"Don't ask a dyslexic how to spell," he says. So now we know. It turns out Laws has never read a book cover to cover. Words are a jumble to him. To get through school, he listened to books on tape and textbooks recorded for the blind. (Though it did not stop him from getting his undergraduate degree at Berkeley and his master's in wildlife biology from the University of Montana; he earns his living teaching classes on natural history, scientific illustration and field sketching.)
"He is an absolutely wonderful misspeller," says his father, Robert Laws, a retired San Francisco attorney. "I think his dyslexia is the key."
Meaning a key to his book. "Maybe that's what makes me who I am," Laws says. "If I had the option, I don't think I would cure it." Because maybe his dyslexia helps him see more, better, or differently.
Organized by color
Most field guides are organized, essentially, around the expert's division of life forms into their taxonomic, evolutionary groups -- all gulls with gulls, all hawks with hawks, for example, which requires the searcher to know, a little bit, where to look in the book. But Laws has devised a clever way to organize his field guide by color.
You see a bird. You see a greenish bird. You go to the color key and flip to "Green Birds," and the guide lists birds whose dominant, most eye-catching color is green -- combining Anna's hummingbirds, green-tailed towhees and Lewis' woodpecker on the same page. It is a fast, intuitive, accessible way to do snappy identifications in the field.
Telling the story
Laws painted every wildflower in his book from sketches and paintings in the field. The same with most of the birds, except the great horned owl, which he kept missing. "We have this idea that all robins, for example, look the same," says Laws. "But they don't. . . . It's because we're not looking hard enough."
For the fungi, he went on collecting trips with mycologists, who piled fresh specimens onto a table. He sought out authorities on animal tracks, aquatic insects, butterflies, snakes. Researching, Laws would spend weeks alone in the mountains. How many miles did he hike? "That's hard to answer," he says. In the beginning, it would take him several days just to cross a single meadow, because he would stop and sketch each new flower. "But toward the end of the project, I'd hike for hours just to find one new thing."
There are many creatures he never drew in the wild. He never saw, for example, a spotted skunk. He painted one from a roadkill. "I haven't seen all the species of chipmunks nor all the bats," he says. He painted them from dead specimens kept in museum collections. He never saw a wolverine either. They are believed to be extirpated in the Sierra Nevada (the last one spotted in 1937), though he includes one in his book with a note to report a sighting to the California Fish and Game Department.
When he was a boy, hiking on the John Muir Trail, he dreamed of creating the perfect field guide, not a guide made by experts but a book by an enthusiast. "My criteria for inclusion in the book: Either it's so common you'll trip over it all the time. Or not so common -- maybe it's just some subtle little thing, but they are so stunning or their story is so great, I had to include it," he says.
Why? "Because the more people fall in love with the diversity of life, the more people will fight to protect it," Laws says. Do you know, he asks, the story of the pika, which is actually a hamster-size rabbit with round ears, whose nitrogen-rich urine is like some kind of Miracle-Gro for orange lichen (Page 313)? The pika collects grass and flowers on the rocks above the timberline and dries them in the sun.
The cold-loving pika may become extinct because it lives at the tops of mountains, and as the temperature warms, it has no higher elevation to go to.
So it's like a polar bear in a melting world, except it's a tiny rabbit that cooks? Exactly, says Laws.
"The point really is not to identify a creature or a plant and move on. The point is to learn the story."