Dragon-baby Zugunruhe

Dragonfly nursery at the beginning of autumn. (Photos by Robert Smith.)

Dragonfly larvae hide under leaves and debris to ambush prey — occasionally many times their size. Autumn is a restless time; in migratory animals it is known as zugunruhe. On the morning of September 30th we saw swarms of migratory dragonflies — darners, meadowhawks, wandering gliders — feeding in the throes of zugunruhe. But even for non-migratory species, autumn is an anxious time. Humans often feel this seasonal disquieting (I do!) and we have found that dragonfly larvae feed voraciously these days. Or so it seems.

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order Odonata and their larvae (naiads) possess a long and jointed labium with a spoon-like structure that opens into two sharp knife-like teeth. Odonate means “toothed-one” or “tooth-baby.” (This little one tried to eat a bullfrog tadpole in the holding bucket.) The labium can be examined by gently pulling it with a tweezers. The naiad above was admired, thanked and released unharmed.

Odonate larvae are often difficult to identify, but the bright green larvae of the Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) are distinctive. I spent a few mornings this week collecting and observing dragonfly larva and adults with photographer Robert Smith and filmmaker Emma Piper-Burket in Fremont County, Iowa. Of course we made time to write and read some poems.

Baby Dragon Zugunruhe*

Rattle-dragons the Odonates the tooth-babies so carnal as larva so carnival

as fliers the darners the meadowhawks the Halloween pennants come thin

days from fat-moons from muck wriggle forth naiads as our own days grow

shorter forgotten from whence we writhe and rise the time to stir to bite a

tadpole to fly, still somehow a zugunruhe for us. 

Filmmaker Emma Piper-Burket. Photo with Emma’s phone.

*prose-poem by Jack Phillips (Becoming a Naturalist, Part 58.)

Summer-still Odonates

Still frames from Dragonfly Season, a short film by naturalist-in-residence Emma Piper-Burket. Emma continues her exploration of our local odonates this autumn with TNS.

Read about our residency program: https://thenaturalistschool.org/residency/

Saffron-winged meadowhawk (Sympetrum costiferum), a late summer flier in Saunders County, Nebraska. Photo by Betiana Simon.

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Aptly-named Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), a local autumn flier, basks in early morning sun in Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

Jellied Moments at Dawn

Socially-distant at Dawn: Joe Janowski, our long-time friend and member of The Naturalist School, has taken prairie dawns as his pandemic discipline. We miss our meadow saunters together, but our members have aptitude and appetite for solitude. (Photos by Joe with his phone.)


Jellied Moments of Disjecta Membra by Jack Phillips

Though poetry for us is a communal act the pandemic has rendered it a solitary affair of disjecta membra so this morning from a friend came a fragment and it reads 

 to be understood, it must be experienced as a type of jelly 

and taking the form of a one-line haiku or an American sentence after the manner of Ginsberg it is so so true in so many ways for rhubarb (that tartness may have a say) for salamanders (that they may breathe and slink and breed and be) for marrow for the baking dog biscuits and for those who spread it on toast as marmalade. 

An excellent morning poem and wildly born brings the poet and the reader to that jellied moment of generativity somewhere between the crust of reality and the goo that makes it go or perhaps it came to him as he lost his swamp-shoe in the soft bottom or recalled the time I dared him to eat the green gunk in a bean-pod or maybe and most likely beneath the slickering velocity of Vallonia pulchella or snail of another sort or slug. 

*Becoming a Naturalist, Part 57. Poetic fragment by Joe Janowski. 

Life in Widening Circles


Dalea purpurea, purple prairie clover.  Fremont County, Iowa. (Robert Smith.)


Hello! I’ve been reading Black Elk Speaks this week and came across a part that I wanted to share with you. 

In what feels like a different lifetime, we talked about Emerson’s essay Circles, and Rilke “living [his] life in widening circles” and of course there was the circle in the snow drawn by someone named Jack and the way that ephemeral artists like Andy Goldsworthy also make the sacred shape with leaf and stone! 

Well now, this book has directed me to more evidence (as if I needed more) that circles have a wild power about them. I am certainly paying more attention to the overlooked circles again. 

From Black Elk Speaks:

“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours…” 

A poem for birds and their circles: 

The birds are still loudly praying/ I hope they don’t ever stop/ the birds are the worst kind of sage/ I asked one grackle if he knew his name/ he didn’t reply/ this bird was the kindest sage/ I asked him if he knew his nest was sacred/ he knew what I was going to say/ before I could say it/ he continued praying  


-Joelle Wellansa Sanfort



Joelle Wellansa Sanfort is Naturalist-in-Residence at TNS.

Poets at Six Paces


The Naturalist School is on pandemic hiatus but poets were nonetheless observed at social distance on the first morning of summer. Photo by Shyla Punteney.


Spike and First Funk of Summer 

(Becoming a Naturalist Part 56)

 by Jack Phillips


So boasted Thoreau of milking the sky for metaphors but why drink of grammars and not of the earth herself trade bottle for the udder and bobber for the carp sucking trope and rhyme not nectar and blood? 

The forest gives us birdsong the canopy leaks of tanagers a bass parting duckweed in flight grabs a dragonfly a fungus from a stump coyote on a kill a hole in the solstice dribbles out toads. 

Write your odes to nature but praise the tick and spike and funk the itch that reminds you that language is made of spit and of tongue every thought has a scent every poem comes with juices.

They say in these woods the poets go naked and above in high meadows but alone on the bank in flannel and barefoot the morning is cool. Does a poem spawn within her or stick with the muck or skitter with turtle as she dips in the pond?

Bellwort in These Parts


Uvularia grandiflora in western Iowa’s Loess Hills, late May. Bellwort has rarely been documented in this region, the extreme western reach of its range. Photo by Robert Smith.


Elsewhere Uvularia*


One most likely finds this magic 

in climes much wetter more mossy and rarely 

at times delights a wildling a feral-poet or fae

who ponders these deeply vagrant ravines  

who ventures a gaze too steep are these hollows

so seemingly elsewhere but here.



*Becoming a Naturalist Part 55  by Jack Phillips.



Meadowhawks at Dawn


Friends of The Naturalist School, please remember us on Wednesday, May 20th for Omaha Gives!

We’re looking forward to our weekly workshops and saunters when we can gather once again, but in the meantime we’re still counting dragonflies and other marvelous creatures, creating chemical-free urban nature preserves, saving and planting native trees, and supporting our friends in their search for a deeper intimacy with the natural world.

We’ll see you in the bush before too long, we hope!

— Jack Phillips


*White-faced meadow-hawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) during an early morning odonate survey in Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

Ever Wilder


We give our hands to healing earth, put skin to good science, add our quiet voices to the music of woods and meadows, open ourselves to creativity within and all around and to help others do the same. 


Even now in these pandemic days, The Naturalist School friends and members continue our work each in our own way, earth in our hands and under our feet, exploring wildness where we find it and making our back yards and neighborhoods ever wilder.


We hope to see you when we can gather again, but for now you can join us in the work of wildness with a contribution in any amount.  Please remember us for Omaha Gives!

Peace and frog-songs and robins galore,

Jack Phillips




(Photos by Robert Smith and his phone during TNS outings and planting days. Yard sign by Joelle Wellansa)

Tiger Moon of May

Becoming a Naturalist (a prose-poem*) Part 54 by Jack Phillips


flamed tiger snail ratzlaff

Flamed tiger-snail (Anguispira alternata) in Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Neal Ratzlaff.


The moon of May is the flower moon but it might as well be the frog moon or bunting moon or the flamed-tiger moon because frogs are mating songbirds breeding woodland snails are coupling she pulls the tides the primal waters in every cell a sea of being exactly as full on earth as she is in heaven. The better and wilder and wetter part of me loves the wane and wax the dark side and bright and like our sister moon we (all of us) live by given light. 



* For Megan Hunt in response to her series of questions. For a longer version of the prose-poem, see Senator Hunt’s newsletter here.

Devoted Still and Always


During these days of social distancing, The Naturalist School is devoted still and always to the consilience of science and humanities, ecology and creativity.


This spring we continue to work with the Omaha Old Market Arboretum, teach backyard ecology projects to create native and chemical-free habitats, mentor nature writing and eco-poetics through on-line programs, help our friends create pollinator lawns, provide planters with our locally-wild saplings, consult for urban re-wilding and tree preservation, conduct biotic surveys for conservation partners, and support our members and friends on their journeys to a more mindful and deeper intimacy with the natural world.


Please donate to our good work and join us in the bush when we can gather again!       

Peace and frog-songs,

Jack Phillips

Donate here

*Bur oak in flower in Fremont County, Iowa; mycology with Katie Thompson. Photos by Robert Smith.