Finding Fields of Light

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 14)

I would write praise poems that might serve as comforts, reminders, or even cautions, if needed,  to wayward minds and unawakened hearts.

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and chances are one.

                                                                        (Mary Oliver, Winter Hours.)


A good place to read “Moss” by Mary Oliver. (Photo by Madeline Cass.)

One might think that a winter workshop on lichens and bryophytes would draw naturalists, but this time our naturalists were also artists, poets, writers, and photographers. It seemed perfectly normal, even expected, when we stopped by a mossy tree or bright vista to read a poem or bit of woodsy prose, as we often do. Our nature school believes that nature study requires imagination, the ability to see the invisible threads that draw together the web of life. It also requires deep listening to the sounds and songs of nature and the infinite spaces between them, like the spaces between the lines of a poem. Poets find inspiration in wild places and poetry illuminates those places for us.

How time in nature affects each of us is unknowable except by what is discovered in reflection and shared in retrospect. Our new colleague Paula Wilson, a brilliant visual and performance artist from New Mexico, sent a poem to the group a couple days later. Our rugged workshop had reminded her of “Awake Awhile” by Hafiz, a 14-century Persian poet and illuminator of interior worlds. Hafiz wrote in couplets called “ghazals,” gazelles that jump across the page. Here is one gazelle from that poem:

Awake, my dear. Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out to the vast fields of light and let it breathe.

One might find fields of summer flowers conjured with these lines, not a Loess Hills prairie in January called to mind. Paula and I had climbed out of a deep and dark ravine ahead of the others. (Our small band had been stretched and thinned over the up and down terrain, and some lagged behind to adore an unusual concentration of cat-tongue liverworts along an open brook.) We emerged from the oak and hickory ravine into a bright honey swath of prairie, a field of light worthy of a Persian poet. The low sun warmed our faces and cast long shadows as if it had decided to set at noon on a horizon of its own choosing.


Hafiz’ field of light, Fremont County. Iowa. (Madeline Cass.)

On that high ridge, we stripped off layers as the others joined us. Madeline Cass, devoted naturalist and photographer, made meadow pictures with the funny light. Others were given to hands and knees, and found themselves astonished at lively flies and a wide-awake grasshopper nymph. I saw a spider. Overwintering songbirds chattered and fed with fervor. Woodpeckers hammered the sunny side of trunks. Circling raptors seemed not so lazy. We marveled at the summerish day and at the ways that nature had become aroused. Had Hafiz come along this time, his wakeup verse would have been heard and his vision proven.

We assume a winter dormancy in our colder climes. But nature does not sleep; seasonal living is keyed to length of days and the ambiguities of solar radiation. Our wild mother lies in wait for moments of summer come low in the sky and born on southern breezes, but finds sunlight enough even on the bleakest of days. Likewise for the artist, the poet, and the naturalist, luminous spaces appear in the daily rhythm and round throughout the year. Our faces were warmed in that field of light and later, by the fire.


Foliose lichen with cup-like apothecia. (Madeline Cass.)

Find information about Paul Wilson’s new show at

Learn more about Madeline Cass and her work at

See our winter workshops and saunters schedule here.