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.

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

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.)


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.

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 grow wilder where you live.

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)

Bloodroot Shelters in Home-woods


Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in a forgotten corner of Billie’s neighborhood in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. Photo by Billie Shelton


Bloodroot and bedstraw in my back yard, the result of a ban on mowing and pesticides, and a healthy population of symbiotic ants.