New-winter Light

Feral friends and wanderlings, for those of us who live by daylight and the stretch of purple night, the Solstice brings a new year. And for those of us with a talent and taste for wild silences, winter is the blessed season. In the coming weeks we will resume our Saunters and workshops, write frozen poems and make muddy ones come spring. For now, we wish you longer days and warmer socks.

— Jack Phillips and The Naturalist School


Winter Scripta

The naked bark of winter writes a simple poetry. Graphis scripta is a common lichen on the smooth bark of living trees such as June-berry (Amelanchier arborea). Though native to our home-woods of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, June-berry is much more common in New Hampshire, the birthplace of The Naturalist School. Wherever we find our wild friend June-berry, Graphis scripta gives us the first lines of a poem.

Graphis scripta on Amelanchier arborea in Fremont County, Iowa. Photos by Robert Smith.

Holding Green for Winter Watch

Equisetum hyemale (toad-pipe) and Conocephalum salebrosum (cat’s tongue) and Adiatum pedatum (maidenhair fern, below) in deep Loess Hills ravines in late autumn. These species belong to some of the earliest plant taxa still in existence. Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) were the first to evolve from aquatic plants, and pteridophytes (ferns, Equisetum and other spore-producing plants) appeared shortly thereafter in evolutionary time. Plants belonging to these groups are far older than seed-producing plants. Photos by Robert Smith in Fremont County, Iowa.

Sauin Flowers

Hamamelis virginiana (common witch-hazel) is native westward to central Iowa and when we find it by saunter or sometimes in gardens the late-season blooms announce the ancient observance of Samhain (or Sauin) — the midway point between the equinox and winter Solstice.

Photos credits: witch-hazel flowers by Emily Hergenrader; Sauin Saunter by Robert Smith.

Tadpole Homework

by Jack Phillips

Last week some young people were looking for a different style of remote learning. So I met them at a quiet pond in the southern Loess Hills and there we drug our dip nets through the bottom litter and gunk to collect our treasures of larva and naiads, mussels and minnows, little sunfish.

Tadpoles are always a favorite and in October in these parts they could only be one species. And what species is that? The kids were not particularly pleased when I assigned some homework, but I wanted them to figure it out for themselves.

I suggested that they use our friend Jeff LeClere’s Amphibians and Reptiles of Iowa ( to identify our tadpoles. Can you? Even if you think you can identify them by appearance, read Jeff’s species accounts to get schooled on the life cycles of Loess Hills amphibians and why there is only one possible answer.

Here’s what our little tadpoles will look like next summer!

*Autumn tadpoles, photos by Betiana Simon. Summer tadpole by Robert Smith.

Poetics of Planting

Planting trees can be an intimate experience of creativity, of healing the earth and ourselves.

That’s why The Naturalist School plants with poets instead of skid loaders, with artists instead of augers, with bare hands instead of backhoes, with kids instead of crews. We plant small trees grown from locally-wild and native seed collected by our friends and members.

Planting wildly connects us to our local ecosystems and nourishes the living communities in which we live. And of course we write poems, compose songs and do art. Every act of curiosity and every act of creativity can draw us more deeply into the wild energies of the cosmos. That’s what being a naturalist means to us!

— Jack Phillips

Here’s a music video by our friends Dan McCarthy and James Maakestad planting one of our wild red oaks:

*Jack Phillips with McCarthy Trenching, photo by Harrison Martin. Top: planting trees in Omaha’s Old Market and Prospect Hill Cemetery with TNS members, artists-in-residence from Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and staff from Union for Contemporary Art. Middle: Nebraska State Senator Megan Hunt; precocious native sapling from our neighborhood. Photos by Rachel Kolb, Megan Hunt, Troy Soderberg and Chelsea Balzer.