Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling: a book review


Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws

Having written before about nature journals, a while ago I purchased the Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws of johnmuirlaws.com. This is a wonderful guide to both the scientific and artistic aspects of keeping a nature journal. There are chapter on how to observe as well as chapters on how to draw flowers, trees, and other things. Laws provides three useful observation cues: “I notice,” “I wonder,” and “it reminds me of” (click page photographs to zoom):

This wonderful book is full of practical tips, both on the scientific side and the artistic side. I particularly liked this little curiosity kit:

I haven’t quite finished with the book, but I really love it so far. Other reviews online are also very positive: “I can’t find a thing lacking in this book” (scratchmadejournal.com); “informative and inspiring” (parkablogs.com); “the best book for nature journaling in your homeschool” (proverbs14verse1.blogspot.com). Goodreads rates the book 4.67.

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Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws: 5 stars


Spineless by Juli Berwald: a book review


Spineless by Juli Berwald (2017)

I recently read Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald (not to be confused with Spineless by Susan Middleton). Part memoir and part science writing, this book is very well-written, and moderately full of information about the oft-ignored jellyfish clan (some readers will find the combination of autobiography and science not to their liking). The book cover appears to be mostly derived from this Haeckel print:

I myself was fascinated by the jellyfish in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I did not fall in love with jellyfish the way that Juli Berwald did. This book does not quite do the job either, perhaps because of the distractions of the (not all that compelling) autobiographical material. It also seemed difficult to reconcile the author’s concerns about global warming with her high-carbon lifestyle.


Sea nettles at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (photo by “Omegacentrix”)

Still, this book is well worth a read. Other reviews of the book are linked from the author’s Wikipedia article.

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Spineless by Juli Berwald: 3 stars


Nature journals

Having said something about phenology wheels, I thought that I should mention nature journals too. Some years ago, I blogged about the professional aspects of this, but nature journals are a powerful educational tool, because of the way that they focus observational attention. John Muir Laws has good advice on getting started, including “Do not focus on trying to make pretty pictures. That just leads to journal block. Open your journal with the intention of discovering something new. Use the process to help you slow down and look more carefully.



Mother and child nature journaling examples from Nature Study Australia Instagram and website

The very useful Nature Study Australia website also has good advice and several examples, as well as other nature study resources for Australians. Artist Paula Peeters, aiming more at adults, runs nature journaling workshops around Australia, and offers an introductory book for sale or free download.


Nature journaling example from Paula Peeters, who runs workshops around Australia

Nature journals need not only contain pictures and text: a spiral-bound sketchbook will easily accomodate flat objects such as leaves, pressed flowers, feathers, and sun prints. Drawings are an essential aspect, however.


The CNPS curriculum

The California Native Plant Society offers a superb nature journaling curriculum for free download. It includes the observational prompts “I notice… I wonder… It reminds me of…” It advises parents and teachers not to say things like “that is really pretty” or “what a good drawing,” but instead to say things like “Oh, you found a spider on top of the flower! Great observation.” It also provides excellent practical advice on drawing, poetry, and other activities.

With so many excellent guides to nature journalling, why not get started on your own?


A drawing of mine (from quite some time ago)


Phenology wheels

Recently, somebody pointed me at phenology wheels, which are a popular tool for nature study among teachers and homeschoolers. Nature study is all about careful observation and finding patterns, and phenology wheels help with both. Every month, students draw a picture of what they see in the garden or on a nature walk, and the completed phenology wheel then shows an annual pattern. Other activities are possible – see this University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum document.

The picture below shows a pair of partially complete mother/daughter phenology wheels from the very useful Nature Study Australia website (they are using the central circle to show indigenous seasons). It is helpful to outline each month’s section in felt-tip pen:


Mother and daughter phenology wheels from naturestudyaustralia.com.au

I’ve generated blank wheels for the Northern Hemisphere and for the Southern Hemisphere, and produced a partially complete wheel of my own (from a European perspective):

Like nature journals, this is an activity both fun and educational!

Credits: lavender watercolour painting by Karen Arnold, sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, butterfly from here, font is Jenna Sue, wheel constructed using R (with DescTools::DrawCircle, rasterImage, and the showtext package).


Travelling across Australia: Ten things to spot

On October 8, teams in the World Solar Challenge begin their race from Darwin to Adelaide. Here are 10 things for travellers across Australia to look out for.

1. The Magellanic Clouds

The Magellanic Clouds are two small galaxies – at 160,000 light-years and 200,000 light-years, the nearest visible galactic neighbours of our Milky Way. They can be seen in the Southern Hemisphere, away from towns. The Australian Outback is the perfect place to observe them.


The Magellanic Clouds (photo: ESO/S. Brunier)

2. The Southern Cross

The Southern Cross (Crux) is a constellation appearing on the flags of many countries in the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia. It consists of four bright stars, with a fifth being visible to the naked eye in good conditions. The constellation can be located with the aid of the pointer stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. It can also be used to determine the South Celestial Pole. The star at the “top” of the Cross (Gamma Crucis) is a red giant. The fifth star (Epsilon Crucis) is an orange giant.


The Southern Cross, pointers, and Magellanic Clouds (image: Michael Millthorn)

3. The wedge-tailed eagle

The wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax)) is Australia’s largest bird of prey, and a national icon. It can be seen around Australia, either in the sky, or snacking on roadkill.


Wedge-tailed eagle (photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

4. The red kangaroo

The red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) is the largest living marsupial, and is found throughout central Australia, in areas with less than 500 mm rainfall. It is an Australian national icon, as well as being a major traffic hazard at dawn and dusk.


Red kangaroos (photo: Jenny Smits)

5. The sand goanna

The sand goanna (Varanus gouldii) is a large monitor lizard, growing to about 1.5 metres. It is found across much of Australia.


Sand goanna (photo: Alan Couch)

6. The thorny devil

The thorny devil (Moloch horridus) is found in arid, sandy areas of western and central Australia. It lives mostly on ants.


The thorny devil (photo: Bäras)

7. Magnetic termites

Magnetic termites (Amitermes meridionalis) are one of two Australian termite species building mounds that align north–south. They can be found in the vicinity of Darwin. The mound orientation appears to be a temperature-control mechanism.


A magnetic termite mound (photo: brewbooks)

8. Sturt’s desert pea

Sturt’s desert pea (Swainsona formosa) grows in arid regions of Australia. It is the floral emblem of the state of South Australia.


Sturt’s desert pea (photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

9. The desert grasstree

The desert grasstree (Xanthorrhoea thorntonii) is a grasstree found in arid regions of western and central Australia. Like the other 27 species of grasstree (Xanthorrhoea spp.), it is endemic to Australia, and a symbol of the Australian landscape.


The desert grasstree (photo: Mark Marathon)

10. Opal

Opal is a gemstone form of hydrated silicon dioxide. The town of Coober Pedy in South Australia is a major source.


Opal from Coober Pedy (photo: Dpulitzer)


Another Shrimp in the Wall

The Pink Floyd pistol shrimp, Synalpheus pinkfloydi (above, photo by Arthur Anker) is a recently described alpheid shrimp. As with other shrimp in this family, the snapping sound produced by the large claw is loud enough to kill small fish. The shrimp is described in a Zootaxa paper, which contains this wonderful line:

Distribution. Presently known only from the type locality on the Pacific side of Panama; likely more widespread in the tropical eastern Pacific, but unlikely to occur on the Dark Side of the Moon due to lack of suitable habitat.”

And it keeps getting better. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has also celebrated the discovery with the beautiful artwork below (Another Shrimp in the Wall, by artist and scientist Kate Pocklington).