One of the most memorable moments in my life of education was a trip in the Ecuador rain forest guided by a Shuar Indian named Sebastian Mora. He was a fascinating man who first learned about the forest as his family, brought up by his culture to intimately know every leaf and twig and insect and bird and animal as one of his family neighbors, sometimes, friendly, sometimes dangerous. He then went to Europe to study botany and biology and had his foot in both worlds. But he was very clear that when he came back home with his European colleagues that his first education was far superior. They were book-learned and could identify plants by Latin names and knew something of their behavior, but really were at a loss when it came to understanding the deep intertwining relationships of all the living beings in the forest. And couldn’t have survived on their own in the place with what they knew.
I was only three days with Sebastian, but was consistently amazed by the stories he could read in his close observation of everything we passed and what all the signs meant. Where I just saw a collection of nouns, he was tuned to the verbs of interactions between them all and the finely-nuanced adjectives and adverbs. He got his daily news looking at animal tracks, scat, leaf closures and openings, shifts in the breeze, sounds in the night and more. No need for newspapers, magazines and certainly Facebook would have nothing to add to that exhilarating, always-changing, fascinating story about who walked here and what happened and what was worthy of notice and what was telling him to beware (“be aware”) and would was passing on some good news.
While I still have some time off, I made the wise choice of accepting my wife’s invitation to go with her to a class on Nature Drawing by a teacher she had been raving about. He had the prophetic name of John Muir Laws, something his nature-loving parents purposefully gave him to encourage his own emerging love of the natural world. It worked. His vocation is drawing plants, trees and birds (found in various publications) and sharing it by teaching classes that are partly about drawing, but equally about observation and understanding how much is written on a twig or a leaf.
I immediately saw why my wife was raving about him. He is an inspired and inspiring teacher who taught from the core of his self, using Powerpoint as the tool to do what it does best, but also a white board, his own body dancing out certain shapes, stories, humor and live demonstration of drawing on paper with colored pencils and water colors. And in a short hour and a half, he accomplished the two most important things a teacher can give a student:
1) Revealing the beauty and mystery and miraculous nature of the world at our feet that often goes unnoticed. I like walking in the woods and was proud that I made an attempt years back to identify at least some plants, flowers, trees and such, but still was (and am) profoundly ignorant of the larger story—the character of each thing in Creation and how it is necessary to the next and how they interrelate and so on. The verbs of the whole deal. After this class, I walked in Golden Gate Park and already was looking at leaves and twigs from a whole different perspective, noticing details I never have before.
2) Leading you to do something beyond what you ever thought you could. The way my colleague Christa Coogan can lead anyone to dance better than they ever imagined, the way I try to lead people to discovering that they can play a jazz blues solo on the xylophone, he helped this non-artist draw a leaf that actually looked pretty good!
At the end of class, he invited people to continue to observe and notice and draw leaves and twigs and to make a conscious commitment to get beyond their “twignorance.” (I asked him
If he just made that up on the spot and he did! If it goes viral, please credit Jack Laws!)
Local folks, I highly recommend you look him up and drop in on a class. He also does whole day nature journaling walks in Marin County. Meanwhile, I’m off to remedy my twignorance.