A steward of the environment, especially California’s Sierra Nevada, John Muir Laws, has dedicated himself to revealing the natural world through art and science.
John (Jack) Laws has been an environmental educator for 30 years. He recently collaborated with the California Native Plant Society and with English instructor, Emily Breunig, to create a wonderful curriculum integrating art, science and the language arts.
I am thrilled to introduce John Muir Laws and Opening the World Through Nature Journaling, the Feature Curriculum for December.
John has kept a sketchbook since elementary school. Challenged by dyslexia, he found that keeping a journal was the easiest way to record his experiences. Drawing and sketching helped him see things he had never noticed before. John’s mom gave John his first sketchbook. One year during a family trip, John and his family met a woman who was keeping a wildflower sketchbook. John’s mom noticed how he followed this woman and her sketchbook throughout their trip. On the next family vacation, John’s mom gave him a sketchbook and colored pencils so he could document their vacation. Little did she know that years later, John would use sketchbooks as a teaching tool.
While working as a naturalist group leader at Walker Creek Ranch in northern California, John led activities designed to connect children to nature. He decided to incorporate journaling into his activities to help students slow down and focus in the same way his own journals helped him to slow down and become a better observer. He soon began to notice differences between his journaling audience and the groups of children who ran through the ranch without stopping to see what was really there. John began to expand upon his journaling exercises. The Marin County Outdoor School at Walker Creek Ranch became a great testing ground. It took about four years for John to develop his activities. He wrote up his observations, began sharing them with other naturalists and teachers, and over a period of 10-15 years, his activities were tested hundreds of times and refined. This collection of journaling exercises eventually became Opening the World Through Nature Journaling.
The response to Opening the World Through Nature Journaling has been “amazing”, according to John. He says “(the curriculum) has been well-adopted in California and across the country. Teachers get this is authentic student-driven education.”
While John was developing and testing journaling activities, he was also launching the program Following Muir’s Footsteps and working on his book, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada (2007).
Following Muir’s Footsteps is a conservation project for schools in the Sierra Nevada region whose aim is to encourage local youth to become citizen stewards of the Sierra. Encompassing an eighteen-county area around the Sierra Nevada, Following Muir’s Footsteps connects youth to nature through firsthand experiences and journaling. Through this program, John provides in-service training for teachers about how to use field guides and how to use science journals in their classrooms. He also sponsors one mentor teacher from each school so they can attend the Sierra Nevada Teacher Institute, a summer program where teachers learn about the biodiversity of the Sierra Nevada. School libraries also benefit from this fantastic program. The library of each participating school receives 25 copies of The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.
The idea to create his comprehensive field guide to the Sierra Nevada was hatched when John was in high school. One day, while hiking the John Muir Trail and juggling many field guides, he thought how wonderful it would be to have all of his field guides packaged into one portable book. By the time he finished high school, John says he could visualize the pages, the layout — everything. John’s grandmother encouraged him to begin working on his dream. At about this same time, he came across a poem by Mary Oliver called The Journey. The first line of this poem read:
One day, you finally knew what you had to do, and began.
So John quit his job and says he “filled my backpack with paper and granola.” He spent the next six years documenting the flora and fauna of the Sierra Nevada. In the early stages of this full-time project, he drew whatever he encountered. At the end, he went into the field with species lists. John says the last few species on his list were a particular challenge and that locating them was a true “scavenger hunt.”
How did John take on the expansive Sierra Nevada? He started at the lower elevations in the south and, as plants bloomed in the Spring, he followed the bloom hopping back and forth between the west side and the east side. Every 1-2 weeks, John hiked out to pick up fresh supplies, get more paper, bathe and shave.
In The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, you will find descriptions of over 1700 species and 2,700 watercolor paintings. John drew each plant from life and each illustration was started and completed in the field. Illustrations of birds, insects and mammals began as quick gesture sketches in the field. They were then finished in the studio after a careful study of museum skins, reference materials, and the collections at the California Academy of Science.
When asked how it is he can make so many big things happen, John says none of his programs were launched as big complete packages. He explains, “It was an accumulation of a lot of little pieces coming together organically. This is what makes it possible to do something big.”
Ask The Artist with John Muir Laws
John received a Bachelor of Science in Conservation and Resource Studies at UC Berkeley and a Master of Science in Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana. He is also a graduate of the scientific illustration program founded at UC Santa Cruz, that is now taught at California State University Monterey Bay. In 2011, John received the TogetherGreen fellowship from Audubon/Toyota and this enabled him to deliver the Following Muir’s Footsteps program to 10 schools in the Sierra Nevada. This month, we have the extraordinary opportunity to discuss art, science and education with John.
To take advantage of this opportunity, post your questions or comments in the comment box below. John will respond to questions throughout the month of December.
Teachers, do you know of other teachers who might like to join in the conversation? Please send them the link to this article. The conversation will happen right here on this page.
Request a copy of Opening the World Through Nature Journaling
To request your own copy of the nature journal curriculum written by John Muir Laws and Emily Breunig in collaboration with the California Native Plant Society, click here.
Drawing Plants: Tutorials by John Muir Laws
John recently posted tutorials about how to draw plants on his website. These tutorials were created specifically for teachers. The demonstrations are easy for teachers to recreate in their own classrooms. Leaf and flower templates are available for download. View John’s instructional videos in the Nature Drawing section of his website.