Food-webs, Phenologies, and Phantasies



An April moment in the Loess Hills. Photo by Robert Smith.

Friends and members of The Naturalist School,

A steep Saunter in our rugged haunts reveals a phenological truth: spring is a rhythm. Surely the moon had her springtime of ripened equinox, but with every moment and step, ponder and breath we find new springs in the rich phenologies and food-webs of our wildest attentions and phantasies. And of course, ecological study.



April musing under oak. Photo by Chelsea Balzer.


We will continue to hike and dance, step to April’s rhythms always new in Fremont and Harrison Counties in Iowa and Lancaster and County in Nebraska with biotic surveys, workshops, Saunters, and Poetics of Place gatherings through April. Contact me at if you’d like to join us or learn more about TNS.

Wear good boots,

Jack Phillips

Finding a Muse in Oak: poetry as path into nature. Sunday morning April 14th, Lancaster County, Nebraska.

Spring Woodland and Savanna Surveys throughout April in Harrison County, Iowa.

Oaks of the Southern Loess Hills: Food-webs and Phenologies. Saturday morning, April 20th Fremont County, Iowa. Afternoon session: Spring Frogs by Ear.

Urban Woodland Saunter. Sunday morning, April 28th in Lincoln, Nebraska.

For more details and to register, contact Jack Phillips at


Frog-song interrupted. Photo by Troy Soderberg.


Planting Days Around the Sun

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 41.)

by Jack Phillips

Last Sunday we released the wild potentialities of the cosmos after reading poems in a downtown coffee shop and sprouting some of our own. If you dig deep enough you can find the wild soil under our cities and within our souls, being made of stuff and histories that together make us earthlings and earth. So after reading Joy Harjo’s My House is the Red Earth we commenced to plant native oaks well-grown from acorns we collected (just right over there) in the oaky-woods and savannas that have somehow escaped human hungers and progresses so-called.

We are often met with puzzlement at our method of planting trees with poetry (as one might prefer hand tools of another sort) or writing a poem with an acorn or drinking coffee with a shovel. But such comes naturally to the planters of our gang as we vibrate the web of life with creativities of our own, the energies of our ancient strand.

And likewise the nature-writers one finds in the general population sometimes find our ephemeral poetics too fleeting to follow into the woods, caring less for breath-songs than the published word better preserved. We do love our books but find page-bound language less tolerant of pond water than the loose-leaf of speech, of muddy fingers and feet.

And some find it odd that a wild oak should suddenly appear near the corner of 13th & Jackson and many have told me so. But this very oak and her kindred of shoot and skin and limb and wing made the humus that nourished the humans natively here and made invading hordes jealous for this land. And it is this very oak and kindred of water and sky and breath and amber that give dreams to the night and dawns to tomorrow.

Our little oaks have not been poodled and patented and come in a can but are primal recitations of countless trips around the sun, uncultivated and uncivilized a species older than our own. And growing here in a place razed of their ancestors they chant the earth-words of this land. This is bur oak, Tashka-hi on the lips of indigenous people still belonging here, and planted by poets longing to be earthly here and wilder becoming.



Members of The Naturalist School and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts plant Tashki-hi in urban Omaha, her ancestral home. (Photos by Chelsea Balzer and her phone.)

plantingfacesmarch 2019

Writing into Wildness: Readings

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

Mary Oliver

Some poets need nature for creative energy. We need creativity to find wild nature. For naturalists of our ilk, poetry is a path into wild places and into the wildness within. The Naturalist School has spent the winter walking wildly and wildly writing poems, making ephemeral art, and warming our feet by the fire.

walking at wsp

We would love to share our original and feral poems with you and to try something new: meeting in the city! Writing into Wildness: Readings by The Naturalist School.

Sunday March 3rd, 1pm at Confluence 1627 S 17th St, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1pm. Free admission, donations of $10 appreciated!


For more information about this event and how to join The Naturalist School, contact Jack Phillips at

(Photos from TNS winter 2018/19 Poetics of Place workshops by Robert Smith)

Walking Wild Circles


Nature is a slippery business and an odd concept at best, and sometimes an impediment to the human quest for intimacy with the natural world. “Nature” often means the world apart from human ambition and assumes that we are alienated from the source of our life and being. Many of us feel this alienation and of course it is real, but thinking of “nature” as other and apart from human life can dim the vision of human life as part of the web of life. To become more intimately connected to this web is to become more human.

ephemeral cirlcles -billie shelton

Making circles deep in the woods after new snow. ( Iowa’s Southern Loess Hills, photo by Billie Shelton. )

Creativity brightens this vision, increases this intimacy because in creative acts we participate in the generative energies of the cosmos in a fundamental way. That is why we write poems and make ephemeral art in quiet places where these wild energies can be clearly and deeply experienced. Thoreau called it becoming “part and parcel of nature.” We call it The Naturalist School.

Winter is good for that. That’s why we gather to walk quietly on ridges and in ravines or on a frozen stream, to write, to make art in the snow, to read to each other and to thaw our feet by the fire.

To find wildness within.

— Jack Phillips

Waking the Wild: poetry as path to wildness. Sunday, February 24th in Fremont County, Iowa. Contact Jack

Poetry of Wild Silences

pond in winter, Genevieve

A walk in wild silence, new snow. Frozen pond in Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Genevieve Williams.)

Funny how wild silences are filled with the sounds and songs of wild creatures and even silence is a sound. Wild silence is not the absence of sound. It is the absence of us.

And yet, silence invites us to recover our wildness within and so we compose our poems and our walking in the winter woods. And with hearty friends knowing the promise of a quiet morning and later, a blazing fire. And the value of good socks, wool hat.

Poetry is a path into traceless places and so we follow. Join us if you love winter, new snow, and the creative impulses of your wilder self.

— Jack Phillips

Poetics of Place: Late Winter with The Naturalist School. Contact Jack: 

In Winter Comes Frogsong

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 40.)

A prose poem by Jack Phillips.


In these deep ravines we have become apprenticed to frogsong washing over us from springs and riffles the thin swaddles of summer eggs and tadpoles. Tree frogs potent in wisdom and youth though always and ever small they whisper gospels, in chorus become the tissue of this place, we fall into the puddle of being.

We are devoted to Hylidae in every season the family we belong to only in our dreams and yet, their trills and crikkity-tik-tik have webbed of our brains with sweet oozings my friends and I. Every poem has taken their meter with spacey lines like jumps and syllable froglets new to this land, the blank page.

Or maybe just me. But even so today in middle winter frozen underfoot fixed in ice, sexualities pulse between equinoxes, the leftover music from day-lengths longer than now. Silence given to frigid wind hovers over greenish words of fertile burning.

On sunny days the slimy ice releases midsummer memories. We can hear them when the wind stops and the birds listen too. But now in this moment we hear something new: mixing with leftover frogsong comes softly and fresh the bubble-throat-singing of springs yet to come.




Frogsong frozen, spring-fed canyon in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills. Photo by Robert Smith.


Waking the Wild


Waking the Wild: poetry as path into nature with Genevieve Williams, Jack Phillips, and faculty of The Naturalist School. Sunday February 10th, 2019. (10am to 4pm.)

We believe that wildness in nature and the wildness within each of us is awakened by contemplative walking and wild creativity. On this winter day we will follow the path of poetics and the matrix of spaces into deep nature, a day of rugged yet contemplative walking and wildly writing by the fire.

Waking the Wild  meets in the woods and in a cozy cabin in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills, about an hour from the Omaha and Lincoln metros. This intensive day-long retreat is for human adults only. No writing experience is required — only able-bodied curiosity. A $30 donation will be appreciated. Contact Jack Phillips for more information and to register: .

(Loess Hills pond in winter, shared by coyotes and poets. Photo by Robert Smith.)

Ephemeral Art-making




Art of Walking Wildly: a day of rugged, contemplative walking and ephemeral art-making with Jack Phillips and Joelle Sanfort. Sunday, January 27th, Fremont County, Iowa. First in our 2019 Poetics of Place series. Contact Jack Phillips


Winter in Fremont County 2019. Photos by Robert Smith.

Horatian Shuffles

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 39.)

By Jack Phillips

Our morning teachers bid us write odes light enough to be quickly reclaimed by nature and to make art that threatens to disappear altogether like mindful footsteps and traceless presences. After hearing odes by the fire we leave our sock-foot cabin to russet shuffles of oak and fallen bodies making gingerly our descent into favorite ravines on left-over snow.

Of Odes I prefer the Horatian variety so-described irregular in gait and contemplative in posture but no less exuberant of nature long ago recited with music and dance. All poems of path are walking words sending before us inscrutable turns making sense to deer anyway and possum and stoat and no bother to birdsong agnostic to rules of meter and feet. Wildness travels the matrix of spaces, the poetics of place.

A young woman draws and writes on a bed of moss or is she a well-maiden or woodland nymph? Figures climb a slippery ridge to extoll their goatly feats like children natively here. An open book releases voices, rising they mingle with daylight twisted and bent under weight of mulberry shadows, brambles. I rest in a hackberry buttress to wonder: can there be soul without body or a poem without a walk?

Something hidden slinks ahead each touch a cup or couplet, draws down eyes to earth herself a muddy muse. Climbs and slides, stride requires ponder among pussy-toed fungi. Everywhere scarlet-cups open some blush barely parting and brightly red, come so fragile gummy blood-drop vowels and soft consonants like fff… and shhh….



Sarcoscypha dudleyi in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills, January. Photos (from top left) by Billie Shelton, JoAnna LeFlore, and Becky Colgrove.


Halo Days

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 38.)

By Jack Phillips

How odd to be strange to these homewoods our frequent haunt and saunter. Chitters and gabs make us alien beings in the womb of our being with each step more strangely made here. Not so the birds and those who make rustles with each sound they are further made music, foxes the footprints of spirits.

Halo days ring the solstice lay bare the woods and our transgressions, cold mercies and clearly human wounds. Still or walking the winter woods might be entered silent step and breath. Sun on our shoulders lays lumens before us and shadow-black bones of daylight. Least weasel little ghost ellipsis written in snow.

Oaks black and red, chinkapin, bur. Oyster fungus and some jellies, fairy-dust lichens, crusty sunburst. Hazelnut, wahoo bent-over boughs. Frozen pond eyeball, dead-stare widened sky. Blue-bead as raccoon-grape sometimes known (the biggest we have seen) a corky python loops and climbs “present but rare” as indicated here.

Beep-beep-beep a nuthatch. The path dissolves to deer tracks and consciousness to creatureliness, ego to impulse: give us ferity and animal hungers, eyes for the unseen, feet for keeping secrets. Earthlings in love with earth and now our softened presence, these woods await our rare devotion.


ampelopsis cordata

Ampelopsis cordata, blue-bead vine in Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith