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From his pen flows the Sierra Nevada

John Muir Laws created 2,800 pictures of an ecosystem. What comes through on the pages? Slack-jawed amazement at the natural world.

January 14, 2008|William Booth | Washington Post

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- 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. He once spent a week searching for a single perfect orchid to paint. He says, "I am constantly amazed by things." Such as? "The diversity of chipmunks." He is not joking. He cares about newts. If asked, he does an excellent imitation of a startled vole. He has opinions about beetles.

In the fall, he published "The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada." It is 366 pages long and contains 2,800 illustrations, each painted by Laws. The new field guide, already praised by outdoor connoisseurs as a naturalist's bible, begins with "Small Fungi Growing on Wood" (specifically, Calocera cornea, the staghorn jelly fungus) and ends with stars (the night sky at winter solstice). It is small enough to slip into your pocket but includes 1,700 species of flowers, trees, bugs, frogs, snails, skinks, birds, fish and rodents. It took him six years to research and complete. The world needs more of this -- this kind of sustained, informed, deep gee-whizdom.

Not too long ago: Laws is scrambling on a footpath near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. Suddenly he stoops. "Well, would you look here," he says. "A nice one." He holds up a fat, ashy dried cigar, the kind a dictator might smoke, and admires a perfectly formed black bear scat. Flip to Page 326 and there it is, a painting of the plop. There are two pages devoted to "Animal Evidence" in his field guide. Did you know that professionals call the indentations and depressions in deer droppings "dimples" and "pimples"? Now you do.

The release of a major new field guide, especially for an ecosystem as popular as the Sierras, is an event for people who may care about such things, meaning people who want to know what they're looking at, the showy penstemon or the gay penstemon? Because there is a difference (hairless versus hairy stems, apparently; see Page 150).

The Sacramento Bee praised the Laws guide as "a wonderful companion to anyone who communes with nature on hikes, on the water, while bird-watching or even through the windshield for those less able to get out into the hills." The San Francisco Chronicle called it "stunning." Pete DeVine, the education coordinator for the Yosemite Association, says, "There is genius behind this book."

Stunned by beauty

There is also something sweet and obsessive, and marvelously 19th century about the whole enterprise, the idea of a lone amateur, now 41 years old (living in a rented $600 apartment in San Francisco), spending season after season tramping around the mountains, painting mushrooms and moles. "The pages and pages of bugs, flies, beetles," says Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heyday Books in Berkeley, the nonprofit publisher of the field guide. Margolin says he may not be able to "tell one from another, but isn't it wondrous that they're out there? Isn't that marvelous?"

"I'm a beauty junkie," he adds. "And this book was done by somebody who is stunned by the beauty of the world."

The Appalachians? The Rockies? No disrespect, but the Sierra Nevada is the prettiest postcard in America. It is just a sublime landscape, the granite spire above alpine meadow against the bluest sky. The Sierras are Byron meets Monet meets Maxfield Parrish. They're over the top. Even in the black and white of an Ansel Adams print, the Sierras work. About 400 miles from bottom to top, the range includes nine national forests, three national parks (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite) and the highest point in the contiguous United States (Mt. Whitney, 14,505 feet). It is the setting for the original John Muir rhapsodies of natural history writing and a birthplace of the modern American conservation movement -- including the Sierra Club.

Laws is walking on the trail. "Whitebark pine," he points out (Page 33). "Check this out." He is on his knees rustling around in the duff beneath a stunted tree. "See? Look at all the pine cones." We are looking: many cones. But are we really seeing?

"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 you spell that? Laws thinks that is funny. Why?

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