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

Case 2: Natural History

Ken Norris's extensive research, which ranged from marine mammal research to desert ecology, was centered on the larger field of natural history. In many ways, natural history was what brought Norris's diverse areas of study together. Norris was in fact a professor of natural history at UCSC's Environmental Studies Department, where he created the popular Natural History Field Quarter. In his book The Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin (1994), which Norris co-authored with Bernd Würsig, Randall S. Wells, and Melany Würsig, he clearly defines what it means to do natural history work. Norris writes, "What we did [in The Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin] is what I call natural history. That is, we attempted to look at a single species from as many viewpoints as we could to contrive to understand what the totality of the dolphin's life is really like" (3). Norris thus defines natural history as a material practice of observation, one which entails using different methods of viewing in order to gain as much knowledge as possible about a particular species and its interactions with the natural world.

In his studies of cetaceans 
(dolphins and whales) and herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), Norris applied this practice of natural history, utilizing a wide array of observational methods and tools, such as underwater photography, glass slides, field notes, journal entries, sketches, diagrams, aerial observation logs, sonographs and audiotapes, as well as direct interactions with the natural world. These varied material practices lead us to question how different modes of observation influence the field of natural history and its production of knowledge. In other words, how are natural history knowledge formations shaped by Norris's layered practices of observation? 

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