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 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 (http://www.herpnet.net/Iowa-Herpetology/amphibians/frogs-and-toads-2/) 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: https://youtu.be/JrutNT_LZ7w

*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.

Dragon-baby Zugunruhe

Dragonfly nursery at the beginning of autumn. (Photos by Robert Smith.)

Dragonfly larvae hide under leaves and debris to ambush prey — occasionally many times their size. Autumn is a restless time; in migratory animals it is known as zugunruhe. On the morning of September 30th we saw swarms of migratory dragonflies — darners, meadowhawks, wandering gliders — feeding in the throes of zugunruhe. But even for non-migratory species, autumn is an anxious time. Humans often feel this seasonal disquieting (I do!) and we have found that dragonfly larvae feed voraciously these days. Or so it seems.

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order Odonata and their larvae (naiads) possess a long and jointed labium with a spoon-like structure that opens into two sharp knife-like teeth. Odonate means “toothed-one” or “tooth-baby.” (This little one tried to eat a bullfrog tadpole in the holding bucket.) The labium can be examined by gently pulling it with a tweezers. The naiad above was admired, thanked and released unharmed.

Odonate larvae are often difficult to identify, but the bright green larvae of the Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) are distinctive. I spent a few mornings this week collecting and observing dragonfly larva and adults with photographer Robert Smith and filmmaker Emma Piper-Burket in Fremont County, Iowa. Of course we made time to write and read some poems.

Baby Dragon Zugunruhe*

Rattle-dragons the Odonates the tooth-babies so carnal as larva so carnival

as fliers the darners the meadowhawks the Halloween pennants come thin

days from fat-moons from muck wriggle forth naiads as our own days grow

shorter forgotten from whence we writhe and rise the time to stir to bite a

tadpole to fly, still somehow a zugunruhe for us. 

Filmmaker Emma Piper-Burket. Photo with Emma’s phone.

*prose-poem by Jack Phillips (Becoming a Naturalist, Part 58.)

Summer-still Odonates

Still frames from Dragonfly Season, a short film by naturalist-in-residence Emma Piper-Burket. Emma continues her exploration of our local odonates this autumn with TNS.

Read about our residency program: https://thenaturalistschool.org/residency/

Saffron-winged meadowhawk (Sympetrum costiferum), a late summer flier in Saunders County, Nebraska. Photo by Betiana Simon.

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Aptly-named Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), a local autumn flier, basks in early morning sun in Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

Jellied Moments at Dawn

Socially-distant at Dawn: Joe Janowski, our long-time friend and member of The Naturalist School, has taken prairie dawns as his pandemic discipline. We miss our meadow saunters together, but our members have aptitude and appetite for solitude. (Photos by Joe with his phone.)


Jellied Moments of Disjecta Membra by Jack Phillips

Though poetry for us is a communal act the pandemic has rendered it a solitary affair of disjecta membra so this morning from a friend came a fragment and it reads 

 to be understood, it must be experienced as a type of jelly 

and taking the form of a one-line haiku or an American sentence after the manner of Ginsberg it is so so true in so many ways for rhubarb (that tartness may have a say) for salamanders (that they may breathe and slink and breed and be) for marrow for the baking dog biscuits and for those who spread it on toast as marmalade. 

An excellent morning poem and wildly born brings the poet and the reader to that jellied moment of generativity somewhere between the crust of reality and the goo that makes it go or perhaps it came to him as he lost his swamp-shoe in the soft bottom or recalled the time I dared him to eat the green gunk in a bean-pod or maybe and most likely beneath the slickering velocity of Vallonia pulchella or snail of another sort or slug. 

*Becoming a Naturalist, Part 57. Poetic fragment by Joe Janowski. 

Life in Widening Circles


Dalea purpurea, purple prairie clover.  Fremont County, Iowa. (Robert Smith.)


Hello! I’ve been reading Black Elk Speaks this week and came across a part that I wanted to share with you. 

In what feels like a different lifetime, we talked about Emerson’s essay Circles, and Rilke “living [his] life in widening circles” and of course there was the circle in the snow drawn by someone named Jack and the way that ephemeral artists like Andy Goldsworthy also make the sacred shape with leaf and stone! 

Well now, this book has directed me to more evidence (as if I needed more) that circles have a wild power about them. I am certainly paying more attention to the overlooked circles again. 

From Black Elk Speaks:

“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours…” 

A poem for birds and their circles: 

The birds are still loudly praying/ I hope they don’t ever stop/ the birds are the worst kind of sage/ I asked one grackle if he knew his name/ he didn’t reply/ this bird was the kindest sage/ I asked him if he knew his nest was sacred/ he knew what I was going to say/ before I could say it/ he continued praying  


-Joelle Wellansa Sanfort



Joelle Wellansa Sanfort is Naturalist-in-Residence at TNS.

Poets at Six Paces


The Naturalist School is on pandemic hiatus but poets were nonetheless observed at social distance on the first morning of summer. Photo by Shyla Punteney.


Spike and First Funk of Summer 

(Becoming a Naturalist Part 56)

 by Jack Phillips


So boasted Thoreau of milking the sky for metaphors but why drink of grammars and not of the earth herself trade bottle for the udder and bobber for the carp sucking trope and rhyme not nectar and blood? 

The forest gives us birdsong the canopy leaks of tanagers a bass parting duckweed in flight grabs a dragonfly a fungus from a stump coyote on a kill a hole in the solstice dribbles out toads. 

Write your odes to nature but praise the tick and spike and funk the itch that reminds you that language is made of spit and of tongue every thought has a scent every poem comes with juices.

They say in these woods the poets go naked and above in high meadows but alone on the bank in flannel and barefoot the morning is cool. Does a poem spawn within her or stick with the muck or skitter with turtle as she dips in the pond?