Much research has found “connections between going out in nature and being a happy, joyful person,” according to naturalist John Muir Laws, who spoke this month in Los Altos at the annual meeting of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
In contrast with nature walks where the leader identifies a bird or a plant, each person looks, and then everyone moves on to the next one, Laws’ technique is radically different.
The “most useless instruction” is to “look harder,” Laws said, because we observe with the brain, not the eyes.
“The more we can get our brain involved, the more the magic can happen,” he said, adding that an “infinite amount of detail and wonder” is “in front of us everywhere” and the goal is to train yourself “to appreciate smaller wonders and lesser beauties.”
The No. 1 tool for naturalists is keeping a journal. Start with whatever you’re more comfortable with, writing or drawing, then add the other, which “makes the brain mess around in a different way,” Laws said. Pay deliberate attention to specifics.
“Whatever you attend to is what you remember most vividly,” he said.
In field guides, all drawings are lies, Laws noted, because they are averages. Each individual animal or plant is as unique as each person in the room, he said.
Nature journaling is a process of engaging with the world, not an end in itself.
“Art is not a gift,” Laws said, but rather “a skill you develop if you practice on a regular basis.”
Nevertheless, the goal of nature journaling is observation, memory, curiosity and learning, not art, he said.
Out in the garden or on the trail, pay attention whenever you start to think, “Hmm, that’s weird.” That probably means you’ve encountered something that’s outside your mental model of how the world works. Engage your curiosity and “dial up your observation ability,” Laws recommended. Ask questions – the more you “do curiosity, the more curiosity will do you,” he said.
If you don’t have a journal with you, Laws suggested verbalizing what you notice, which “radically improves memory” and is even more effective if you sing your observations and questions.
“Anything you say out loud will lock into your brain,” he said.
In addition to noting your observations and summoning your curiosity, the third step in connecting more deeply with nature is to ask, “What does it remind me of?” It can be something scientific or playful.
“The memories that stick out most are networked to other things,” Laws said. “Opportunities for connection are everywhere. Practice attention to the world to recharge your batteries.”
The more you practice the three-step process of nature journaling – I notice, I wonder, It reminds me of ... – the “more you fall in love with this world,” he said.
Laws offers free monthly workshops all over the Bay Area (the closest one is in Cupertino) as well as videos of past workshops on his website at johnmuirlaws.com.