Isolated backwater pool
Trills of cranes high overhead
Frozen river water
Backwater Pool by Robert Smith

Robert Smith is a naturalist, nature photographer, tree planter, native seed collector, saunterer, and long-time member of The Naturalist School.

Haunting the Woods


 by Merri Johnson

Nemophilist: from the Greek “nemos” (grove) and “philos” (affection);  referring to one who has a fondness for forests, woods, or woodland scenery,  or one who often visits them – a “haunter” of woods.

In mid-December, my husband and I were hiking the Sunset Ridge Trail at Waubonsie State Park. The day was mild, more like early November than almost Winter Solstice. But the temperature couldn’t hide the reality that autumn was drawing to a close. The trees were bare–their once verdant canopies lying in crinkled, faded piles on the ground. The territorial and mating calls of summer’s songbirds were absent. Even the squirrels were still.

Though the woods were subdued in palette and in activity, a memory of summer’s vigor lingered in a blue puddle of juniper berries on the ground. The waning energy of the low southwest sun still burned in the magenta fruit that clung to the coral berry bushes on the ridgetop. A few, scattered purplish sumac leaves garnished the otherwise monotone salad of plant detritus on the forest floor. Arching, lavender canes of wild raspberry patches evoked images of earlier visitors to these woods, gathering the fruit that was shared by all and owned by none.

The allure of woodlands at this time of year is difficult to put into words. But, there is a word I recently came across that captures my sentiments about being in the woods: nemophilist.  I have not heard the term mentioned in my circle of naturalist friends, probably for good reason.  Apparently, it hasn’t been in common use for over 100 years. In an era of rapidly changing word meanings and new terminology, this archaic word goes a long way toward expressing why I go to the woods.

Do I go there to make a study of flora and fauna? To some degree, that’s true. I do not want to be ignorant of my environment.  Am I there to catch a glimpse of the birds and other creatures that inhabit the woods? Again, yes. I confess to maintaining a birding list. Am I there to get my exercise and fresh air in a beautiful setting? Certainly.  I could go on asking and answering questions like these that relate more or less to utilitarian benefits or intellectual curiosity.

The reason I haunt the woods, however, cannot be reduced to logic. Chalk it up to a feeling of kinship; call it a primitive response to a spiritual longing; assign it to nostalgia for the woodland playgrounds of my childhood.

Whatever the attraction that pulls me into the woods, it is not first and foremost a matter of conventional, scenic beauty. In any season, the woods appeal to me on a level deeper than enjoyment of spectacular natural wonders.

Near the end of our December hike, a few orange berries on the path drew my eyes upward to their source. The largest bittersweet vine I have ever seen was suspended twenty-five feet above me among the branches of several large trees. In summer, the trees’ heavy foliage had kept the secret of the vine, revealing it for the delight of the few who still haunt the woods after the leaves have fallen and others have put away their walking sticks until the spring.


Merri Johnson has always been an outdoors kind of person in the way that many people are. You know the type: open windows as much as possible, not afraid to get dirty, more interested in visiting a National Park than a Museum, collector of small artifacts that end up in dishes on shelves around her home, watcher and feeder of birds. After retiring in 2013, she heard of Nebraska’s Master Naturalist program  and took the training in 2014. Since then, Johnson’s connection to the natural world has evolved into a more thoughtful and intentional observation and curiosity. 

Die to Your Death

“The Shoot” by Robert Smith

Biophilia:  A hypotheses that humans prefer nature and subconsciously seek a connection with the rest of life; the instinctive bond between humans beings and other living systems.

“Be careful, Finn. You could die to your death,” Simon hollered to his older brother who was 25 yards ahead of us on Hitchcock Nature Center’s Fox Ridge Trail. We were navigating the Loess Hills of Western Iowa one a hot, summer morning; it was already about 80 degrees at 9 a.m. I was sure Simon meant to say, “fall to your death,” but his sentiment was clear, and his four-year-old wording somehow poetic.

            “No you couldn’t!” Finn shouted back, annoyed as usual with his little brother. Simon’s words worked on Finn less like a warning and more like a charge, his gazelle-like footing transporting him further and further from us, closer to everything the trail had to offer—trees to ponder, mounds to climb, plants to inspect, birds to watch, squashed frogs to analyze, thorny branches to brush by, fallen logs to balance upon, prairie grasses to pick, animal footprints to identify. Nothing could keep him from eagerly exploring like a curious cat.

          As he ran ahead, I worried he might actually fall or twist and ankle since the earth beneath us was like stiff pudding from rainfall a few days before. Our shoes were getting muddy and the ground was uneven. It remained useless, however, to try to contain him. 

           “Check this out, Mom,” Finn said, stopping just long enough to show me a plant with small, dark red bulbs attached to the leaves. I was sure these would become something in the future—a blossom or creature— but I had no idea what it might be. We studied their firmness and dark color and I shrugged my shoulders when he wondered what it was. I actually had little knowledge of the flora or fauna that inhabited these hills. Instead, I operated as a blissfully naive naturalist, only knowing that I liked how it felt to peer across the horizon and witness the rolling ridges and valleys. I relished moments when my children became fascinated these outside things. I’d long ago banned owning a television in our house, much to the chagrin of everybody, to help promote such borderless play.

           “Here, mom?” Finn asked atop a mound, looking down at us slow pokes still on the trail.


We reached a lookout point and resting place where I promptly took out our crackers, bananas and water. Here, we sat on Spartan, rock “benches” and refueled. I peered out over the hills and noticed a small, yellow bird perched in a tree.  

“Look at that bird, Mom,” Simon said. “What’s its name?”

 “I’m not sure,” I replied. 

I felt foolish not knowing more about what we were seeing, but today it was enough to simply see the bird and sit in the sun. Tomorrow, I would commit myself to learning more.

As I put away our provisions, Finn began his journey down “The Chute”—a steep hill that transports us from ridge to valley covered with prairie grass, where we can then choose from several trails, some well marked and others for the more adventurous. This narrow, steep passage was once meant for a horse and buggy helping settlers through the hills.

As Finn moves quick as a hummingbird, while Simon and I slowly descend. Simon stayed near me, convinced we could perish on the trail.

            “Mom, are we gonna die down here? Like, get keeled?” he wonders.

            “Well, no,” I assure him, wondering why he’s so fixated on death this morning. “It’s warm outside and we have a map and we know where we are.”


“There aren’t any lions?” he questions.

I look at him and shake my head from side to side. His brown eyes study my face closely as he continues to hold my hand. I move his longish, brown hair away from his forehead so he can see better. Sometime between the ages 4 and 8, children swing from one end of a pendulum—a mother’s body and embrace, the human beings first ecosystem, to the other side—a dancer full of adventure, risk, and independence. A mother’s natural struggle often is to help her children navigate this course, allowing them enough space to grow into successful, willful adults yet provide an ecosystem of safety when needed. This dance sometimes correlates in opposition of her own needs and comfort.

            “There’s no way we could die!” Finn shouts with all the luster and certainty an 8-year-old boy can possess as he runs to the end of “The Chute” away from us.           

I decide maybe there is value in reminding them, however, that Mother Nature is boss and there are consequences to disrespecting her forces.

            “If it were winter, and for some reason we came out here in the bitter cold and we got lost or hurt,” I say, “it’s possible we could die outside. We have to respect nature,” I tell them, unsure if they’re old enough to understand, unsure I know how to do it myself. 

          “Told ya!” Simon says, pleased that it’s possible we could die and that his suspicion is correct. 

Down “The Chute” and in the grassy valley, I make the choice to let them explore for awhile. They find rocks, climb on tree stumps and speculate if Bigfoot is lurking around the bend. Are those frog songs we hear? I sit on the grass and close my eyes, feeling the hot sun on my cheeks. I remember recently reading that being in nature has both emotional and physical benefits. It reduces feelings of anger and stress while also lowering blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and stress hormones. It’s hypothesized that we are genetically programmed to positively engage with trees, plants, water and other natural elements. I relax further, feeling the earth support my body.

I think I know the way back to the nature center from another trail, but since I’m alone with them, I decide to retrace our steps, back up “The Chute.” My mother bear inclination is to err on the side of safety and certainty rather than take a chance.

“This is really steep,” I say out loud, though I don’t think the kids notice. My heart is pounding when I reach the top. We eventually win the center and climb the steps of its Hawk Watch Tower. From here we can see many miles to Omaha, where we will soon return to our air-conditioned lives. Hawk Watch Tower is most popular in autumn, when visitors can spy raptors like the turkey vulture, prairie falcon, broad-winged hawk or even the bald eagle.  I imagine we’ll return during this peak-watching season for another adventure, observing the birds in flight. 

“I wanna see a bald eagle,” Finn says. “That would be so cool.”

  “It would be,” I say.

            I feel calm and happy as we begin the drive home. The car is uncharacteristically quiet. Our visit to Hitchcock works on us like meditation.

            “I really like it out there,” Finn says.

            “Me too!” shouts Simon agreeing with his older brother for the first time today, as we take the I-29 exit south toward Omaha.



Laura Johnson Dahlke, MFA, studied creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and also has an MA in English from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. She teaches composition courses and writes creative essays and research-based articles. She is a budding naturalist who hopes to learn more about appreciating nature and exploring the Loess Hills with her children. She lives and dreams in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband and four children.


by Joe Janowski

Two hands, a spine, a ribcage–is there anything else we might have to guide us? Anything else we might have held on to at the last minute? A poison ivy necklace? A blue jay? A friend?

Just a cup of moon can cure you of your fantasy, the rhythm of walking peels away the shaggy bark of despair. Each leaf is a letter in a hopelessly scrambled alphabet, but I didn’t want to say anything, anyway. 


Joe Janowski is a Zen student who lives in Omaha. He is the founder, president, board, and sole member of the Thoreau Anti-Defamation League and long-time member of The Naturalist School.


*photo courtesy of

When Tender Snakes Save the Day

by Jack Phillips

Naturalists are by nature an optimistic lot because we have learned to find beauty in unexpected places, that nature is resilient, that wildness is all around us as well as within, and that humans are hard-wired for curiosity. That is why so much nature writing tends toward exaggerated sweetness and if we’re not careful, toward painting pretty pictures that leave out murky colors. When our workshop leader asked us to write about an adverse or troubling experience in nature I resisted, but not for a lack of these experiences but for simply not wanting to think about them. But writing helps us look at nature honestly and at ourselves in nature as well.

The memory I conjured made me queasy. On a hot summer day, the woods I had known since childhood stank of rotting corpses. The rough road to the cabin was a narrow track through a shanty town of cobbled-together weekend getaways largely made of salvaged materials and home-made dreams, none fancy but generally tidy and painted. The riparian woods canopied this little neighborhood. Maples, mulberries, walnuts, dogwood, basswood, box-elder, and cottonwoods lined the road and the river. But lately, these woods had become a foul gallery of catfish heads and whole bodies of every manner of fish and game nailed to tree trunks or displayed on fallen logs, the handywork of a killer and collector of death we called The Poacher. He probably ate some of his illegal prey, but no freezer in the county could have held the mounting massacre.

My aunt and uncle’s cabin, also shared by their descendants that grew in number throughout a lifetime, and also by wanderers and an ever-expanding circle of friends, sat on a few concrete blocks frugally arranged on the soft and shrinking bank of an unruly river. The hospitality of my kin has sometimes seemed excessive. Especially in the case of The Poacher. My uncle, a lover and defender of all things wild and also a delicate harvester of wild fare, showed him a measure of kindness far beyond my tolerance. But that was his way. He showed The Poacher at least as much tolerance as he afforded the wasps with whom he shared his toolshed.

The Poacher appeared on that hot and humid afternoon distressed and in need of one more never-ending favor. Apparently there was at least one creature the fearless slayer of toads and rabbits and catfish and deer was afraid to approach near enough to murder: a snake caught on a hook. He had pronounced it venomous. He needed a long-handled implement with which to dispatch it, with great bravery, as it writhed on one of his scores of set-lines he had deployed across shallow channels shore to shore. Or a volunteer.

I politely choked back my disdain and asked him to show me. My young son wanted to come along and I reluctantly consented. But The Poacher declined to climb down the bank to the water and instead described where he had dragged up the gigantic monster. I was surprised to find it easily, but was not surprised to find a completely harmless eight inch-long northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) in a tangle. Alive they are harmless, even more so dead. The limp snakeling was attached to length of twine by a deep hook that had grossly stretched its jaws. Snakes have the ability to  swallow prey much larger than their heads, but in this case the talent proved deadly. The bait, a waterlogged toad threaded like a charm, hung to the side.  There was nothing to do except deprive The Poacher of another corpse. We cut the snakeling loose and gave it to the river.  

The experience confirmed for me, once again, that humans need to learn or relearn how to encounter nature with respect and reverence. The Poacher was but an extreme example of the human impulse to collect, master, own, and exploit the natural world. Even among my friends this impulse is obvious when a herpetologist keeps a snake for a pet, a forager collects every mushroom in reach, or an herbalist sees not plants, but product. There are those who practice responsible killing and taking, but far too often those impulses reveal an attitude of entitlement to the natural world that has proven to be corrosive and depleting.

My uncle, true to his perpetual belief in humanity, thought that I was too critical. He believed that The Poacher wanted to live close to nature but just didn’t know how. He may have been right, but I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough nature left for the rest of us. We later learned that he was hiding out in an empty cabin; he was arrested soon after not for crimes against nature, but for other tresspasses and atrocities.

Emerson wrote: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.” That day on the river proved him true. I should not be surprised when I am healed by children, and my gratitude increases every time. On the way back to the cabin my tender son counted turtle tracks, hunted for bison bones and arrowheads, lost and retrieved shoes in sticky muck, caught and released little toads, and tried to skip the rare stone we happened upon. Barefoot on hot sand and cool mud, we wandered sandbars and mudflats and happened upon a wee water snake with an attitude.

By the age of six my son was a river rat in his own right. He tried to grab it. The feisty little snake,  just a few hours old and roughly my son’s age in snake years, bit his finger and immediately drew blood. With no hesitation whatsoever and before I could react, he deftly grabbed it with the other hand. He didn’t complain about his injury or the blood dripping from his finger, but it took a few minutes for my parental panic to subside.

Though not venomous, the northern water snake is a cranky species right out of the womb. (Nerodia sipedon is viviparous, bearing live young.) But their saliva, like that of many snakes, contains an anticoagulant that bleeds and weakens prey. But not so little boys. My son fondly admired the fresh and shiny serpent, in his hands more squirmy than angry, the innocent kin of the one we could not save.

Jack Phillips is a naturalist, nature writer, and Principal of The Naturalist School: Ecology and Creativity for Conservation.

Sacred Places


HNC winter woods    

by Billie Hoffman Shelton 

Across the alley from our home was a funeral home’s back yard, overgrown with shrubs and trees that hadn’t been pruned for at least a decade.

 We have our assignment.  It is to share our own sacred places with two others on the oak lined trails at Hitchcock Nature Center.  It is a winter walk.  A cold, brisk wind’s  biting sharpness penetrates our down jackets and woolen hats. Three women, just acquainted and decades apart in ages, are sharing details of our lives.  Stories that begin with  feelings about nature, about this place and that end with a kind of reverence about the natural world and the majestic oaks who are now protecting us from the chilly winds.

S is  a tall redhead, in her thirties, who moves with a grace matching these rolling, undulating hills.  She tells of her awe on seeing a 200 year old oak at Waubonsie State Park–that feeling of timelessness when one feels stronger because you know what that tree has witnessed.  There is a sense of awe in the continuity of life.  People are born and die. Major events happen and are forgotten.  But the tree lives on, strong and unwavering. How could one not feel safe in such a sacred spot? Safe under the protection of that strong, nurturing canopy.                                                                                   

An oak tree, given room to grow, extends her branches over a wide area. That sheltering canopy brings shade and protection for wildlife, shade to loving plants and the occasional  visitor seeking safety and peace.  An old oak tree who has survived many seasons seems to develop a character of her own. The branches have angles and twisted curves indicating the reach for sun and survival under Mother Nature’s unpredictable weather.

 J, a raven haired, curious and  enthusiastic woman in her twenties relives her teenage years with a memory of her Grandmother’s screened in porch. The porch, in the front of the house was under trees, thus making it darker than the outside world.  She could see out but most people walking by would not even know someone was inside.   It was a place to journal, observe, think, and, most of all, feel safe.  She tells of watching the world and listening to the wind in the trees. There was some turmoil in her family but even while listening to the rain and crashing thunder she always felt secure and protected.  Just thinking about Grandmothers and old oak trees leads us to that place of serenity  where we can do no wrong.  The role of grandparent has traditionally been to provide a place where children can feel secure and loved no matter what happens in the outside world.  A screened in porch, surrounded by trees and a grandmother’s love is the perfect combination for a safe and sacred place.     

My porch is also my current sacred place but my mind immediately went back sixty years to my first sacred place.  Our family had just moved to a small town that summer and I was free to explore our new area.  Across the alley from our home was a funeral home’s back yard, overgrown with shrubs and trees that hadn’t been pruned for at least a decade.  One welcoming oak tree opened her low lying  branches and invited me to feel at home high above the shrubbery and wild flowers. I climbed her branches on that first day of summer and almost every day after. I could melt into the tree, disappear, and almost become a part of this ragged-barked friend.   She became my place to observe the world.  A place to  daydream, shielded and contented. I can still imagine climbing into her branches and disappearing  from the rest of the world. I can close my eyes and feel the satisfying stretch as I climb the tree.  I recall the satisfaction of nestling  into that cradle between the branches.   I  inhale how the air just seems different, more fragrant and earthy.   I  look down on the world but no one can see me.  This place, high in the tree, belonged only to me.

On the way back to the lodge, J asked me,” Did anyone else know about the tree?”  I had to think a little before I told them, “No, I didn’t share that space with anyone. You two are the first to know about it.”  Maybe that’s the thing about sacred places for me.  They need to be personal and private.  A sacred place in nature can be a place to be alone, to commune with nature and her miracles. A place to find peace and inspiration away from outside influences. If you look hard enough, you can find the invitation to your own magic circle of contentment.


Billie Hoffman Shelton has lived in Nebraska and Iowa all of her life. She is now retired after a long career in teaching and counseling. Spending her younger days following her dad around on the farm, she learned his love for the earth and growing things. After moving into town that love of nature continued. Sharing time outside with family, especially the grandchildren, is one of her favorite activities.

Lost Hills

Now I am sitting in the middle seats of my parents’ conversion van, my eyes peeled ahead.

by Matthew M. Low, Ph. D.

I am sitting in a hospital room in Onawa, Iowa, visiting my grandpa, who has recently fallen and broken his hip.  All things considered, Grandpa looks healthy and is in good spirits.  At this moment, he is still a week or so away from catching the pneumonia from which he will succumb within a month.  Right now, he is sitting up in his hospital bed conversing with my dad and brother about ordinary things — it’s fall, so probably the current state of Notre Dame football.   I’m in and out of the conversation, in large part because a painting on the wall of my grandpa’s hospital room transfixes me.  The painting depicts a familiar scene for anyone who has passed through western Iowa in the winter: a snowy hillside, at the base of which is a pickup truck and some sort of farm structure, a barn, or a grain silo, or maybe both, along with a few bare trees dotted here or there.  The painting is not extraordinary, but it is soothing in the way that most hospital artwork is supposed to be.  This is the one and only time that I will see the painting, but the image stays with me, or perhaps more accurately, the impression made by the image stays with me, a confluence of memories and emotions that the painting invokes. As we are talking, and my eyes linger on the painting, I am also thinking of the many times that my family drove from eastern Iowa to this region of the state, often at Christmastime, passing through the snowy Loess Hills on HWY 175 as we made our way to and from Onawa. 


Now I am sitting in the middle seats of my parents’ conversion van, my eyes peeled ahead.  It is a couple of days before Christmas and we are driving to Onawa to visit my grandparents, all of whom live there (a grandma on my mother’s side, and both grandparents on my father’s side).  We are approaching Castana, and the Loess Hills have just come into view.  They are dusted with snow, but the browns of trees and taller grasses poke through the white; it is near dusk, so the brown and white of the hills are set against a backdrop of an indigo sky.  As we turn onto HWY 175 toward Turin, the Christmas star that sits atop one of the hills becomes visible.  This is what I’m looking for, the bluish-white light of the star signaling the close of our long journey, as we are now just minutes from my grandma’s house.  Just past the star HWY 175 curves as it rolls into Turin, and as it does so it runs adjacent to the base of a hill, snowy white in the wintertime, surrounded by the typical objects of a small Iowa farming community: pickup trucks and some farm structures, such as a barn, or a grain silo, or maybe both.  This is as close to the Loess Hills as we will get.  Once in Onawa, we will not venture far from the eight or so blocks separating my grandparents’ houses, the hills awaiting our eastward passage as we set out for home.


The day that this painting made such an impression on me, the three grandparents that I had known my entire life were still alive, and so the nostalgia brought on by the painting was for a simpler time in my life, without the worries and concerns of an adult with children of his own.  Now all three of those grandparents have passed away, all buried in the Onawa Cemetery, so my memory of this painting brings on a different sort of nostalgia, not just of a simpler time but a time that has completely passed, my connection to an entire generation. If I hadn’t settled in this region myself as an adult, it’s hard to say if the painting would have impacted me the way that it has.  This painting calls back memories both distant and recent, especially of time spent with my parents and grandparents, brothers and cousins, aunts and uncles.  But it also makes me think of the present, of the time I spend in the hills by myself and especially with my children.  The Loess Hills mean something to me now other than a landmark we passed by, a part of the journey marking the beginning, and the end, of a family vacation.  I’ve not only seen that snowy hillside from a car window, I’ve encountered it directly on a hike, struggled against snow and elevation to climb it, and reached its summit to look down the other side. 


Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha, Nebraska.  He has written extensively on prairie literature and restoration, and enjoys spending time outdoors with his family, especially in the Loess Hills.