An Early Morning Winter Walk with John Muir Laws

"Go out now!" author Professor John R. Stillgoe commands in Outside Lies Magic. "Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people ... Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. ... Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter ... Explore." 

How do you explore? How about by asking questions and going on a curiosity walk?

I recently attended the "In a Large Room Retreat" in Maryland for homeschoolers of a Charlotte Mason persuasion. Around 100 attendees enjoyed a remote location, used-book buying, a restful schedule, and best of all, three days in the company of nature journal expert John Muir Laws.

A highlight came on the last morning. Weather had swung from an unseasonably warm 69 degrees all the way down to below freezing. But we were not deterred, rose early, dressed warmly, and ventured out into the 23 degree morning. Frost curled around the edge of every single leaf and blade of brown, almost-spring grass. About ten of us met, freshly ignited with coffee, hands gloved, and set off into woodland surrounding the extensive retreat center property. Laws, with wellies and binoculars and field sketching bag at the ready, joined us with a cheery, "Good morning!" and we dove into the woods. 

It was not a vigorous walk. We stopped, looked, and together asked questions of what we saw.

what is there to see in such a colorless season?

  • Shelf fungus, lichen, and other fungi. Its appearance above and beneath a prone log. A log was covered with fungus that reminded us of the appearance of burnt marshmallow. But it looked different depending on which way we angled it to the light. How did that work? We saw tiny filaments through the lens of Laws' fabulous lightweight binoculars that work just as well with micro as with macro viewing. 
  • The behavior over time of an invasive vine, more easily seen in a world stripped of leaves. Does it hold a man's weight? Why is it growing in a spiral fashion?
  • How many seconds does it take for the frost on a leaf to melt once the leaf is off the ground?
  • And why is there ice in the center of the drain cover but not around its lower rim? What caused those lines in the ice that are angled in all directions? And most of all ... why did a 'rhino horn' shaped flange of ice emerge and rise up in the air above the general plane of the ice and spear upwards? 

There was plenty to see. But rather than rush on to the next thing-to-see, we took our time.

For this last, Laws lay on the ground, drew, looked, whipped out his ruler, and took notes. In ones and twos the walkers departed to defrost themselves over breakfast, leaving the avid John Muir Laws still querying and recording. We considered a more hasty meal later small price to pay for feasting on questions now.

For most of the walk I did not take photos or draw, just looked and wondered and asked. But there are a few images from the beginning and end of the walk below.

The Curious Power of Asking Questions

There are questions to ask everywhere, in all seasons. One leading to another, and with occasionally connections running together into a stream of possible answers. With just the act of recording a question that occurs to you, alongside a nature sketch, you heighten the possibility of making a connection with an answer later.

Laws said he's not so much excited by spotting a bird he's never seen before but more, when looking at a familiar bird, he has a new thought or idea he's never had before. I like that. In an age of exotic travel, 1,000 place bucket lists to see before you die, I like that such humble querying is also a frontier of discovery. One open to all of us, however constrained. It's something I can aspire to in my ordinary life and daily surroundings.

I grew up thinking that all that could be known had been discovered.

If you believe there is nothing left to find, why wander and look, question and try? Laws stated that the veil has barely been lifted on all that can be known. Questions remain to be asked. Discoveries are there to be made.

I'm reinvigorated and looking forward to a springtime of looking and asking. Not proclaiming and naming, but querying, with the tentative language of science that does not actually yet know the answer but wonders aloud what a thing might mean.

It was a enormous pleasure to see over the shoulder of John Muir Laws and join in with his curiosity. The best show of gratitude would be to return home with these qualities intact, to pursue wonder and curiosity in my own home. And this I hope to do, fortified by such a delightful experience and ignited with enthusiasm for such a simple pleasure.



Click on any image to see full size as a slideshow.

The Find at the End

Click on any image to see full size as a slideshow.

In a Large Room

If you're wondering about the event at which this took place, the "In a Large Room Retreat," the name references a quote from British 19th century Lake District educator, Charlotte Mason, who wrote:

The question is not, - how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education – but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?

Here's to living life in a large room.