Reading Nature, Observing Science: Examining Material Practices in the Lick Observatory Archives and Kenneth S. Norris Papers

Connections: In Relation to Nature

Dr. Campbell's report of the Flint Island expedition assures the reader that camp-life there was "wholly devoid of unpleasantness" and mentions that the party had found time for "a successful turtle hunt on the coral beach, in alternating moonlight and tropical downpour." Mrs Campbell's album from the trip contains multiple photos of the party members happily looking at large turtles strung up on poles or laid out on a tram car, and one particularly striking image of Mrs Campbell sitting atop of a turtle that is tied to a tree.  The climate, topography, and ecology of each location could be either an interesting addendum or a problem to be overcome, but were not of primary interest to the astronomers. These images suggest that, while the astronomers took pleasure in observing the natural world, they saw themselves as dominant over and separate from other animals.

In marked contrast to the astronomers, Norris had a relationship of co-existence with the natural world. He believed that humans were inherently connected to the many animals, plants, ecosystems, and habitats of the planet. In his reflections at the end of the 1977 Natural History Field Quarter, he writes of the importance of "being small and yet a part of the sweep of time, of the mountains, the valleys, the forests, the creosote flats, the welling river dimpled by current." Instead of dominating nature, Norris saw himself as a small part of it. Not only did he practice this act of "being small," but he actively taught it to his students. Norris was an advocate of careful, lengthy observations of the natural world, wherein the naturalist aligns themself with the pacing of non-human species and ecosystems, or what Norris termed "mountain time." This type of interfacing with nature is apparent in an image of Norris and students observing a group of mushrooms. In this photograph, Norris is laying on the forest ground, while his students crouch beside him. Unlike the image of Mrs Campbell sitting on a turtle, their bodies are carefully positioned at the same level as the mushrooms in order to better observe them. Their hands very lightly touch the tops and sides of the mushrooms, as they are careful not to disturb the fungi. These two photographs thus encapsulate the radically different ways in which the Lick astronomers and Norris interacted with the natural world. 

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