Urban Re-wilding and Community Projects

In 1851, Henry David Thoreau began a public lecture in his home town of Concord with these words:

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil…”

bur oak seedlings

It might seem odd to talk about “nature” and “wildness” in an urban context, but in fact, that is exactly what Thoreau did. Even his beloved Walden Woods was a public place, more of a busy suburban park than a wilderness. The genius of Thoreau, in our view, is that nature and wildness can be discovered in town and in the back yard, in so doing, we begin to restore the nature of our humanity.


TNS members and artist-residence J.C.Todd (Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts) plant a wild oak in Omaha’s Old Market. This little bur oak was grown from an acorn collected during one of our workshops 2 years before.

A century and a half later, Gary Snyder amplifies Thoreau’s theme in his essay “Is Nature Real?” He concludes: “Wild is a process that surrounds us all, self-organizing nature: creating plant-zones, even humans and their societies, all ultimately resilient beyond our wildness imagination.”

In the traditions of Thoreau and many other naturalists who have found themselves at home in cities, The Naturalist School helps our urban partners invite nature home. Urban ecosystems are resilient, beautiful, and self-sustaining to the extend that they can behave wildly. This does not mean wild in appearance or untidy. It means that living and non-living members of the community create a life-sustaining web with minimal inputs of chemicals, human labor, and money. This is true for planting street trees or a butterfly garden, restoring a prairie, or building a rain garden right in the middle of town.

sowing seed

Prairie restoration in Pottawattamie County Iowa.

The Naturalist School partners with non-profit groups and agencies on planting and green space projects with an emphasis on creating native plant communities and healthy neighborhoods. Some of our current and recent urban partners and projects include: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Cope Linder Architects (PA), Douglas County (NE) Environmental Services, City of McCook (NE), City of Ottawa (ON), Calgary Zoo (AB), City of Saskatoon (SK), City of Regina (SK), City of Winnipeg (MB), Emmanuel Cemetery Charlestown (SC), New Skete Monastery (NY), Omaha Downtown Improvement District, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, Omaha Open Door Mission, Omaha Public Schools, Prospect Hill Cemetery Omaha, Trees Winnipeg, and Vireo (Omaha/Kansas City.)

Bur Oak Acorns, Loess Hills Ecotype. Photo by Jacob Phillips

Tashka-hi, Ponca bur oak acorns from Missouri River bluffs. Photo by Cub Phillips.

Jack Phillips and The Naturalist School have received awards from The Arbor Day Foundation and Iowa Urban Tree Alliance for their work with communities across the continent. If your organization would like to partner with us for a project or program, contact Jack Phillips at jackphillipsrca@gmail.com.



Photos by Robert Smith and Chelsea Balzer unless otherwise noted.