One doesn’t often brush up against near perfection. My encounters have been limited to the feel of the chef’s knife I bought in Heidelberg a dozen years ago, the experience of a Beethoven symphony magnificently conducted, the spectacle of standing at Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park during a clearing storm…
…and a book about the mountains I love.
The book is called “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.” It was written and illustrated by the aptly named John Muir Laws.
How can a little book achieve near perfection? It does so through elegance, usability, beauty, and its encyclopedic scope. Like the chef’s knife I mention up above, it’s both a work of art and exactly the right tool for the job.
The book can’t really be described as small (it runs 8.75 inches by 4.5 inches by .8 inch, and weighs 17.5 ounces), but it makes good use of every page. There is more information per square inch in this volume than in any field guide I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
Flip through the pages and the first thing you’ll notice are the illustrations–more than 2,700 of them. Each was hand sketched and painted by Mr. Laws, himself. I’ll confess to treating the book like a museum catalog or a fine art, coffee table book. I’ll open it and admire the gentle curve introduced to the stem of the fairy lantern (page 73), the way the great basin fritillary appears to be ready to leap off the page (page 169), or the, “Hey, what are YOU looking at!” scowl on the face of the snowshoe hare (page 311).
Each illustration is surrounded by small nuggets of text that help you to identify what you’ve found, and occasionally you’ll get even more. For example, you’ll learn that the viper heat-sensing pits on a northern pacific rattlesnake can detect temperature changes as small as 0.003 degrees centigrade. (Or, in other words, you’re unlikely to sneak past one that is coiled next to the trail.)
Taking It Outdoors
If you were to buy the book for the sole purpose of leafing through it in search of such delights, it would be money well spent. But the real genius of its design is revealed when you take it outdoors.
Open the cover and you’ll find a colorful, user-friendly table of contents, which, when combined with the colors that bleed to the fore-edge, make navigating to the proper section (there are nine) quick and easy.
The first eight sections cover fungi & lichens; trees & shrubs, vines & ferns; wildflowers; spiders, insects & other small animals (think crayfish or snails); fish; amphibians & reptiles; birds; and mammals.
The ninth is a real gem-within-a-gem. It contains illustrations and text that will help you identify animals by their tracks and scat, galls (small outgrowths on plants where insects lay eggs), four star charts (one for each season), and even a couple of pages on how to predict weather in the Sierra Nevada.
The user-friendly organization continues after you’ve moved directly to the appropriate section.
Assume, for a moment, you are trying to identify a particular wildflower you have found along the trail. It has four petals and is orange in color. On the first two pages of the wildflower section you quickly zero in on the section for four-petal flowers. A split second later you see that the orange ones are described on page 113. It’s taken you all of about three seconds to find exactly the right illustrations, in a book of nearly 400 pages, to identify your flower.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Taking this book on your John Muir Trail hike will certainly not appeal to everyone. Those of you with a ten-pound base weight, cooking over a stove made from a Diet Coke can, and carrying Cuban-carbon-titanium-anti-gravity whatchamacallits are no doubt staggered that I would even suggest it, but suggest it I will.
I’m stunned and a bit shamed by my own ignorance of the places I’ve hiked though. Carrying this seventeen-and-a-half ounce package of near perfection, and some exploration along the trail, will be my first step in correcting that problem.
Good hiking, Ray