The Oaks of Nish



Oak Woodland Communities of the Nishnabotna Watershed

Presenter: Jack Phillips, The Naturalist School

Cold Springs State Park, Cass County Iowa

Saturday morning, May 4th, 9am to 12:30pm.

Oaks and oak communities provide environmental stability and ecological benefit for a wide array of creatures, including humans. This walking workshop will focus on identification of southwest Iowa’s oaks and the life-sustaining food webs they support. There is no tuition for this workshop, but preregistration is required. Enrollment will be limited so sign up soon!

Contact Jack Phillips at

*Bur Oak, Fremont County Iowa, April 30th. Photo by Robert Smith.

Finally Fresh Bluebirds


Eastern bluebird, April 23rd in Saunders County Nebraska. Photo by Neal Ratzlaff.



The sacred Pawnee place on the Kickatuus always moves me to poetize but even when we are tasked to botanize the land herself is poetry enough. After wandering deeply into woods then river bank to be scolded again by Kingfisher we ascended the holy hill to be forgiven by Bluebird. How he loves to bask on sunny April mornings! Our winter bluebirds have left us for more northern climes and our nesting pairs have freshly returned from somewhere south of here. They sang when the First Nations worshipped high on this place and like the Pawnee remain faithful still.

We will perhaps find them faithful farther down the watershed this Sunday at a woodsy place in Lancaster County. Let me know if that sounds good to you. Tree-frogs and Dutchman’s breeches, maybe downy violets in bloom, poetry for sure.

Jack Phillips

Present Moments


Bloodroot in oak woodland on April 16th in Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.


Naturalists and friends of TNS:

Henry David Thoreau advised to “drink of each season as it passes” but we would rather say: “breathe each moment presently and here!” For us, that means entering wild places to find the wildness within always, everywhere, in this present moment.
Find some present moments with us this spring. We hike in small groups in rugged places searching for quiet places where wild nature still has space to breathe — quiet spaces where we can mindfully give ourselves to wilder ways.
And frogs,

Food-webs, Phenologies, and Phantasies



An April moment in the Loess Hills. Photo by Robert Smith.

Friends and members of The Naturalist School,

A steep Saunter in our rugged haunts reveals a phenological truth: spring is a rhythm. Surely the moon had her springtime of ripened equinox, but with every moment and step, ponder and breath we find new springs in the rich phenologies and food-webs of our wildest attentions and phantasies. And of course, ecological study.



April musing under oak. Photo by Chelsea Balzer.


We will continue to hike and dance, step to April’s rhythms always new in Fremont and Harrison Counties in Iowa and Lancaster and County in Nebraska with biotic surveys, workshops, Saunters, and Poetics of Place gatherings through April. Contact me at if you’d like to join us or learn more about TNS.

Wear good boots,

Jack Phillips

Finding a Muse in Oak: poetry as path into nature. Sunday morning April 14th, Lancaster County, Nebraska.

Spring Woodland and Savanna Surveys throughout April in Harrison County, Iowa.

Oaks of the Southern Loess Hills: Food-webs and Phenologies. Saturday morning, April 20th Fremont County, Iowa. Afternoon session: Spring Frogs by Ear.

Urban Woodland Saunter. Sunday morning, April 28th in Lincoln, Nebraska.

For more details and to register, contact Jack Phillips at


Frog-song interrupted. Photo by Troy Soderberg.


Planting Days Around the Sun

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 41.)

by Jack Phillips

Last Sunday we released the wild potentialities of the cosmos after reading poems in a downtown coffee shop and sprouting some of our own. If you dig deep enough you can find the wild soil under our cities and within our souls, being made of stuff and histories that together make us earthlings and earth. So after reading Joy Harjo’s My House is the Red Earth we commenced to plant native oaks well-grown from acorns we collected (just right over there) in the oaky-woods and savannas that have somehow escaped human hungers and progresses so-called.

We are often met with puzzlement at our method of planting trees with poetry (as one might prefer hand tools of another sort) or writing a poem with an acorn or drinking coffee with a shovel. But such comes naturally to the planters of our gang as we vibrate the web of life with creativities of our own, the energies of our ancient strand.

And likewise the nature-writers one finds in the general population sometimes find our ephemeral poetics too fleeting to follow into the woods, caring less for breath-songs than the published word better preserved. We do love our books but find page-bound language less tolerant of pond water than the loose-leaf of speech, of muddy fingers and feet.

And some find it odd that a wild oak should suddenly appear near the corner of 13th & Jackson and many have told me so. But this very oak and her kindred of shoot and skin and limb and wing made the humus that nourished the humans natively here and made invading hordes jealous for this land. And it is this very oak and kindred of water and sky and breath and amber that give dreams to the night and dawns to tomorrow.

Our little oaks have not been poodled and patented and come in a can but are primal recitations of countless trips around the sun, uncultivated and uncivilized a species older than our own. And growing here in a place razed of their ancestors they chant the earth-words of this land. This is bur oak, Tashka-hi on the lips of indigenous people still belonging here, and planted by poets longing to be earthly here and wilder becoming.



Members of The Naturalist School and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts plant Tashki-hi in urban Omaha, her ancestral home. (Photos by Chelsea Balzer and her phone.)

plantingfacesmarch 2019

Writing into Wildness: Readings

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

Mary Oliver

Some poets need nature for creative energy. We need creativity to find wild nature. For naturalists of our ilk, poetry is a path into wild places and into the wildness within. The Naturalist School has spent the winter walking wildly and wildly writing poems, making ephemeral art, and warming our feet by the fire.

walking at wsp

We would love to share our original and feral poems with you and to try something new: meeting in the city! Writing into Wildness: Readings by The Naturalist School.

Sunday March 3rd, 1pm at Confluence 1627 S 17th St, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1pm. Free admission, donations of $10 appreciated!


For more information about this event and how to join The Naturalist School, contact Jack Phillips at

(Photos from TNS winter 2018/19 Poetics of Place workshops by Robert Smith)

Walking Wild Circles


Nature is a slippery business and an odd concept at best, and sometimes an impediment to the human quest for intimacy with the natural world. “Nature” often means the world apart from human ambition and assumes that we are alienated from the source of our life and being. Many of us feel this alienation and of course it is real, but thinking of “nature” as other and apart from human life can dim the vision of human life as part of the web of life. To become more intimately connected to this web is to become more human.

ephemeral cirlcles -billie shelton

Making circles deep in the woods after new snow. ( Iowa’s Southern Loess Hills, photo by Billie Shelton. )

Creativity brightens this vision, increases this intimacy because in creative acts we participate in the generative energies of the cosmos in a fundamental way. That is why we write poems and make ephemeral art in quiet places where these wild energies can be clearly and deeply experienced. Thoreau called it becoming “part and parcel of nature.” We call it The Naturalist School.

Winter is good for that. That’s why we gather to walk quietly on ridges and in ravines or on a frozen stream, to write, to make art in the snow, to read to each other and to thaw our feet by the fire.

To find wildness within.

— Jack Phillips

Waking the Wild: poetry as path to wildness. Sunday, February 24th in Fremont County, Iowa. Contact Jack

Poetry of Wild Silences

pond in winter, Genevieve

A walk in wild silence, new snow. Frozen pond in Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Genevieve Williams.)

Funny how wild silences are filled with the sounds and songs of wild creatures and even silence is a sound. Wild silence is not the absence of sound. It is the absence of us.

And yet, silence invites us to recover our wildness within and so we compose our poems and our walking in the winter woods. And with hearty friends knowing the promise of a quiet morning and later, a blazing fire. And the value of good socks, wool hat.

Poetry is a path into traceless places and so we follow. Join us if you love winter, new snow, and the creative impulses of your wilder self.

— Jack Phillips

Poetics of Place: Late Winter with The Naturalist School. Contact Jack: 

In Winter Comes Frogsong

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 40.)

A prose poem by Jack Phillips.


In these deep ravines we have become apprenticed to frogsong washing over us from springs and riffles the thin swaddles of summer eggs and tadpoles. Tree frogs potent in wisdom and youth though always and ever small they whisper gospels, in chorus become the tissue of this place, we fall into the puddle of being.

We are devoted to Hylidae in every season the family we belong to only in our dreams and yet, their trills and crikkity-tik-tik have webbed of our brains with sweet oozings my friends and I. Every poem has taken their meter with spacey lines like jumps and syllable froglets new to this land, the blank page.

Or maybe just me. But even so today in middle winter frozen underfoot fixed in ice, sexualities pulse between equinoxes, the leftover music from day-lengths longer than now. Silence given to frigid wind hovers over greenish words of fertile burning.

On sunny days the slimy ice releases midsummer memories. We can hear them when the wind stops and the birds listen too. But now in this moment we hear something new: mixing with leftover frogsong comes softly and fresh the bubble-throat-singing of springs yet to come.




Frogsong frozen, spring-fed canyon in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills. Photo by Robert Smith.


Waking the Wild


Waking the Wild: poetry as path into nature with Genevieve Williams, Jack Phillips, and faculty of The Naturalist School. Sunday February 10th, 2019. (10am to 4pm.)

We believe that wildness in nature and the wildness within each of us is awakened by contemplative walking and wild creativity. On this winter day we will follow the path of poetics and the matrix of spaces into deep nature, a day of rugged yet contemplative walking and wildly writing by the fire.

Waking the Wild  meets in the woods and in a cozy cabin in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills, about an hour from the Omaha and Lincoln metros. This intensive day-long retreat is for human adults only. No writing experience is required — only able-bodied curiosity. A $30 donation will be appreciated. Contact Jack Phillips for more information and to register: .

(Loess Hills pond in winter, shared by coyotes and poets. Photo by Robert Smith.)