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