About The Naturalist School and Jack Phillips

Mission: The Naturalist School teaches people to become better naturalists, nature writers, feral poets, wild philosophers, ecological activists, and enlightened planters through consilience of ecology and creativity. We believe wildly creative acts connect us with the creativity of the cosmos for the benefit of the entire earth community. We meet in small groups and mindfully walk in native woodlands, savannas, wetlands, and prairies with ecologists, artists, writers, philosophers, and biologists. 

Backyard Ecology workshop at Aldo Leopold’s shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin. (Jack Phillips)

History: The Naturalist School (originally “New Tree School”)  was born in 2003 when Jack Phillips presented a “spirituality of trees” session at an international tree meeting in Montreal. As a result, Jack was invited to a small gathering at the New Hampshire cottage of Dr. Alex Shigo, a retired scientist from the U.S. Forest Service and the author of many seminal books. Educated as a mycologist, Shigo taught that trees can only be understood as a system within a system, as members of a vast and largely unseen web of organic relationships. Shigo took Phillips under his wing and charged him and a handful of other educators to teach students and professionals about tree communities by getting them out of the classroom and into the woods.

walking at wsp

Kevin T. Smith, Alex Shigo’s colleague and successor at the USFS Northeast Research Station, has been a vital presence in The Naturalist School since the beginning. After Shigo’s sudden and tragic passing in 2006, Dr. Smith continued as a mentor, supporter, and friend. Together Kevin and Jack — with bands of biologists, poets and nature lovers —  have walked the New England woods, dissected trees in Manitoba, offered lab sessions in Nevada, and immersed themselves in the rich biodiversity Iowa’s Loess Hills.

jack and kevin

Kevin T. Smith, U.S. Forest Service with Jack Phillips.

Workshops in the early years were intended primarily for foresters and arborists, held in New England and several Canadian provinces, in addition to our home base in the Missouri River watershed in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.  As New Tree School grew and evolved, educational events broadened to include naturalists, artists, architects, writers, philosophers, and nature lovers of all walks. New Tree School blossomed into The Naturalist School. 

collecting seed

The Naturalist School partners with nature centers and nonprofit agencies throughout North America. Our mission, vision, and resources enhance the educational programs of our partners – especially in the areas of adult ecological education and native tree-planting programs. In short, we help people become better naturalists and for us, that means discovering the wildness within and all around through good science and wildly creative acts. The following institutions and agencies belong to our friends and partners network:

Living Prairie Museum (Winnipeg, Manitoba)      Pottawattamie County Iowa Conservation     Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna Fire Science Consortium   Aldo Leopold Foundation     Prairie Fire Newspaper    Starhill Forest Arboretum (Petersburg, Illinois)    Delaware Valley College (Doylestown, Pennsylvania)    Loess Hills Alliance    Harrison County Iowa Conservation    Arboriculture Canada Training and Education     Iowa Department of Agriculture    City of Winnipeg Urban Forestry/Trees Winnipeg    Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts    Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration    Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service    Golden Hills RC&D    University of Nebraska at Omaha Master of Fine Arts   The Union for Contemporary Art     Todd and Betiana Simon Foundation    Partners for Livable Omaha

Abbe's spadefoot

Jack Phillips is a naturalist, poet, nature writer, academic, ecological consultant and founder and principal of The Naturalist School. After a career as a humanities professor that frequently took him to the Levant and North Africa, he devoted himself to the study of native North American ecosystems, nature education, and helping people from diverse backgrounds connect more deeply with wild other-than-human presences. His teaching and consulting takes him to diverse ecosystems and communities across the continent. Jack teaches ecopsychology at Creighton University School of Medicine.

Jack has developed methods to awaken wildness within and to connect with the creative processes of the earth community. Poetry, art, contemplative walking, and immersive awareness — always grounded the science of ecology and animated by passion — are the primal footsteps on this path.

Though spontaneous creativity, mindful presence and ephemeral art in wild places are key to this approach, Jack has presented readings of his poetry and prose at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Confluence Studio, Geneva Lake Conservancy, Omaha Friends of Jung, Literary Loess Festival, University of Nebraska-Omaha MFA, New Skete Monastery, John G. Neihardt Center, and Winnipeg’s Living Prairie Museum. He was a featured speaker at the Great Plains Native American Health Symposium in February 2023, and keynote speaker and featured poet at the 56th annual John G. Neihardt Day where he presented “How to Plant the Tree of Life” and “Black Elk Speaks at the Pyramids.”  

His poetry has appeared in in Wild Roof Journal, Flora Fiction, EcoTheo Review, Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis, The Closed Eye Open, The Good Life Review, Hymn and Howl, and THE POET. Jack is a contributing editor for The Howler Project: a wild space for vulnerability. His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Jack is the author of Soul of a Tree: Conversations on the Nature of Tree Care with Alex Shigo and The Bur Oak Manifesto: Seeking Nature and Planting Trees in the Great Plains and editor of Treasures of the Great Plains: an Ecological Perspective with Paul Johnsgard and Tom Lynch. He was a regular contributor to Prairie Fire Newspaper: the Progressive Voice of the Great Plains during its years of publication, and to a variety of professional journals.

In addition to holding degrees from University of Nebraska-Omaha, Creighton University with additional graduate studies  at University of Chicago, McCormick Theological Seminary, and the American School of Oriental Research – Jerusalem, Jack is certified by International Society of Arboriculture and is Registered with American Society of Consulting Arborists. 

Photo by Joe Janowski.

*Photos by Robert Smith unless noted.