Q & A with John Muir Laws

LGNJcover_web800pxThe Washington Post called John Muir (Jack) Laws “a modern Audubon” for his astonishing and inspiring work as a naturalist and artist. He’s responsible for The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, and now The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. His newest book is a magnificent, accessible, and thorough resource for new and seasoned artists—or for anyone who wishes to develop a deeper relationship with the outdoors. I spoke with Jack over the phone about his work as an educator, the process of putting together The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, and his inspired television-watching habits.

What inspired the book? Was there a specific moment you decided to embark on this project?

I’ve spent most of my life in environmental education, trying to help people connect with and fall in love with the world, and there is no activity that connects me more with the world than pulling out my journal and just dropping into that flow state next to a flower as [I] observe it and explore it on a piece of paper. Externalizing your thinking like that helps you notice so, so much more. So if, as an environmental educator, I’m trying to connect people with the world, why not try to make accessible what for me is the most effective way to go there? And that’s keeping a journal. I also have been teaching workshops all over the Bay Area for years, teaching free nature journaling workshops, and so the challenge of how to take a complex thing and explain it in a way that’s accessible is really fun for me.

In your experience, what skills are especially challenging for drawing instructors to teach? How have you approached developing a method for teaching them?

There is something that’s really challenging, and that is helping people get past and through this “I can’t do it” stage. That’s the really tough thing. Once you start doing it on a regular basis, what happens is your brain physically changes its structure around this new activity that you’re doing regularly. And you build up parts of your brain specifically for this sort of visual documentation and thinking.

But at the start, you haven’t done that for a while. It’s really intimidating. It’s threatening because, as adults, we don’t want to do something that we’re not already good at. We’re used to the idea that the reason that you draw is because you’re supposed to make a pretty picture. And if the picture doesn’t come out pretty, then the person is really frustrated and they think, “I can’t do this and it’s not fun. It must be some gift or trait I don’t have.” As opposed to approaching it with a growth mindset, where this is a skill that I don’t have right now but I can learn. And what can I do to make that happen?

So for me, the best way to get people over that hump is to really emphasize the importance of trying to document what you see, to observe things more deeply to help you remember what you’re seeing, and what happens on the page itself is less important than that. The real goal is to notice and to remember and to wonder and to engage your brain more deeply—and in a more interesting and dynamic way—with whatever is in front of you. That’s the purpose of keeping a nature journal. And then what that does is it frees you up to make lots of pictures. And if you make lots of pictures, your drawings get better, and all of a sudden you’re getting positive reinforcement from the drawings, in addition to all the benefits of being able to notice these sorts of things.

You can’t do what you don’t do. But if you get somebody to start doing something on a regular basis, your brain changes. The idea of neuroplasticity is that your brain changes in response to what you do on a regular basis. And it lays down mirror neurons specifically for this activity of looking at an object in front of you, and having the representation of that come out from your pencil tip. And that comes with pencil miles.

When you hear someone say, “I can’t draw,” what advice do you usually offer as encouragement?

I would tell that person a couple of things. One is that drawing isn’t the reason that we do this. We’re not doing this activity in order to make pretty pictures. We’re doing this activity of nature journaling to help engage us more deeply with the world. To help us see things that we otherwise would not have seen. To help us remember them more vividly, help our brain engage in curious and playful exploration in the world around us.

And when you let your brain out to play that way, it is glorious fun! It’s incredibly fun. And it’s really interesting. You can’t be bored. And the tools to do that are writing and drawing and measuring and estimating and counting and modeling, and all that happens on the paper, and you have to get that out of your head and onto the paper. And if you start using visual note taking, and you start using sketches and drawing to start to try to document what you’re observing, it really doesn’t matter if there’s a pretty picture there or not. You keep your focus on what you’re learning, what you’re noticing and discovering, and it frees you up to make lots of pictures. And the pretty pictures will come.

When your brain goes, “Oh, that’s funny! That’s weird,” that ends up being this incredible trigger for this cascade of wonder.

If you don’t play the guitar, you can’t play the guitar. But it turns out, you start playing the guitar, and pretty soon you can play the guitar! Drawing is exactly the same way. But because we adults are so fearful of doing something we’re not really good at—we don’t want to look like an amateur—it’s embarrassing to us. If we make a fetish out of the drawing, and that’s our goal, then it’s really intimidating to put anything down on paper. But if the goal is to notice something that you otherwise wouldn’t have, that is actually a really low bar for entry. That’s where things start to get interesting.

So you make that your goal—that’s the hard thing, is you can say that, but actually really feeling and doing it is another thing—you make that your goal, and it gets you making lots of pictures. You don’t even need the book, you don’t need drawing classes. You start drawing on a regular basis, your brain will change in response to what you’re doing. A bunch of the shortcuts and tricks I show in the book will help you get there faster, but the most important thing is pencil miles.

One of the things about the book that I really love is that, underneath all your guidance on nature drawing and journaling, the book also really works as a guide to savoring experiences and enjoying life. Those two aspects of the book feel thoroughly united. Like when you say in the book, “Love is sustained compassionate attention,” that works as a framework for your instruction in the book, but it has a wider meaning. Where in your experience does that all-encompassing view of nature drawing come from?

When I was working on [The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada], making almost 3,000 paintings of plants and animals, that was a lot of time carefully, patiently drawing plants, sitting in meadows in the Sierra. As I did that, my feeling of connection and responsibility for and love of the Sierra Nevada grew exponentially. And it’s because of that attention. Places where I have stopped and sketched are places that I love. Any way you can get yourself to slow down, to pay closer attention—that opens up your heart.


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And people don’t have to take my word for it. They can approach this like a scientist and see what happens. Compare what happens if you just look at something, versus the connection that you feel when you sketch it or you describe it in the pages of your journal. What does that do to your feeling of connection with that object, your love of that object, your memory of that object? Just see what happens. It’s really different than going out and taking a selfie with that flower in the background.

I see the same thing when I teach children. Often when I’m sketching and drawing with kids, we’ll play a little journal game where the kids will go around and draw a plant that they find in the forest. They bring a partner over to that area, and the partner has to pick out which plant they were looking at based on the notes and the sketches that they did. And you watch kids as they’re doing this. If their partner is about to accidentally step on the little plant they had been looking at, you’ll see this kid throw themselves in the way of the other person. “Oh, no no no! Back up. You almost stepped on it.” They love that plant. That plant is special for them because of the attention that they gave to it. It’s beautiful to see.

With all the work that you’ve done developing a curriculum for nature and science education, doing a lot of field education, teaching kids, what heartens you about the direction the science education world is going in? What would you like to see change?

Oh, there are some really wonderful pieces in play right now. For a long time science education had been, “Here, science is a body of facts, and we’d like you to memorize these and spit them back on a test.” And that makes science static. It’s boring. It’s just a memorization exercise. But a bunch of educators and real scientists sat down in a room and looked at, “What do we really do in the process of science, and what makes this endeavor so special? What would be the best way to teach, authentically, what it really is?” And they came up with The Next Generation Science Standards. And they identified three major aspects of this endeavor of science.

One is: what is it that scientists have learned? What do scientists know? Some science facts are still really useful and important for people to get. We don’t want people walking around thinking that the sun goes around the earth.

Another part, equally important, is: what do scientists do? What is the process by which all of this information was gained? How do scientists ask questions? How do they go about searching for answers? How do we make meaning out of the observations that we make? So, really teaching about what scientists do. And this nature journaling is exactly in line with that process. This is a fundamental, real, authentic science practice—keeping a journal like this, of your observations, your questions related to them.

How many mysteries and discoveries are around us in every moment that our brains normally gloss over, just because it’s more efficient for us?

The third part of the new science standards revolves around: how do scientists think? That is, very often if you have a mental framework for thinking about things, it helps you see that recurring theme again and again. So ideas of structure and function, ideas of looking at patterns, thinking about the relationships between the sizes, the proportions, the amounts of things. There’s some major concepts in science that occur again and again and again.

And now what is being taught are all three of these aspects together. They’re all of equal value, and they’re taught simultaneously. So what do scientists know, how do scientists think, what do scientists do—all those processes are integrated in these Next Generation Science Standards. And the Standards, by the way, are being adopted by states across the entire country. Not all states have adopted them, but more and more are realizing, “You know what? This is fundamentally a better way of teaching science. Let’s do this, and our kids will be better off.”

It’s not just memorizing stuff. It’s, “How do you do science?” Science isn’t just a thing in a book. It’s something that you do. It’s a way of thinking. And that is really powerful. Playfully engaging in the world, in a way that is also extremely productive. It helps us figure stuff out.

I wanted to highlight your collaborator on this book, Emilie Lygren. This is the first time the two of you have worked together on a book, correct?

This is first time we’ve worked together on a book, but we have worked together as educators for a long time. Emilie Lygren is utterly brilliant. An amazing, amazing thinker. An amazing educator. An amazing field scientist. We’ve been teaching together so long that we really understand a lot of the same kind of fundamentals together. And every time I work with her, I just learn so much more. So she’s not a spellchecker. She is a real fundamental thinker and concept developer.

We’re continuing to collaborate together. Our next project is to develop a set of free nature journaling curriculum and teaching materials that anybody—with any level of journaling experience—could just pick up and use to [engage] their entire classroom or their homeschool family in using nature journaling as a tool for learning and exploring. You look at anything that is really worthwhile out there; probably it was not done by one person. There’s a large of community of people—not just Emilie—who helped me do this. But Emilie is the most significant player in helping this book come together. We’re just getting going!

She also is a curriculum developer with the Lawrence Hall of Science. She’s an experienced outdoor educator, has worked with residential outdoor education, has done consulting work. She’s also a poet. It’s amazing: when you sit in a room by yourself and you think about things, you can really spin your wheels. If you can develop a partnership with someone who you really respect, what grows out of that is so much bigger and richer than anything you could have done on your own. It’s really powerful to see the impact of finding someone who’s really good, and working together. She’s an incredibly thoughtful, precise, and generous thinker.

It sounds like you have so many different, amazing, fascinating projects. It all seems so fruitful.

And it’s fun. It’s such glorious fun to let your brain out to play like that. Every once in a while, watching a movie is perfectly fine to do. But this is so much more dynamic and exciting. It’s a blast. And it’s learnable. It’s a skill that you can develop, and the more you do it, the better you get at it.

And I’m not just talking about making pictures of things. I’m talking even about asking questions. Your curiosity itself is a skill, and the more you play with it and tweak it and prod it, the more robust it becomes, and the safer it is for you to freely explore in areas where you don’t know what’s going on. And instead of that being a reason to retreat from something, you are now aware of this subtle feeling of surprise. When your brain goes, “Oh, that’s funny! That’s weird,” that ends up being this incredible trigger for this cascade of wonder, because when you get that little sense, what it means is that there’s something about the world and your expectations about the way it should be that is different from the way it really is. So it’s powerful. It’s really powerful, and it’s really fun.

And it’s a great way not to be bored. Just the other day, I was watching television. I was watching television in a cabin in Lake Tahoe for a couple of hours. And the interesting thing about this was that the television was turned off. I was exploring the reflection and refraction of light from the incandescent bulb that was hanging in the room—how it interacted and refracted on this turned-off screen. And the patterns that it was making—I ended up trying to make comparisons between that and rainbows and sun dogs and lens flares in cameras, and I was utterly fascinated for a couple of hours! If you can find that much wonder in a turned-off TV, how many mysteries and discoveries are around us in every moment that our brains normally gloss over, just because it’s more efficient for us? We see something, our brain labels it, and we know what it is, and we move on. But to realize that there’s a mystery there that you don’t understand, and that you can really probe in interesting ways—that’s a formula for never being bored in your life again.