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 (http://www.herpnet.net/Iowa-Herpetology/amphibians/frogs-and-toads-2/) 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: https://youtu.be/JrutNT_LZ7w

*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.

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is halloweenpennantrsmith-.jpg

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.