Thoreau, as many nature writers and literary critics do, but interprets Thoreau in the contexts of the ancient Tao/Ch’an (Zen) traditions and 20th-century American avant-garde poets, as very few nature writers and literary critics do. In so doing, he casts new light on a well-worn tradition, even for those who have no affinity for Asian philosophies or experimental poetry. Second, Hinton articulates the vital role that reading and writing poetry can play in growing intimacy and attentiveness in nature, something that my friends and I try to articulate but not as deftly as he. Lastly, he expounds, via the poets he features, on the Thoreauvian principle that wildness is found not only in remote wilderness, but in the ordinary, civilized world that most modern western people inhabit.

However, the context for Thoreau’s crucial contact on Ktaadn was not ordinary. It was exhaustion, desperation, a fierce wind, and a sojourn in the wilderness like a biblical story. But like the prophet Elijah on his mountain, Thoreau’s contact with the infinite nature of reality, with “thusness,” with the generative tissue of the cosmos as Hinton would have it, reveals not the power of the stormy mountaintop, but the mysterious nature of the small, the still, and the common. The infinite mystery of the cosmos is to be discovered in the daily experience of nature, in walking close to home, and in the capacity to be surprised by the persistent wildness at the heart of every living thing, including ourselves.This is the central theme of Thoreau’s vast journal and other writings, at least as I read him: “The walking of which I speak…is the enterprise and adventure of the day” and “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest”  from his essay ”Walking.”

Like walking close to home, poetry has the capacity to reveal the true nature of reality in the small and the common, as Thoreau wrote in his journal on August 28th, 1851: “I omit the unusual—the hurricanes and earthquakes—and describe the common. This has the greatest charm and is the true theme of poetry.” Hinton’s estimation of Thoreau’s experience seems a bit more ambitious, or at least explicitly so, than what we find in Thoreau’s own writings and his conventional sing-song rhyming poetry: “Thoreau’s questions about who we are and where we are… encapsulate the philosophical inquiry driving the central thread of innovative poetry in twentieth-century America.”

If Thoreau was less concerned with dramatic mountain-top experiences than with discovering the wild and sacred character of the somewhat ordinary experiences of local nature, then why has the Ktaadn narrative received so much attention in the nature-writing tradition? Perhaps it is because the human imagination is more easily inspired by stunning landscapes of remote wilderness than by the subtle wildness of fragmented ecosystems and abandoned fields, like the landscape of Thoreau’s own 19th-century Massachusetts milieu. Thoreau was not a wilderness writer; neither are the majority of the poets that Hinton anthologizes. Some, like Walt Whitman and Gustaf Sobin, are village poets; others, like John Cage, are thoroughly urban.

Hinton’s insights have helped me to think more clearly about what it means to be a naturalist, though that is not his intent. Hinton is concerned with “contact” in the Thoreauvian sense, the primacy of the immediate, the re-wilding of consciousness, the “stuff and life of poetry,” informed by both American experimental poetry and by primal and ancient Chinese understandings of reality. I believe there is something to his claims, though the methods of our naturalist school and our school of thought do not draw heavily on these poetic and philosophical traditions.

Rather, we believe that “re-wilding” grows in immersive and contemplative walking, deep attention and mindfulness, and close observation. We read and write poetry and creative essays, make art and photography, use binoculars and hand lenses and also believe in the power of the naked eye and bare skin. If deep contact with nature and the re-wilding of consciousness is the primal stuff of life and poetry as Hinton (rightly) argues, then it should be discoverable through a growing openness to nature wherever we find a measure of wildness and through the free expression of human creativity. We have found that it is. 

In these russet days, we contemplate the feel of smooth salamander skin in the rain and the slick scales of squirmy snakes on a sunny afternoon, the gooey copulations of forest snails, the loopy lines of migrating hawks and the daggers of crows on a midday sky, the rustles of deer mice under oak leaves and the crunchy smell of prairie grass just now ripened by October. We consider the weight of a saw-whet owl waiting to be banded and the potency of hickory nuts. (We don’t often speak of Thoreau’s contact! except, perhaps, when we walk through a patch of stickseed or a swarm of late-season mosquitos.) We appreciate cold coffee back at the car and the bag of apples someone thought to bring. Are the juncos early this year and the flickers late in leaving? Have we ever seen chorus frogs so close to November?

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Lovely vallonia (Vallonia puchellea) mating in mid-October in Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

We return from rugged saunters, muddy boots and wet knees and charms of burs, with tales of caught-and-released frogs and fragments of poems that might settle in a notebook or at the bottom of a pond. Sometimes our contact with the generative tissue of the cosmos is Ktaadn-like, but mostly it’s just sticky. That’s where poetry comes in. We know by way of sore feet and slimy hands that the thusness of wildness is found not so much on spiritual mountains or in literary tradition, but in the hills and ravines we so often walk and the wild verse we compose along the way.

Nature in the Flesh

(Last week’s presentation: no slides, just skin.)


If you want big groups, power point presentations, and to learn about nature indoors, we can’t help you. But if you want to grow close to nature, hike hard in all weather, get dirty and tired, be intrigued in small groups, handle creatures that squirm, consider a career change, write poetry, find your inner wildness and surprises in your laundry, and to help save the planet along the way, you are invited to join The Naturalist School.

We do not collect or forage, take prisoners for pets, or believe that nature is our personal pharmacy or grocery store. We seek only to love and not to exploit, to honor the planet, do good science, and to become a more intimate member of the wild community to which all humans belong. If that sounds good to you, find yourself with us.

And wear good boots.

— Jack Phillips


Photos by our members: top right, Jerry Toll (with Abbe Richardson and Cooper’s hawk); bottom right, Sarah Berkeley (self portrait spreading prairie seed), all others by Robert Smith and his phone. 

Less Mutter. More Moment.

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 21.

By Jack Phillips.

cricketfrog circles

Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris blanchardi) in a bright ravine at Waubonsie State Park, Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)


I find myself in a morning coffee shop when not in the field. Yesterday I drank a medium Rwanda and read my new fascination, the cosmic avant-garde French-village poetry of Gustaf Sobin. David Hinton’s new The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape put me on to Sobin, held up as a clarion of eco-poetics in the traditions of Lao Tzu and Henry David Thoreau. The professors, philosophers, and poets at nearby tables new nothing of Sobin, not one. I argued that one day that Sobin will stand as a giant along Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder, and explained how his poetry speaks of the existential hunger of humanity for authentic contact with the wild. But then something came hot out of the oven, and we answered our quest for meaning with blueberry scones.

Today we are following a spring-fed brook, and my hunger for wildness takes the shape of a frog. An existential frog is much harder to find than a hot scone. Cricket frogs in this bright ravine jump ahead, preferring that we go back home. I don’t want to eat them, just to adore their shiny calico backs and maybe hear them sing. But they don’t believe that we will love them, and the last guy needed bait.

Humans have come to believe that nature is ours to collect, name, or forage. So nature does not wait for us around the next meander, but runs like hell or hides. Linnaeus hired a marching band to lead the way on field trips, and likewise we march into the bush, chanting mispronounced scientific names to hang on wild things that can’t get away. Cricket frogs are as disturbed by our super-sized feet as by our Latinized babble, by what Gustaf Sobin makes out as mutter and muscles:


    what the eye     flies after transluces; what

you want, doesn’t want: it vanishes…


    you’re only yours, mutter and

muscles, as you enter it, its vanishing.



    we’re almost not, and

know    it.   but the poem, the   poem happens

    before us , and we send it   across, in-


nocent and still    hesitant, instead of     us.


Sobin’s words make space for moments that can’t be captured. They feel to me like gaps in human ambition, respites from boots on the ground. But these spaces are more than the absence of words, they function as an opening into creative silence. In Hinton’s analysis, “A Sobin poem opens a “talk of mysteries,” a force field of wonder and query and unknowing.” Sobin’s ecopoetic practice weaves “consciousness and cosmos together.”

This morning in this bright ravine, this poem written in cosmos, we stand at the edge of unknowing wonder before we go crashing in, if at all. I long to enter the space in-between, to feel cool mud under my bare feet, to add mine to the impress of fox and bobcat, turkey, crow, racoon. And frogs. But the morning mysteries are guarded by poison ivy and nettle, so I keep my distance and my boots on. In space and silence, in the stream in-between, cricket frogs indulge us a moment of vanishing innocence, a moment of being purely and ever-wildy frog. With them we are briefly spared the never-ending tromp and titter disguised as love of nature.

Swatting in Paradise


We believe that a good naturalist walks with ever-growing attentiveness, curiosity, wisdom, wildness, and creativity. We have found that drawing, writing, and other contemplative and creative exercises help us to grow in these ways. That’s why I love Jack Collom’s definition of poetry as “questions without answers.” “Without answers” means that the mind keeps on seeking.

A naturalist keeps seeking. That’s why we spent last weekend walking, writing, crawling, sweating, squinting, gazing, swatting, drawing, and photographing our way through Iowa’s Loess Hills:

A bridge arches
Through this pregnant fog to
A ghost wilderness.
Elderberry nodding gently
Flowers crisp and brown, poised
For purple plumping.
(Shaun Warkentin.)



Lopseed by Becky Colgrove.


Wuck wuck wuck , diddle doo.

Chickle tweep: hooah wee-oo-wee….

Here: hear cheer what?

Piddle pee dee dee dee; teacher greep!

(Birds of Honey Creek.)



leaf shadow drawing

Leaf Shadow by Sarah Berkeley.


Unfettered birdsong
Behind a wall of white
Impenetrable fog
Obscures paradise.
Upturned feather
Shard of rock
Mottled sunshine
Cicadas’ response
(Alysia Alger)



Saffron-winged meadowhawk. (Robert Smith)


And we’ll do it again this weekend and through late summer into the fall. You can find us somewhere in the Loess Hills for our Sunday morning series: Walking and Writing, Art and Curiosity. Details here.

Wearing the Skin of Dreams

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 20) by Jack Phillips


Plains Spadefoot (Spea bombifrons), new metamorph. Harrison County Iowa, July 17th, 2017. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

I very seldom remember my dreams and when I do, they survive only as fragments. They are also quite ordinary; for all the surreal and fantastically supernatural events and weird juxtapositions that are the stuff of dreams, mine are oddly normal. That is, when I remember them. But why would I? Even as a child, my dreams felt like a typical summer day, governed by local geography and populated by wild creatures of my acquaintance.

A prompt assigned by last week’s nature writing workshop leader jarred loose a dream-fragment that never would have survived for more than 50 years if not for the waking event that followed. We were asked to write about an experience wherein nature and not-nature collided, an event when wild nature broke into our ordinary lives. First we would hike alone, then write. The toad that crossed my path probably had something to do with my remembering.

One summer night when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I dreamt that a box turtle appeared in my driveway. This would have been only slightly out of the ordinary, as the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) was occasional in eastern Nebraska in the early sixties and in my woodsy neighborhood. Upon waking, the completely realistic dream compelled me, still wearing pajamas and the film of a dream, to bolt out of the house to see if were true. To my astonishment, in the very spot where my dream-turtle had appeared, was not a turtle, but an oversized toad. I fed her a cricket.

At some point during my childhood, I came to believe in something true and wild beyond the schoolyard and the regularly-mowed lawn, and I could find it in boundless nature to which dreams and other freedoms belong. Yet those dreams took me to places more familiar than exotic, beyond the outfield fence but not too far, with wild creatures not too strange, wandering the woods just on the other side of the creek. A waking dream or asleep could be a new path into those woods. I held this belief until I reached the age of knowing better, which I suspect has yet to arrive.

My mother always insisted that her children shower before bed after a day of dirty adventures, which was every day. But there are some souvenirs that soap will not scrub away, like bug bites, berry stains, pokes and prickles, and the residual smell of pond. The adhesive properties of amphibious slime endured for days. Under clean pajamas, the skin of the day became the skin of my dreams.

Such was the case with daydreams a well. Even after school started, the skin of free afternoons and weekend safaris bore the smell of frogs and fish. With chin on fist or hands in face, the faintly-scented patina of semi-permanent slime helped me endure my classroom captivity. Thoreau wrote of the “slime and film of habitual life” as the obstacle to reconnecting with nature. But that depends on your habits and where you get your slime. The wildness within us, nourished by dreams and daydreams and dreamy summer days, is sometimes only skin deep.

The morning after the workshop, I went to work wearing my habitual bug bites and carrying a notebook. My colleagues and I entered a steamy woods under the sentry of barking treefrogs. It smelled of young earth. Leopard frogs, hard to classify even when still, rocketed to escape our nightmarish advance. Slender chorus frogs, invisible at rest and even in flight, made merely dashes against the dewy green. With each step, the earth twitched with toadlets, barely more than tadpoles. A seldom-seen plains spadefoot (Spea bombifrons), with the skin of a frog and the body of a toad but belonging to neither, was seen. Secret spadefoots emerge on warm and rainy nights, and like a slippery dream, on the morning after.