Leaven in the Flesh

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 28)

By Jack Phillips

She opens a deep wonder, a pore where the bright mist of unknowing steams and seeps, a leaven in the flesh rising and released, the membrane of creation breathing out and in. We often seek but rarely see this flashing black/white-red vestige of that time when the earth moved and grew as she pleased, this pileated woodpecker. But we just did; I got goosebumps and my friend says “so did I.”

In this nearly-spring woodland we are seen more than we see and even our thoughts belong more to these woods than to ourselves. We are sugar-clay and slime down to the base of the spine. Our big wet brains are wild through and through except for, maybe, the thin halo of ego that binds the soul and tricks us into believing that the earth belongs to humans more than we, to her. But the leaven of this place raises the whole lump and with it our eyes to catch sight of one who watches us all the while. She flies away and draws us out — for a moment, freed.

Our gentle company moves lightly for humans on tender duff and moss, leaves. We fan out to get one more glimpse slinking down, down to snowmelt pools and dead timber, a favorite of oversized bills for an oversized woodpecker. How can this on-wing yeti, loud pounder, bright hawk-sized shredder of limb and log be harder to see than the drab and tiny warblers we will soon be chasing? We see her one more time —  undulating black/white-red flight. Then her hidden male calls from behind us and she answers: kuk-kuk keekeekee….

She flaps, dips, dissolves

into timber, awakens

silence with absence.

We write verse in our heads and read pileated stories in basswood and ash. Eyes up we wander, watch, listen as we slowly climb to our sacred oak, chinkapin mother, to rest under steadfast arms. On our backs we melt into root and curve and cradle of earth, flopped here and there in our oakring, bag of almonds passing around. Fat shadows appear as hazy sky brightens and we are warm and I am getting dozy in the grateful sun.

Now distant, once more she calls: kuk-kuk keekeekee…. Pores of mystery open all around, barely the width of a filament or an eyelash, seeping the syllables of creation. In wakeful dreaming our earthen bodies rise and respire, make melody in skin and spore. Her lyric chanting leavens the slip and clay of this place and of our bodies.


Teloschistes chrysopthalmus.jpg

Apothecia (reproductive cups) of Teloschistes chrysophthalmus releasing clouds of mystery in Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith, while looking for pileated woodpeckers.)

The practice of poetic walking and writing on foot.

Explore poetry as a way into nature with Genevieve Williams, Matt Low, Jack Phillips, and TNS faculty. Sunday mornings, April 15, 22, 29, at Waubonsie State Park, Fremont County, Iowa. For more details and to register, contact Jack Phillips at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com