Archive for November, 2011

Reclaiming the Art of Natural History

Jack Laws started his talk with a story of where careful observation can lead us.

sketches from the lecture

It started with a moth which turned different colors depending on the leaf it could see and eat (the color change is not the same if done in the dark). Like a manzanita leaf which has bell shaped flowers that the bumble bees grab onto, hang upside down from, and buzz, to vibrate the nectar out to be collected. Other bees like carpenter bees, drill holes in from the top to collect the nectar, which Dance flies take advantage of when they are not hunting. When they are hunting the males (when they are not cheating) bring little presents for potential mates which they carry about in swarms you might find above a trail. Birds of course take advantage of this. Birds like hummingbirds who don’t just eat nectar, they do like a bug or too, and go so far as to rob spiders as well. Not just of meat, the hummingbirds also take strands of spider web to help hold their tiny little nests together, the elasticity and strength of the spider strands comes in handy as the nest needs to stretch to take in the tiny eggs, then the little but growing birds. The hummingbirds pick out the strands because they glow in UV which they can apparently see, but know one knows why bugs can’t see them. Moths though — like the one we started with, can escape a web thanks to the scales that cover their wings.

This is one but of many equally fascinating stories all around us. But it takes effort to see it. He gave us a couple tools to do that. First is to leave the name behind: the name is not the thing. It is an important tool of science, but can shut us down to seeing the thing.

Second, is to get in a dialog with whatever that creature is. The important thing here he suggests is to say it out loud — our minds are excellent machines for forgetting, and speaking things out loud is a way around this. And when we are in this dialog, we should say

  • what we notice…
  • what we wonder…
  • what it reminds us of..

He ran us through a test of this, a bird with not quite a white ring around the eye, a slight white beard, a puffed up orange breast with a spiderweb pattern of white across it, the breast was not as red as we expected, its tail feathers had white dashes. We wondered how old it was, what it was doing on the branch, if it ate the berries in the picture. The bird was an American Robin, but I don’t think many of us had looked so closely.

Drawing is of course another way of seeing, and another way of heading off our brain’s forgetting machinery.

For this, Laws is hoping to turn the bay area into a field sketchbook mecca. He firmly believes anyone can learn the skill of drawing. You can find out more about these efforts (and how to draw a bird) on his website johnmuirlaws.com

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Reclaiming the Art of Natural History 
Guest Speaker:  John (Jack) Muir Laws
7:30pm, Thursday, November 17th, 2011
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

This is our last talk of 2011. We should have announcements about some of next year’s schedule soon.

The Coast Ranges extend north-south for over 600 miles, more than two-thirds the length of the state. The variety of elevations, rock types, and climate zones in this group of mountain ranges supports a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life. Through an illustrated lecture, John (Jack) Muir Laws will lead us on a virtual walk across the Coast Ranges, exploring delightful relationships between plants and animals as we go. Along the way, we will learn a three-step process that will help us see more and think like naturalists. Jack will also discuss some of the conservation challenges in the region and what stewards of nature are doing to confront them. Whether you’re a botanist, birder or hiker, don’t miss this great opportunity to enrich your next exploration along the coast!

Jack delights in exploring the natural world and sharing this love with others.  He 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. He is trained as a wildlife biologist and is an associate of the California Academy of Sciences. He has written and illustrated books about the natural history of California including Sierra Birds: a Hiker’s Guide(2004), The Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada (2007), and The Laws Pocket Guide Set to the San Francisco Bay Area (2009). He is a regular contributor to Bay Nature magazine with his “Naturalists Notebook” column.
Learn more at his website:

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