Bay Nature magazineSpring 2020

Bay Nature Local Heroes

2020 Environmental Educator Award Winner John Muir Laws Introduces the World to Nature Journaling

March 24, 2020
john muir laws
Photo by Andrea Laue

He remembers the precise excursion when his future found him. John Muir Laws was with his mother’s botany group on Table Mountain and a woman with a sketchbook captured his attention. She was sitting and drawing the flowers they were finding and Laws, fascinated, followed her and watched her draw. “The whole day, I was her shadow,” he recalls. He was eight at the time, and when his family next went exploring outdoors, his mother pulled out a sketchbook and pencils identical to the woman’s. “She put them in my hands, and I knew exactly what to do with them.”

The family spent a lot of time outside, but Laws’ ability to make sense of it—remember names and ideas—was limited by a fear of writing. His dyslexia meant that note-taking loomed as another opportunity to be judged and endure “attacks of the red pen,” he recalls, but then drawing became a safe place and a way to interact with nature. 

As early as high school, Laws worked as an environmental educator, over the years spending time with well-known outdoor institutions—Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Boy Scouts, East Bay Regional Park District, and Teton Science School. But his transformation as an educator came while teaching sixth graders. Listening to kids recount their experiences of playing predator-prey type chase games with him, he realized the students were having fun, but the lessons were falling short. “I’m thinking they’re learning about ecosystems and they’re thinking ‘I’m playing tag!’ It was humbling feedback.”

He decided to introduce his students to nature journaling, and the students began to relay “experiences of authentic engagement with nature,” he recalls. “When you’re nature journaling, you’re immersed in deep observation and there’s a calmness that comes over you.” After drawing and thinking about a specific flower or leaf, “kids become protective of their flower!” he says. 

Over the subsequent 20 years, Laws honed techniques for teaching nature journaling to kids, teachers, and individuals. Today he offers free monthly workshops around the Bay Area, leads a nature journaling club, has spurred dozens of similar clubs around the country (and world), runs a fun and joy-filled Facebook page, and has published 10 field guides, guides to nature journaling, and free curricula for teachers. “Love is sustained, compassionate attention,” he says. “I’m teaching people how to fall in love with the world.”

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