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John Muir Laws

Dick Beahrs

John Muir Laws

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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.

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. This fall, he published The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada containing 2,800 illustrations, each painted by Laws. The new field guide, already praised by outdoor connoisseurs as a naturalist's bible, 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 to compile.

Laws is scrambling on a footpath near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. "Whitebark pine," he points. "Check this out." He is on his knees rustling around in the duff beneath a stunted tree. "See? Look at all the pine cones. 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. Laws is explaining that these particular nutcrackers carry the seeds underneath their tongue in a special cavity called the gular pouch, like a pelican. The huh pouch? How do spell that? Laws thinks that is funny. Why?

"Don't ask a dyslexic how to spell," he says. 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. This 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.

Most field guides are organized 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 where to look in the book. But Laws has devised a clever way to organize his field guide by color. 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 field identifications.

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. There are many creatures he never drew in the wild. He never saw, for example, a spotted skunk. He painted one from a roadkill. He never saw a wolverine either, though he includes one in his book with a note to report a sighting to the California Fish and Game Department.

"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-sized rabbit with round ears. 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."

William Booth


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