Read an article on nature Journaling from the Humane Society,Taking Note: Nature Journaling Opens Windows to the Sublime, All Animals magazine, November/December 2012 by Ruthanne Johnson
It was the height of summer 2012, a cool, partly cloudy morning in Northern California’s Sierra Valley. There to teach a field sketching workshop, John Muir Laws carried in his shoulder bag the tools of a seasoned naturalist: sketchbook, mechanical pencils, kneaded eraser, binoculars, and field guide.
On daily hikes, Laws and his students would stop often to write and sketch observations in their journals. Once everyone was settled and quietly observing, wildlife invariably made an appearance and the group’s pencils would fly. Sometimes, they would draw an unusual wildflower. Other times, they would scribble notes of a birdsong or describe a sun-dappled moment.
On this day, passing over a creek, the class spotted several birds darting back and forth through reeds along the water’s edge. Busy hunting for insects, the Virginia and sora rails and their young seemed oblivious to their audience. “All the field guides say they are so secretive, yet these birds were just so accommodating,” says Laws, who filled his journal with quick-posture sketches and beak details for comparison between the species. “It was amazing to observe their behavior … dancing around just yards away.”
While the average person may have walked unknowingly past the scene, Laws—whose first and middle names reflect his parents’ respect for the famed naturalist—knew the moment was special. Years of nature journaling nearly every day have sharpened his knowledge of the natural world and its inhabitants. “I don’t know of any activity that makes me more in tune with that,” he says.
For Laws and other nature lovers, moments of quiet observation provide a window to nature’s mysteries and the drama of seemingly commonplace events. Writing and sketching about the outdoors also helps them slow down and focus on a bird’s coloring, a caterpillar’s structure, or a leaf ’s edge. “The process of keeping a nature journal will make you notice details you would not have otherwise seen,” says Laws, “and it’s going to help you remember those details later on.”
Take a crash course in nature journaling »
Nature journaling has long played a critical role in developing natural histories, says nature artist and writer Clare Walker Leslie. “Lewis and Clark, Thoreau, and John James Audubon made unforgettable observations and reproductions of nature in the New World.” These days, the naturalist’s contributions are no less important, she says.
When Leslie began journaling in 1978, she didn’t know the difference between a robin and a blue jay. Today, she’s completed 46 journals and written 11 books on the topic, including the award-winning Keeping a Nature Journal. She revisits her old journals often to study yearly patterns and seasonal changes and to trace the impacts of climate change on her region—an effort she hopes will be useful to future scientists.
Apart from its practical applications, natural journaling affects people on a deeper level, says Leslie, who travels the country teaching the craft. “What all people discover when they are outside is a washover of calm, curiosity, and connection that are just not the same as when you go to a sports game or the theater. It’s the comfort of things wild.”
Journaling helped Leslie cope with the grief of her mother’s illness and death. “I would find one image every day from nature to carry me through the day, whether it was drops of rain on a rose, a robin flying through the green, or a monarch butterfly across the street. … It became like a prayer. It was finding the moon.”
Read an blog post from the Audubon Society. So You Want to Draw Birds? What to Pack in Your Field Sketching Kit, By Julie Leibach 10/31/2012
You love birds. You fancy yourself somewhat artistic. And you really want to get into avian sketching. You’ve even tried it a few times, but you haven’t improved, and you’re frustrated. There’s just too much to think about—so many supplies to gather, like binoculars, pencils, paper. A lunch for the field. The whole process seems so hard.
Yet, there’s no way around it: As with any skill, practice makes perfect. “We’re creatures of habit,” says John Muir Laws, author of The Laws’ Guide to Drawing Birds, “So what you have to do is make it your habit and pattern to draw on a regular basis.” Okay, then. How does a fledgling bird artist overcome her inertia?
First, get over the fact that you’re not Rembrandt. In other words, tell your brain’s “inner art critic” to bug off while you learn. Second, remove obstacles that inhibit you, such as disorganization. “If the logistics are difficult, then there’s negative reinforcement,” says Laws.
To help establish a drawing habit, Laws recommends preparing a sketch kit that you can easily grab on a whim. His motto: “simple, light, and portable.” Here are a few tips and considerations for your kit. For more detailed recommendations, visit Laws’ website (and for more on how to draw birds, click here):
-Use a lightweight bag to carry your supplies. A heavy bag is like a ball and chain, so pick a carryall that won’t contribute much to the overall weight. Laws suggests a shoulder bag, which makes retrieving tools easier than rummaging through a backpack. This particular satchel features two internal pockets, allowing you to separate your drawing supplies from, say, your lunch or water bottle.
-Find a sketchpad you like. Laws suggests avoiding spiral bound books, because the pages are apt to rub against each other and smear pencil work. A Laws favorite is the Canson Basic Sketchbook (8.5”x11”)
-Include only your favorite pencils. Among his, Laws packs a Prismacolor® Col-Erase® nonphoto blue pencil, “an essential tool for sketching in the posture, proportions, and angles before you start a detailed drawing,” according to Laws. If you want to use colored pencils, forget the jumbo box. Just choose a few important colors, including “process red,” “true blue,” and “canary yellow,” and a few muddy grays, greens, and browns, Laws suggests. Use a rubber band to group similar pencil colors together (reds with yellows, blues and purples, earth tones). Then, store those bundles in a box or bag so the tips don’t break.
-If you want to paint your birds, pick a portable watercolor kit (that is, one that compactly folds up and can be reloaded at home with paint tubes) and a waterbrush. The latter stores the liquid right in the handle so you don’t have to fiddle with a cup of H20.
-Pack a rag (for dabbing the paintbrush). Laws made his out of a sock by cutting the tip off; he wears the resulting tube on his wrist.
-Choose binoculars wisely. Laws is a fan of the Pentax Papilio 8.5¥21 Binoculars because they can focus on subjects far-afield as well as up-close-and-personal ones.
After your bag is packed, you’ll be one step closer to that drawing habit. The good news is, “Once you’re into it, then it’s the most natural thing in the world,” says Laws. “You look forward to doing it, and it will self-reinforce.”
Read the article in Audubon Magazine, Sketch Artist, A new guide to bird drawing inspires a deeper connection with nature. By Julie Leibach Published: November-December 2012
The snowy egret I’m sketching is not cooperating. I can’t get its kinked yet sinewy neck to look right. And its legs—there shouldn’t be four of them! My bird looks like a pistachio stuck with a speared olive, walking on clothespins.
Meanwhile, as I scrawl with a pencil on a small sketchpad, my model—a wild bird—continues pecking at mudflats in Bolinas Lagoon, between Northern California’s Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, completely oblivious to my artistic frustrations.
I’m enrolled in an avian drawing class at the Point Reyes Birding & Nature Festival. My instructor is John Muir Laws, a California-based artist, naturalist, educator, scientist, and field guide author (he’s related only “by spirit” to the legendary naturalist). After a morning crash course on the basics, set in the classroom, Laws has led 16 of us adult students into a breezy, sun-streaked day to try our hands at field sketching.
Raised by an amateur botanist and a birder, Laws, 46, learned to love nature at an early age. His grandmother first, then a family friend, turned him on to drawing, a pursuit that became an essential tool—Laws is severely dyslexic and supplements written observations of the natural world with sketches. He has devised a novel array of tips that may not transform you into the next David Sibley overnight but are easy and rewarding to follow. His new book, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds (Heyday Books, $24.95), just came out. “We have this myth that drawing is a gift,” says Laws, but “it’s a skill that any of us can learn.” What’s more, developing it inspires much more than just artwork—it can make you a better birder and naturalist by forcing you to pay close attention to what you’re sketching and look beyond what you need to identify the bird. “You’re seeing details that have always been there in front of you but you’ve never really been able to focus on,” Laws explains.
While I have an artistic bent, until my course with Laws, I had virtually no experience drawing birds aside from the occasional doodle. If tasked with penciling in, say, a blue jay perched on a nearby branch, I probably would have begun by outlining its contours. But to get started, Laws instead suggests three basic steps. First, notice the bird’s posture—Is it looking up? What’s the body’s angle?—and draw a simple line, like an axis, suggestive of that position.
Next, focus on the bird’s proportions. What size are the head and body, and where is one relative to the other? Using the initial line you drew as a guide, block in the proportions with circular shapes. The result should be something vaguely resembling Frosty the Snowman. At this stage—and this is critical—double-check your work. Those who don’t may learn the hard way. “At the end of the drawing they’ll say, ‘My bird looks wrong,’ ” says Laws. “That’s because you have a western sandpiper with a head the size of a chickadee. And at that point, there’s nothing that you can really do to fix that.” (You can use an eraser while you draw, but I find it cumbersome to fiddle with one while trying to capture a moving bird.)
Once the proportions check out, look for the bird’s defining angles, such as where the head and tail connect with the body. “I think of carving those into these bubbles of proportion that I’ve set up,” says Laws. “I then have a framework [in which] I can come along and start to put in the detail.” To better identify these angles, take note of “negative space”—that is, the area around the bird that’s not bird. Focusing on this open space will bring the individual’s defining edges into stark relief.
Mastering these three steps helps capture what Laws calls the bird’s oomph or, as some birders say, its jizz—the essence of the species. “What is finchiness, finchosity? You want your chickadee to be chickadee-esque,” says Laws, your magpie to be “magpie-y.” Think of Roger Tory Peterson’s silhouettes. They’re deceptively simple, black shapes, yet they clearly represent one type of bird, even without the details.
What comes next depends on what you want to focus on—individual feathers or markings, perhaps an eye, maybe the patterns of light and dark from plumage and shadows. Understanding birds’ general anatomy, discussed in Laws’s book, will help you make sense of your observations. But the key to field sketching is to draw what you see, and not what you think should be there. For example, even if you know that birds have three forward-facing toes but only one is visible, “you can just draw one toe,” says Amanda Krauss, an artist and fellow student in my class who has had trouble rendering bird feet. “It was like a lightbulb went off for me.”
Nature sketching guides abound, but where birds are concerned, Laws thinks his fills a void. “Some books will have illustrations that are really inspiring,” he says, but they don’t explain how the drawings are made. “I wanted to really deconstruct what is happening when I make my lines, where I’m looking, where I suggest that people focus.”
He’s breaking new ground, says Hannah Hinchman, a nature journalist and artist who once taught Laws in a workshop and reviewed an early draft of his book. “There’s nothing static,” she says. “He just refuses to see these mobile, fluid birds as objects. He sees them as alive, and that’s the way they come across on the page.”
Drawing outside is crucial to creating a realistic bird in two dimensions. The easiest species may even be one that’s most accessible, like your backyard cardinal or house finch. As you observe, jot down notes in addition to sketching, and ponder out loud, asking yourself questions such as, “What does this bird remind me of?” or “I wonder why it has markings like that?” (At Bolinas, one classmate suggested that a flock of swimming cormorants resembled Phoenician ships.) While the very act of drawing helps solidify a memory, verbalizing what you’re seeing ingrains it that much more. Should the bird fly off, you’ll still have a few details in mind to flesh out your drawing.
Sketching outdoors will also help you achieve what Laws considers one of the most important goals in drawing birds: forging a more meaningful connection with nature. In other words, don’t aim for the perfect picture; you’ll only get frustrated if it doesn’t turn out right. Instead, draw to observe more deeply and to remember those precious moments removed from the mechanized world. The more focused you are on experiencing what you’re seeing, the less you’ll care about your masterpiece, and “that frees you up to make lots of drawings,” says Laws. As a pleasant by-product, “the more you draw, the better it gets.”
I’m still learning the ropes. My snowy egret is hardly a mirror image, but now I know that I can ignore my inner art critic—a liberating concept. Even so, establishing a drawing habit is hard; I’ve practiced a few times since my class. On one gorgeous, mild day in May I visit a lake near my Brooklyn apartment. Spying several mute swans, I settle down with my sketchpad near a tree. I notice how one bird’s neck fluidly recoils like a snake, and I admire the species’ dramatic, inky eyeliner. A man and a boy study the way one swims—something I see, too, marveling at its feet like built-in paddles. I’m reminded of what Laws told me: “If you can get yourself to slow down and appreciate that bird, for whatever it has new to teach you, the wonders that you’re going to see in even the most common things are infinite.” How could I resist?
Read an interview on Ilana DeBare’s Blog, “Drawing Birds with Jack Laws” on Golden Gate Birder. September 12, 2012
John Muir “Jack” Laws, a Golden Gate Audubon board member and author of several field guides, has a beautiful new book out this month, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. We sat down recently to speak with Jack about drawing birds — and why it is an activity not simply for “gifted artists” but for anyone who wants to heighten their appreciation of birds and nature.
Q: This has nothing to do with the book, but where did you get your name? As a naturalist, did you decide to take the name of John Muir?
A: That’s really what my mom and dad named me. The middle name Muir came from my great-grandmother on my dad’s side. And John, with the nickname Jack, came from my grandfather on my mom’s side. But they were very aware of the way those two things came together. My mom was a Sierra Club lawyer and the two of them had spent a lot of time romancing in the Sierra Nevada.
The whole time I was growing up, I thought I must be related to John Muir. I grew up reading his stories (of) climbing trees in windstorms and sliding down glaciers and all these other adventures. I definitely felt a connection.
Q: Most people feel, “I can’t draw.” Not just “I can’t draw birds,” but “I can’t draw anything.” Is that true?
A: It is an incredibly powerful, pervasive myth. But it’s entirely false. The truth of the matter is that drawing is a skill, like learning how to make a bed. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
As adults, we don’t want to let ourselves do anything we’re not already good at. So we don’t give it a try. We don’t want to let ourselves stand briefly in that vulnerable place where we’re not already an expert. And so we miss out on a lot of really great opportunities.
Q: But there are also differences in the level of potential. Wouldn’t you see a difference if you put Van Gogh and me in front of sketchpads?
A: You listen to Mozart’s early stuff, and it’s not good. Then you look at what he does down the line, andwow! He’s put in his time.
If you start drawing on a regular basis for one year, at the end of that year, your friends will be turning to you and saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky to have that gift. I wish I could do that.”
If we say it’s a gift, that’s a way of getting off the hook because then we don’t have to try.
It used to be that all scientists were artists, because they had to draw pictures. And now they don’t.
A: The impact of starting to draw birds as part of your process of being a birder is incredibly powerful. It will train you to observe in ways you have never observed before. You will look with more intensity, and notice subtlety and beauty in things that have been in front of your face for years.
You may have seen a female Pintail before, but until you have drawn her, you haven’t had the opportunity to really look long enough to fall in love.
We (often) stop observing when we can identify something. We think the purpose of looking at a bird is to figure out, “Who’s that?” Some people do take it a little further and notice some key behaviors, or what plumage it’s in, what part of the moult cycle.
But don’t stop there. Even with a bird you’ve seen a million times before – that House Finch in your yard – you can look in a way that allows you to see something new that you’ve never seen before. This happens to me all the time when I’m drawing.
In addition to helping you observe more, drawing will help you remember. The process of drawing forces your brain to do gymnastics – to take this information and bop it back and forth in complex pathways, and as a result, you’ll remember what you were looking at. It doesn’t matter if the drawing you get is a pretty picture or not. You’ll remember what you saw and the experience of sitting there drawing it.
Many people experience this when traveling, and bring a little notebook with them. They sit down on a hillside and do a sketch of a cathedral. The rest of the experiences around that moment can fade away, but the moments you’re sitting there with the sketchbook on your lap will be vivid in your memory forever.
Q: When did you start drawing birds? Were you a birder before you started drawing them, or did you draw other things first and then come to birds?
A: As a kid, I liked drawing. I got very interested in nature and started to want to record my observations. And being severely dyslexic, it was difficult for me to write down everything that I saw. And so making little diagrams and sketches was a very useful way of doing that. I found that I would remember things much better if I drew a little picture of it.
I’d bird my way home from school, and I’d be drawing as I did. My purpose was to learn the birds better, not necessarily to make a really good drawing. And that allowed me to make lots of drawings without being judgmental of myself. And that helps a lot. The more we can get that art critic off our back, the more we’re going to open ourselves up to using drawing as a naturalist tool, to help us observe.
Q: What are some basic drawing tips that a beginner should know?
A: Think about the experience we’ve all had in drawing a person. You draw a perfect nose and a perfect eye and mouth, and you’re working your way down, and you finish by drawing the shoelace. And then you look back and it just doesn’t look right and you realize, “Oh my gosh, I made the head way too big!”
You realize at the end that there is some major proportional thing that is is wrong. The reason that happens is the part of your brain that takes in the big picture is actually a different part of your brain than is focusing on the details, and your brain can’t do them both at the same time.
If you start with the details, the big picture is going to come back and haunt you later. But if you start with the big picture — the basic shape and proportions — then you can fill in the details on top of that.
If the basic shape is there, your drawing will feel like that bird. Look at the inside front cover of the old Peterson field guides and there are silhouettes. You can identify every one of those birds by its silhouette. That’s how important the shape is.
But we get so caught up in “this wing bar is here” and “this feather is overlapping over here,” we lose track of that shape. And if we lose that shape, no matter how many chickadee details we put in there, it’s not going to feel like a chickadee.
Q: What’s your advice about working from photographs versus working from life? And if you’re working from life, what do you do when birds move, which they constantly do?A: I recommend that people work from any materials they can get their hands on – from a dead bird that has hit a window, or from study skins [dead birds that a scientist has stuffed]. Often with taxidermied animals, the proportions are really distorted. There’s one local museum that has wonderful preserved birds you can sketch from, the Oakland Museum of California, which will soon be reopening its natural history hall.
Drawing from life is our opportunity to get out there and have direct personal encounters with wild, living nature. Birds are going to be moving around, and that can be frustrating – if you are trying to do a bird portrait. Because the bird isn’t going to say, “Okay, this is now going to be a five minute pose.”
If we have bird portraiture in our head, drawing in the field can be very, very difficult. So we need to switch over to thinking about taking field notes: “I’m going to get down a bunch of sketches of bits and parts of things, and I may not get a complete head-to-toe rendering of this, but I can get parts of that information…. If it’s too difficult to draw this gull, maybe I can make a careful diagram of the shape of its bill.”
I start to make a drawing of a bird and when the bird moves, I will start a new drawing of that (new) position. When the bird moves again, I start another drawing. Now I have three starts of drawings – if it comes back to a pose I started, I’ll jump back to that drawing and continue working on it. And the drawing I get the furthest along on is the most characteristic posture of that bird.
Collecting little bits and pieces… getting multiple drawings going at the same time… I also encourage people to use both writing and drawing together. Some moments might be easier to capture with a few written words. Using both writing and drawing, you can record a tremendous amount of information about what you see. Also, if you have writing on your page it feels less like a precious art project.
Q: In the book you talk about process rather than product.
A: The goal of field sketching is to have a closer encounter with nature. It is not to make a pretty picture. If you make your goal creation of a pretty picture, you’ll get so wrapped up in making that pretty picture that you are going to spend more time erasing and feeling frustrated than anything else.
But if you make your goal to observe and notice and learn from nature, and see if you can discover something new, every drawing experience is going to be successful. That’s going to bring you back drawing again the next day. We like to do what we’re successful at. So redefine success – it’s not the pretty picture. It’s having observed more deeply and gone more deeply into the beautiful world.
And an interesting side effect of that is because you’re making more drawings, you’re going to get better. And the pretty pictures will start to come.
Draw what you actually see, not what you think you’re supposed to see. Those drawings that are in the bird book – the artist isn’t walking in the field, seeing a Lincoln Sparrow, and putting that Lincoln Sparrow into the field guide. They’re walking out there in the field, they see the bird, they make tons of sketches in the field, they come back to their studio, they put all their sketches around their easel, they get a dead bird from the science museum, they get out all the photographs they can find, they put all this stuff together, and they make that picture which they then put into the field guide.
Q: Do you have a favorite bird to draw?
A: I am fickle in my love of birds and I often find that whatever it is I’m looking at is wonderful.
Right now, I’m finding greater delight in a number of the subtler birds. We can all draw a Red-winged Blackbird and everyone will say, “Ah, that’s a Red-winged Blackbird.” We could do that with finger paint and someone would ID it. But how about a Warbling Vireo? How about a female Bunting? How about a Western Wood Peewee? Those subtle birds, for me, are really exciting right now. They are a real challenge to my ability to focus and observe.
There are others that are so striking that whenever I encounter them, I fall apart in the field. Magpies are one of those. I love everything that Magpies do.
I’m delighted every time I encounter a Belted Kingfisher – they’re outrageous, all angles and contrast and attitude, and so much fun. And they will pose for you. They’ll sit on that wire.
Read an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle Hatching artist within with bird drawing by Sam Whiting. Published 5:21 p.m., Sunday, August 5, 2012
As the morning fog lifts off the bay, John Muir Laws is sitting in the dirt talking to a seagull.
“The oval of your body curves back to your head,” he says in a low voice. “Sloping forehead angle. I can see your beak and face turn toward me.”
The gull being wooed is on the other end of a high-powered scope, but Laws is not talking to be heard. He’s talking to the bird because it helps his mind slow down and focus on trying to draw it.
Once locked in, he is oblivious to everything else around him, which is a good thing because around him is a tractor loading gravel into a dump truck on one side, cranes from the Port of San Francisco lifting cargo on the other, and Caltrain whistling up the tracks behind.
“Sometimes I will look up and realize I have been in a trance of concentrated observation for two hours,” he says on this morning spent at Pier 94, a sliver of marsh surrounded by heavy industry on the city’s raggedy southern waterfront.
Laws is not a bird artist. He is a naturalist who describes himself as “an attention deficit disorder illustrator.” How he gets from scatterbrain to trance is the subject of “The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds,” which Heyday is publishing in September.
“There is a widely held belief that drawing is a gift that some people are born with and everybody else is out of luck,” he says. “But if I can get people drawing on a regular basis, they’ll discover that this is just a skill that anybody can master.”
To augment the book, Laws offers bird drawing classes at www.johnmuirlaws.com, and will soon offer a series of free nature-sketching field trips. The Pier 94 Salt Marsh is a good place to start, because it is just two turns off Third Street and past the concrete plant and jaywalking families of geese to a dirt parking lot. On this morning, Laws focuses on a flock of fat western gulls just waking up to a day that will end with them flying up Third Street to swoop down on AT&T Park in the late innings of a Giants game.
“Gulls have so much personality and character,” he says, disregarding their reputation as garbage dump scavengers. “They go through beautiful and interesting postures.”
To start his sketch, he turns his notebook to a gray page and works with a blue pencil so faint he can barely see it as he roughs out spheres in the shape of a head and body.
“A lot of people get distracted by detail and start with the beak,” he says. “If you do that you’re not going to get the overall angles of its posture because your brain is so focused on trying to capture these details. So I teach people a way to quickly block out a framework onto paper. Once you have a skeleton, now you’re just hanging details over that.”
To hang his detail, Laws switches to a graphite pencil that makes his blue markings seem to disappear. The gray of the wings is already on the paper so he just adds white for the breast and head.
“The hand feels clunky,” he says, dissatisfied with the product. “You need to warm up and get your brain in and around and touching the birds.”
If he is having trouble concentrating, he will stop talking to the birds and get up and walk over to converse with a toyon bush, while touching its leaves. Then he will walk back and try to remember exactly what he just said to the bush.
He has total recall on that exercise, but can’t recall his age. “I was born in April 1966, how old does that make me?” he says.
He’s better on the questions of his name. This John Muir is not descended from that John Muir. His mother, Beatrice Laws, was a Sierra Club lawyer, and she decided his middle name was going to be Muir regardless of sex. The John part was a family name, incidental to Muir.
Becoming a naturalist
His grandmother taught him to draw long before he started school, so he was on his way as a naturalist. But to call himself John Muir would seem to be putting on airs, so he’s always been known as Jack, growing up in the Haight and attending the Urban School en route to a degree in conservation and resource studies at UC Berkeley plus a master’s in wildlife biology from the University of Montana.
His first book was “The Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada” with 2,700 watercolor illustrations. For that he hiked and drew for six years, often alone.
“If you think I’m odd talking to birds,” he says, “you should have seen me talking to the wildflowers.” But there wasn’t a partner to talk to.
“I always expected I would meet the love of my life while walking down some mountain trail,” he says, “then I figured out that most of the people you meet on a trail are going the other way.” So he tried a different approach. He met his wife, Dr. Cybele Renault, through Match.com.
They live in San Mateo, midway between her job as a specialist in subtropical medicine in Palo Alto, and his job as an urban naturalist. Bird sketching is like distance running. You have to make it a habit, an important aspect of “the Laws Guide.”
Bird as teacher
“It’s not like five steps and now you’ve got your bird,” he says. “The important thing is to go back again and again and ask that real bird that’s in front of you to teach you what it means to be that bird on that day. That is going to be your teacher.”
After the gull teaches him what it can, Laws glasses his scope in on a killdeer flitting about in the pickleweed at low tide.
“I see the bands across your chest, they are the same width,” he says, grabbing whatever pencil is closest. The bird moves, “and the top band just got thicker. I just discovered that my visual picture of you is not right.”
As he hangs detail on the skeleton, he is having trouble with proportions. “My brain wants the legs of the killdeer to be longer than they are.”
He paints in the plumage using a watercolor palette, which he mixes on an old sock he wears as a sleeve. He jots the date, time and weather onto the page. When he gets home he will compare these to earlier sketches, to try to figure out the leg-length equation.
“If through the process of doing that sketch I learned something and it helped focus my brain in a way that made me notice details that I wouldn’t have seen,” he says, “then it’s successful. That’s why I draw.”
Read a delightful article about my programs in Piedmont Schools. Naturalist Extradordinaire Shares Observational Techniques at Elementary Schools. October 16, 2011
John Muir Laws, artist, author and naturalist extraordinaire, paid a visit to all three elementary schools in Piedmont during the last week of September.
Laws shared drawings and stories with 4th and 5th grade students, and spent time with teachers describing techniques for integrating sketching and journaling into the development of deep observational skills.
As the author and illustrator of the very popular “Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada”, for which he drew over 2,700 illustrations, Laws’ professed goal is to develop nature stewardship through science, education, and art.
Students sat riveted as he took them on a circular tour through a natural system starting and ending with tiny caterpillars living in the needles of Lodgepole pines.
Along the way they met disco dancing spiders, acid spraying ants, moths who mimic bees and blood sucking mites—all acted out in Laws’ inimitable style.
As they circled back to the pine tree, students clearly got his point, a paraphrase from famous naturalist John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Between school assemblies, Laws spent time in classrooms, demonstrating his sketching techniques, and guiding students in observations. Upon completion of a class exercise one student concluded, “The drawing and notes help, but only if the details are really specific.” What teacher would argue with that?
By the end of the day, inspired students were lined up at the school libraries clamoring to check out copies of his book.
This successful visit was arranged by the new Tri-School Science Enrichment Team, formed to support the collaboration and sharing of science resources between elementary schools.
Read the article about the Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada in the Washington Post by William Booth (also syndicated in the Los Angles Times). January 13, 2008
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — He took his first hike into the Sierra Nevada, the landscape of his obsession, while still in the womb. His parents named him John Muir Laws. He once spent a week searching for a single perfect orchid to paint. He says, “I am constantly amazed by things.” Such as? “The diversity of chipmunks.” He is not joking. He cares about newts. If asked, he does an excellent imitation of a startled vole. He has opinions about beetles.
This fall, he published “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.” It is 366 pages long and contains 2,800 illustrations, each painted by Laws. The new field guide, already praised by outdoor connoisseurs as a naturalist’s bible, begins with “Small Fungi Growing on Wood” (specifically, Calocera cornea, the staghorn jelly fungus) and ends with stars (the night sky at winter solstice, Dec. 22). It is small enough to slip into your pocket but includes 1,700 species of flowers, trees, bugs, frogs, snails, skinks, birds, fish, rodents. It took him six years. The world needs more of this — this kind of sustained, informed, deep gee-whizdom.
Not too long ago, Laws is scrambling on a footpath near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. Suddenly he stoops. “Well, would you look here,” he says. “ A nice one.” He holds up a fat ashy dried cigar, the kind a dictator might smoke, and admires a perfectly formed black bear scat. Flip to Page 326 and there it is, a painting of the plop. There’s two pages devoted to “Animal Evidence” in his field guide. Did you know that the indentations and depressions in deer droppings are called, by the professionals, “dimples” and “pimples”? Now you do.
The release of a major new field guide, especially for an ecosystem as iconic and popular as the Sierras, is something of an event for people who may care about such things, meaning people who want to know what they’re looking at, the showy penstemon or the gay penstemon? Because there is a difference (hairless vs. hairy stems, apparently; see Page 150). The Sacramento Bee praises the Laws guide as “a wonderful companion to anyone who communes with nature on hikes, on the water, while bird-watching or even through the windshield for those less able to get out into the hills.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “stunning.” Pete DeVine, the education coordinator for the Yosemite Association, says, “there is genius behind this book.”
There is also something sweet and obsessive, and marvelously 19th-century about the whole enterprise, the idea of a lone amateur, now 41 years old (living in a rented $600 apartment in San Francisco), spending season after season tramping around the mountains, painting mushrooms and moles. “The pages and pages of bugs, flies, beetles, and damned if I’m going to ever tell one from another, but isn’t it wondrous that they’re out there? Isn’t that marvelous?” says Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heyday Books in Berkeley, the not-for-profit publisher of the field guide. “I’m a beauty junkie. And this book was done by somebody who is stunned by the beauty of the world.”
The Appalachians? The Rockies? No disrespect, but the Sierra Nevada is the prettiest postcard in America. It is just a sublime landscape, the granite spire above alpine meadow against the bluest sky. The Sierras are Byron meets Monet meets Maxfield Parrish. They’re over the top. Even in the black and white of an Ansel Adams print, the Sierras work. About 400 miles from bottom to top, the range includes nine national forests, four national parks (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Lassen) and the highest point in the contiguous United States (Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet). It is the setting for the original John Muir rhapsodies of natural history writing and a birthplace of the modern American conservation movement — including the Sierra Club.
Laws is walking on the trail. “Whitebark pine,” he points (Page 33). “Check this out.” He is on his knees rustling around in the duff beneath a stunted tree. “See? Look at all the pine cones.” We are looking: many cones. But are we really seeing?
“Not a single one intact,” says Laws. And, aha, he is correct: All the cones appear . . . aggressively tweezered. Now Laws begins screeching. “ Kaa-a! Kaa-a!”
“A rowdy call, a raucous call. I love that description, don’t you? Rowdy?” He is talking about the call of the Clark’s nutcracker (Page 292), the bird that plucks and then buries these pine nuts for the winter. (A single nutcracker can stash as many as 98,000 nuts in a season.) Laws is explaining that these particular nutcrackers carry the seeds underneath their tongue in a special cavity called the gular pouch, like a pelican. Thehuh pouch? How do spell that? Laws thinks that is funny. Why?
“Don’t ask a dyslexic how to spell,” he says. So now we know. When Laws autographs a copy of his field guide, he’ll often mistake a J for L, a D for B. It turns out Laws has never read a book cover to cover. “Not even a novel,” he says. Words are a jumble to him. To get through school, he listened to books on tape and textbooks recorded for the blind. “Statistics were hell,” he says. (Though it did not stop him from getting his undergraduate degree at Berkeley and his master’s in wildlife biology from the University of Montana; he earns his living teaching classes on natural history, scientific illustration and field sketching.)
“He is an absolutely wonderful misspeller,” says his father, Robert Laws, a retired San Francisco attorney. “I think his dyslexia is the key.”
Meaning a key to his book. “Maybe that’s what makes me who I am,” Laws says. “If I had the option, I don’t think I would cure it.” Because maybe his dyslexia helps him see more, better, or differently.
Most field guides are organized, essentially, around the expert’s division of life forms into their taxonomic, evolutionary groups — all gulls with gulls, all hawks with hawks, for example, which requires the searcher to know, a little bit, where to look in the book. But Laws has devised a clever way to organize his field guide by color. You see a bird. You see a greenish bird. You go to the color key and flip to “Green Birds,” and the guide lists birds whose dominant, most eye-catching color is green — combining Anna’s hummingbirds, green-tailed towhees and Lewis’s woodpecker on the same page. It is a fast, intuitive, accessible way to do snappy identifications in the field.
Among users and creators of field guides, there is long debate: photos or drawings? Since the backpacking boom began, hikers in the California mountains have carried Tracy I. Storer’s very fine 1963 “Sierra Nevada Natural History,” which contains photographs — and a lot of text. Laws is more the minimalist with words, but a maximalist with paint. The most well-regarded guides today, such as David Sibley’s bird books, are almost always illustrated. Why? Roger Tory Peterson in his classic guides answers the question: “A photograph is a record of a fleeting instant; a drawing is a composite of the artist’s experience.” A drawing allows the naturalist to capture the “gestalt” of the creature, stressing the totality of a species, editing out distraction, highlighting the core.
Laws painted every wildflower in his book from sketches and paintings in the field. The same with most of the birds, except the great horned owl, which he kept missing. “We have this idea that all robins, for example, look the same,” says Laws. “But they don’t. Any more than all collies look alike or all humans. It’s because we’re not looking hard enough.”
For the fungi, he went on collecting trips with mycologists, who piled fresh specimens onto a table. He sought out authorities on animal tracks, aquatic insects, butterflies, snakes. Researching, Laws would spend weeks alone in the mountains. How many miles did he hike? “That’s hard to answer,” he says. In the beginning, it would take him several days just to cross a single meadow, because he would stop and sketch each new flower. “But towards the end of the project, I’d hike for hours just to find one new thing.” There are many creatures he never drew in the wild. He never saw, for example, a spotted skunk. He painted one from a roadkill. “I haven’t seen all the species of chipmunks nor all the bats,” he says. He painted them from dead specimens kept in museum collections. He never saw a wolverine, either. They are believed to be extirpated in the Sierra Nevada (the last one spotted in 1937), though he includes one in his book with a note to report a sighting to the California Fish and Game Department.
When he was a boy, hiking on the John Muir Trail, he dreamed of creating the perfect field guide, not a guide made by experts but a book by an enthusiast. “My criteria for inclusion in the book: Either it’s so common you’ll trip over it all the time. Or not so common — maybe it’s just some subtle little thing, but they are so stunning or their story is so great, I had to include it,” he says.
Why? “Because the more people fall in love with the diversity of life, the more people will fight to protect it,” Laws says. Do you know, he asks, the story of the pika, which is actually a hamster-size rabbit with round ears, whose nitrogen-rich urine is like some kind of Miracle-Gro for orange lichen (Page 313)? The pika runs around on the rocks above the timberline, collecting grass and flowers and drying the hay in the sun. The poor cold-loving pika may go extinct, because it lives at the tops of mountains, and as the temperature warms, it has no higher elevation to go to. So it’s like a polar bear in a melting world, except it’s a tiny rabbit that cooks? Exactly, says John Muir Laws. “The point really is not to identify a creature or a plant and move on. The point is to learn the story.”
Read Jack’s recommendations for exploring nature in the “Ask the experts” section of the September 08 Sunset Magazine.
Read an article about my work in the Digital Journal: San Francisco Bay Naturalist has his own set of Laws
Read a short article about Following Muir’s Footsteps in the Nevada Record-Courier.
Read an article about my presentations at the 2011 Snow Goose Festival: For the Birds
Read an article about my work with art in schools: Learning the Art of Nature
Read a short article about my work in Bay Nature Magazine: Jack Laws on loving nature
Watch a short video about the Laws Pocket Guides to the Bay Area from Audubon California
Read an interesting ezine article about one of my bird walks: How birding can increase your creativity
Listen to a great 45 minute interview on KPFA’s Against the Grain
Read an article about the 2009 Terwilliger Award in City Currents Magazine(page 4).
John Muir Laws shares his love of art and nature with area students, Sierra Star, December 17, 2009
Neither rain, sleet, nor snow kept author/illustrator John Muir Laws from teaching his love of art and nature to Mountain Home School and Glacier High School students on Dec. 7. Despite the snow storm that day, Laws met with students, parents and teachers so they could watch him work his magic with paper and pencil. With support from Sierra Telephone and the Service Organization of the Sierra, Mountain Home School Charter was able to host Laws, a noted naturalist, illustrator, author and educator. MHSC was also able to purchase a class set of his book, “Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada,” which is co-published by the California Academy of Sciences. These guides will be used as a resource for art classes by Irina Buca and Joanie Madaus and science field trip observations with Skip Bullock.Laws noted that there is a real need to integrate more art into the classroom. The attention to observation and detail that students learn in art carries over into science. The goal was not necessarily to create a pretty picture, but to help students become more observant while documenting nature. He also stressed to the students the unique area in which they live. “You are all very fortunate to have such abundant wildlife so close at hand,” said Laws. Laws demonstrated his systematic drawing technique of “posture, proportion and angles” with six class sessions for students, parents and teachers. All who attended were rewarded for their effort by having immediate success in drawing various birds of the Sierra Nevada. Laws’ book is available locally at Willow Bridge Books and you can visit his Web site, johnmuirlaws.com, to see his vision for schools in the Sierra Nevada area.
Annual plant sale features noted conservationist, by Sarah DeCrescenzo, The Porterville Recorder, October 06, 2009 Three Rivers
When Porterville resident Cathy Capone isn’t helping special education students at Vandalia Elementary School, she spends her time cultivating something else local. Capone runs a native plant nursery out of her own backyard, which is filled with examples of local flora and fauna thriving in the Tulare County climate. Plants from the nursery were featured as part of the annual native plant sale hosted by the Alta Peak chapter of the California Native Plant Society at the Three Rivers Art Center on Saturday. “I have plants for all gardens — dry gardens, normal gardens (once a week watering), even marshes and swamps,” she said. Capone, who opens her nursery only by appointment, collects all her seeds and cuttings in Tulare County. At the plant sale, Exeter resident Mary Ontiveros picked up one of Capone’s potted purple sage plants for her home garden. The plant has medium drought resistance, an important factor in an area with minimal summer precipitation. “A lot of people are coming to think about native plants for the purpose of water conservation,” CNPS president Joan Stewart said. Stewart, sporting a “California’s Native Plants Do It Naturally” T-shirt, was adamant about the importance of choosing the proper plant for the proper climate. “If you want pansies and petunias, you won’t find them native,” she said. Capone said the day’s biggest seller was deer grass, a tall green rush she propagated from seeds collected in the Springville area. Other offerings included two species of the plant genus Atriplex; one, called a quail bush, was covered in silverly green foliage Capone said is “almost iridescent” when viewed in the moonlight. “If you go out at night, they almost glow,” she said. The quail bush is able to survive long, hot summers with no additional watering, Capone said. The variety of plants in the county was expounded upon by the day’s guest speaker: noted environmentalist Jack Laws. Laws recently published “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada” and was hailed as a celebrity by the crowd at the art center. More than 50 attendees stuffed themselves into the crowded building to hear Laws trace the route from animal to plant and back again in an effort to illustrate the interconnected nature of the Sierra Nevada. “There’s an infinite amount of wonder and amazement in looking at even the most common species around us,” he said. Laws said native plants play a key role in each and every ecosystem. “They are the foundation of all of these beautiful and complex and sacred interactions in nature. An understanding of what is going on in our backyard, in the mountains around us, starts with them and then flows out to other species,” he said. Laws addressed the connection between nature and the human species as well as between plant and animal life. The naturalist, who has given illustrated presentations in locations including San Francisco and San Diego, said he welcomed the appreciative audience and shared their love for the area. “Coming up here where people live so close to nature, we’re in a community where people have a deep and profound appreciation of it. I was sharing my thoughts with people who see things in the same way [as I do],” he said. He said native plants are the ones best adapted to survive in the area. “As harsh as the environment can be at times, they are adapted to withstand and survive that and at the same time have intricate and delicate beauty,” he said. Elsah Cort, vice president of the Alta Peak chapter, said plants brought from coastal land are “in shock” when transplanted in the warmer, drier Valley. “The whole point of our plant sale is to encourage people to use native plants…they really grow better here because they’re propagated in the foothills,” she said.
Naturalist Muir Laws earns honors for his work, art, By Mark Prado Marin Independent Journal 09/12/2009
Naturalist, educator and artist John Muir Laws, 42, is this year’s winner of the Terwilliger Environmental Award given by San Rafael-based WildCare. Laws spent his summers as a youth at a cabin in Inverness with his family, where he discovered the natural world. He came back to the county in the 1990s to work for the county’s outdoor school program at Walker Creek Ranch. He left a job at the California Academy of Sciences to explore nature on his own terms in 2001 and since authored “The Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada,” a comprehensive pocket field guide to more than 1,700 species found there. He plans to work on a guide on flowers, and he will do some of the research for that in Marin. While he admires John Muir, Laws explains his name is a family one not connected to the famed naturalist. Q: What got you interested in the environment? A: My mom and dad were both avid naturalists. Part of the regular activities of our family was exploring nature. It was an introduction into nature in a light and playful way, and it was exciting. I loved it. Q: What do you love about nature? A: There is so much astonishing intricacy in nature that goes on right underneath my nose. The more I can get myself to slow down and look carefully, the more interesting things you see and you realize how amazing it is to be alive on this planet. Q: What’s the oddest thing that ever happened to you while pursuing your work? A: Going out in the Pinnacles National Monument and hearing a saw-whet owl hoot and then whistling back to it, and then it coming to my call as it landed on my arm looking for another owl. It flew up to a branch then came back down and perched on my head. Q: What has it taught you about yourself? A: It has changed me. I spend a lot of time alone in nature, just myself a backpack and sketchbook. I now have a deeper appreciation and a sense of being part of everything, and less the sense of being a visitor. I feel more connected to nature and it has made me more fierce about the stewardship of nature. I feel a duty to protect it. Q: What is hard about it? A: Stepping off the clear career track. Before I had a paycheck, a boss to tell me what to do, health benefits, and here I am wanting to run into the forest and paint flowers. I also love interaction with people, the solitude is often a delight, but I am a social ape. There are some lonely parts about it. Q: What surprised you about it? A: The more you go along on a path like this you end up meeting all sorts of other people who deeply love nature and this planet. Q: What else would you have preferred to be doing? A: We all have the capacity if the desire is there to step out and do what I did, and this is exactly what I want to be doing. This is what I feel called to do. It’s what excited me and gives me energy. I have never been happier. Q: What do you do on your off-time? A: I go to swing dancing classes, I take Brazilian jujitsu, and anything that brings me in touch with happy, joyful people.
Author views the Sierra, up close and personal, By Jan Hovey, Calaveras Enterprise 9/16/09
I have always been in awe of authors who have the creativity and conviction to devote years to producing umpteen pages of passion into a book. Finally– the book is in print and other than a few book signings, the author moves on. Not so with John (Jack) Muir Laws. His story, alone, deserves its own publication. His father, an amateur bird watcher, and mother, an amateur botanist, fell in love with both the Sierra Nevada and each other during their courtship on its trails. John Muir Laws was born with a name that would inspire a field guide like no other. Jack was, surprisingly, not named after renowned naturalist John Muir. “John” and “Muir” are both names going back in his family lineage. “Every time you have a birthday (with the name of John Muir), people give you a John Muir book,” jokes Laws. Born and raised in San Francisco, Laws was backpacking in the Sierra with his family as soon as he was old enough to carry a pack. Throughout his upbringing his parents instilled a deep love of nature that nurtured his insatiable curiosity. In his high school years, Jack was hiking the John Muir trail and was struck with an inspiration that would ultimately lead to “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.” In 2001 Laws began an ambitious project to create a new fully illustrated guide to the natural history of the Sierra Nevada. After six years of research, 2,710 original watercolor illustrations and over 1,700 species, “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada” was born, and to rave reviews. Personally, I find the guide to be the best reference guide on Sierra Nevada flora and fauna I’ve ever seen and is packaged for easy schlepping on hiking and backpacking trips. The illustrations, unbelievably all hand drawn and painted by Laws, are beautifully and accurately detailed, and each species of fungi, tree, wildflower, spider, fish, amphibian, bird and mammal is organized by color. You must see it to believe that such a thing exists. Laws’ vision did not stop once the guide was published – he spearheaded “Following Muir’s Footsteps,” an educational program that reaches out to teachers and school children in the Sierra Nevada, engendering a passionate love of nature, personal understanding of the natural history and commitment to stewardship. “Following Muir’s Footsteps” gets students out in the field, learning from their own observations, using field guides and nature journals as the basis for discovery. The curriculum links to the State of California’s science, math, language and social studies standards. “The program is geared to get the field guide into the hands of children and to give teachers the tools to integrate it into their science programs,” says Laws. In addition to “Following Muir’s Footsteps,” Laws holds summer institutes for teachers to help children learn how to be great observers. Funded by donations and grants, find out how you can help by going online to johnmuirlaws.com. “We take it for granted that people can observe. It takes training to truly observe.” The program takes that keen observation “into sketching and journaling like scientists do.” His devotion to the Sierra is infectious. As he hiked the trails during his six-year tenure gathering information and sketches for his field guide, Laws became even more ardent about his Sierra stewardship. “The more time you spend in the valleys and peaks, the more you fall in love with the Sierra,” exclaims Laws. Experiencing the Sierra gave him an even stronger commitment to protecting it. “My mission is to educate and expose as many people to the wonders, the beauty, the joy of discovering the botany and beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Then they’ll fall in love with it and protect it, too.” Laws has worked as an environmental educator for over 25 years in California, Wyoming and Alaska. He teaches classes on natural history, conservation biology, scientific illustration and field sketching. On Sept. 18 he is receiving the 2009 Terwilliger Environmental Award for outstanding service in Environmental Education. Laws is trained as a wildlife biologist and is an associate of the California Academy of Sciences. In fact, the field guide is co-published by Heyday Books and the California Academy of Sciences. “It was through the Academy that I was able to have access to its scientific collections. Behind the Academy is a giant library of insects and specimens – millions of them.” Laws is currently working on a similar field guide about coastal California and on a book to teach people how to observe and draw birds. “This will help people when out in the field – how to make a quick sketch and what you can draw from memory.” Laws is leading a free seminar at Calaveras Big Trees State Park Sept. 26, 2009 in Jack Knight Hall at 10 a.m. For information, call 795-3840. This is a man that is certainly out-standing in his field. I’ll see you there.
Sunbeams: The art of nature, By Harriet Ainsworth, Bay Area Insider, 06/19/2009 EXPERIENCE THE SIERRA NEVADA WILDERNESS
Go to, and experience, the wild, urged John (Jack) Laws, a young and handsome naturalist, educator and artist who introduced his book “The Laws Field Guide” to a full house recently at Lamorinda Presbyterian Church. “As you discover its secrets, you learn to love it; enjoy — and protect it,” Laws said of nature. Jack’s parents were in the audience, and he publicly thanked both for turning him on to Nature. He first addressed his mother, who took him to the wilderness when he was in utero so’s to give him an early start; and then his father, who, because his son suffered from dyslexia, edited his notes. “Actually, the dyslexia turned out to be a help in studying nature,” the speaker said, “because I had to paint the native critters, and sitting still for several hours gave them time to revert to their natural positions.” And a win-win situation it was. Jack’s artistry as a painter has produced nearly 3,000 beautiful watercolors, each accurately identifying flora and fauna from snow birds to snakes. They were all created during the six years he spent backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, burdened by a flock of field guides. And now he has produced a definitive pocked-sized book. Currently an associate of the California Academy of Sciences, Jack is a knowledgeable and entertaining speaker. He’ll tell you about a bird that plants 35,000 seeds in the fall — and remembers where it put them in the spring! Jack even gives the whole-body demonstration of the antics of the wary water ouzel. “Go and take someone with you to explore,” he suggests.
Reflections of a naturalist- John Muir Laws painted a window to the Sierra, By Melissa Bosworth, Etc. Magazine, Fall 2008
John Muir Laws, the naturalist, author and City College field sketching instructor whom everyone knows as Jack, is driving his Subaru Outback down the two-lane road that runs along Bolinas Lagoon in West Marin. He stops mid-sentence to point out every natural wonder that strikes his fancy. “Hey you, big pelicans!” he says to a pair of birds flying low over the water’s surface. “Wonderful bird. Look at those wings. Flip, flap, flip, flap.” First it was the fog rolling in over Mount Tamalpais – “What a beautiful cloud. It’s stunning.” Then a California quail on the shoulder of the winding mountain road, a kingfisher perched on a telephone wire, and now the pelicans. His mind has been wandering in every direction but to the road ahead. “It’s a very dangerous thing to go driving with a birder,” he warns his passenger. For someone who has this much trouble staying focused, Laws has accomplished an extraordinary feat of patience. “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada,” which he published through Heyday Books in 2007, comprises 2,710 illustrations of 1,700 species, every drawing an original outlined in light blue graphite and painted in lush watercolor. It took him six years to complete. To those who know Laws, he’s the best animal impersonator in the state. The 42-year-old author can whistle like a gold-crested sparrow, strut like an egret, and verbalize the inner monologue of a tiny endangered rabbit called the pika. If he puts his iPod on shuffle, it plays Tom Waits and Zydeco music, as well as an assortment of birdcalls. He’s an Eagle Scout and a brown belt in jujitsu, and he’s addicted to field guides. “My bookshelves are overflowing,” he says. And his behavior is as eccentric as his tastes. When someone says “duck,” he ducks. But when Laws sits down and locks his gaze on some plant or animal, that’s the most important thing in the world. Seven years ago, Laws quit his job at the California Academy of Sciences and set out to create the field guide he had always dreamed of owning. It would be small enough to fit in a pocket, but dense enough to make a broad survey of the flora and fauna in the Sierra Nevada. “One reason I made the book was so I could make my backpack lighter,” he says. “It’s like taking all your notes and putting them together.” This may be an understatement. A year into his work, Laws took a sample of his book to six different publishers. Every one of them accepted. That’s because there was something special about the field guide Laws was putting together. For one, Laws is a purist. He doesn’t just take a photograph or a sketch of a stuffed animal and drop it in a field guide. Every drawing requires weary hours of field research and observation to portray an animal that an amateur can identify in the field. Or, as Laws puts it, photographs of animals won’t always catch them in their natural posture, and the stuffed birds in museums “just kind of look like a bird-sicle.” And Laws’ book was different from any field guide manuscript that had landed in these publishers’ slush piles before. It was uniquely visual. When Roger Tory Peterson published the first modern field guide in 1934, he sought to present organisms for easy identification. This meant highlighting their distinguishing features so that amateurs with little knowledge of phylogenetic order could find what they were looking for. Peterson’s field guide became a reference book that allowed amateurs to pursue their own understanding of what they saw. It sparked an uptick in enthusiasm for bird watching and is often credited with the sweeping increase in broader conservation efforts that took place following its publication. For Laws, whose mind has never conformed to standard systems, it was only natural to take his book one step further from tradition. “Most field guides are based in the mind of the author,” says David Lukas, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and fellow naturalist, who helped field test the book. “Other authors have such a deep attachment to language and to words, and I don’t think that Jack trusts language, or words on a page. So he made a book that he would use.” Laws has always had a tenuous relationship with written language. When he was in school, growing up in the Haight, he would stay up late just trying to learn how to spell. His parents tried everything to help him read. He even participated in a study at UC Berkeley back when researchers were only beginning to understand what dyslexia was. He had a fickle attention span, too. As a teenager at the Urban School of San Francisco, he was notorious for starting pillow fights during class. “Running around in the field and looking at things there was no problem,” he says. “It was just when I sat down and looked at those multiplication tables, my mind said, ‘OK, we’re done.’” So when Laws went out to paint the Sierra, he didn’t see it phylogenetically. He threw that system out the window and started from scratch. The book he came up with is charming, simple and remarkable. “It’s a brilliant stroke of genius in how it’s organized,” says Lukas. “Because it’s based on what you see … it just trusts that visual imagery.” The color-coded thumb tabs on the front cover of the book lead to sections like “Spiders, Insects & Other Small Animals,” and “Yellow Flowers.” “When you’re looking at a bird on a branch,” Laws says, “you’re not thinking, ‘what are the muscles in its voice box doing?’” When he’s sketching, though, this is just the kind of thing Laws thinks about. You don’t have to understand the animal to recognize it, but you do if you want to draw it so that someone else will. “If you draw a pretty picture, that’s OK,” he said recently to a group of City College students he had taken on a field trip to Carquinez Strait. They were lined up along the rail of a footbridge, drawing some ducks in the creek below. “What you want to do is learn something about mallard-duckness by sketching them.” Laws had already learned a few things while doing his own sketches. “Mallards have a very powerful sex drive, and they will mate with anything that moves,” he told the class.Just about everything Laws pointed out that day got a little more color when he described it. The egret had “gold slippers” and the duck had a “cute little duck cheek.” Of the salt marsh flora, the parasitic dodder plant caught his eye. “Here’s a little marsh plant over here,” he shouted to the class. It looked like a tangled heap of orange fishing line. “Oh! It’s in full bloom,” he added. “There’s a bouquet of dodder flowers!” When it was time for the class to do their own sketches, Laws instructed them, “Go around and find yourself a salt marsh plant that you would like to get to know better.” A few students chuckled. “Introduce yourself,” he added. He was probably joking, but it’s hard to say. The man has a connection with wildlife that sometimes blurs the line between understanding and camaraderie. And he certainly wouldn’t mind if others got the bug, too. “By understanding it, we’re going to grow to love it,” he says. “If we love it, we’re going to work together to protect it.” Laws himself falls in love pretty easily. “I think of myself as an attention deficit disorder naturalist,” he says. “People ask me what my favorite thing is, and it’s whatever I’m looking at.” At his tidy studio apartment overlooking the Sunset District, Laws keeps a small bird feeder on the balcony and a vast collection of field guides lining his shelves. Among the guides is a copy of “Nine Horses,” a book of poems by Billy Collins. It contains a piece that’s dear to his heart. “I read slowly,” he says. “I’m dyslexic, so it’s taking me a moment.” He stumbles at first, and as he begins to pronounce the words he seems to read as much from memory as from the page. The poem is a wandering ode to the mundane called “Aimless Love.”
This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, I fell in love with a wren and later in the day with a mouse the cat had dropped under the dining room table. … No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor – just a twinge every now and then for the wren who had built her nest on a low branch overhanging the water and for the dead mouse, still dressed in its light brown suit. But my heart is always propped up in a field on its tripod, ready for the next arrow.
Laws has an indiscriminate fondness for beauty. He’s fascinated by mallard-duckness. He’s distracted and enraptured. It’s impossible to see just one creature, he says, because every organism is only one component of a larger system. He walks along, following the connection from one thing to the next, learning the story, and letting the interwoven ecosystem lead him to new discoveries. “When you really start looking, everything is so delightful,” he says. “It’s a matter of learning how to look, and how to fall in love with poison oak.” Or pigeons, or pikas or salamanders. Or even the famously ornery German shepherd-sized weasel, the wolverine. Until this year, the wolverine, which used to inhabit the Sierra, had not been positively documented there since the 1920s. It was one of only a handful of animals that Laws had hoped to put in his book but never saw. When he was almost finished with the guide, Laws got a call about a wolverine sighting. He packed a few remote sensor cameras and some vials of foul-smelling weasel musk and headed up to the Sierra to sit for a week and wait. He never saw the wolverine. The film from his cameras produced only a few pictures of his boot from when he was setting them up. The caption next to Laws’ drawing of the wolverine in his guide reads: “Probably extirpated. If seen, photograph and report the sighting to the California Department of Fish and Game.” It’s a terse entreaty. Fingers crossed. Early in the morning on February 28, 2008, a remote sensor camera outside Truckee, Calif., captured an unusual image. Sniffing around the base of a pine tree was an animal the size of a large dog with thick, dark fur. The only discernible marking was a broad white stripe across the back of its legs. It was a wolverine. “When this picture came out it electrified the biological community,” Laws says. “Every graduate student from miles around was there, picking up all the scat they could find.” The wolverine has been photographed in the Sierra three times since the release of Laws’ field guide. The most recent series of photos was captured by a remote camera put up in response to the first sighting. Laws has posted all of these photos on his Web site (www.johnmuirlaws.com). He is also spreading the word about the pika, a tiny, high altitude rabbit that collects grass and flowers. It cures them in the sun to use for its winter shelter. “It’s a delightful animal,” Laws says. “You actually see them running around with bouquets of flowers coming out of their mouths.” As global warming progresses, the pika is losing its habitat. Temperatures over 80 degrees will kill it, and the melting Dana Glacier (in Yosemite National Park) has relegated the pika to only the highest Sierra altitudes. They’re trapped. “These critters have one other problem,” says Laws. “They can’t vote. And if these creatures are included in the sphere of what we care about, we can make a change.” In fact, Laws has fallen so in love with the pika that its bird-like call rings out whenever his mom calls his cell phone. “Hi ma-bear,” he says, putting the phone on speaker as he snakes the car down the eastern slope of Mount Tamalpais on his way home from a field trip. He passes the fork for Stinson Beach and Muir Woods. “I haven’t heard from you in a while,” says Beatrice Laws, who lives less than a mile from her son, in the Haight. Laws is a San Francisco native, and the son of two attorneys. He is not related to THE John Muir. He wasn’t named after him, either. His mother, who worked as a lawyer for the Sierra Club, gave him the first name John after her father. His father, Robert Laws, gave him the middle name Muir after his own grandmother. Laws grew up hiking the Sierra with his parents. His father looked up at the birds, he says, and his mother looked down at plants. It was their son’s natural proclivity for falling in love that got him looking at everything else. Laws tries to teach this kind of curiosity to his students. He wants them to see the world through an illustrator’s eyes. “I think that we are programmed not to really look deeply at things,” he says. “We quickly assess – ‘can that eat me?’ and then ‘can I eat that?’ I think drawing and sketching is an effective way for people to look, and look again.” As a field guide author, Laws hopes that his work will inspire people to pursue their own understanding of nature. Once he’s done adapting his book as a text for middle school classes, he wants to work on a field guide to the California coast, and another for the deserts. He is an activist at heart. Illustrating is a means to greater ends – like teaching kids to look more deeply at their surroundings, or making sure that everyone can recognize a wolverine. He considers himself a naturalist first, then an artist. Laws has been painting since before he can remember, though. He got his love for nature early on from his parents, but it was his grandmother who taught him to use watercolors. She gave him lessons throughout his childhood. “And Jack, there are no rules,” she told him. Maybe that’s why he isn’t confined by them.
Finding Connection in Nature, by Kate Marianchild , The Ukiah Daily Journal (also syndicated in Willits Nickel & Dime) 5/8/09
“When I sketch, the animals forget I’m there,” explains John Muir Laws, author of the Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. “One day I crossed a log over a stream and settled down to paint a wintergreen plant. A group of Stellar’s Jays soon began squawking – the way they do when they’re trying to drive a predator away. “I sat perfectly still, and soon a mid-sized weasel called a Pine Marten popped out of the bushes in front of me with a chipmunk dangling from its jaws. Between the shrieking of the jays and my stillness, the marten didn’t even notice I was there. It ran across the log, still carrying the chipmunk, and nearly touched me as it passed by to cross over the stream.” John Muir (Jack) Laws was exposed to the Sierra from an early age. His mother was an amateur botanist, his father a birder, and both were passionate about the mountains. When Jack was growing up they were always throwing camping gear in the car and heading for the High Sierra. “When I’m in the Sierra the quality of light on granite and the sound of wind in the lodgepole pines give me the feeling that I have come home,” Jack reflects. During high school Jack got the idea for his field guide. He was lugging too many books on a backpack trip, and suddenly realized there ought to be a single field guide that covered all the species of the Sierra. The thought simmered quietly during his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, his graduate studies at the University of Montana, and his subsequent career as an environmental educator. But finally, in his mid-thirties, Jack remembered something his grandmother once said: “We all walk around with dream projects in our heads – and that’s exactly where they remain until we put them out of there and do it.” Jack wasted no time. He quit his job at the California Academy of Sciences and headed for the High Sierra. For six years he backpacked and sketched during the summers and refined his paintings during the winter months. In the middle of the effort, after he finished painting the Sierra birds, he published a “break-out book” called A Hiker’s Guide to Sierra Birds. That book helped fund and market the comprehensive guide that would be two more years in the making. In the Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada all the life forms – mushrooms, lichens, flowering plants, spiders, beetles, butterflies, bats, fish, snakes, birds, and mammals – are living together in exquisite detail and vivid color. Just opening the book makes a nature-lover happy. Some species, such as the crayfish and tarantula hawk, cast shadows so life-like the creatures nearly jump off the page. Laws even tossed in sections on animal tracks, weather patterns, and stars to make sure Sierra hikers lacked for nothing. The book has been rigorously reviewed by experts and field tested by novices who have found the identification keys accurate and easy to use. And though it’s a stretch, the tall, narrow, thick book can actually be squeezed into some back pockets, barely qualifying it as a pocket guide. The Sierra guide is a stunning achievement in a career that was already important to the preservation of California’s natural environment. Before the book’s publication, Laws purveyed his degrees in Conservation and Resource Biology (B.S.) and Wildlife Biology (M.A.,) as well as his Certificate in Science Communication, into opportunities to teach and develop science and biodiversity curricula in institutions such as UC Santa Cruz and the California Academy of Sciences. He has also worked as a free-lance illustrator for National Geographic, Nature Conservancy, Save San Francisco Bay Association, and several other environmental organizations. Since the 2007 publication of the book Laws has been in great demand around the state as a presenter and environmental educator. He has been the keynote speaker at many conferences and conventions, including a climate change conference, a conservation symposium, and numerous birding conventions. Laws is deeply committed to stewardship of nature and collaborates with organizations throughout the state to this end. He is currently coordinating efforts to create a standards-based 6th-8th grade curriculum to help teachers convey a love of nature and an understanding of biodiversity to their students through field studies and nature sketching. He is also seeking funding to provide copies of his field guides to schools in the Sierra so students there can discover biodiversity in their own backyard. Laws will give a slide presentation in Ukiah on Thursday, May 14 titled “Finding Connection in Nature.” (Ukiah Civic Center, 300 Seminary Avenue, 7 p.m.). His talk will be illustrated with his paintings of “the beautiful and amazing species of the Sierra and the relationships between them” and will also touch on the natural history of the Sierra Nevada, the conservation challenges facing the stewards of the Sierra, and the process of creating a field guide. Signed copies of The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada as well as Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide, will be available for purchase at the presentation. Please note that in order to secure Jack Laws as a speaker, Peregrine Audubon Society has departed from its usual schedule. Laws will speak on the second Thursday in May rather than the third Thursday. This presentation is free to the public, though donations will be welcome. For more information please go to www.peregrineaudubon.org. Article by Kate Marianchild based on 4/22/09 interview with Jack Laws.
Sketches used to identify fleeing avian suspects, By Dhyana Levey, The Merced Sun Star 3/7/08
Everyone’s seen a bird before. But how close do you actually look at them? This question also applies to people who make it their hobby to watch birds. “We are rather sloppy observers,” said John “Jack” Muir Laws, of San Francisco, a naturalist and nature sketch artist. “Once we can identify something, we stop really looking at it.” A large part of Laws’ bird watching involves drawing them. He says sketching helps a birder see so much more. “How long is the beak, the pattern on the chest, what is the difference of color?” he said. “All sorts of things you wouldn’t notice otherwise. And the memory of what you see is improved.” Laws is bringing his expertise to Mariposa. He will teach a hands-on bird sketching techniques workshop for the public from 9 a.m. to noon Friday at the Agriculture Complex conference room, across from the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. The class is for people who enjoy drawing and want to sharpen their identification skills, said Holly Warner, a coordinator for the Upper Merced River Watershed Council, which is hosting this event with the Yosemite Area Audubon Society. It’s also for people who don’t think they can draw. “There’s this mythology that some people have the gift of being able to draw — that’s not true,” Laws said. “It’s a skill. Get yourself doing it on a regular basis.” Nature sketching is more common in Europe than it is here, he said, adding that in the United States art and science are often kept separate. Kris Randal, president of the Yosemite Area Audubon Society, said she hasn’t seen many birders in her area use sketching as a method. But it really can help new birders’ education or bird watchers who don’t have their field guides with them. “If you see a bird you don’t know, sketch it out,” she said. “Then you might write something about it — what time you saw it, what it was doing, the color, the habitat. Then you can go home and look it up.” Laws said he was always interested in natural history as a child and kept notes of his observations. But he was dyslexic, which made this practice more difficult. So he started taking notes with more drawing and some writing — which made expressing himself easier. He doesn’t just draw birds, he likes drawing nature in general. “But I have spent a lot of time carefully looking at birds,” he said. “The most important? Getting down the shape of the body — the basic shape, posture and proportion. “If you don’t have that basic shape, it won’t look right.” His experience has led him to publish “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada,” with more than 2,800 illustrations, and “Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide.” And he’s been a popular presenter at Mariposa nature-related events, said Len McKenzie, program chair of the Audubon Society and president of the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District. Those who can’t wait until Laws’ drawing techniques workshop can see his free presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday evening titled “Exploring the Sierra Nevada as a Naturalist and an Artist.” It will be held at Mariposa Methodist Church. Laws plans to also discuss sketching as a method of watching at this event. “I think it’s a powerful tool, to learn to look,” he said. “Even animals you see around you all the time. Many people discover they’ve never really looked at a scrub jay.” Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at (209) 385-2472 or [email protected]