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.


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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 thenaturalistschool@gmail.com

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.


Lichens, Liverworts, and other Fantasies

A winter walking, mycology, and nature-writing retreat…




… featuring poet Genevieve Williams, author John T. Price, and mycologist Katie Thompson!




Come for a day or two of rugged hiking, contemplative sauntering, personal reflection, poetic spinning, and downward-facing mycology.

January 20th and 21st, Waubonsie State Park. Enrollment will be limited; curiosity required. For details, click here.




(Photos by Robert Smith, Joseph Phillips, and Becky Colgrove.)

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.