April Spills of Sisters

Becoming a Naturalist (Part 52) prose-poem by Jack Phillips


Fairy spuds (Claytonia virginica, spring beauty) blooms in early April in Sarpy County Nebraska. Photo by Neal Ratzlaff. 


Ursa helps the daughters of Atlas escape Orion in chase and to the west the crescent cup fills with daybreaks leaking from elsewhere at dawn spills claytonia fairy-spuds and fawn-lilies soon to come bloodroot and dicentra bloomers starry Solomon’s seal asters in the meadow moonseed by the creek earthstar fungus and geometer worm Pleiades on a woodpecker’s back a galaxy on the belly of a toad the map of heaven in morning and mud.

Somewhere Finding Ferity

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 51 by Jack Phillips  


This dawn the equinox moon is waning a black belly with a left-handed crescent and waxing with frog bubbles puff-up sparrows ferny fiddleheads popping bloodroot in vernal burgeoning. Certain poets (the Beats in particular) prescribe some shack simple those rough-hewn days of dharmas and canned beans in a far-out hovel to revive the talent for being on earth and a wider sky to wander the skills to deeply breathe and be. But a shack is not required only the space a body takes not silence but stillness enough to let a spider finish a thought not in the woods necessarily but somewhere finding ferity maybe not barefoot but ever stepping softly not poetry per se but the creaturely exuberance of waking up. 


*Early spring in the Loess Hills, Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

Each Day a Frog-now

Amphibians of the temperate latitudes have marvelous and sundry ways to embrace every season and we no less miss them on our winter Saunters. We let ourselves be surprised to see them year after year through the ice and sometimes on it and around the shrinking edges, grateful each day for a frog-now.

Naturalists love the spin and ride of the cosmos but sometimes we need be reminded to wildly live each day and frogs are good at that. Soon they will enliven us with their sonic fertilities but for now we are just happy to see our slippery kin. It has been too long!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             — Jack Phillips


(Plains leopard frog Lithobates blairi in Washington County Nebraska on February 22nd, 2020. Photo by Troy Soderberg.)


The Fruit and Fate of Throat-songs

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 50 by Jack Phillips

Last week our teacher asked unanswerable questions and this morning we are taught to look for answers inside the questions and why look for answers anyway just love the questions and live them so I follow a ravel of poets to a frozen brook to look for fresh questions.

Where does a frog keep his mating songs in the flatness of winter? Maybe in his head. But summer-songs require an inflatable organ so how could his little brain hold them already packed with dragonfly strategies? Are they kept in cold mud-bubbles to tune the next chorus or saved in sex-dreams to kindle the next heat? 

Or having risen from the pond do Anuran melodies seed the heavens with amphibious rain as Aristotle believed from clouds the frogs and kin are born? Or are they tucked in a musical sac the skin-bag of fertility the tissues of sticky vocabularies? And what of us? Is a poet a thin membrane that fills then withers when nature seems elsewhere? 

Winter is neither slumber nor repose rather a slowly opening eyelid an in-breath before April. Fecundities pool and swirl ready to gush in milt and eggs then larvae the fruit and fate of throat-songs. But what of the humans here dreaming of spring? 

In every season the spawn of these waters spins the wheel of the cosmos gives to the moon the stretch of skin and to souls the shape of the earth. From winter comes primal voices soon to swallow my head in song my person in vernal ripples. The creek is still but the frog-pond is awake.


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.