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.

Observing Rana

tadpole withlegs

Soon to be a bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeiana) at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith.)

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 19.

The dark-night canoeing of my youth was humid and ranic. That is, crooned by members of an ancient and slippery clan that we, regulated by the Interagency Taxonomic Information System, have assigned to the family Ranidae. In my affection for them, I learned that bullfrogs were Rana catesbeiana, but that name has disappeared along with my boyhood ponds as human progress demanded culverts and flood control and suburbs and a new, better genus for bullfrogs.

Oddly, the new name was coined in 1802 by the author of the old name in the same year, biologist George Shaw. For some reason he proposed two different genera, but one of them, the genus Rana, has recently been stamped “invalid” by the ITIS. So now, we shall properly address the American bullfrog (taxonomic serial number 775084) as Lithobates catesbeiana. But they are still Rana to me, a nickname for a childhood friend.

With a sibling or buddy or two, wooden paddles sliding and pulling silently in inky water parting duckweed and spongy algae, big male bullfrogs would sing like bulls with frogs in their throats. The volume up close was astonishing; we could approach much closer than we would have been able on foot. Our flashlights would sometimes catch them ballooning their throats, making a bubble as big as themselves, already way too big for a frog.

A canoe was a magic carpet for us. We could float between worlds on a skin of space between water and sky, unbound by earth and almost invisible. Big snapping turtles would crawl into our torchlight, searching the silty bottom on tiptoe for carrion. Brassy carp with eyes always down, seemed to glide on finny wings for smaller morsels just right for rubbery lips. Bass would lie in ambush, barely concealed in pondweed. Above, bats and nighthawks fluttered and looped, coming close for the drifts of moths circling our lights. Fireflies glittered the shore. Chorus frogs and cricket frogs and crickets sang in metallic bells and whistles and little strings. Leopard frogs snored. Bullfrogs, having acquired evolutionary basso profondo, performed with unabashed bravado.

That was July. On hot summer nights when school days seemed distant in past and future, bullfrogs intent on procreation filled my imagination with songs and finally asleep, my dreams under canvas or under the stars if the mosquitos weren’t too bad. Fifty years later, they still sing for sex and territory and for all of us. The hot period immediately following the solstice, season of Rana, can be observed with a canoe or with rubber boots or old sneakers, or from a hammock within earshot. With little regard for daybreak or high afternoon sun, bullfrogs will perform for any audience throughout the day and season.


Observe and celebrate the season of Rana with The Naturalist School. Click here for July workshops.



Meadowhawk Watches

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiders that fish.

dolomedes triton

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


The Naked Naturalist

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 17)

On our spring naturalist retreat, we identified many organisms found in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills. We also did yoga, wrote essays, made art, took pictures, and composed haiku to the mating calls of treefrogs. Some in our group stretched the 2-day retreat into 3 and 4, and we will have another one later this summer. When I invited a friend to attend our next naturalist retreat, she laughed and  asked: “Can I at least leave my boots on?”

Funny how that keeps coming up. True, it sounds like we are “naturists,” the devoted nudists for whom clothing is a barrier to the natural world, to each other, and self-awareness. Naturalists in my school of thought seek a different kind of awareness, one that requires another form of nakedness. Nonetheless, the confusion seems to be common. Just a few weeks ago I attended an art opening by Paula Wilson, an artist from New Mexico and an avid member of our school when her travels allow. She introduced me as her naturalist friend to some patrons, who later asked her: “How does he make a living taking his clothes off in the woods?”

Paula told me about this the next morning while on a last-minute hike, along with our colleague Robert Smith, before catching a flight to her next gallery show. A round of jokes ensued about men our age with big bellies and hairy backs going naked in the woods and sasquatch sightings. Paula, a petite desert flower good and kind, did not join in. When the jokes ran out, it was my delight to tell her a story that took place in those very woods, at the pond we just had passed along the trail.  

Early one cool spring morning, we had so much gear that I uncustomarily loaded up an ATV with buckets, nets, seines, extra clothes, and all manner of rubber boots and waders for our treefrog tadpole survey. My friends would follow on foot. Our goal was to identify and document the tadpoles of 3 hylid species found at our site. These are treefrogs and kin, distinguished by a suction pad and an extra joint on each toe. Many are small and some are tiny.


Boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata). Note suction pad and extra joint on each digit.  (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Mating treefrogs are bashful; they abruptly stop singing at any movement that could mean danger. As I drove toward the first pond, I shut down as soon as I might hear them, and let myself be hypnotized by Pseudacris maculata, the tiny boreal chorus frog. I heard depth and resonance in this chorus; in concert they are enchanting. They create sonic overtones far beyond their octaves. I can’t even imagine what the females are hearing. The first humans to hear these songs lived wild, exposed, and tuned in. I want to hear what they heard.

As I continued on my route, the chorus stopped well before I reached pond. After I unloaded the gear, I continued on toward another pond, much bigger, to drag a hidden canoe to the water. As I approached, I was met not by a boreal chorus, but by a small band of webelos. (At this point in the story I stopped to explain to Paula that a webelo is the transitional stage between a cub scout and a boy scout, like a tadpole with legs.) They watched me intently as I passed. After setting the canoe in the pond, I began my return trip to gather my naturalists and fetch the gear. The watchful webelos had not wavered.

 As I drove again by the encampment, I was hailed by the the leader, no doubt the father of a webelo. I turned off the engine and greeted him. The webelos remained at a safe distance, save for one by his side. He spoke softly, as though raising a delicate matter: “Are those other people coming down here? Can you give us a few minutes to break camp?” I assured him that we would be no bother, and that we would be working at the far end of the pond. He spoke even more softly, as though very uncomfortable: “Will you be keeping your clothes on?”

It took me a moment to clear the incredulous frog from my throat. I assured him that my colleagues and I would remain fully clothed. He now seemed suspicious, and informed me that he had taken some webelos on an early hike, and came upon a female member of my group frolicing naked through the woods, followed by a photographer. At this point the face of the attending webelo brightened, as did the faces of those who had crept hopefully close.

I again assured the adult leader that our research protocols do not include nude science, and that the naked woman probably doesn’t know what poison ivy looks like. Leaving the relieved pack leader and some disappointed boys, I drove off to resume my duties. When I reached the first pond, I found my gang still wearing layers of flannel and rubber, covered in mud and crouched over buckets, all present and accounted for. I never did see the naked woman with a rash.

Paula liked my story. As we drove back to the city to catch her flight, we discussed the similarities between nature-lovers and nudists, naturalists and naturists, and the underlying truth. A deep encounter with the natural world requires stripping away ego and expectations and assumptions, and baring your soul if not your body. No matter what you are wearing or not wearing, sometimes you just need to listen to the frogs.