Winter Bids us Wonder

Winter Bids us Wonder

The somewhat-wild or what remains so easily bruised our smallest intrusion ever amps and batters unlike a ripple that feathers and fades (the dream-frogs of summer tucked under) may happen a day to holler to howl to weep today is nonesuch day. Morning comes in stillness wakens silence bids us slip and steal through haunts and hither find a presence made of absence where lichen-light shimmers secret love and wordless emptiness, draw near. 

*Early morning bobcat (Lynx rufus) in Fremont County, Iowa. Once common now rarely seen, it shares deep winter silences with those in search of solitude. Photo by Courtney Stormberg. **Becoming a Naturalist 66, prose-poem by Jack Phillips.

New-winter Light

Feral friends and wanderlings, for those of us who live by daylight and the stretch of purple night, the Solstice brings a new year. And for those of us with a talent and taste for wild silences, winter is the blessed season. In the coming weeks we will resume our Saunters and workshops, write frozen poems and make muddy ones come spring. For now, we wish you longer days and warmer socks.

— Jack Phillips and The Naturalist School

A Census of Solstice

Funny that winter bird counts perchance the most birds to those traveling arteries perhaps the trail makes a membrane by avian osmosis condensing on bird-lover lenses. This year is going to be different — no lotus on a stump, no hippie in the sticks — better socks and good binoculars like a real birder. Despite best intentions my colleague pokes in hollows sniffing for foxes and I to myself ponder through tangles and tangents and here comes a kinglet and another and one more makes haiku: To the first humans and those who wander early here comes new-winter light.


Becoming a Naturalist 64, (haibun poem) by Jack Phillips

Winter Scripta Desnuda

The naked bark of winter writes a simple poetry. Graphis scripta is a common lichen on the smooth bark of living trees such as June-berry (Amelanchier arborea). Though native to our home-woods of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, June-berry is much more common in New Hampshire, the birthplace of The Naturalist School. Wherever we find our wild friend June-berry, Graphis scripta gives us the first lines of a poem.

Graphis scripta on Amelanchier arborea in Fremont County, Iowa. Photos by Robert Smith.

All-in Poesia Desnuda

How old was the youthful Juan Ramón Jiménez when the naked muse first appeared? He fell in love again with poesia desnuda after she returned to him decades later, the poetic body having been once again laid bare. This very same muse has seduced other poets to throw off well-worn lyric form and to follow the naked path. I for one was recently asked again, why poetry? She confessed that she is not much for writing so maybe she could just listen. When I explained that we merely seek silently long and wildly walking with space for a pink and simple tongue she asked me where to meet and what to wear. Poetry tends to overdress for the occasion and our language for nature as well. 

Becoming a Naturalist 64, prose-poem by Jack Phillips

Sylvan Seeps and Lunes

In-breaking wildness or other sort of poetic rupture makes a lesion some seek to heal (keep the savage at bay) but this stoma makes real the passage of breath. Some speak of shamans the claimers of a magic so basic to creatures of this spring-fed belly and here we are blood-bound bone of bones gristle and grist the animal gush of our being. Magic belongs to the numinous but the thing we need is oozy the murmurs the gurgles the humors of this sylvan seep to write a lune, a crescent-shaped suture to hold the wound open. 

Becoming a Naturalist 63, prose-poem by Jack Phillips.

*Convergence of springs at the foot of Pahuk, sacred Pawnee bluff in eastern Nebraska, in early December. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Proving the Edge of Absence

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) in Iowa’s Loess Hills. Robins are migratory as the scientific name suggests, and the robins seen in late autumn are usually migrants from further north. (Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Troy Soderberg.)

Proving the Edge of Absence

Zen and other sitters among us see Absence in the coming of winter but on this I side with Thoreau that in decay fully flowers the thing and that every morning be imbibed with the gusto befitting any morning with proper footwear. Of course the changing of our boots has a seasonal beat but just go deep where a spring rills a runnel or the sun flickers a woodpecker or the sky shines a lichen and a summer-enough robin thus proves (by refuting) Lao Tzu. 

Becoming a Naturalist 62 (morning prose-poem) by Jack Phillips

Holding Green for Winter Watch

Equisetum hyemale (toad-pipe) and Conocephalum salebrosum (cat’s tongue) and Adiatum pedatum (maidenhair fern, below) in deep Loess Hills ravines in late autumn. These species belong to some of the earliest plant taxa still in existence. Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) were the first to evolve from aquatic plants, and pteridophytes (ferns, Equisetum and other spore-producing plants) appeared shortly thereafter in evolutionary time. Plants belonging to these groups are far older than seed-producing plants. Photos by Robert Smith in Fremont County, Iowa.

Fleshy Cup and Keep*

The primordial mornings of this world hunker in pockets here the deepest ravines escape the withering ambitions that come to blade it off or turn it over. Now I settle into a sylvan hollow a steep crease in an upland sweep where day is mostly made of dawn and the rest belongs to twilight (and a skinny slip of blue) where verdant being lives virgin presence and sugar-clay folds of soul make a fleshy cup and keep. Secrets learned at the bottom bind the body to an earthly-first becoming: liverworts and toad-pipes and maidenhair, autumn mosses and others going forth in spores and holding green for the winter watch.

Becoming a Naturalist 61, prose-poem by Jack Phillips.

Sauin Flowers

Hamamelis virginiana (common witch-hazel) is native westward to central Iowa and when we find it by saunter or sometimes in gardens the late-season blooms announce the ancient observance of Samhain (or Sauin) — the midway point between the equinox and winter Solstice.

Autumn Yawns of Sauin (Prose-poem on a log by Jack Phillips)*

One might see the world as shrunk and slowed with summer fires gone cold might fail to see our spinning orb is spun of sugar and blood (the pump and beat of our being) and of this we are reminded when lichens brighten fungi flex and wave buckbrush fermenting just now the witch-hazel blooming shad-blow in waiting and slower oaks turning delight sparrows and juncos the robins in passing a woodpecker fracas, when the wheel of the heavens pulls tissue sweet sinew the eyelid of Sauin floods yawning autumn with blood-shot light.

Photos credits: witch-hazel flowers by Emily Hergenrader; Sauin Saunter by Robert Smith.

*Becoming a Naturalist, Part 60.

Tadpole Homework

by Jack Phillips

Last week some young people were looking for a different style of remote learning. So I met them at a quiet pond in the southern Loess Hills and there we drug our dip nets through the bottom litter and gunk to collect our treasures of larva and naiads, mussels and minnows, little sunfish.

Tadpoles are always a favorite and in October in these parts they could only be one species. And what species is that? The kids were not particularly pleased when I assigned some homework, but I wanted them to figure it out for themselves.

I suggested that they use our friend Jeff LeClere’s Amphibians and Reptiles of Iowa ( to identify our tadpoles. Can you? Even if you think you can identify them by appearance, read Jeff’s species accounts to get schooled on the life cycles of Loess Hills amphibians and why there is only one possible answer.

Here’s what our little tadpoles will look like next summer!

*Autumn tadpoles, photos by Betiana Simon. Summer tadpole by Robert Smith.

Autumn Falls of Tree Frogs

A Cope’s gray tree frog Hyla chrysoscelis finds a circle of poets on October 18th in Fremont County, Iowa. (Photos by Robert Smith.)

When Autumn Falls of Tree Frogs*

Under Grandmother Oak a woman intones a poem too much for one voice

and making the rounds the stanzas, the kettling incantations, prayer wheels

mixed with birdsong call to earth an unbidden blessing so cold in ochre and

ash and underneath saffron not angel or even avian but one of amphibian

being. These glycerol-blooded creatures half-frozen do winter in rustles

and duff but sometimes sweet Hyla are warmed and adored when canopies

gather poets in autumn falls of tree frogs. 

*Becoming a Naturalist, Part 59. Prose-poem by Jack Phillips.

Poetics of Planting

Planting trees can be an intimate experience of creativity, of healing the earth and ourselves.

That’s why The Naturalist School plants with poets instead of skid loaders, with artists instead of augers, with bare hands instead of backhoes, with kids instead of crews. We plant small trees grown from locally-wild and native seed collected by our friends and members.

Planting wildly connects us to our local ecosystems and nourishes the living communities in which we live. And of course we write poems, compose songs and do art. Every act of curiosity and every act of creativity can draw us more deeply into the wild energies of the cosmos. That’s what being a naturalist means to us!

— Jack Phillips

Here’s a music video by our friends Dan McCarthy and James Maakestad planting one of our wild red oaks:

*Jack Phillips with McCarthy Trenching, photo by Harrison Martin. Top: planting trees in Omaha’s Old Market and Prospect Hill Cemetery with TNS members, artists-in-residence from Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and staff from Union for Contemporary Art. Middle: Nebraska State Senator Megan Hunt; precocious native sapling from our neighborhood. Photos by Rachel Kolb, Megan Hunt, Troy Soderberg and Chelsea Balzer.