For the birds

Bay Area naturalist John Muir Laws to speak at 12th annual Snow Goose Festival

John Muir “Jack” Laws sketches birds at Point Reyes National Seashore.

John Muir “Jack” Laws sketches birds at Point Reyes National Seashore.

photo courtesy of John Muir Laws

Head to the flyway fest:
Environmental educator/writer/artist John Muir “Jack” Laws is the featured speaker at the 2011 Snow Goose Festival’s “Gathering of Wings” banquet, held Jan. 29, 5:30-10 p.m., in Chico State’s BMU Auditorium. For a schedule of events (including Laws’ bird-drawing classes) at the four-day festival, which begins Jan. 27, go to Costs vary; some events free.

“If you have the name John Muir, every time you have a birthday, someone gives you a John Muir book—even as a kid,” offered naturalist/artist/ author John Muir “Jack” Laws by phone recently from his home in San Francisco.

Laws is the author and illustrator of The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, a colorful guide to the plants, animals and insects of the Sierra Nevada mountains—John Muir’s beloved “Range of Light.” He is also a longtime environmental educator, and a regular contributor to the Bay Area’s Bay Nature magazine.

Laws will be the featured speaker at the 2011 Snow Goose Festival, which celebrates the winter migration of thousands of birds of all sorts to the North State’s Pacific Flyway backcountry. The four-day festival begins Jan. 27 and runs through Jan. 30.

The talented artist also will offer various bird-drawing workshops for children and adults at the popular multivenue event, which this year—its 12th—will feature 54 wildlife-viewing fieldtrips and 15 workshops and presentations, as well as the Pacific Flyway Art Exhibit hosted jointly by Avenue 9 Gallery and The Artistry, which runs through Feb. 19.

Birders Dawn Garcia and Mike Fisher, the city of Chico’s park and natural resource manager, Dan Efseaff, and Butte Environmental Council education and outreach coordinator Mary Muchowski are a few of the local bird enthusiasts guiding festival goers on avian-focused field trips that reach as far north as Redding and Lassen Volcanic National Park, and down south to the Sutter Buttes and the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

Muchowski is leading a trip for beginning birders to the recently renovated oxidation ponds at Chico’s Water Pollution Control Plant. Garcia—a widely known bird bander—is leading a bird-sighting hike on Jan. 29 along the Paradise Flume Trail “not for people nervous of heights or with poor balance,” as the festival’s promotional material puts it.

The weekend of Jan. 29-30 also will offer a number of free events at the Chico Masonic Family Center, including a presentation on bats and a duck-calling class and competition for youth up to age 16.

The Snow Goose Festival offers plenty of opportunities to view many species of birds.

Photo courtesy of Mike Peters

Laws, as it turns out, is no relation to the famous Scottish-born naturalist. The 44-year-old Laws was given the distinguished first and middle names by his parents, who loved John Muir (“very much so”). Additionally, both “John” and “Muir” are family names—“John” after Laws’ grandfather on his mother’s side, and “Muir” after his great-grandmother on his father’s side.

With a name like John Muir Laws, though, he can be expected to love nature. And he most certainly does.

Laws, who is dyslexic, recalled the joy he found in very slowly picking his way through—or having people read to him—the works of John Muir as he was growing up.

“He started to feel like family,” Laws said respectfully of Muir. “He describes what he smells, how wind feels and sounds, what sunlight looks like on wet pine needles. He describes nature with each of his senses. … And I absolutely looked at every picture [that he drew].

“I’m going to be riffing off of a quote from John Muir,” said Laws, referring to the quotation from Muir’s book My First Summer in the Sierra that he will use to open his keynote talk: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Laws continued: “I will start out with one species of Sierra Nevada plant or animal and look at how it affects or is affected by other species—I’ll look at the chain of interdependence.

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“And if everything goes right,” the amiable Laws continued, “at the end of the talk we will be right back at the same species we started with.”

Laws seems to derive great pleasure from turning others on to the joys of nature, particularly children, whom he will lead on a bird-drawing fieldtrip on Jan. 29.

His website,, offers a section titled “Classes & Presentations” with information about Laws’ “school-based education program”—called Following Muir’s Footsteps—which he brings to students and teachers in Sierra Nevada-based towns in an attempt to foster love and stewardship of the natural world.

“One of the problems [in today’s schools] is the lack of art instruction,” offered Laws. “I work with teachers with ways to incorporate drawing back into the classrooms,” for instance, by adding it to science or language-arts curriculum.

“Because art’s nowhere in the schools, kids aren’t doing art and it’s become this black-box mystery,” said Laws.

“We have this really powerful mythology [in our society] about drawing and sketching as a sort of ‘you’re blessed if you can do it; if not, you’re out of luck,’ ” Laws said. “Interestingly enough, it’s a fallacy. Drawing is a skill anybody can learn to a high degree of competency. You just have to do it. If you don’t do it, you can’t do it, so you think you can’t do it. If you do it on a regular basis, you discover very quickly you can coordinate what comes through your eye with your hand on the paper.

“If you want to be able to draw, if you focus on making pretty pictures, you’re under a lot of pressure psychologically,” Laws said. Better, he advised, to tell yourself, “Actually, I’m not trying to make a pretty picture—I’m trying to teach myself to observe more carefully.” Drawing, then, is “more about seeing—it’s the process, not the product that’s important.”

Laws acknowledged that it may be awkward for adults in particular to learn a new skill because of their sometimes “delicate egos,” but suggests that they should be gentle enough on themselves to allow themselves to try their hand at nature-drawing.

The rewards, he insists, are worth it.

“The more you can get yourself to see the infinite beauty of a bird or a flower or whatever it is that’s in front of you,” said Laws, “the more the world opens up before you.”