Why Wild Poems



Mary Oliver famously said that she could not be a poet without the natural world and many nature-poets would agree. But does the natural world need poets? 

Song Sparrowtroysoderberg

In the company of other naturalists, artists, and wild philosophers of our ilk we can say “yes!” because we connect with the creative energies of the cosmos in our own creativity. Perhaps the natural world does not need poets exactly, but the future of the planet depends on creative and compassionate human beings. Wildly writing poetry is good for that.

Every now and then we save some wildly-written poems — instead of giving them to the earth or to the fire — and sometimes even share them in public. Last Saturday our friend Joelle Wellansa recited her poems at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. I hope you love them as much as I do.

— Jack Phillips

joelleatBemis EmilyHergenrader



Each sparrow lands and jitters

Takes up residence in the corner of my eye

Then vanishes quickly over my doorstep


Horned Howl

I bend my knees

We watch, mouths gaping

We listen, and hear nothing 


Then screeching

Then memories

Then sadness



A birds shadow strikes the dirt

A blink of light redirected

So am I



In the distant sky, Turkey vultures drift

on a gentle current


Their hypnotic rotations immobilizing,

Stirring up a terrible dream


The Swallow

One quick swallow dips on wings

Too fast to know where she intends to be led

Carried by her soft carriage

A conduit of light


In my field

Extension of sky

Collection of water

The ancient color repeats her wings

Blue heron elopes with my eyes 




(Photos: Song Sparrow by Troy Soderberg; Joelle by Emily Hergenrader)

Hunger-moon’s Wander


February hollow. (Troy Soderberg.)


Prose-poem by Jack Phillips (Becoming a Naturalist, Part 49)

The bitter wind cleanses my palette clears my animal brain for making each slippery step an intention a heel-toe meditation with companions on the frozen swamp we forage the berries ripened months ago now fermented sugars extra sweet today these winter fruits of possums and robins and waxwings and wandering the fat moon of February the hunger moon so called by those walking early this land and the snow moon by other poets. But hunger is more reliable.



Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) in winter, Harrison County, Iowa. Birds and other animals and sometimes naturalists wait for winter fermentation to sweeten the bitter fruits. Troy Soderberg.

February/March Waking the Wild workshops. Details here.

Shadow Sutras


Courtney’s shadow sutra from our last retreat. (Courtney Stormberg.)


Becoming a Naturalist (Part 48) by Jack Phillips


Canopies draw lines on the sky in narrow light become veins then a web then sutras stitch the world the thin waters of my eyes and the rest of me. 

Write bird-songs in the snow a thumb for a crow a pinky a chickadee come spring do frogs in the mud by the pond. 

Bodies always becoming even in winter ever emerging from desire burning deeply our love of this earth.

Be known by these woods feel a thousand eyes upon you one flesh among many make shadows with the same sun lay lyrics on the land. 



Courtney follows Felis rufus.

Shadow Sutras workshop series winter 2020: for details contact Jack at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com .


Ephemeral Ellipses


Ephemeral art on frozen brook by Billie Shelton.

Ephemeral Ellipses

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 47 (last Sunday’s prose-poem) by Jack Phillips

Cat tracks make ellipses on snow like a poem when they stop the silence goes deeper. Funny that Felis rufus slinks up frozen creek beds passing unseen and our un-bobcat-like stomps and skitters find around each bend her spoor. 

We take our prompts from native snow-poems seeking to or wanting to believe that we can move traceless make art that begins to vanish on the making write inside-out verses deeply arising from this place that stiffly takes our feet. 

We will never become native here never bones and blood by this land woven and flow. Only by longing do we belong by wildnesses here our souls awakened become the creatures that once we were by the ephemeral blessings we offer.


Coyote ellipses. Photo by Robert Smith.



To learn more about our late winter 2020 Waking the Wild workshops, visit this page.


Wolf’s Milk on the Last Day of the Year


Becoming a Naturalist, Part 46 (another prose-poem) by Jack Phillips



In human gaze they say cosmos becomes self aware (they really do say this) but we have other things to do with the visiting band of poets having come from across the floodplain and laying aside standard grammar we ease into wolf’s milk hollow oozing of witch’s butter (some marmalade) follow crusty sunburst and wood ears and cat’s tongue and golden-eye into secret seductions the scarlet cup secretions their language belonging (like ours) to fleshly membranes on this day of Thoreau’s winter solstice for lichens and let us add to that fungi and bryophytes (some slime molds) and maybe not so much cosmic consciousness as simple creatureliness and the spores of becoming ourselves.


Conocephalum conicumcorsonandroski


Read more about the TNS/UNO MFA collaborative workshops here.

*Marchandiomyces corallinus on Physcia sp. (top) and Conocephalum conicum (bottom) on December 31st, Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Corson Androski.

Happy Solar New Year!

1231171749-2                                                                                                                                                                The solstice has come and you may have noticed that daylight gains a bit each day. Living close to nature is a life of small blessings, a life of simple pleasures, of living in the moment where the earth takes our feet. What can we give in return?

Our friend Joelle answered: “we give to nature the quality of our attention.” She rings true of Mary Oliver: “attention is the beginning of devotion.” And Simone Weil: “attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity.”liverwortand-scarletcupIn recent months the Naturalist School has spent hundreds of hours teaching, planting natives, walking, stalking, sowing, parsing, noting, listing, listening, photographing, advocating, consulting, writing, meditating, making art, and versifying in wild and not-so-wild places.

The Naturalist School is rooted in our discovery of wild places and the wildness within, and our growing intimacy with the natural world. We are rooted in the quality of our attention, in our generosity toward each other and the creatures with whom we share this planet, this day.walking-at-wsp-e1577105965419.jpgWe depend on the generosity of our friends to continue our good work. We hope that you can walk, write, plant, saunter, do a little yoga, maybe write a poem, count toads, study liverworts, collect acorns, and chase butterflies with us in the coming year. All of this takes money, so we could use a little help with that. (Click here to make a donation.) We’ve had a wilding year and look forward to many more!

Wilder days longer,

Jack Phillips                                                                                                                              plantingday

*Photos by Robert Smith at Waubonsie State Park and at Prospect Hill, Omaha’s pioneer cemetery.






Lichens, Bryophytes, and Fungi in Winter



Teloschistes chrysophthalmus, one of our favorite lichens in winter. Fremont County, Iowa by Robert Smith.

Lichens, Bryophytes, and Fungi in Winter with Katie Thompson, University of Wisconsin. Sunday afternoon, December 29th at Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County, Iowa. This outdoor workshop in the rugged woodlands of the southern Loess Hills will focus on the ecology of woodland lichens, mosses, liverworts, and fungi. $20 donation. Contact Jack Phillips at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com for more information and to register.

Trametes versicolor

Trametes versicolor in late fall. Photo by Jack Phillips.

Poetics of Place: the Cryptogamic Mysteries



The Cryptogamic Mysteries: Mindful Lichens, Poetic Fungi, Bryophytes, a little light Yoga and the wearing of Good Boots with mycologist Katie Thompson (University of Wisconsin) and the faculty of The Naturalist School. Monday, 30 December at Waubonsie State Park. Poetics of Place workshops are contemplative days of nature study, poetry, and rugged hiking in wild terrain. Enrollment will be limited and a $30 donation requested. Contact Jack Phillips at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com. Please note: this workshop is intended for adults and may not be suitable for children and dogs.

*Photo by Corson Androski.

In-nature: a Spiritual Practice


Of poetry it is said that meaning lands between lines and finds life in spaces. Unlike pure prose, narrative, and other forms of reportage, the pared-down language of poetry, it is said, points to realities beneath and beyond. That sounds like a good walk to me. 

Nature all around presents as something revealed but the wildness therein remains a mystery to be found within. Knowing the name of that bunting or wort or snail or cloud enriches the colors of our mental palettes and draws the ecological contours of the landscape. Perhaps the most potent knowing brings us to the place of not knowing, of wonder, of awe. Of mystery.


Listen to birdsong and the space between the notes. Float your mind on a spring-fed riffle or under the moaning pond-ice on a sunny December day. Peer into the algae nested in lichenized crust or the spores in mushroom gills; travel these worlds with your inner eye. See your breath combine with water in the leaf of an oak to explode into vapors and sugars for the life of the world. Feel the planet take your feet. 

Still yourself long enough to feel the sun slide over your face. Read a riverbank poem and give your voice to the current. Find your skin amongst bodies in bark and slime and foliage and fur; walk with your kindred of slither and slip, feather and slink. Enter the musical silence of the few and fragile native places that remain.

— Jack


saunterers-on-iceWildly Still Retreat: Sunday December 8th at Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County, Iowa. Contact Jack Phillips at thenaturalistschool@gmail.com for more details, agenda, and to register.


*Photos by Emily Hergenrader (top) and Robert Smith.