Naturalists, enthusiasts, and dyslexics


John Muir Laws is the aptly-named author of a fantastic-looking new field guide to the Sierra Nevada. Although I haven’t seen it yet, it looks right up my alley — my favorite nature-related books are often the products of lone enthusiasts like Laws. From a Washington Post piece on the field guide:

When he was a boy, hiking on the John Muir Trail, he dreamed of creating the perfect field guide, not a guide made by experts but a book by an enthusiast. “My criteria for inclusion in the book: Either it’s so common you’ll trip over it all the time. Or not so common — maybe it’s just some subtle little thing, but they are so stunning or their story is so great, I had to include it,” he says.

Laws, to me, is the perfect example of a “naturalist,” someone bridging the scientific and popular domains. I personally love the term, but like “enthusiast,” it is often used disparagingly to connote what are seen as amateur intrusions into academic territory. Yet we’re in an increasingly amateur-driven age: user-led innovation, the emergence of “pro-sumers” as a marketing category, a resurgence of Popular Science-style tinkering as chronicled in Make, even blogging – all could be described as the work of enthusiasts. In the sciences, no lesser figure than EO Wilson himself has validated the non-dispassionate character of enthusiasts in his memoir, proudly entitled Naturalist.

One intriguing link between enthusiasts such as John Muir Laws and other high-achieving do-it-yourselfers may be an inability or disinclination to perform well under “normal” academic conditions, a character trait that may be in part due to dyslexia. It seems increasingly common to read stories of maverick figures – from Albert Einstein to Richard Branson to Whoopi Goldberg – growing up struggling with dyslexia. A recent study by the Cass Business School in London indicates strong ties between dyslexia and entrepreneurship.

The conventional narrative is of dyslexics overcoming this “learning disability” through developing a practical fortitude which serves them well through life. Not to downplay the challenge of dyslexia in any way, but I wonder if what we call dyslexia may actually be an indication of a predisposition towards creative achievement. At least in the case of John Muir Laws, it seems as if this predisposition was happily recognized and nurtured by a supportive family.

“He is an absolutely wonderful misspeller,” says his father, Robert Laws, a retired San Francisco attorney. “I think his dyslexia is the key [to the book.]”

The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada is available for purchase from Heyday books or Amazon.

via bb