“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir

This past Friday 25 people came together to spend a day along the Lower Calaveras River with naturalist, author, artist and educator John Muir Laws.

Each month FLCR hosts a special Riverwalk, typically lasting about an hour and a half, along a different stretch of the Lower Calaveras River. The theme of each month’s walk vary and July’s event was particularly special in that it was an all day affair.

At 9 a.m. the group gathered at the University of Pacific on the upper deck of the De Rosa Center overlooking the river. After donuts, coffee and an introduction to the day’s activities by FLCR Historian Jim Marsh, participants made their way through UOP’s historic campus to the the Holt Atherton Special Collections section of the campus’ library.

Here, head archivist, Michael Wurtz, and Special Collections Assistant, Trish Richards, dug out original documents from the John Muir (no relation to the day’s naturalist leader) Archive, one of only three such collections in the nation, and presented them to the riverwalk group. Walkers were able to take a close look at detailed drawings, journal entries and documents pertaining directly to the famed naturalist. Guests learned of Muir’s eclectic life and his immense passion for what he described as the “glorious” natural world.

After a brief discussion, in which atendees expressed their appreciation of Muir’s perspective and discussed ideas pertaining to applying Muir’s passions to our own Lower Calaveras River, everyone made their way back to the upper deck to begin the truly interactive portion of the day’s activities.

John Muir Laws (Jack) carried the previous discussion of appreciating nature further by introducing his own methods of exploring the natural environment.

“Part of the experience of nature is being able to stand still and learn to be astonished (when viewing your surroundings),” he said. “You can look at familiar things in a new way, curiosity is a skill not a trait.”

With that thought in mind the group made their way down to a Live Oak tree growing along the bank of the river. Here, Laws demonstrated how to become a deeper observer. He asked walkers to ask themselves three questions when considering the oak, “Start every observation with ‘I notice,’ move to ‘I wonder,’ and finish with, ‘That reminds me of.'”

Laws encouraged everyone to discuss their observations out loud, commenting that verbalization was helpful to committing observations to memory, and for many minutes the air was filled with the hum of people commenting on the tree’s texture, the shape of its leaves, asking questions about the shape of the galls attached to its branches, making comparisons and developing insight.

The exercise left one feeling as though the Live Oak was no longer just an isolated tree but an endless entity of information, opportunity and discovery.

After lunch Laws brought out his sketchbook and watercolors, giving a brief demonstration on his preferred tools.

“The process of drawing forces you to look, the more you draw the more you remember,” commented Laws as he sketched the head of a blue jay onto a blank page.

Riverwalkers moved down to a small footbridge where they spent time sitting in the shade and tried out their new observation skills as they sketched and painted the world around them from different levels.

Laws encouraged the group to jot down questions as they came to them during their drawing. “Questions are scientific gold,” he said.

The day concluded around 3 p.m. and Law’s advice was clearly taken to heart by everyone who participated, literally etched into their memories and the pages of their sketchbooks.
“The more you look, the more you discover.”– John Muir Laws

Law’s sketchbook

Riverwalkers practice their new observation skills

Leani Leanos (left), 8, Lya Leanos (center), 11, and Isabella Verduzco, 11, all students at Kohl Open School, peer over the footbridge at the river below.

The Lower Calaveras River passing through Stockton


Laws demonstrating nature sketching

Jack Laws explaining how to observe more deeply in front of a Live OakHead Archivist - Michael Wurtz, explaining pieces of the John Muir collection