Ask five naturalists to define naturalism and you’ll get six definitions. 

Naturalism could be the meticulous documentation of a particular species’ impact on its habitat or the yearly birdwatching trip your aunt goes on. It could be advocating for native plant gardens or political opposition to a superhighway. The only thing naturalism cannot be is easily defined.

Jessica Carver is the assistant exhibit curator for the Norris Center’s new virtual and in-person exhibition, “Look. Act. Inspire: Sustaining & Expanding the Community of Naturalists in Santa Cruz County.” She said the differing naturalist philosophies featured in the exhibition have one principle in common — the importance of recognizing beauty in nature.

“People can be naturalists in many different ways, whether you have a specific topic of interest that you studied or researched, or even if you just enjoy looking out your bedroom window and watching anything outside,” Carver said. “Overall, [a naturalist] is somebody who is dedicated to or interested in creating a strong relationship with the natural world, someone who can acknowledge the need to protect and restore [nature].”

A Digital Celebration of the Natural World

The virtual portion exhibition was made available online on Jan. 31, while the in-person portion of the exhibition will be displayed at the San Lorenzo Valley Museum. It will be available to the public when COVID restrictions allow.  

The exhibition features interviews with nearly 100 naturalists in the community, of all ages and demographics. They were asked to define what a naturalist was to them. The answers range from technical to poetic, but the throughline between them is a love and appreciation of the natural world in all its forms. 

Several wire frames hold unfinished exhibition displays in an empty room. The closest exhibition display reads “Look. Act. Inspire.” in black text on a pale green background.
Exhibition displays wait for a time when COVID has subsided enough to allow for in-person visits. Photo courtesy of Chris Lay.

Christian Schwarz, a research associate for the Norris Center, is featured on the Center’s official exhibition website. Schwarz said the Santa Cruz naturalist community is dispelling the isolation stereotype surrounding naturalist culture. 

“Being a naturalist doesn’t mean you are alone. There is a trend that follows the lonely natural historian — that is simply no longer the case,” Schwarz said in his exhibition interview. “There are people all around us who support us emotionally, but also in our learning journey. Be vocal about what you love.”  

The exhibition is divided into three parts: a display honoring famed local naturalist Fred McPherson, another commentating on the future of the naturalist community, and a presentation of interviews with the naturalists themselves. Interviews of the naturalists are divided into three subcategories: Look, Act, and Inspire.

“Some naturalists “Look” carefully at the nature around them. Some naturalists “Act” in response to their interactions with nature. Some naturalists “Inspire” others to engage with nature.”

Norris Center exhibit description

Fred McPherson, “Watershed Whisperer of the San Lorenzo Valley”

Administrative Director at the Norris Center and longtime naturalist Chris Lay said the Norris Center chose to focus on McPherson as part of this exhibition because of his contributions to the naturalist community in Northern California. McPherson, the aptly nicknamed “Watershed Whisperer,” died in 2018 after a lifetime of observation, activism, and teaching. 

McPherson vocally opposed the hyper development of the San Lorenzo Valley in the 1960s, championing the protection of the watershed and the vulnerable ecosystem around it. He also founded the Santa Cruz chapter of California Native Plant Society, kept 60 years worth of journals documenting the flora and fauna of Santa Cruz, and taught, among many other things, environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz. Jessica Carver said that this well-roundedness made him a role model.

Carver worked on the portion of the exhibition related to McPerson, who kept journals spanning his lifelong love of nature. His total collection of journals amounts to 30 volumes and nearly 3,000 pages since 1958.

Roberta McPherson, Fred McPherson’s wife, was instrumental in the creation of this exhibition. An active member of the naturalist community herself, Roberta provided the curators with Fred’s journals, raw footage, and insights. Carver said Roberta was always by his side. 

“[Roberta] was taking pictures of him taking pictures, she was documenting Fred, while he was documenting nature,” Carver said. “And that I think, is a really big part of all of this. She doesn’t necessarily always get as much recognition.”

A photo of Fred McPherson behind his camera and tri-pod. His face is obscured, and the camera is flashing. A quote from McPherson says in white letters “I show people how to ‘meet the river’. How to sit at different places and hear the different sounds. The river has many voices.”
 Fred McPherson was a hugely influential local naturalist. Photo courtesy of Chris Lay.

The Future of Naturalism

That lack of recognition and representation has real consequences. Naturalism, especially in Santa Cruz, has historically been awhite-dominated space. The stereotypical naturalist is a Charles Darwin type — an old, traditionally educated, white man with time to spend. 

“[These stereotypes] often exclude people who do not know the scientific [or] Latin names of species, which may include indigenous people who have been naturalists long before we came up with a term for it,” said Justin Luong, one of the key organizers of the exhibition. “It is important to provide representation for people of color and other underrepresented groups like LGBTQIA+ because if we do not diversify natural history, we will not have diverse solutions for diverse communities.”

That is one of the things Norris Center Administrative Director Chris Lay is hoping will change in the future. As the older population of naturalists begins to shrink, Lay is optimistic that the up-and-coming naturalists will be different.

“The next generation is much more diverse in different ways,” Lay said. “Whether it be socioeconomic background, ethnic diversity, where they grew up, what kind of exposure they had to the natural world…We’ve got a diverse generation coming up, and we’ve got to support them.” 

“Look. Act. Inspire.” has a series of talks coming up over the future months related to the exhibition. Their next event is a Feb. 18 talk by Christian Schwarz on the impact of the recent fires on local fungi.