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


Shack Simple, simple.

walking at wsp

Wandering poets, December Shack Simple in the southern Loess Hills.

Poets, Philosophers, Artists, Wildlings:

The discipline of “shack simple” was practiced by some of the Beat poets of the late fifties and early sixties; the term was coined by Gary Snyder. Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, Snyder and writers of the San Francisco Renaissance believed in the importance of spending time in a rustic and simple cabin in order to pursue the “serious exuberance” of experimental writing. Time in nature, time in silence. Can you dig it?
In the beat of shack simple we read Annie Dillard and Olav Hauge further emanating the lyricism that some might say began with Basho, some might say Thoreau; every walk a pilgrimage and every pond summer and winter the glass eyeball of the cosmos and let us not forget Mary Oliver and Bernd Heinrich. But more than reading we walk and write, draw, meditate. Nothing more is needed than quiet attention then nature rushes in. Wear good boots.
frozenbud, ostrya
Winter is lent to shack simple and last Sunday was simple. Deep snow, deep silence, fox tracks, turkey tracks, milky sky sliced by crows and jays, eagle in a tree. Deer on the path ahead. Chelsea’s sweet potatoes, Shaun made soup. Robert stayed for 3 days. Feet to the fire the cabin gets a little smoky when the fire gets low; one more log, then one more. We hope Billie brings ginger snaps this Sunday.
Just a taste, just a day but just enough to learn simple silence with or without a shack it all adds up, writing poems ourselves being written, slowly spinning the earth under our feet. Frosty our breath goes before us with sun on our backs and shadows we follow. Perhaps a versicle slides off a wet branch, droplets thrown from a spinning faerie or sprite, colors of a passing bird to find our faces.
— Jack Phillips



Shack Simple fire, last Sunday. All photos by Robert Smith.

Shack Simple with The Naturalist School in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills, winter session 2019. Applications now being accepted. Contact Jack at .

One Owly Owl.

Mysterious goblins haunt our familiar walks at night. They migrate in scattered patterns with little site fidelity even when they nest as they secretly do so here. When captured for banding they remain curious and docile and surprisingly so, or perhaps they are simply stupefied by giant admirers with headlamp eyes.

One particular female pitched a fit when she found the pre-recorded love song to be a ruse and did not fancy the ornament with which she was fitted, our three-eyed science be damned. Ghostly proclivities have served her species well and our do-good intentions are less honorable to her as rude. Maybe those prone to tantrums are less frequently captured but in any case let each of them be loved and quickly released into night.

— Jack Phillips

angry saw whet

Abbe Richardson of The Naturalist School captured, recorded, and banded his hatch-year female saw-whet owl on November 10th at our TNS site in Saunders County, Nebraska. This tiny owl was very irritated and uncooperative, and was quickly released unharmed. (Photo by Abbe.)

Iambic Muck and Shivers

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 37.)

By Jack Phillips


Early October snow. (Robert Smith.)


Walking wildly in wild places makes fluid the earth and the past makes current, memory and promise together flow and puddle, run over. Bodily we float the weight of our being; this is the faith and physics of the walking tradition but poets today are few. Sweet friend wishing she could make it baked for us instead, apple-butter cardamom cake and medium-roast tarry us by the fire. Another slice, cup, then out, up the snow-on-mud steep bluff.

I am warmed by wool socks to the fireplace writing home-poems or so imagine of friends with us only in verse. North wind blows eagles high drives accipiters low into canopy ricochets, too big for kestrels too small for falcons, too fast for a sybil or muse, oracles left to kerfuffling jays. Last week’s buckeyes, monarchs, nymphalids, pearl crescents having forsaken blue sage and lately snakeweed leave us to wet impulses in bark-barely shadows.

(Today is made hoary before summer has traded jade for amber, butter, and burnt oranges before afternoon is traded for dusk. Juncos are here as always come early; a frog lingers coldly to begrudge the equinox lost. In nature time is beat and not meter; seldom iambic though the poet wishes it so to be.)

What will it take to become a current flowing over, body taking earth lightened by the weight of time? As much as I want to walk barefoot in my boots I make muddy memory on this land as one clumsy and dumb with the sins of my kind. Figments appear on the trail ahead, poets of old earth and time more magic than here and now, so easy to believe they left no scars on the planet only tracelessness. But no.

Nature poets gone before us have muddied and mucked their way into used bookstores. Much less than to make a footprint where we don’t belong does it take a poem to make, nothing more than clear exuberance of wild moments running over, each step flowing into the next on land no more enchanted, no less than it ever has been. Or holy.

And the words of my companions more vital, alive than those words unshelved and liberated only by virtue of our woodsy satchels. Bashō on the open page Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau weep and run under soggy snowdrops. Maybe in their day they didn’t mind so much wet feet. Maybe they moved as one with cosmos gliding deer-like over trackless terrain, memory melting into moment, right-foot, left. Maybe perfect poems crystalized instantly on sybilline lips. Maybe friends baked for them cardamom cakes. Probably not.

The book-weight we carry can lighten us when we pause to read a favorite but the load of our longing belongs each to us only. Raw earth alone can free us. Nature is absolute freedom and wildness said Thoreau and so on and so forth said he. But I will keep him in my pack for now as right as he may be along with others in pages bound, zippered in. Even Oliver!

In this moment in muscle and blood-rush shivers, earth-beats in living skin matter most. We go lightly in love with silence but a silence never requiting; the woods here and prairie, river bubble voices of a thousand beings as free as we might be freed, to quiet mouths, minds, feet speak freely. Come what may muddy is later shared boots by the door feet to the fire, cardamom cake still some left fresh pot of coffee on, and poems of our own composing.

Autumn part One


Photos by: Troy Soderberg (leopard frog),


Jessica Mizaur ( Jenna finds Laetiporus),


american toadletbecky

Becky Colgrove (all-American toad),



and Robert Smith (monarch on sage, early October snow, Saunders County, Nebraska).

pahuku in snow


Autumn and winter Saunters, surveys, and Poetics of Place. Contact 

Autumn Spins Involute

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 36)

By Jack Phillips

flamed tiger snail (soderberg)

Flamed tiger snail (Anguispira alternata) in autumn, Saunders County, Nebraska. Photo by Troy Soderberg.


Walking on this equinox our orbit feels not circular but involute, the sideways view of a woodland snail, long end of a spring come undone. Threads unwind from spool of Sun become then again wound around spine of the earth always leaving a tail or fray to tug. But migrating warblers are unwinding time distracted this year and the earth takes a wobble.

A more uncertain spool is looser and better bound for mystery and a walk, loose ends to follow. Every time I enter these woods I come unmade then made but what about today? These morning snails seem slightly more spun out, mossy involucres disheveling more their frumpy acorn caps and this fresh frog at home a vagrant, me too.

A new way of seeing needed I belly to warm earth summer hungover, face turned to mollusk umbilicus. From the center they grow and coil and find their being, rings adding time like wood, bygone days round and hard, new life shiny, sticky-slick and slip. Mating tiger snails take the day each one two genders at least. How else to right the cosmos?

They are masters of axis riding this orb, umbilicate bodies taking celestial form. Do not the stars make tailing wheels around this navel? That is what I want from my snails and I will lay here until I get it: to be spun and centered but never lacking for loose ends slack enough to swing the round years behind, slime-sliding easy on muscles and moments to come.