In the Circle of Bodies


Early April, southern Loess Hills. (Robert Smith.)

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 29.)

by Jack Phillips

We take this robin as a sign of spring, but three weeks in we still dress for winter. Our way of living is novel and only as old as the recent days of our species; we live in linear sequence of wardrobe. But her kind evolved in places like this and may have wintered here since the Pleistocene. The heat of her blood, 105 degrees by day and cooler at night, is governed by solstice and equinox and runs hot longer than it did a month ago. She lives by daylength and dawn, pulse and orbit, little circles within big ones, always free, here, now, primal, wrapped in rhythms even older.

She owes her being

to the fire in her flesh and

her flesh to this land.

A year ago in these Loess Hills we saw flowering bloodroot and dutchman’s breeches, ground plum and blue-eyed grass. Today, nothing. The robins have reasons enough to gurgle, pipe, and cheep-bleep-bleep with plenty of food by way of juniper berries and chilly worms, and a south-facing slope for to take their ease and there, so do I.

Out of the wind it is time to eat an orange. The robins tell me things but don’t much care if I listen. I turn my face to the sun and to their voices but their lyrics elude me. These are songs of of forgotten human nature, familiar and sweet like this orange but strange. In this moment, on this hill, we are bound by the pulse and shape of this place. Together we are bodies becoming cosmos: primate, robin, oak, and earth.

This spinning orb we ride

spawns, hatches great mysteries

while I eat my snack.

I would love to bask and write and listen longer, but I have other things to do. So I take the ridge and a cold blast to join my friends, having split up to find a missing man, now recovered. I for myself have not come all the way back but that’s okay because we know the pleasures of slow and quiet walking, the kind that gets you happily lost in the woods.

After an hour of contemplating every sedge, lichen, feather, and sprout, we point and gaze through a grove of shadows at a cankered old oak. A broken branch collar has been shaped into a basin by fungi and rain, and robins gather like supplicants around a sacred font.

Circle of heartbeats

each in turn flits, perches, dips.

Robins come to drink.

The three-ounce bodies melt away at our softest approach. In town we can almost pet them, forgetting the primal land and blood that made them. At a backyard birdbath amongst the mowers and croquet they are no less wild as the rarest bird and as wild as the better part of human nature.   



Bird-bath oak, where bodies come to drink.        (Troy Soderberg.)


April 21st: spring birds and wildflowers, Harrison County, Iowa. April 22nd: Poetry as a way into nature, in Fremont County, Iowa. Details here.